Flying: an act of faith

Boarding an airliner is an almost religious experience: You must have faith in the pilot’s abilities, faith that the plane has been adequately maintained and faith that the weather conditions are safe enough to fly that day.

Of course, in most cases airline passengers have no way of checking the pilot’s training, nor can they examine maintenance records or evaluate navigation maps. Yet they board, with the faith that everything will be fine – just as passengers did when they boarded the AirAsia airliner that recently went down in the Java Sea.

As I have mentioned before, I am not a religious person. Yet, like millions of people who travel by air every year, I do have faith in pilots and the planes they fly. I trust that they can get me from Point A to Point B alive and well.

Thanks to my journalistic career – and a lifelong wanderlust – I have traveled around the globe several times (in fact, an airline recently made me aware that I have flown more than 2 million miles with it), and so far my faith in pilots and planes has not failed me.

That said, my faith is not blind. It is shaken whenever my flight experiences turbulence or anything out of the ordinary.

I recently traveled to Bora Bora for the holidays. This island in the middle of the Pacific is, no doubt, among the most beautiful islands on the planet – and also among the most isolated. I boarded a Boeing 777 in Los Angeles and we headed to Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. Almost nine hours later, in the middle of a fierce rainstorm, as the airliner was approaching the airport to land, we felt the plane accelerate furiously and regain altitude. The pilot had aborted the landing. “The winds are too strong,” he calmly explained over the intercom. Later, he tried again and we landed safely, albeit a bit frazzled.

I still had to connect to another flight to reach Bora Bora, a 45-minute trip away. Following a delay of seven hours due to the bad weather, we finally were able to board a small plane for the island. The flight itself turned out to be a horrible, turbulent experience. As we neared our destination, landing on a small airstrip in Bora Bora amid a tropical and torrential downpour seemed impossible, but our pilot tried anyway. However, perhaps after realizing that we could be headed toward disaster, he aborted the landing – the second time for me that day.

The pilot lifted the small plane into the raging clouds. All I could see out my window was a white haze, and raindrops hit the glass like bullets as the plane rocked. I felt disoriented and buckled up my safety belt. Other passengers cried, and some shouted as a growing sense of anguish spread. I couldn’t tell whether we were going up or down; I felt like a bean in a blender. I was expecting a tremendous blow at any second.

I am certain that prayers were being said, and I even started praying – not to the Virgin Mary, but to the pilot and the airplane manufacturer. “Please, don’t let the radar fail,” I thought. “Don’t let the plane break in half.”

Fifteen minutes of absolute agony.

My prayers paid off, though. The navigation instruments set the plane, once again, in front of the landing strip in Bora Bora, and our courageous and capable pilot landed without incident. I, of course, was the first to applaud, sweaty palms and all. Dozens of other passengers did the same.

After a harrowing experience on a plane, it seems that nothing will ever be the same. You promise yourself that you won’t ever complain about anything again. I remember thinking this in 1991 during the first Gulf War, when one of the engines stalled on a C-130 I was flying in. Then again in 2000, I had these same thoughts when a light aircraft taking me to an interview with President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela filled with smoke, and we had to make an emergency landing.

Despite those experiences, I kept flying. For me, airplanes are among mankind’s most wonderful inventions. They’re almost like time machines: Step into one for a few hours and you’ll find yourself on the other side of the world.

On my way home, minutes before I had to board another flight, I learned about the disappearance of AirAsia flight 8501. I didn’t hesitate. All my life I’ve been betting that my plane will reach its destination, just like thousands of flights do every day. This is my faith. It’s what I believe.

I took out my boarding pass and got on. But as I took my seat, I noticed that my palms were already sweating.

Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”

 

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