How Does It Feel to Die in a Plane Crash?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of dying in a plane crash. In what he thought would be a wonderful adventure for me, my daddy’s cousin Junior Nichols took me up his open- cockpit crop duster when I was seven years old. We didn’t get very high over the soybean fields of southeast Arkansas before I screamed “Take me down!”

Junior wasted no time in obliging. That’s the first and last time I flew in a little plane.

In the decades since, I’ve flown commercially dozens of times. Trips to visit family. Business trips. Trips to beautiful and interesting places. I fly not because I enjoy it, but because the reward seems greater than the risk.

Last week, though, I almost chickened out.

I’d been scheduled to visit daughter Meg and her family in Denver since January. But four days before I was to leave, a commercial plane crashed in Ethiopia, killing all 157 people aboard. This tragedy followed a plane crash in Indonesia last October in which all 189 passengers and crew members died. Both those planes were Boeing 737 Max 8s. In my admittedly uneducated-about-aircraft mind, that seemed like it might be more than coincidence. Way more. When many countries throughout the world grounded the plane until answers were found, I applauded the move.

Two days before my departure for Colorado, the United States still had not followed suit. I struggled with what to do. My head told me that driving from Cookeville to the Nashville airport was statistically far more dangerous than flying in any kind of commercial plane. Yeah, but I was traveling Southwest, one of the airlines that flew the 737 Max 8. Extensive internet research and numerous phone calls yielded no answers as to whether my flight was on a Max.

Horrible thoughts, thoughts I’d pretty much tucked away for years, tormented me. What would it be like to die in a plane crash?

Experts in chemistry and physics and physiology have academic answers to what happens to the human body in an air disaster. Adrenaline and norepinephrine kick in. Unconsciousness is mercifully quick. Those who study such things surmise that pain is brief and that victims are almost certainly unaware of shattered spines and detached limbs and liquefied internal organs.

But it’s a haunting truth that nobody really knows what happens in the mind of a person about to die in a plane crash.

The rest of the story? Scarcely 24 hours before I was to take off, the FAA grounded all Boeing 737 Max planes. I would fly to Denver in a “safer” plane. I sit at Meg’s dining room table as I write this column, grateful that my flight went off without a hitch. But unless I decide to take up permanent residence in her basement, I still have to make it back to Tennessee.

(March 24, 2019)