The Opposite of Icarus

Ukraine Plane

Bury Free Press, 24th July 2014

It’s happened again.

This morning, the Algerian flight AH 5017 went missing 50 minutes after takeoff, as it flew across the Sahara desert. Air Algerie officials subsequently confirmed that the plane had crashed, and it was found several hours later in Mali. 116 passengers were aboard.

It’s the latest in a devastating series of aviation accidents, with Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in March and the shooting down of MH17 by Russian separatist forces last week. Any crisis involving an aeroplane immediately becomes international news: the media are far more crazed by plane crashes than they would be if there was a train accident with the same number of people. 

We are shocked by plane crashes precisely because we are conditioned not to expect them. To any rational human being, dangling 30,000 ft in the air in a metal box is not the most risk-free way to kick-start a holiday. The idea of glamourous waitresses serving non-allergenic snacks to a collection of people suspended on nothing but clear sky is ludicrous. When climbing into a plane, the barest whisper of ‘what if’ passes the lips of most passengers.

The number of people who are scared of flying is vastly larger than those who fear for walking, cycling or travelling in a car. And rightly so: aeroplanes do contradict what people expect to be true – that people can’t fly. But the figures – as they say – don’t lie, and airborne travel is by a long way the safest form of transport. You are statistically more likely to be killed on the motorway on the way to Heathrow than you are once you leave the departure lounge.

That’s why we’re traumatised by the news that a plane has gone missing. Because it confirms in our minds what we think we already know – that planes are actually souped-up time-bombs in the sky. Of course, when a plane such as the Air Algerie AH5017 falls to the ground, it is tragic. But it is no more tragic than the thousands of fatal car crashes every day, the train accidents or the people killed falling off their bikes. Plane crashes are the pregnant explosion that everyone anticipates but rarely arrives.

And if the loss of a plan is more shocking because it happens violently – deliberate crashes are the most chilling. The shooting down of MH17 on the Ukrainian border was not only a transport accident but an international political move; ministers and heads of state from across the world have responded in criticism of the rebels and of Putin. The people on that flight had no part in the conflict – they were unwittingly passing by in the air. But, let’s remember, the people lost on that plane were civilians in the same way that the hundreds of civilians in Ukraine were – before the separatist conflict killed them on the ground.

In the light of the crash over Mali, the Twittersphere and media reports are filled with a horrid sense of inevitability. It’s as if humans have crossed a line by venturing into the air, and after Thursday’s crash it’s worrying that we continue to fly around when there are people with guns who aren’t afraid to bring us back down.  Icarus fell because he was burnt from above – we should be more concerned with what is below.

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