003.2: Christopher Schaberg & Mark Yakich:: Real Poetry from The Airplane Reader 003

It may be apocryphal, but I’ve heard that pilots and surgeons have similar psychological profiles—they are aggressive, self-assured, contain a store of vast technical knowledge, intimidating. And whether or not it is factually true, the comparison does make sense. These are people we give great, blind trust to every day, unflinchingly. Our lives are literally in their hands, and very rarely do we even remember their names after the procedure or flight. It takes a certain amount of ego to name a piece “Real Poetry”, and Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich earn that cheekiness as they constantly dazzle us through this piece’s pure expanse and its technical dexterity. The reader is constantly confronted with all of these aforementioned traits—traits that can be extended to the essayist and poet. “Real Poetry” is a collaboration in aviation that doesn’t ask for your trust because it doesn’t need it. It knows exactly what it’s doing. Relax—you’re in good, capable hands. Nik De Dominic

Real Poetry


Ninety-five percent of airplane crashes have survivors.


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In March 1910, Houdini became the first person to fly an airplane in Australia. He learned to drive a car in order to help him pilot the plane. After his successful first flight, he left Australia never to fly or drive again.


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According to the “Arbitron Airport Advertising Study: Exploring an Undiscovered Upscale Medium,” 90% airline magazine readers say they trust the information they read in the in-flight publication. Seventy-one percent of airline magazine readers agree (strongly or somewhat) that because they are on a plane, they read the in-flight magazine more closely than magazines they pick up at other locations. Forty-one percent frequently look at the flight route map.


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The writer Sherman Alexie is fond of saying that in order to avoid crashing, he listens to a mix tape with songs by musicians who died in plane crashes. His logic is that he doesn’t think God would be as ironic as to crash the plane he’s flying in as he’s listening to the tape.


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You can do a fly-over tour of Antarctica, the world’s last great wilderness, for as little as $1000. Antarctica Sightseeing Flights, which operates in conjunction with Qantas, will take you on a 12-hour journey, flying as low as 2000 feet over the highest parts of the continent.


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On any given day, more than 87,000 flights are in the skies in the United States. So says NATCA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. To put this is tangible terms, NATCA provides a visual: “It would take approximately 7,300 airport terminal monitors to show all the flights controllers handle in a single day and approximately 460 monitors to show the number of flights being handled at any one time.”


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“And if man were to learn to fly—woe, to what heights would his rapaciousness fly?” wrote Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1885.


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Nobody who did it ever forgets the experience of flying into Hong Kong’s old airport (Kai Tak, 1925-1998): you flew so low and close to buildings that you could see TVs flicker inside apartments. Plans for the old airport keep changing but have included turning it into a cruise line terminal, a giant stadium, a line of hotels, or a green space larger than Central Park.


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“Compared with the motion of a jolting automobile is not flying real poetry?” wrote Wilbur Wright in a letter in 1905.


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Not far from the north end of the runway at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport stand two, four-million gallon water tanks. You can still see the dent that Delta Flight #191 made in one of them on August 2, 1985. On landing, the plane was suddenly pushed down by a microburst and crashed. Of 163 passengers and crew, 29 survived. Most of the survivors sat in the smoking section.


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The first emergency safety cards are from the 1920s and are for flights over the English Channel; they contain no images or illustrations, only text, which essentially says that in the event of an emergency passengers should ask the crew for help. In the late 1940s, emergency cards included bits of light humor to mollify fearful flyers, with slogans such as “life vests are fashionable and quite handsomely tailored.” Mr. Carl Reese, an aviophile and former airline attendant, has amassed the world’s largest collection of safety cards: 70,000.


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The Denver Airport sculpture “Mustang” was designed and partially constructed by the artist Louis Jiménez. We must say “partially,” because Jiménez died while working on the sculpture—the giant horse toppled and crushed him, and the work of art had to be completed by the artist’s wife and sons.


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For the movie Fearless (1993), a crash site was made based on the plane crash at Sioux City’s airport in 1989. The recreation took 10 days to prepare, and included 85 acres of cornfields, a bulldozed swatch of land, and 600 suitcases and their assorted contents purchased from local thrift stores. Total cost of the fake plane crash: $2 million.


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Of the U.S. passenger carriers, only Northwest and United still use 747s. The 747 weighs almost a million pounds on take-off. About one-third is fuel and less than one-tenth is passengers and cargo. Of the six million parts of a 747, half are rivets.


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Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Martin is famous for its short runway (7,980 ft), which is just long enough for large jets to land. Incoming planes approaching the island for Runway 10 pass 30 to 60 feet over relaxing tourists on Maho Beach.


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On an otherwise pleasant spring morning in 2009, Air Force One’s look-a-like 747 (sans the President) and a couple of F-16 fighters zoomed past lower Manhattan on a photo op fly-over the Statue of Liberty. The event terrorized lower Manhattanites, led to evacuations of office buildings, and even sent the markets on Wall Street spiraling down for an hour. The rest of the country hardly noticed, however; it was the same morning that a possible swine flu epidemic made top headlines across the country.


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The same week that it’s reported that new airplanes will begin to have airbags tucked into lapbelts for greater safety, it’s also reported that two airlines, one European and one Asian, are seriously considering standing-room fares. Someday a flight that overshoots the runway on take-off or landing may have some passengers snuggling gigantic plastic pillows and others zooming past them head-first banging into seatbacks, storage bins, or bulkheads.


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Some 27,000 miles of toilet paper is used at Pittsburgh International Airport in a year—more than enough to circle the Earth’s equator.


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Kamikaze comes from “kami” (divine) and “kaze” (wind), and was first used in reference to the typhoon that saved Japan from an invading Mongolian fleet in 1281.


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The pilot of the Concorde that crashed was the first Frenchmen to windsurf across the Atlantic.


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Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne died in an airplane crash in 1931. He was so famous that people demanded to know what happened to the plane. It was the first time a report from a crash investigation was ever made public.


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Castor oil is used as lubricant in jet airplanes. It has also traditionally been used as a laxative.


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According to Carl Sagan, the first metaphor for the stars was fire. Great flames shining from a great distance—seen by us as little fires behind a dark cloth. Later came the gods, to explain who lit the fires. The question remains: Who lit the gods?


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Kafka once traveled more than 500 miles from Prague to Northern Italy to watch some of Europe’s first aviators. The attraction was not only to watch an aviator fly but to watch him crash. Going to an air show was like going to a smash-up derby, the desire to witness the wreck trumping all else.


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The turbine engine (the jet engine) evolved relatively quickly and necessarily as aircraft makers sought higher speeds, great fuel efficiency, and thrust to weight ratios. Today, the typical, high performance turbine airplane engine may have taken twenty years to develop from conception to final product. In the initial planning stages only 75% of the needed technology would have been available—the other 25% projected to occur as “scheduled invention” during the course of the project.


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“I know a guy who bought a car that barely ran and parked it in the employee lot at his base airport, and slept in his car six or seven times a month,” said Frank R. Graham Jr., a former regional pilot and airline safety director who runs a safety consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C.


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Charles Lindbergh was not the first man to fly across the Atlantic. He was the sixty-seventh. But he was the first to fly alone.


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Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924) is probably the best known airline music ever. United Airlines originally licensed the tune from the Gershwin estate in 1976 for $500,000.


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The flight number “191” has been associated with numerous crashes and incidents over the years: X-15 Flight 191 (1967), Prinair Flight 191 (1972), American Airlines Flight 191 (1979), Delta Air Lines Flight 191 (1985), Comair Flight 191, also known as Delta Air Lines Flight 5191 (2006). This has prompted some airlines to stop the use of the number altogether.


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Mohammed bin Laden, 73, father of Osama bin Laden, died while trying to land his Beechcraft 18 HZ-IBN on a mountain landing strip in Usran, Saudi Arabia.


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Neither Orville nor Wilbur Wright ever married.


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According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, the percentage of women airline pilots is about 5% worldwide (2009).


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On the first commercial flights, the co-pilot would hand out the in-flight meals (i.e. sack lunches). When stewardesses were introduced, they were registered nurses. And later when they were not required to be nurses, many airlines modeled stewardess uniforms after nurse uniforms. (Eastern Airlines bought the uniforms but didn’t hire the nurses.)


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“I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.” Charles Lindbergh, in an interview shortly before his death in 1974.


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Aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont didn’t invent the wristwatch (Patek Philippe did), but before Dumont only women wore wristwatches (as ornaments) and men carried pocket watches. After having to continually look down at his pocket watch during dirigible flights and fumbling with tangled chain and clasp, Dumont finally asked his friend Louis Cartier if he could find a solution. Cartier fashioned a leather strap and buckle to hold the watch in place. Time was never the same.


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No U.S. carrier flies to Africa, nonstop or otherwise.


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In 1962, the Nashville Public Library opened a reading room in the municipal airport. It wasn’t technically a branch since books couldn’t be checked out, only read in the room. Other than a photo from a library calendar with the caption “Airport Reading Room: 1962-69,” there is little information about the space. In fact, the airport wing where the room was housed no longer exists, and there’s no archival mention about its demise.


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Two or three seconds after TWA Flight 800 exploded in flight, the nose section broke off completely. The rest of the plane kept on flying for about 40 seconds before it lost all lift.


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The term “ambient music” was coined by Brian Eno in his liner notes to his 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The story goes that Eno conceived of the album after being stuck for several hours in an airport in Germany and being annoyed at what he heard (or did not hear) in the airport. “Ambient music,” he writes, “must be able to accommodate many levels of listening without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”


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