Billie Jean, an Airplane, and Smoky Hallways


By Charles Bailey

When I wrote this, it was -70 F. I was traveling at 600 mph and I felt fine. According to the little screen on the seat back in front of me, the plane — wing tip to wing tip — was as big as the space between Lille and Paris. Big plane it was. Michael Jackson was complaining through my MP3 player that Billie Jean was not his lover and the kid was surely not his son — for a second, he was believable.

There were a couple of things at work in my mind: two unclear problems.

The first was perception. I was traveling as fast as I said — but it sure did not feel like it. Likewise, as the plane banked and turned and climbed, my world inside it remained remarkably unaltered. Outside the window there were serious forces at work. Gravity, drag, and other physical truths were not so much conspiring against the flight as they were simply doing what they do, acting in the only ways that physical forces act. There were 190 souls, as the airline calls them, aboard and none of them were aware of the forces at work — at least not the ones snoring on either side of me.

This problem of "unawareness" or narrow perception reminded me of crawling down a smoky hallway with a radio poking out of my pocket and a charged hose line trying to find the fire, track the rookie, and answer the chief all at the same time. That is just as tricky as being an airplane at 38,000 feet. The perception from inside that mask is as narrow as that of the airline passenger. Both the firefighter and the passenger are privy to only very small parts of the real picture.

The second problem at work was the issue of scale. As I said earlier, the distance from Lille to Paris on the map screen could be measured by the width of the aircraft. This issue of scale is present in fires, too. Inside a fire, it is easy to believe that the line you have is making progress. It might actually be making progress in that little tiny area you are operating in. But on the larger scale, on the scale of the chief sitting in the car watching this fire grow, your wing tips can't reach Paris.

Our scalar difficulties don't end with fire volume; they involve temporal and spatial distortion, too. In other words, what you know, that is what you can see and feel and hear through your protective envelope may be true in a local sense but is likely wrong in a perceptual and scalar sense. What you know is a very small piece of what is there and an even smaller piece of what can be known.

The trick in moving forward into a new year is to realize that if you are on a plane that is moving at 600 mph, you are moving at 600 mph too. You are also subjected to a wide range of forces, forces that are understood, have been studied, forces over which we can exert a modicum of control.

Flying has been studied. That is why flying in a plane at 600 mph at 38,000 feet is not as scary as crawling down a smoky hallway with a radio poking out of my pocket and a charged hose line trying to find the fire, track the rookie, and answer the chief all at the same time. It is time to increase the amount of studying involved in this vocation. And I still believe MJ just a little.

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