Follow me: we are walking down the jet bridge to our plane, which will take us home, or away from home, or to somebody else’s home. We shuffle down the aisle, double-, triple-, quadruple-checking our seat number to ensure we sit in the correct spot. Those seated in the aisle turn inward to avoid the throngs of travelers moving by. Polite eye contact, never too long. We have a window seat: 28a. Over the wing, just forward of the engines. There are pleasantries exchanged as our neighbors take their own seats. Headphones or earplugs are donned, we halfheartedly listen to the safety reminders and no sooner does the landing gear retract than we are dozing, eyes heavy, lulled into slumber by the deep hum of the cabin.
This flight is an overnight, and when we wake again it’s dark, both inside the cabin and out. We slide the window open and bow our head to see out, eager to see the toy cities below with their lights like glitter spread out over the earth. It’s too dark, or we’re over mountains, or we’re above the clouds. In any case there’s nothing to be seen below, but just next to us is the smooth metal arm that is helping keep us in the air, lit up by the plane’s pulsing navigation lights.
As we’re looking out the window, we come into some turbulence. The familiar alert tone plays over our head and the cabin crew reminds us to ensure we’re buckled in; we’ll have a bumpy ride for the next few minutes. Those returning from the lavatory take their seats. The audible snaps of metal into metal as people realize they’d forgotten to clasp their seatbelt.
Our gaze is still outside on the wing when the turbulence starts. The plane subtly rolls left and then right. We’re observing the wing and suddenly we notice that it is isn’t the rigid metal structure we thought earlier. The wing is bending, flexing with the turbulence. When the turbulence pushes us off-axis, the wing nearly springs up and down like a diving board. This is initially disconcerting to watch, but soon the turbulence passes and the wing returns to its intransigent rigidity.
On my plane ride back to San Francisco earlier this week, I had this experience. I was seated over the wing, and during a period of mild turbulence I watched in wonder as the wing twisted and flexed, bowed and wobbled. I know very little about airplanes or their wings. How they’re constructed, how the physics of lift and torque and drag keep a plane afloat. Seeing the very structure which is literally holding your life in its metaphorical arms writhe and jerk is not always a pleasant experience. But when it comes to something like a plane, this is a fact we accept. Flight, even after nearly 100 years in the mainstream, remains mysterious and awe-inspiring. Here is a thought I had, sitting there contemplating the wing.
The implicit trust we bestow upon technology that we do not understand can be a beautiful and magical thing.