Archive for Thursday, May 8, 2003

Fears often take flight in less-risky situations

May 8, 2003

People seem to take notice of you when you're hundreds of feet in the air. You elicit waves from children and farmers on tractors, and you send coyotes scampering across the prairie.

Of course it takes about five minutes to appreciate this because before that you're still pondering the fact that you're hundreds of feet in the air, your only solace that someone who knows what he's doing is in charge and that you are, in fact, flying in a giant parachute. After all, a parachute is what most aviators use as a last resort, but here the safety device is your mode of transportation.

But you're still hundreds of feet in the air.

All said and done, I had a blast flying with Dwane Richardson's friend Allen Clough in his power parachute a few weeks ago for a feature story I wrote, which appears on Page 8A in this issue. It was fun to see Dwane, who likes to fly low, swooping down over fields as we soared above. After all, how many people can say they've seen the water towers at Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, Eudora and the Douglas County State Lake from the same vantage point?

Plus, I got a lesson in how these darned things work anyway, which I'd wondered ever since I saw Dwane and his friends last fall flying by Eudora. I followed them into Leavenworth County, trying to get a photo, but they always managed to elude my camera's range.

After telling him about my recent adventure, my boyfriend, Greg, said I reminded him of Geraldo, a journalist (depending on your definition of the word) going on crazy adventures. I told him these types of stories don't come along every day at The Eudora News, and we both expressed the hope I never have the U.S. armed forces ask me to leave a country for drawing some pictures in the sand.

In spite of the fun and adventure, however, the first five minutes of the flight were an adjustment period. The upward inertia that got us into the air sent my stomach to my throat. Not that it was that severe, but this is coming from a person who nearly goes into a panic attack from the sensation of falling, which many people find so thrilling. It took several years for my friends to convince me to go into a haunted house with a slide. I thought the four story spiral plunge would certainly kill me.

But once I got used to the idea of being in the parachute, I could put my hands out and feel the chilly air rush over my arms and take in the beauty of our world in a way we rarely see it. Or at least rarely see it without five inches of air and plexiglass between us and the world.

It was about halfway to Baldwin City that I realized I was probably more safe hundreds of feet above the ground -- I think at one point I heard Allen say 900-something, but I didn't ask him to repeat it -- than I was driving to work on Kansas Highway 10 that morning.

Even though she caught a lot of flack for it, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius probably wasn't too far off base when she said she felt more threatened driving on Interstate 70 through Missouri than flying in the face of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Even though the smoke, debris and flames of 9-11 chilled us to the bone, such large-scale tragedies are infrequent compared to the everyday ways people die. We don't think about death when we hop in our car to head to work or when we scarf down a cheeseburger, even though car crashes and heart disease are more likely threats to most of us than are catastrophic events like 9-11 or the sinking of the Titanic.

This is why I think risk analysis is such an interesting field -- the fact that people look scientifically at what are often irrational fears and superstitions. On National Public Radio's Morning Edition several weeks ago a risk analyst was explaining that even though SARS has changed people's travel plans and lifestyles, threatening businesses in Toronto and Hong Kong, in the United States we have more to fear from the West Nile virus. But, hey, that's old news. When was the last time we heard anything about the mosquito bug anyway?

In "From Beirut to Jerusalem," Thomas L. Friedman writes about his experiences as a New York Times reporter in both cities during the mid-1980s, when terrorist attacks happened nearly on a daily basis. Friedman said residents were constantly calculating the risk of an attack, trying to make mathematical formulas based on which side of the street bombs most often struck, which section of the city they hit, or what room in the house was most often demolished.

One young woman Friedman talked with said although it sounded callous she would sigh with relief when a cousin or distant relative died in an attack. She said it was as though odds were again in her family's favor; that it was some other family's turn now.

For those in Beirut, calculating life's risks was a means of coping with uncertainty. Most of us in the United States are fortunate that the majority of the risks we face are not about survival but about conquering personal fears.

I have absolutely no regrets about my power parachute flight, having felt incredibly confident with experienced pilots. But I was reminded of power parachutes' potential danger last week when my editor, Elvyn, and I were judging newspaper contest entries from Texas. In living color on the front page of one newspaper was a photo of a power parachute tangled in a tree, with the accompanying story explaining how the pilot had been "severely injured." We shrugged it off. The odds had been in my favor. I just told him not to tell my mother. Moms don't appreciate knowing things like that.

How safe we feel has little to do with odds and statistics. It's all about perspective.

And 900 feet in the air is some perspective.

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