Leaving Kentucky – Playing The Odds

Today I fly out of Lexington, Kentucky for home. I only get to be home for 2 nights though, then I fly out Sunday for a week in a suburb of Washington, D.C. and I may be going somewhere else after that if things work out.

With as much traveling as I do in planes and rental cars, I guess it is inevitable that I sometimes find myself thinking about the odds of me dying in a plane crash or car wreck. That has been especially true during the past few days with the recent plane crashes and the weird Southwest Airlines hole-in-the-plane event that reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with a young William Shatner.

These thoughts usually come to me when I am in a plane that is taking off or landing (the two most dangerous times during a flight), but sometimes I look out the window at 30,000 feet and think it is a long way down (though it would only take 12 minutes or so to hit the ground from that altitude, falling at a rate of 32 feet per second) and sometimes when I am driving long distances on deserted back roads in the middle of night (or even in the middle of the day) I imagine several different scenarios that would all, in the end, find me dead on that road, hopefully not in an extremely painful way.

I don’t think I’m being morbid, it’s just an acknowledgment that, while I’m not a gambler at heart, I am constantly playing the odds when it comes to travel and my longevity.

On the other hand, I could drop dead from an aneurysm or heart attack in my hotel room, so it really does no good to dwell on the subject of when it might happen, does it?

But here is a little piece I wrote about a year ago during a flight. I’ve edited it a tiny bit over the past couple of days and added an important piece of physics information that I had to research, but the majority of it is over a year old and the words originated from 30,000 feet in the sky.


I’m sitting in my usual exit row window seat, watching the clouds below and around the plane as it pushes through the air at 30,000 feet. Sometimes, when there are breaks within the cloud bank below us, I can see the ground underneath our vehicle in the sky. It is so far below us that I only glimpse a dull splotch of green if is land and blue if it is water. It’s very peaceful up here as the aircraft maintains a steady speed of 500 mph some 6 miles above the world.

But should the plane suddenly lose power, or worse, break apart from some structural stress, natural or man-made, I ask myself; how long would it take to fall to the ground? If I were to suddenly find myself sucked out of the exit row door I know I would lose consciousness very quickly due to the lack of oxygen, but I’ve also read that there is every chance I would regain consciousness as I fell into a more oxygen-rich part of the atmosphere. Of course the bad part of that news is that I would also be closer to the ground and, if I were not completely disoriented, would realize that the earth was quickly rushing up to meet me, or more accurately that I was falling faster and faster to the meet the earth.

In most scenarios of this type the odds are that I would still be strapped into my seat that was ripped from the floor it used to be bolted to, falling, spinning, tumbling head over heels watching first the sky appear and then the ground and then the sky again in a wildly changing kaleidoscope. Something like an old-style ViewMaster gone crazy, flipping back and forth between two images. I’ve also read that falling from a height of 30,000 feet at 32 feet per second, it would take me 12 minutes or so to hit the ground. But having no idea how long I was unconscious I likewise have no idea how much time I have left until impact.

I imagine that, if I had my full faculties at this point, that I would most likely be frightened to the point of death at this realization, either through a heart attack or my conscious mind just shutting down at the inevitability of certain, painful death. On the other hand, if I didn’t die of fright, I wonder if I would hit the ground with such force that I would never have time to even register the agonizing pain of the moment of impact before I would be dead. I have a feeling that the anticipation would be much more painful that the actual impact.

But for now, safe in my usual exit row window seat, I stretch out my legs, turn on my mp3 player and put such thoughts out of my mind.

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