If you weren't afraid of flying before last week... you probably are now

Safety statistics are no match for a plane crash's power to disturb

Captain: Oh, s***. Pull up, baby.

First Officer: It's OK.

Captain: OK, easy does it, easy does it. Up, baby... more, more.

First Officer: OK.

Captain: Up, up, up.

End of recording.

TWA 800. AF 447. United 93. MH370, and, now, MH17. These codes are like the titles of ghost stories, elusive and strange: they carry the finality of a eulogy, and the weight of superstition. If you think of one shortly before boarding a plane yourself, your own flight number begins to seem haunted. They are frightening.

Why? They shouldn't be, after all. The aviation industry has rigorous expectations. To fly a jumbo jet a pilot must have logged 1,500 hours of flight time. Planes are subjected to thorough testing as they are built, and the safety standards for the components that make up each one are almost absurdly high. Every element is subjected to a "delethalisation" process such that seats can withstand 16 times the force of gravity, and fireproof in-flight entertainment systems cost about $13,000 (£7,700) per unit.

The evidence that all this works is overwhelming. You are far, far safer than you would have been in the early days of commercial flight: if the rate from 1950 were applied to today's aviation industry, there would be 10 fatal accidents a day, and somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 deaths a year. Last year, there were in fact only 281 victims. About one flight in 1,200,000 ends in an accident. You may, understandably, feel that this rate skates over the frightening point that such events are so calamitous that everybody aboard dies – but in fact, contrary to that common belief, about 96 per cent of passengers involved in accidents survive to tell the tale. You are far more likely to die in the maws of a shark, or in a car crash, or while sitting at your earthbound desk.

But our desks don't tap into our nightmares. They don't need to be delethalised, and you don't need 1,500 hours' experience before anyone will let you sit at one. We sit at them calmly, never glancing at the stapler and wondering if it portends our imminent end. One in 5,000 people die driving, and very few of us feel the same butterflies as the key turns in the ignition as we do as the wheels leave the tarmac. One in five men die of heart disease, which means that even those men who find themselves in a plane crash are more likely to die of heart disease than die in the crash; all the same, you don't see a lot of guys crossing themselves before they bite into a cheeseburger. None of these quotidian deathtraps asks us to hand over to a pilot, forces us into a moment at which we surrender responsibility to a disembodied voice that reminds us to buckle up. These things are always in our own control, and so, oddly enough, we continue to do them without worrying about them.

Over the last week or so, there have been several opportunities to ponder this gap between reality and our perception of it. The downing of MH17 over eastern Ukraine is amongst the most vivid and distressing disaster stories of our time, and by bad luck it has since been echoed around the world. On Wednesday, a Taiwanese jet crashed during a storm, killing 48 people. On Thursday, an Air Algerie flight carrying 116 people came down in northern Mali, leaving no survivors. Meanwhile, European and American airlines have looked at the rocket fire over Israel and Gaza and cancelled flights to Tel Aviv. And the mystery of MH370 remains unsolved.

The irony is that it is the very anomalous nature of these events that makes them so hard to shrug off. More people died in the MH17 catastrophe alone than died in all of 2013's many millions of flights. If a couple of dozen were lost in plane crashes every day, we wouldn't find it half so hard to look away. As it is, until now, 2014 has been a remarkably safe year, and so we come to this heartbreaking little spell unprotected by habit.

What do we feel when we get to it? Above all, perhaps, the special dread that comes with the unknown. Even the worst car accidents are scaled up versions of something with which we're all familiar; probably, most of us have driven slowly past a fatal smash at some point or another, known someone who's survived a bad one, felt our eyelids droop and the steering judder alarmingly in a late-night drive that might conceivably have ended in catastrophe. An earthquake or a hurricane is accessible in the same way. When reporters visit the aftermath, they are not peering at inanimate remnants but picking through a terrible wound that is, somehow, still alive. By watching it on the news and reading about it we can sympathise, and somehow sympathy feels active, feels easier.

But a rocket hitting a jumbo at 33,000ft – we can't imagine that. Or rather: all we can do is imagine it. Make it up. That's why, I think, black box recordings give us such a chill: like a letter marked "only to be opened in the event …", they cross uneasily from the past to the present, our one point of contact with an experience that is by definition inaccessible, a reminder that we don't know what it's like. The tape from which the excerpt at the top is taken is not all horror: earlier, the captain tells his first officer about his wife's reservations about his schedule. Then the pilots realise that they are losing altitude, and the loss of normality makes you shiver. "Up, up, up." The official transcript's flat full stops add a queasy layer of bureaucracy to the fact that 160 on board died when the Boeing 757 hit a mountain.

We can't conjure that experience. Instead, we extrapolate from what it's like aboard our own more fortunate flights. I suppose we feel, somewhere, that marvellously persistent scepticism that accompanies any technology that lets us do things for which we are not naturally equipped: I still peer out of the window every time my flight takes off, and every time, I still feel in my bones that nothing so heavy could ever get into the air.

Then, at cruising altitude, a counterintuitive kind of vertigo – predicated not on height but on the dizzying sense that the line between safety and terror is so very fine. There's no real danger: the difference in pressure makes it impossible to open the doors, and the double glazed windows are made of exceptionally stern stuff. All the same, you look in here, civilisation rolled up in a metal tube, and out there, -51C just inches away, and you think clearly about what's really always true: the darkness is terribly, terribly close. It isn't fear, exactly. It's just perspective.

And then you land and, released from whatever the hell it is that makes you cry at terrible in-flight entertainment, you get back to normal. No aeroplane disaster movie ever quite captures that feeling, and I can't imagine finding them frightening even at that altitude. Most airlines ban them all the same.

I was surprised, a year or so ago, to find that another movie had made it on to the console – one which far more closely evokes the spookiness of 33,000ft, even if the action takes place still further away. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock's novice astronaut finds herself adrift in the void. Only an inch of plexiglass divides her from eternity. She is quite helpless, and in such a state she finds it almost impossible to remember the training and technology that are there to keep her safe. But if she trusts them, they will. The film's tagline reads: Don't. Let. Go.

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