Sunday, August 11, 2013

Our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones at the East Haven plane crash on Friday. I grew up near the airport, and to show you how small planes have made me wary ever since, I rerun this June 2004 column that ran in the Register:

Where do kids get these crazy ideas? A week ago I'm standing up against a barbed wire-topped fence off Thompson Avenue in East Haven as two of my kids walk to a small plane for an aerial tour of the area with a young pilot from Robinson Aviation. The 22-year-old daughter and her boyfriend gave the 16-year-old boy a birthday gift in an area of interest — flying. I was against this idea, but there I was, on Father's Day no less, as they climbed into a Cessna that looked lighter than a golf cart.
     Not for nothing, but I think airplanes should be bigger than a bread delivery truck. And if you were flying in one of my pal Pete's bread trucks, at least there'd be some Italian bread to break your fall.
     "Look at him," the youngest daughter says, pointing to me. "He hasn't said a word in an hour." The plane taxis away (with one door apparently ajar, does anyone see this?)
     Don't tell me not to worry. I grew up a block from this airport. And in my formative years, there were three crashes of small planes within a mile of our house! That tends to work its way into your nightmares afterward.
     And then there was the Eastern airliner that went down near my cousin's house in Momauguin; my cousin's husband bravely helped out at that gruesome scene.
     On a sunny summer day once, I was taking out the garbage when a huge crashing sound stopped me in my tracks. Around the corner, a small plane, its pilot and a student pilot had crashed into a house. An older fellow there who had been mowing the lawn pulled the two injured people out and kept them warm with a blanket. We stood across the street, slack-jawed.
     Then came the sirens.
     No one was killed that day, but two couples died when a small plane plunged into the field along Dodge Avenue near Burr Street one evening. The sounds of sirens (I think that was a Simon & Garfunkel song) filled the air again. The next day, some school pals and I walked past the police tape and stood on the charred ground as investigators held clipboards and smoked unfiltered Camels nearby. One of us had picked up a woman's high-heeled shoe when the adults noticed us and shooed us away.
     Another time, we were playing ball in the "cow pasture" next to a runway at Tweed when a small plane was landing without its landing gear. As the plane neared the asphalt, an alert fellow on the ground began sprinting along, yelling and waving his arms until the plane aborted the landing and saved itself a violent belly flop.
     You worry about a lot on a commercial plane, if you think about it. Taking off is open-throttle dramatic, but even as you touch down, those tires need to absorb a lot of friction and carry a lot of weight, no?
     If the tires fail, you're on the evening news all around the country, sliding down a chute like you're at a carnival in hell.
     But back to the present day. Moments after the plane takes off and climbs north, the airport's fire engine hauls past our view and drives briskly around the service road inside the airport fences. It disappears near the terminal.
     "Hope he didn't see that," says my wife nearby. My mind jumps to the late 1970s.
     On the day we were moving into our present home in the suburbs, Bobby Murcer was hitting home runs in memory of his friend Thurman Munson, who died at the controls of a small plane a few days before.
     "I told you, I'm not afraid of flying," I say to the rest of the family this day. "Only crashing."
     I actually like flying, now that it's too expensive to do often. After that horrific day in 2001, commercial planes have become safer than ever. And flying in and out of Tweed is a delight for New Haven area residents compared to other airports.
     According to stats gathered in the United Kingdom and my own math, just three people were killed per 100 billion miles flown during the 1990s. Compare that to 500 killed in cars for the same number of miles. You don't want to know the toll for motorcycles.
     But I'm still not so sure of small planes.
     So after we go inside the Robinson terminal for a few minutes, the two kids and the pilot walk in from the tarmac.
     "Wow, did you see East Rock? It looked flat from up there," says the daughter.
     "I wasn't looking down at that point. He was letting me fly the plane. It gets bumpy up there."
     After that, I insisted we go pick strawberries, which sit close to the ground.

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