There is No Such Thing as Happenstance

The weather at San Francisco International Airport was considered ideal for a landing: only a light wind, and free of the usual haze. You could almost see forever — visibility was up to 10 miles. Conditions were so optimal that air traffic controllers had cleared the Asiana flight for a visual approach — meaning no guiding instruments were needed to land the plane. All systems were reported functioning normally. Seatbelts fastened, food trays up — they were practically in baggage claim.

Then, out of that clear blue sky — death and destruction.

Two passengers were killed and many others injured, some quite seriously, when the Boeing 777 made its approach too low and crashed. Investigators immediately commenced a painstaking and thorough probe of every possible cause, from technical malfunction to human error.

In the meantime, as we hope for the full and speedy recovery of the injured, there are already some conclusions to be drawn from this tragic event.

First, regarding what the media calls happenstance: As one newspaper put it, “What happened to the passengers depended … on where they were sitting.”

Passengers in the rear, closest to where the aircraft’s tail had been sheared off on impact with the ground, suffered the most; those in the forward sections escaped relatively unhurt.

We call this by another name: hashgachah pratis.

And lest anyone think that, no, it was all just an accident — another air crash, halfway across the world just a day later, demonstrated otherwise.

An Israeli F-16i jet crashed into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza during a military training flight. The pilot and navigator ejected from the aircraft after the plane’s engine failed due to an as-yet-undetermined reason, and parachuted to the sea, where they were picked up an hour later by an IAF rescue unit, about 30 miles from Gaza.

As Hamodia’s military correspondent A. Pe’er reported on Monday, the helicopter of the 669 Airborne Rescue and Evacuation Unit that saved the two men — who were in good condition — had been engaged in a most interesting training exercise itself. At the very same time that the jet plunged into the sea, that 669 unit had been practicing for… rescue of pilots from the sea! Although the rescue unit is on standby for emergency work at all times anywhere in the country, it just “happened” to be in the area at the time of the F-16i crash. Had it not been, a longer gap in time before their arrival could have been fateful for the pilot and navigator.

Much of the shock of the Asiana crash is due to the fact that air disasters on this scale have become so rare.

Indeed, the statistics are more than reassuring; they are a positive advertisement for air travel.

This was the first large plane to go down in U.S. airspace in over a decade (since November 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus A300 crashed on takeoff from Kennedy International Airport, killing all 260 people aboard as well as five people on the ground.)

Furthermore, in the past five years there’s been only one air fatality involving a U.S. airplane. In the  period from 1999–2008 there was approximately one fatality per 10 billion miles traveled.

Put another way, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an average passenger travelling on Western-built jetliners would have to take no fewer than 5.3 million flights before being involved in an accident. The accident rate for the airline industry as a whole is now so low that someone taking a flight every day could theoretically expect 14,000 years of trouble-free flying.

We tend to take the incredible speed, convenience and safety of air travel for granted. People complain incessantly about ticket prices, baggage fees and delays. While it is certainly no fun to be stuck on the tarmac or in a holding pattern for hours, there is much to be thankful for, not the least of which is that the plane successfully remains aloft thousands of feet in the air — so boringly and monotonously — for all that time.

Getting into a car, by contrast, is taking your life into your hands. The death rate for car travel during the same 1999–2008 period mentioned above was 72 times higher. (A remark that has been attributed to various Gedolim states that were the Sanhedrin sitting today, it might ban the use of cars as too dangerous.)

Of course, as jetting to and from the beis knesses and the supermarket is not an option, many of us are car-bound. But that doesn’t mean that we should give ourselves up to a statistical fate. On the contrary, recently conducted studies show that hishtadlus — in terms of following the rules of the road and refraining from using cellphones and texting — makes a difference.

And tefillas haderech applies to land, air and sea.