It doesn’t happen often, but when clapping rises from passengers aboard a marvel-of-modern-manufacturing jet, the first thought is “how weird.”
I’ve heard applause as wheels safely touched down in Casablanca, in Mexico City and, most recently, in Moscow.
But the revelation hit this trip, as the Aeroflot jet landed on a runway at New York’s JFK Airport after a long hop from the Russian capital.
As the smattering of applause rose while the jet’s momentum still pushed passengers against their seat belts, the logic hit — why is applause strange?
Well, applause is a strange custom in itself. Humans make percussive noise by bringing their hands together quickly in a near-universal gesture of appreciation and, usually, awe.
That this has become a way to convey our awe at a ballerina’s leap, a rock star’s vocal power or a quarterback’s precision pass — to signal that we recognize a skill that would be difficult, if not impossible, for our own selves to repeat — is odd. But, of course, there it is.
So then, why does it feel so strange when residents of other nations applaud when an airplane lands safely? Why is the initial reaction of many Westerners discomfort?
I don’t know the answer to that, only that I have always — until this last trip — felt that way, too.
Maybe it is Aeroflot’s nifty near pilot’s-eye view of takeoff and landing broadcast over the seat-back screens that tripped the synapse that helped me make sense of it this time. Maybe it was a serious case of jet lag, or a momentary attack of wonder.
But as the applause rose this time, it did suddenly make sense. This super-advanced machine kept several hundred people alive and well (even fed and entertained) 7 miles above the Earth in sub-40 degree temperatures with non-survivable outside air pressures for more than 10 hours.
A small crew led by pilots who had spent their lives training for the job had safely guided the plane across a continent and the Atlantic Ocean — a quarter of the way around the globe, through weather and other air traffic and night and day. It was a feat that just a few generations ago was not only impossible, it was inconceivable.
I might not join in (I’m a reserved Midwesterner, after all). But I finally understand.