Terror at 50,000 Feet On the company plane it's you, the boss, your fear, and some tiny sandwiches.
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I think, sometimes, of Payne Stewart. It frightens me to talk about it, but I guess I must. In my waking dream, I see a little plane loaded with friends and formerly jolly associates, cruising at 50,000 feet, at the edge of what must be considered outer space. It's cold in the private aircraft because a window has cracked, depressurizing the cabin, and at this altitude there is no warmth, there is no oxygen, there is only sky--dark, tinged with blue and black, filled to the horizon in every direction with stars. There is the sound of the motor, but beyond that the little plane flies on in eerie and bottomless silence, because everyone inside it is dead. The tiny tube of steel and broken glass climbs upward into the void, awaiting the moment when it will run out of fuel at last and fall back to earth in a ball of fire and light and screaming metal.

The phone rings while I'm getting ready for the company dinner. This is one of my favorite moments on the road. It's late afternoon, and there are no more meetings that day, none at which I will be required to make sobriety a virtue, at any rate. I've been up on the roof at the outdoor gym, and a nimbus of righteous sweat hangs about me like glorious raiment. I am just about to step into the shower and have decided afterward to watch a pay-per-view movie in the two hours before I'm supposed to meet Dempster and Creeley for martinis downstairs. Best of all, tomorrow I will go home in a big, comfortable air bus. I will eat hot nuts. I will sleep, and not be required to converse, and forget that I am 35,000 feet above the hard crust of the planet.

"Hello," I tell the phone.

"Ken would like you to join him in the corporate jet tomorrow morning." It's Eleanor, Ken's assistant. I have successfully turned down this invitation before by simply telling the truth: that I am afraid to fly in a minuscule conveyance that hangs like a dust mote in the eye of God.

"Er..." is all I have time to get out. Then I hear Ken's voice in the background. "Tell Bing he's a wuss! And if he doesn't come with us I'll bash him!" He's kidding, of course. But then...if there's one thing you don't want to be, it's a wuss. And you know, I do want to be with the guys. And why should I be all phobic and immature about this thing? It isn't even the Jetstream, it's the big G3. If I turn it down now, I may never be asked again. And things happen on the jet. One time my pal Polito rode with the chairman, and by the time they landed, a whole new career path was mapped out for him, and he was the golden boy of the company for six months. I could use a new gig like that, particularly on Monday mornings.

"I'll go," I hear myself say. I am immediately filled with dread. I see myself burning merrily like a juicy gobbet of fat that has fallen into the barbecue.

"Great," says Eleanor.

In the morning my Town Car pulls up to the plane right there on the tarmac. The luggage dude takes my bag; I don't even have to touch it. I climb the gangway. The rented G3 seats 20 or so, and it's beautiful inside, all blond wood with quiet stainless-steel touches. The armchairs are ample. Ken arrives with Tolan and Gordon and Erlanger and Studtz and a few more of the gang, all of them tanned and good-lookin' in their casual duds, and nobody shuts up for a good long while. My, this is fun!

The moment arrives. We must fly.

Takeoff is by no means gradual. One minute we're rolling fast, the next we turn nose up and dart into the sky like a clay pigeon out of a trap. I see Markoff, normally a frosty adversary of evil responsible for the crunching of very tough walnuts, grab the arms of his comfy chair. "I don't like this part," he says. I am not the only one with an irrational fear of being ripped from the middle of my life and flung flaming into the sky like Icarus.

The little hollow cigar levels off, and we all immediately eat between 800 and 1,200 pounds of food. The flight attendant, unlike those in the commercial fleet, is blond, buff, and beautiful. There is no moment when we do not have beverages. The purpose of the libations could not be clearer if little rubber nipples were placed over our glasses.

There follow a good four hours of amiable musical chairs. I go from the best seats, a foursome in the middle of the craft, to the couch by the windows for a chat with Markoff and Studtz about the economics of back-end deals; then to the more private niches in the stern, where Erlanger and Gordon are strategizing over the launch of something or other; then back up to the front for some mindless video with Tolan and Kuhn; then finally into the seat opposite Ken, who is chatting, working a little, reading. The whole team thing is very strong up here. I love these guys, and we're in this together.

The moment arrives. We must...land.

The plane hitches a little and yaws to the right. Ken takes off his glasses and looks out the window. "We're starting our descent awful early," he says. He pushes a button, and the motorized shade descends, blotting out the view of the countryside that is rising up to meet us fast. A few minutes later Ken says, "I do this trip twice a month, and this isn't the way it's supposed to go." My tongue feels like a washcloth bunched up and jammed into the back of my throat. The plane is silent, all of us studiously rummaging through things, staring unseeing at magazines, or simply clutching fixed objects to steady ourselves. It's bumpy.

I grasp my armrests and close my eyes. Is it possible to sleep through one's own death? As the interminable banking and descending continues, I open my eyes a tad and glance at Ken, and find that I am looking at myself. His eyes are closed. He is breathing for control. His hands are on his knees. He is waiting to see whether we make it and, like everybody else in the sarcophagus, trying not to shriek. I see why he wanted me to come. I see why all those who must fly these things regularly want you with them. Facing the ultimate reality is lonely work.

We get down okay, of course. I'll go again if I'm asked. You don't get to go up against the infinite every day--and enjoy unlimited sandwiches and condiments while you're at it. I particularly like those tiny gherkins, and mean to get as many of them as I can the next time around.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.