DETROIT -- It's not the engines that make the airplane fly.
It's James Steinhagen's finger circles.
"As the plane begins the takeoff roll, I whirl my finger around in a small circle faster and faster as the plane accelerates down the runway," the Troy, Mich., man, 62, said. "My thinking is that this will help keep the engines running as we prepare to climb into the air. Fortunately, I have not had a situation where this didn't work -- at least not yet."
It may sound crazy. It may sound strange. But Steinhagen is definitely not alone in his flying superstitions.
"My wife and I have this superstition that we always lift our feet while the plane is accelerating down the runway until it leaves the ground. This helps the plane into the air," said Carl Steinecker, 64, of South Lyon, Mich.
"I lift up on the armrest to get the plane into the air," said Dr. Thomas Harding, 53, a Milwaukee psychiatrist.
"I never told anybody about my strange superstition. So far, however, it works; it has kept hundreds of planes from crashing," said Margie Reins Smith of Grosse Pointe, Mich. "Somewhere, when I was very young, I read that most plane crashes occur during the first 15 seconds of flight. So I start counting when the wheels leave the ground -- one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand -- up to 15. Works like a charm."
Flying superstitions help otherwise-sensible travelers gain an illusion of control when they are in a tin can suspended in the sky, experts say.
"Since people look into the air and see nothing holding the plane up, it all seems like magic anyway, right? So if you lift up on the arm rest, it might help the plane rise," said Tom Bunn, a psychologist and pilot who runs SOAR, a program to conquer the fear of flying.
"In addition, there is an anthropomorphism going on -- the plane is not just a mechanical object, but it has feelings. You think the plane is trying and struggling, and you need to help it, so there is the spinning of the finger to help the engine turn. There's the lifting of the feet off the floor, which is really kind of cute."
Flying superstitions are not the same as the fear of flying. People are willing to fly. They just have rituals and charms to make sure everything goes well.
"When my son Matt was 6 years old, he started patting the exterior of the airplane as we entered it. It always reminded me of patting the head of your dog to be a good boy," said Gail Cotter, 59, of Howell, Mich. "He made sure we all patted the airplane before we stepped into the plane. We have done that for the past 22 years."
Linda Emerson, 61, of Farmington Hills, Mich., must buy a crossword puzzle book at the airport before her flight. She also must be holding the in-flight travel magazine during take off.
"I actually sort of panic if there isn't one in my seat pocket," she said.
Elephant for luck
Liz Walters, 71, brings an elephant for luck.
"I have a gold elephant charm on a chain, which is the first thing I put on the day I am flying," said Walters of West Bloomfield Township, Mich. "If I got to the airport and did not have it, I don't think I would get on the plane."
One woman has been repeating the same superstitious phrase on her flights for 24 years.
"In 1987, a Northwest airliner crashed at Detroit Metro (Airport), killing all aboard except for one child," said Linda Ogden, 60, of Macomb Township, Mich. "The cause of the crash was determined to be the flaps and slats not being extended during takeoff. As a result, my silent mantra, as the plane is lumbering down the runway, is 'Flaps and slats, flaps and slats, flaps and slats.' "
Ogden's superstition has an odd logic, Bunn said.
"It's like by saying 'flaps and slats' she can get the message to the pilot," he said. "It's like a superstition that overlaps with self-calming."
As a psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Harding, 53, of Milwaukee often works with those afraid to fly or who have other phobias. His own lifting up on the armrests is about "being in control," he said. "When you are in that plane, whatever you do to kind of personalize it and take control back, it will be a calming strategy."
Bunn, a former commercial pilot, said pilots use self-calming methods, such as thinking of a favorite song or doing the same preparation every time.
'Why risk it?'
Self-calming affects people's own moods. But superstitious acts are aimed at the plane and its fate.
Years ago, Michael Konesko, 57, of Saginaw, Mich., started listening to Bonnie Raitt music on a Sony Walkman cassette while in the air. He now has an iPod, but his superstition still requires him to listen to Raitt.
"I listen to Bonnie as the first group of music, even before moving to other artists or even watching a movie," he said. "I have never been on a plane that crashed while listening to her, so why risk it?"
Then, there are the superstitions to ward off the possibility you might not come back.
"I have specific good-byes for my kids, but not my wife. I say nothing to her," said Jeff Flowers, 37, of Oak Park, Mich. "Every tragedy, you see someone saying, 'The last thing he said to me was how much he loved me.' If I don't say that, nothing will happen."
Cindy Pendleton of Anchorage, Alaska, 67, always brings a small bag of M&Ms for luck. Jacqueline Carr, 58, also of Anchorage, wears the exact same clothes on every leg of a flight, even on the return.
Bunn said people need to believe that constant preparation for disaster can ward it off.
Esther Rosner of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., 52, always steps onto the plane with her right foot first. She and her husband hold hands on take off until the seat-belt sign turns off.
But before they even leave for the airport, they do one more superstitious thing.
"We sit on the same couch and say the same thing, then kiss before we leave. (We) say, 'Go safely, return safely, and have the best time,' " she said.
"Me superstitious? No way!"