Baghdad The corkscrew landing is a rite of passage for travelers to Iraq, who feel the pull of gravity as their airplane makes a rapid, spiraling descent to avoid ground fire.
So it was a surprise to one periodic visitor last week when the Royal Jordanian Airlines aircraft from Amman descended into Baghdad International Airport with the same lack of drama as any commuter flight anywhere. No sudden plunge, no tight rotation, no straightening out the flight path just before the runway.
It didn't feel like flying into a war zone anymore.
The absence - on a number of recent civilian flights, at least - of the "corkscrew" maneuver is a measure of how security has improved in Iraq. Back in November 2003, a missile hit a DHL cargo jet just after takeoff. The pilot managed to land safely.
Iraq is still very dangerous. The poisonous legacy of the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites could last generations. More people will die in bombings and shootings.
But the debate, for now, is no longer about whether the country is heading toward civil war, or already in one. Rather, it is about whether Iraq has turned a corner toward stability, or is in a quiet spell before another bout of bloodletting.
In other words, can it hold?
The numbers look good (for a country as violent as Iraq): attacks at their lowest level in four years, casualties of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers down, oil production and revenues up.
There is also a new feeling that, while less easy to quantify, is no less important.
Even for a visitor restricted in movements because of security concerns, the improvement is evident in talks with Iraqis.
"It's good" or "It's better" is a common remark. Simple, guarded, but succinct. After five years of war, the people who say it should know. It is hard to find an Iraqi who has not been touched by conflict: a relative or friend killed or kidnapped, a family displaced or destitute.
In nearly a week, the only gunfire heard in a neighborhood near the International Zone - home to Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy - was from a police firing range. Only one explosion. Two months ago, Shiite militants were firing mortars almost nightly into the zone.
The clatter of U.S. military helicopters, and even the roar of U.S. jet fighters, used to be a constant distraction. No longer. One recent night, a helicopter belonging to the Blackwater security group flew in circles over neighborhoods along the Tigris River.
Al-Sabah, a state-owned newspaper, reflects the confidence of a government that has benefited from the U.S. troop surge in 2007, the revolt of Sunni groups against al-Qaida in Iraq and the withdrawal of many Shiite militia groups.
"Their base is weaker than a spider web," reads the caption on a half-page advertisement that boasts of gains against the Iraqi wing of al-Qaida, which means "the base" in Arabic. The phrase is a play on a Koranic verse that remarks on the weakness of the unfaithful.
Many things are the same in Iraq: the blast walls that crisscross Baghdad in a maze of concrete, the military signs that say "Use of Deadly Force is Authorized," the checkpoints, including 48 alone on the road to Karbala, 60 miles south of the capital.
The same kind of passengers as always flew for 90 minutes from Amman to Baghdad last week. Most were security contractors, one with a T-shirt that said: "And the skulls of my enemies will be piled at my feet as trophies."
But no corkscrew landing.