Flight attendants and airport workers are the public face of air travel. They’re the ones who meet passengers, attend to our needs, talk us through safety procedures, and keep their cool during delays, while the hundreds of travellers around them lose theirs. Pilots, however, sit locked away and are rarely - if ever - actually seen.
Of course, pilots are the ones who make flying possible, but so much time spent in the cockpit means very little face time. Apart from the occasional tannoy announcement, they’re an almost invisible yet vital piece of the complex puzzle that is modern air travel. And yet, if anyone knows the secrets of flying, it’s these men and women, and sometimes they share these tasty tidbits of information with the passengers they carry, and sometimes they don’t.
Pilots are notoriously secretive about many things, but who can blame them? For many people, hurtling through the air in a huge chunk of metal induces a certain level of panic, so it isn’t surprising that pilots want to keep everyone as calm as possible.
Read on for the inside scoop on the behind-the-scenes systems and tricks of the trade that these veteran globetrotters don’t want you to know, and a few secrets that they’re all too happy to share.
20 20. Airlines Do Manipulate Flight Times
If a flight is only supposed to take an hour, it will be scheduled as an hour and 15 minutes so that it will still be officially “on time” even if it runs late.
While this trick of the trade, also known as "schedule padding,” is officially denied by airlines, research has revealed that flight times have increased across the board in recent years. Take, for example, the short hop from London Heathrow to Edinburgh. In 1996, every flight heading north was allotted a block time of 75 minutes or less. However, by 2015, the majority of airlines expected to take 85 minutes.
19 19. Pilots Don’t Eat The Same Meals As Passengers (Or Each Other)
Flight attendants provide pilots with special meals so that if the airline food shipment was contaminated, they won’t get sick. That isn’t the only preventative measure to guard against food poisoning, either, because pilots are also disallowed to share food. Pilots and co-pilots can’t share their lunches or dinners.
Pilots and co-pilots have almost equal responsibilities and by not allowing them to share food, the hope is that one of them remains in tip-top shape, even if the other gets struck down with food poisoning mid-flight. It’s a small price to pay to ensure at least one person is in control of the plane, don't you think?
18 18. Tap Water On Planes Can Be Disgusting
An EPA study found that one in every eight planes fails the agency’s standards for water safety. This is allegedly because the ports to empty the toilets and refill drinking water are near each other and can cross-contaminate when serviced at the same time. Another possible reason for the dodgy water is that the water lines are, reportedly, rarely cleaned. This is why flight attendants and pilots would never drink coffee or tea on a plane. Perhaps stick to bottled water next time.
17 17. The Real Reason Cabin Lights Are Dimmed For Take Off And Landing
No, it’s not so you can nap and neither is it an attempt at mood lighting. Dimming the cabin lights is actually a safety precaution, and it’s directly connected to why crew members ask passengers to raise their shades. It can take our eyes between ten and 30 minutes to fully adjust to a dark setting. If the plane starts to fail or crash and it is dark outside, pilots want people’s eyes to already be adjusted.
Those several seconds it takes for your eyes to calibrate to low-light conditions are precious, and can make all the difference in safely exiting the aircraft. In dimmer light, emergency lighting and illuminated pathways will be more visible, too. Plus, it conserves power.
16 16. Oxygen Masks Only Last 15 Minutes
Most of us have heard the spiel so many times we could probably recite it by heart: “In the unlikely event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down from the panel above your head…”
Are the masks about safety, or is it just an elaborate way of intoxicating passengers to keep them docile while their stricken plane plummets? Sorry, conspiracy theorists, but oxygen masks really are there for your safety. But the air supply might be less than you think, with an estimated only 15 minutes of air available. However, this is just enough time for pilots to get to a lower altitude where people can breathe normally. Don’t panic.
15 15. Fasten Your Seatbelt: The Secret Code
Did you know pilots send secret messages to cabin crew through the “Fasten Your Seatbelt” signs? Depending on the number of flashes and dings, pilots can communicate to the flight attendants that takeoff or landing is imminent (two dings), or even just that they would like a cup of coffee.
Three dings generally signal a priority message. This could be something like a severe turbulence warning, letting flight attendants know to put away rolling carts and prepare for bumpy skies.
14 14. Pilots Will Downplay Any Problems
Passengers are told only what they need to know. A pilot would never say “zero visibility,” for example, but they might just say there's some fog. Or a delay for “technical reasons” probably means something is broken. If you hear “one of our engines is indicating improperly,” it could be a case of engine failure.
If anything is truly wrong, the pilots will let everyone know and take the proper action, but the thing is, if it is nothing to worry about, then pilots won’t cause a stir. Being blunt about every little problem invites unnecessary worry and pilots just want to keep passengers calm.
13 13. Planes Get Struck By Lightning All The Time (But Don’t worry About It)
Apparently, every airplane is struck by lightning at least once a year, but they're built to withstand it. The energy does not travel through the cabin electrocuting the passengers; it is discharged overboard through the plane's aluminium skin, which is an excellent electrical conductor. Once in a while, there's exterior damage - a superficial entry or exit wound - or minor injury to the plane's electrical systems, but a strike typically leaves little or no evidence. You hear a big boom and see a big flash and that’s it. You’re not going to fall out of the sky.
12 12. Using Your Phone Will Not Crash The Plane
Passengers are always told to turn off phones, or put them in “flight mode”, during take-off and landing. The general assumption is that their signal interferes with navigation instruments, and could even cause a crash. Is there any truth to this? Well, there are no proven cases of a phone adversely affecting the outcome of a flight. A switched on phone will not actually bring down the whole electronics system.
There are still safety concerns, however. Pilots do report that too many sending signals can muddy up their communication systems. There’s also the preventative measure in the case of sudden, intense turbulence - small handheld devices can pack a punch, especially if they go flying.
11 11. Pilots Nap On The Job More Often Than You Think
After the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) proposed changes to pilots' working hours, passengers were treated to the revelation that nearly half of pilots have fallen asleep in the cockpit, according to research by the BALPA.
Of course, pilots can be forgiven for having a short nap while on the job, especially on some of the long-haul flights that can last up to 17 hours. In fact, on long-haul flights, pilots may take short periods of sleep, while temporarily relieved of operational duties, in accordance with carefully prescribed ‘controlled rest’ procedures.
10 10. Pilots Are Under Pressure To Carry As Little Fuel As Possible
Airlines will deny it, of course, but a 2013 Reader’s Digest report suggested that pilots are under pressure from airlines to carry less fuel than they might be comfortable with. Airlines are big businesses and, like any business, they are always looking at the bottom line, and aircraft burn more fuel by carrying extra fuel.
EU laws give captains broad discretion to order additional fuel - beyond calculated consumption for taxing, flight time and aircraft weight - if they anticipate heavy traffic or weather delays at destination airports. However, the European Cockpit Association (ECA) says pilots are under mounting commercial pressure to lighten their loads by keeping fuel supplies to a minimum because of higher prices.
9 9. They Spend The Flight Taking Photos For Instagram
There are loads of commercial airline pilots who are worth following on Instagram because, let’s face it, their office has the most amazing views - no wonder they want to share them. Not all pilots are snap happy, of course, and certainly not for the whole flight, but it is totally legal, depending on when the photo is taken.
Both UK and US regulators say pilots should refrain from all non-essential activities during critical phases of flight, normally below 10,000 feet. We’re sure that most pilots stick to the rules.
8 8. Some Pilots Carry Guns
According to the FAA, in 2002 the US government created the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program. Airline pilots volunteer for a six-day training course designed by the FBI. If they pass, the US government issues them a firearm for domestic flights only. Since then it's been expanded to include flight engineers and navigators.
So if you’re flying in the US, there’s a chance your captain may be packing heat. Whether you feel reassured by that or not is a matter of personal opinion.
7 7. Pilots WANT You To Know: Turbulence Is Not A Safety Issue
Do you grip your armrests every time the plane hits a patch of rough air? Turbulence is far and away the number-one concern of anxious passengers but according to pilots, it's really nothing to worry about. In fact, pilots think of it as a comfort, not a safety, issue.
Turbulence cannot break off a wing or flip the plane. In the rare circumstance that a passenger does get injured during turbulence, it's usually because the person has ignored the "fasten seatbelt" sign. Turbulence is no cause for panic.
6 6. Pilots WANT You To Know: A Plane Can Fly With One Engine, And Land With None
Planes don't just drop from the sky like a rock when the engines fail. In fact, jet airliners are equipped with at least two extraordinarily powerful engines, and can safely operate with only one, even through take off.
While dual engine failure is almost unheard of, in the unlikely event of it happening, an aircraft will glide perfectly well, allowing pilots to land it safely. If both engines were to fail at high altitude, the aircraft may have as much as 20-30 minutes aloft to find somewhere to land.
5 5. Pilots WANT You To Know: Planes Can Even Land Safely If The Wheels Are Broken
Such an incident might sound perilous, but gear-up landings are surprisingly common. Sometimes you just have to skid the belly of the plane right down on the tarmac. However, such landings are normally safe if performed correctly, as numerous case studies show.
Pilots are well trained for every eventuality, including this one, and you don't even need a body of water to do it successfully - landing on water is actually as solid as landing on the ground. If the plane is near a runway, ground staff spray foam so there's less friction.
4 4. Pilots WANT You To Know: Voice Commands Help Prevent Mid-Air Collisions
Mid-air collisions are thankfully very rare these days because modern aircraft have voice commands that blare in the cockpit if there are any other planes nearby.
Commercial jets are equipped with systems that can detect mountains, airplanes, and large solid debris in the flight path. When the plane is 10 miles from another plane, pilots are warned by a voice saying "traffic, traffic, traffic...". And when traffic is within five miles, the voice actually directs the pilots where to go. Pretty cool, huh?
3 3. Pilots WANT You To Know: Their Flying Skills Are Reviewed Every Six Months
Airline pilots are probably tested more than any other profession. Every six to eight months, pilots must go into the simulator, where they practice emergency procedures whilst being assessed by an examiner.
A ‘Line Check,’ is also completed every year, which is a bit like a driving test, but in a plane, and they must also complete annual technical testing, safety testing and a medical examination. This may sound like a lot of testing, but if you’re responsible for the safety of other people, then it’s a no-brainer.
2 2. Pilots WANT You To Know: A Hard Landing Doesn’t Mean A Bad Landing
There are many variables in a landing. The target for pilots is a constant descent to just above the runway, then to “flare” the airplane, allowing for a gentle touchdown. But under some conditions, a firm touchdown is necessary. When the runway is wet, for example, touching down firmly allows the wheels to spin up and be much better at decelerating the airplane. When the runway is short, a firm touchdown is used to maximise the braking capability.
So a hard landing it does not mean the landing was bad. In fact, there might be very good reason for it - before you diss the pilot, bear that in mind.
1 1. Pilots WANT You To Know: The Planes Don’t Fly Themselves
You’ve heard it a million times: modern aircraft are super-automated machines, with pilots on hand merely to play a backup role in case of trouble. But how true is this?
Automation only does what it’s told to do. It needs to be instructed when, where, and how to perform its tasks. They are only as good as the information the pilots put into them, and they have to be actively managed and monitored. So, while it’s true that more advanced airplanes can practically fly themselves, it far from means that the pilots are simply sitting up front staring out the window.
Pilots take-off and land the plane themselves and during cruise flight, they are busy monitoring the en route and destination weather, keeping track of the fuel burn, coordinating any changes with their dispatcher, talking with air traffic control, and when over the ocean and not in radar contact, making position reports. The autopilot simply frees pilots up to manage other aspects of the flight.
References: rd.com, economist.com