Let me tell you, friends, it’s not easy being an ardent traveller who used to suffer from terribly bad motion sickness. As a child, I’d arrive at most of our family vacation hotels looking as ashen and sickly as Michael Jackson’s co-stars in his Thriller video.
While I’m largely over all of that now, the traumatic memories still linger a little. I was only twelve when I experienced my first flight, and while it was only a very short one (a hop from Britain to Spain, all of about two hours), it was darn scary for my younger self.
Even now, I definitely get all kinds of claustrophobic and uncomfortable on planes. Much of this isn’t my fault, granted, as there’s barely enough legroom for a gnat on some of these planes, but still. Flying is never something I’m going to particularly enjoy, but it’s a vital means to an end: simply getting places.
If you fly a lot on business, you’ll probably completely appreciate that sentiment. Planes are just a far faster and more convenient means of longer distances, and there’s just no getting away from that fact.
At the same time, there’s still so much we don’t understand about these great metallic behemoths. Ask the average well-educated person how planes fly, and they probably won’t get any further than it’s, y’know, something to do with wind and stuff.
Then there are the things that, as passengers, it’s probably best that we don’t know. If you’re feeling brave (and you’re not waiting in the departure lounge as you read this), join me for 25 Strange But True Airplane Facts That Pilots Keep Under Wraps.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you sit down for your first flight (just after how darn long does it take to get everyone on board and get going? I shaved this morning and I’ve grown a full lumberjack beard sitting here) is that those safety procedures are being taken super seriously.
Next time you’re watching that demonstration of the oxygen mask and hoping you’ll never have to use it, try not to dwell on this: they only contain around fifteen minute’s worth of oxygen. As explained by Travelversed, this is plenty of time for the pilot to get the aircraft down to a naturally-breathable altitude. So that’s comforting.
Ah, yes. Every day, we hear more and more about the damage that we humans are doing to our beloved planet. Wastage, pollution, deforestation… it’s a sad state of affairs whichever way you slice it.
Of course, our reckless actions are causing all kinds of far-reaching damage. To our climate, to our futures and to the habitats of our fellow species. Good job, us.
One consequence we don’t hear very much about is that (as reported by Travelversed) climate change is increasing the amounts of carbon dioxide in the air, which is causing reports of turbulence to rise.
If you’re a nervous flier, you’ll know that turbulence is largely harmless in the majority of cases, but holy heckola can it be intimidating from inside the plane.
Ah, yes. Of all the insider facts about flying that you really probably don’t want to know, this one’s got to be the most often repeated. As you’ve surely heard, pilots do have a tendency to fall asleep on airplanes.
As we’ve also reported previously, they have a need to, really, what with all the time-zone-hopping, long, awkward hours and general stress they have to endure. It might be a little alarming to hear that over half of pilots have fallen asleep at the… well, not the wheel, but the huge ridiculous array of levers and buttons they’ve got in there.
Now, I like to think that I’m just super-hygienic, but I should probably face the fact that I often go overboard with the whole thing. I don’t wash my hands twenty times a day, but I do get a little uncomfortable during the cold and flu season. Don’t sneeze on me, dang it!
With that in mind, here’s something else that I can enjoy worrying about on my next flight. According to The Telegraph, “the ‘virtually moisture-free’ conditions inside a plane cabin increase your vulnerability to airborne infection. You're more susceptible to colds and respiratory infection, and viruses which are known to thrive in conditions of low-humidity.”
They estimate that you’re around one hundred times more likely to catch a cold on a flight!
Now, you might be wondering what can possibly be frightening about a bathroom. Well, if you’ve ever watched Arachnophobia, you’ll understand. Heck, if you’ve ever used a public toilet, you’ll probably understand. Why does nobody ever flush them?
Let’s not dwell on that, though. The important thing to dwell on here is the fact that airplane toilets are nothing like the ones we’re used to on the ground. They’re vacuums, which suck the grim contents into a tank inside the plane through air pressure. That’s not too pretty as it is, but there’s more, as Thrillist explains:
“…older planes with outdated toilet systems are still up there flying, hence the occasional reports of raw frozen sewage falling from the sky.”
You may have heard the fascinating life story of Michel Lotito, better known in later life as Monsieur Mangetout (Mr. Eat-All). According to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, the Frenchman was believed to have had a curious condition known as pica, which gave him a fondness for consuming items that are otherwise inedible.
What with that, and his unusually potent stomach acids, Lotito was able to ingest all manner of impossible things without any real ill effects. He’d reduce them down to safer levels and keep his throat lubricated with oils, sure, but nothing could stop him!
His most famous act was his consumption of a Cessna 150 airplane. The feat took him two years, from 1978 to 1980.
Another thing you can’t fail to have heard about airplanes is that the food on board is less than inspired. Most of us, after all, don’t have a bank balance that rivals one of the Kardashians, and high-end first class flying tends to be beyond us.
The food we regular mortals are served tends to taste a little dry, a little average. Sometimes, we chalk this up to the fact that our mouths are darn dry, we’re a little nervous and not particularly hungry, those sorts of things.
According to Thrillist, though, there’s a slightly more unnerving reason for this:
“About a third of your taste buds are numbed at altitude, which is why that $8 Mediterranean snack box always tastes, eh, just OK.”
Now, as a huge fan of Italian cuisine, I can tell you that I’ve eaten my way through a quite outrageous amount of tomatoes in my lifetime. What with pasta sauces, pizzas and such, I don’t even want to think about how many tomatoes have been crushed, pulped and made into ketchup for my pleasure.
Airline food may be on the questionable side for the most part, but if you’re a fan of the humble tomato like myself, I’ve got some good news. Thrillist goes on to explain that this ‘numbing’ effect on our tastebuds also serves to enhance the savoury flavours of tomato juice.
Granted, you can snag yourself an excellent deal if you wait until the last minute and aren’t too picky about seats and such, but if you have specific requirements you want to book in advance? You’re likely to be paying through the nose for the privilege.
That’s not the sort of expensive I’m talking about just at the moment, though. Have you ever considered the price of the plane itself? According to Fact Retriever, you’re talking about some mind-boggling numbers here. To give you some sense of scale, “One windshield or window frame of a Boeing 747-400’s cockpit costs as much as a BMW.”
As I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of little factors associated with flying that tend to make people nervous. There’s the turbulence, the lack of room (middle seats don’t tend to be a fun place to be), that awful ear-popping effect… then there’s the dry air.
The latter seems like quite a minor gripe, compared to everything else, but it really can have an enormous effect on your comfort levels when flying. One thing you probably didn’t realise is just how dry the air on planes really is. Here come Thrillist again to enlighten us:
“You may have noticed how your hands get dry and your throat feels like sandpaper when you fly. That’s because the pressurized air in the cabin is kept below bone-dry 20% humidity -- just about the average humidity of the Sahara.”
Are you one of those people who hears all the advice about drinking two litres of water each day, but just can’t put it into practise? I definitely am. I drink when I can, but we’re kept so darn busy by work and everything else in our daily lives, aren’t we? It’s tough to find time for it.
While you’re on a plane, though, it’s even more important to stay hydrated (even if drinks are as expensive as the average studio apartment on flights). Thrillist goes on to explain that the dryness of the air means you lose about eight ounces of water from your body for every hour you fly. That’s two litres or so on a ten-hour flight!
As I say, I had one heck of a fear of flying when I was a child. I wanted my darn vacation, though, so I had to just grin and bear it. As I keep saying, is the only practical way of seeing much of the world for a lot of us, so what else are you going to do?
If you’re a nervous flier, you can take comfort from the fact that you’re not alone. So many of us are. Even A-list celebrities, who should probably be used to jetting around the globe in luxury. Columbus Direct lists Jennifer Aniston, Sean Bean, Colin Farrell and Megan Fox among the stars who suffer from aviophobia.
Most famously, Dutch soccer star Dennis Bergkamp developed such a strong aversion to flights (after traveling in rickety little planes to away games) that he was nicknamed the Non-Flying Dutchman.
Oftentimes, when people talk about their fear of flying, their biggest concern is… well, an accident. According to Columbus Direct, famous flight-phobe Megan Fox, for instance, has reported that she always listens to a Britney Spears album while flying, “because I know it won't crash if I've got Britney on.” That’s some logic you just can’t argue with, right there, and it’s also logical that the biggest fear connecting with flying is a potential crash or accident.
What about if everything’s perfectly fine with the flight, though, as it is in the overwhelming majority of cases? You’ve still got cosmic radiation to worry about. Research is still ongoing into this phenomenon, but The Telegraph suggests that “passengers are exposed to nearly the same dosage of radiation as an X-ray on a seven-hour flight from New York to London,” owing to rays from the sun.
As a life-long Star Wars fan, I’ve been tempted more than once to get myself a Lego Death Star. You know, as a bit of a hobby project. There are only two things holding me back from taking the plunge. Firstly, they’re darn expensive. Secondly, do you know how many pieces there are to assemble to make a Lego Death Star? I’ll tell you how many: 4,016, that’s how many.
Now, that’s the kind of project I just don’t know if I can handle. If you also think that assembling a 4,016 piece kit is far too intimidating, feast your eyes on these numbers: According to Lufthansa Magazin, the average airplane consists of around six million parts!
Fortunately, Lotito didn’t eat every airplane, and the industry has gone from strength to strength in recent decades. With plane tickets becoming increasingly affordable (well, relatively speaking) and airlines becoming ever more competitive, the numbers of aircraft in the sky is ever-increasing.
Here’s an interesting question. How many aircraft, on average, do you think there are in the sky at any one moment? It’s a little frightening to think about, and the answer may shock you.
According to TripSavvy, the answer is around 7,000, and that’s in the skies of the United States alone! Let’s take a moment to appreciate the air traffic controllers and other airline staff who manage this impossible undertaking.
Well, that’s successfully gotten that song stuck in my head for at least the next week. Good job, me.
The Grease soundtrack aside, though, there’s something else we’ve got to admire here. Yet another facet of the humble airplane that often goes unappreciated.
These mechanical marvels really are something else. It’s easy to lose sight of that, with how accustomed we’ve all become to flying. What a feat of engineering these machines are! As we saw earlier, your average plane is made of around six million different parts, but what of the electronics involved? Taking the example of the familiar Boeing 747, airplanes contain around 150- 175 miles of wiring!
Not to labour the point, but I’m really not a fan of flying at all. As with others who are a little nervous about the whole experience, I find it’s easier to stay cool when I can… stay cool. Which is why I hit that handy-dandy switch above my head and get that comfortably-chilly air on my face as soon as possible.
Considering how high up cruising altitude is, you wouldn’t really think that getting hot was much of a problem. Yes, you’re closer to the sun’s cosmic radiation, but it’s darn cold up there all the same. In fact, TripSavvy reports that the temperature outside the planes is around -65 Fahrenheit, colder than most places on Earth!
Over the course of this rundown, we’ve seen a whole lot of big, alarming numbers being bandied about. 175 miles of wiring in a Boeing 747? Six million parts? 4.016 pieces in a Lego Death Star? These are alarming times we live in, friends, they really are.
Now for another worrying statistic, albeit one that probably won’t really surprise the frequent fliers among you: The Wall Street Journal estimates that in a single year (2013), 21.8 million bags were lost by airlines!
This makes around 7 per 1,000 passengers, which I suppose doesn’t sound quite so bad in those terms.
If you are one of those poor souls who doesn’t handle flying well, I’m willing to bet that taking off and landing are the worst times for you. As we’ve reported previously, these are the times when airplanes are most likely to crash, but the whole thing’s harrowing for more reasons than just that.
Even when all goes perfectly well, it’s a noisy, juddering, frightening time. The landing, for me, is by far the worst; that final THUD as the airplane finally touches down and rockets along the tarmac before coming to a stop.
In bad weather conditions, that THUD is even harder than usual, and it’s supposed to be. As MSN explains, if it’s raining, or has been, a harder landing prevents any sliding or skidding on touching down.
Now, once you’re in the air, the airline know darn well that they can charge you whatever they fancy for food and drink. After all, what else are you going to do? Skydive down to your local supermarket to pick up some chips or a bottle of water much more cheaply? You’re at their mercy, and you know it.
Regardless, though, you definitely do not want to drink the tap water on an airplane. As was reported over on The Richest:
“The Wall Street Journal did a study in 2002 that showed that tap water on planes had bacteria levels around one hundred times the amount allowed in the United States. The newspaper tested tap and galley water on fourteen different flights all over the world. The result, according to their article was "a long list of microscopic life you don't want to drink, from Salmonella and Staphylococcus to tiny insect eggs. Worse, contamination was the rule, not the exception."”
Typically, when I’m off on vacation, I like to leave as early as I can. I’m not somebody who’s a fan of 4am alarms during the working year, but I like to fly out as early as possible. As tough as it can be, it maximises that first day of your trip once you arrive, and is totally worth it in the end.
There are all kinds of other advantages to earlier trips, too. As MSN reports, it tends to mean less crowds and less delays, and thunderstorms are more likely in the afternoon. Plus, it’s not as warm, which means less turbulent air.
Flying, for lots of people, is a very uncomfortable sensation. However you feel about it, it’s definitely an odd one. Firstly because, as I say, there’s a lot of very complex science needed to explain how exactly they fly in the first place. Then, once you’re up there, it barely feels as though you’re moving at all.
The strange thing is, you’re actually moving much faster than you could in any other vehicle. Of course, it’s necessary when you consider the distance you’re covering, but Flight Deck Friend reports that the average airplane travels at a speed of around 460 – 575 mph / 740 – 930 kph.
As we’ve thoroughly established, then, not everyone’s cut out to be a pilot. Lots of us would rather keep both feet firmly on the ground at all times.
It’s not just flying itself, after all. It’s the whole experience. Airports can be overwhelming places. Finding your way around these huge places is difficult enough, then you’ve got the possibilities of delays, passing through security, that inevitable item you forgot to bring and have to replace at one of the stores… It’s no wonder that MSN concludes,
“Bad temper is especially common when you are on a long flight. The longer you travel the more disruptions in your biological clock you can expect, which can lead to irritability. This is especially true among people who have a long-established daily routine from which you don’t deviate much.”
Here’s something very interesting to finish. When you combine all of the factors we’ve discussed so far, flying can add up to one great big nope for many people, and that’s just fine. If you’re totally squeamish about germs or something like that, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to bear the whole experience.
According to some rather shaky science from Gatwick Airport, it seems that we’re also more emotional while flying. As reported by The Times, “If the ordeal of travelling long-haul was not already something to bring a tear to your eye, then in-flight films may push you over the edge, according to a survey which suggests that we are far more emotional at 35,000ft.
Research commissioned by Gatwick airport on the likelihood of passengers bursting into tears found that 15 per cent of men said that they were more likely to cry while watching a film on a plane than if they saw the same movie at home or in a cinema. The figure for women was 6 per cent.”
Airplanes really can have strange effects on our bodies, can’t they?
By its very nature, flight tends to be an international affair. Not so much if you live in a vast, sprawling country like the United States, perhaps, but Brits like myself can cover our whole country by train or car in just a few hours. When we’re flying, generally speaking, we’re flying abroad.
Couple this with the great popularity of vacations in foreign countries, and the whole language barrier thing will often come up. Not so much among the staff themselves, though, because in 2008, English was dubbed the international language of flight.
As Aviation-Esl puts it,
“The International Civil Aviation Organisation has decreed that from 1 January 2008 all Air Traffic Controllers and Flight Crew Members engaged in or in contact with international flights must be proficient in the English language as a general spoken medium and not simply have a proficiency in standard ICAO Radio Telephony Phraseology.”