Pilots live and breath safety, and when your job takes place thousands of feet in the air, transporting passengers at hundreds of miles-per-hour in a huge chunk of metal, this is precisely what your priority should be.
A big part of keeping people safe in the air is keeping them calm, and maintaining a sense of order is a vital component of a pilot’s work, which is why these experienced globetrotters are notoriously secretive about the inner goings-on of air travel.
While flight attendants are the public face of the industry, pilots are rarely, if ever, actually seen. But it’s their responsibility to judge what to communicate to whom and when, and whether it’s through coded messengers to crew or a carefully worded tannoy announcement, their aim to shut down panic before it spreads.
There are certain things airline pilots want to keep under wraps because, for the most part, they don’t want people to worry unnecessarily. There are other secrets, however, that might give even the most laid-back flyer cause for concern.
Here’s our inside scoop on the behind-the-scenes tricks of the trade that pilots would probably rather you didn’t know, and the truth behind some of the most common rumours about flying, and the men and women in charge of the cockpit.
25 Pilots Send Secret Messages To Cabin Crew
The next time you fly, listen to how many dings the fasten your seatbelt sign makes, because pilots use this sign to share information with the flight crew. Depending on the number of flashes and dings, pilots can communicate to the flight attendants all kind of information. They even use this system to signal for a cup of coffee.
What you don’t want to hear are three dings, which generally signal a priority message. This could be a warning to in-flight crew that severe turbulence is on the way, giving them time to pack away loose items and prepare for a bumpy ride.
24 These 11 Minutes Of Your Flight Are The Most Dangerous
Statistically speaking, air travel is perhaps the safest way to travel - you have only a one in 9,821 chance of dying in an air or space transport incident, according to stats from the US National Transportation Safety Board. But according to an in-depth analysis by Boeing, if an accident does occur, it's far more likely to happen during certain parts of a flight than others.
Boeing analysed worldwide commercial flights from 2007 to 2016, and determined that 48 percent of all fatal accidents occurred within the first three minutes of a flight or in the last eight minutes before landing. Next time you fly, maybe don’t get too cosy before the plane is fully airborne - it might serve you well to stay alert.
23 You Have Only 90 Seconds To Escape
Hands up if you remember the last time you paid attention to an in-flight safety briefing. We're all guilty of ignoring the advice, especially when we've heard it so many times before. The FAA, however, states that all aircraft must be capable of being evacuated in just 90 seconds, according to Business Insider, because that is the time it can take for a fire to engulf an aircraft.
It sounds unrealistic but in 2013, it took only 90 seconds to get everyone off Asiana Flight 214, which was carrying 291 passengers and 16 crew when it crashed in San Francisco. It goes to show that it pays to know where your nearest emergency exits are, so don’t ignore safety demonstrations.
22 There Might Be An Axe Hidden Onboard
As a carry-on item for passengers, an axe is definitely a no-no and any attempt to take one on board will have you detained by security in the blink of an eye. However, there may already be an axe hidden on board the aircraft, which is a slightly concerning thought.
Before anti-terrorism regulations were implemented, axes were commonplace on aircraft as part of its firefighting equipment. In case of electrical fire, axes enabled the flight crew to smash through panels to access the problem and put out the blaze. Most carriers have since swapped their axes for crowbars.
21 The Tail Is The Safest Place To Be During A Crash
According to Time, statistics show that the middle seats in the rear of an aircraft historically have the highest survival rates, based on a study of aircraft accidents in the last 35 years. The analysis found that the seats in the back third of the aircraft had a 32% fatality rate, compared with 39% in the middle third and 38% in the front third.
A 2007 study by Popular Mechanics, which looked at 36 years of NTSB crash data, also concluded that the back of the plane gave passengers the best chance for survival. In addition, after a crash, survivors who are near an exit are more likely to get out alive, according to a study published in 2008 from the University of Greenwich.
If you’ve ever wondered where the best seat to improve your chances of survival, now you know. The stats don't lie.
20 Your Jet Might Be More Than 25 Years Old
Commercial aircraft are so expensive, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that airlines want to maximise their use for as long as possible - it makes financial sense. But still, the idea that a jet might be as much as 25 years old, or older, isn't all that comforting.
According to aviation experts Airfare Watchdog, the most common older airplanes in use are the Boeing 717s and early versions of the 757, 767 and 737. A survey of the world's 30 biggest airlines found that Delta has the oldest planes, according to Airfleets.net, with an average age of 17 years. Air Canada (14.2 years old) and United Airlines (14.1 years old) follow closely behind, with the second and third oldest fleets.
19 Your Oxygen Masks Will Only Last 15 Minutes
Frequent flyers will know that in the event of changes in cabin air pressure, one must put on his or her own oxygen mask before helping others. But did you know that there’s only enough air to last an average of 15 minutes?
If cabin pressure drops, either the flight crew or an automatic trigger releases the masks, which commonly contain sodium perchlorate and an iron oxide, which mix together to produce oxygen.
Although 15 minutes doesn’t sound like much time at all, according to the Huffington Post, this is usually plenty of time for the pilot to get the plane to a safe altitude where masks aren't needed anymore. We'd like to hope so.
18 Half Of All Crashes Happen Because Of Pilot Error. Yikes.
This is definitely something pilots want to keep under wraps - and who could blame them - but pilot error is the leading cause of commercial airline accidents. According to Boeing, only 20% of accidents are due to faulty equipment and flying conditions, like bad weather, which means that 80% are caused by the decisions taken by the pilots themselves.
Pilots undergo rigorous training and are required to rack up hours of practical hands-on training, all of which they draw on when it comes to making decisions in the air. But mistakes do happen, and sometimes they fail to take the proper action, misread a situation, and make a bad call. Fortunately, it doesn't happen often.
17 The Autopilot Does A Lot Of The Heavy Lifting
This is definitely something pilots don’t want you to know, but in this day and age, autopilot does most of the hard graft. “There’s no point denying that the autopilot does most of the work,” a Monarch pilot, told Telegraph Travel in 2015. “On a regular flight the autopilot does around 90 percent of the flying.”
Many modern aircraft and airports even possess an “Autoland” system, which is sometimes deployed in thick fog, but most pilots will land planes themselves, perhaps even out of choice.
Autopilot can't do everything. There are still countless decisions, especially around passenger safety, that pilots are responsible for.
16 Sit More Than Five Rows From An Exit And You Could Be In Trouble
According to Time, statistical analyses of plane crashes have shown that passengers who sit more than five rows from an exit have a reduced chance of successfully evacuating a plane during an emergency.
It's worth bearing in mind when booking your seat. But if you’re further away from the exit than you'd like, another way to increase your chances of survival is to count the rows between your seat and the nearest exit. This will arm you with the vital information you need for a speedy exit, even in poor visibility. Another reason, if needed, to pay attention to your in-flight safety briefing.
15 Your Pilot Might Be Snoozing On The Job
Between 43 and 54 percent of pilots surveyed in the UK, Norway and Sweden admitted to having fallen asleep while on the job. If that's not alarming enough, a third of them also stated that they woke up to find that their copilot had also nodded off.
Long-haul flights can take upwards of 15 hours, so it seems unrealistic to expect pilots to remain awake and alert for all of that time. This is why, in these circumstances, pilots are permitted to have some shut-eye, in accordance with carefully regulated ‘controlled rest’ procedures.
14 Planes Get Struck By Lightning All The Time
Airplanes get struck by lightning more frequently than you might be comfortable with. It is estimated that an individual jetliner is struck about once every two years, on average.
Planes are designed with this in mind, which is why an aircraft’s fuselage acts as a Faraday cage, protecting the inside from any voltage. Electrical components and fuel tanks are also carefully grounded, so no concerns there.
That's not to say lightning is totally without its risk. Though rare, there have been a few fatal incidents involving lightning, according to The Telegraph. In January 2014, a light aircraft owned by Intan Angkasa Air was hit by lightning and crashed. But seriously, no need to panic.
13 Pilots Often Forget To Turn Off The “Fasten Seatbelt” Sign
We know that pilots use the seatbelt sign to send secret communications to the flight crew, but if you’ve noticed the sign turned on for the entire flight, there’s no need to panic - there’s probably a simple explanation.
According to pilots discussing their jobs on Quora, sometimes they simply forget to turn off the sign. That doesn't mean you should just assume this is the case every time, but it's probably alright to move about the cabin if it's been on for a long time and turbulence doesn't seem to be an issue.
12 It's True: There's More Risk Of Turbulence Now Than Ever...And It Will Only Get Worse
Terrified of turbulence? The bad news is that it's only going to get worse, according to a study by the Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. This study has predicted that severe turbulence will become commonplace by 2050, and it's all because of climate change - so we've only got ourselves to blame.
Increased carbon dioxide in the air has caused temperatures to rise, affecting winds at high altitude, making them stronger. Stronger winds at high altitude translates into a bumpier ride for passengers. Yay, said no flyer ever.
11 It’s True: Pilots And Co-Pilots Are Equal
Despite popular perceptions, a co-pilot is not just some trainee sitting in the cockpit crunching numbers, only allowed to take control of the autopilot when the captain needs to use the loo or have a snooze. Co-pilots aren't there for work experience because they're already fully trained and capable. Both the pilot and the co-pilot share responsibility, according to NYC Aviation.
Passengers should feel even safer knowing there's not just one skilled and experienced pilot in the cockpit, but two.
10 It's True: Turbulence Really Is Nothing To Worry About
Turbulence is far and away the number-one concern of anxious passengers. But according to pilots, it's no more dangerous than a car driving over a bumpy road. The biggest issue posed by turbulence is one of comfort, which is why pilots prefer to avoid it whenever possible.
According to USA Today, today's aircraft are designed and tested to withstand far more turbulence than most people have ever experienced, which is kind of reassuring. It might feel frightening, but it cannot break up a plane or damage the wings.
It's true, people have been injured by turbulence, but in the vast majority of cases, this is because they have ignored advice to fasten their seatbelt.
9 It's True: A Plane Can Still Land Safely If All Its Engines Fail
It's incredible to think, but despite our worst fears, engine failure doesn't mean a plane crash is imminent. Jet airliners don't actually need all of their jet engines working in order to fly safely, take off, or land. Physics is a pretty cool thing.
But what about if both its engines fail? For a start, the chances of this happening are extremely slim. But even if both engines cut out, for whatever reason, an aircraft can actually glide perfectly well - like a paper plane - and can land safely with no engine power at all. An aircraft may have as much as 20-30 minutes of glide time, aviation experts assured Condé Nast Traveler.
8 It's True: Pilots Can Restrain Unruly Or Dangerous Passengers
Pilots can't go around arresting passengers - that's for a decision for authorities on the ground to make - but they do have powers to detain unsafe passengers, as laid out by the 1963 Tokyo Convention.
For the first time in the history of international aviation law, this international agreement, which more than 180 countries have since signed up to, recognised certain powers of an aircraft commander. On international flights, pilots may restrain people, providing he has reasonable cause to believe they intend to compromise the safety of other passengers. Pretty cool, huh?
7 It's True: Struggling To Pee Is An Occupational Hazard For Pilots
Ever wondered about pilots' bathroom habits? You haven't. Well, here’s a weird nugget of information for you: kidney stones are a common occupational hazard. Keeping hydrated in the air is vital, but many pilots aren't drinking enough water at altitude. Also, as a result of September 11, 2001, the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) implemented strict rules about entering and leaving the cabin, which can make a trip to the bathroom all a bit complicated.
The consequence of this is that some pilots prefer to skip a restroom break in favour of holding it in.
6 It's True: Airlines Have Been Known To Skimp On Fuel
The FAA regulates the amount of fuel that must be on board for every flight, which includes a reserve capacity in case there is a problem at the destination airport and the aircraft needs to land elsewhere, which makes total sense.
In Europe, however, a different story has emerged. A report by Spanish safety investigators revealed that some airlines are reportedly flying with less fuel than recommended and it's all because they want to save money. Airlines have denied it, but a 2013 Reader’s Digest investigation backs up the report’s findings, suggesting that pilots are under pressure from airlines to carry less fuel than they'd like to.
5 It's True: Pilots Deliberately Downplay Problems To Keep Passengers Calm
Being totally honest about every little problem invites unnecessary worry and pilots just want to keep passengers calm, so passengers are fed information on a need-to-know basis.
Of course, there's only so much that pilots can keep shtum about. It would be pretty tricky to hide an unscheduled landing, for example. If something serious has occurred, passengers will be informed. But if the problem is minor, then the pilots won’t risk causing a fuss.
Really terrible weather might be causing zero visibility, but a pilot might simply say there's some fog. If you hear that a flight is delayed because of something vague, like technical reasons, the truth could be that something is on the plane isn't working as it should. But would you really want to know that? Sometimes, too much information is a bad thing.
4 It's True: Airlines Manipulate Flight Times To Look More Efficient
Plane journeys are taking longer than a decade ago because airlines are “padding” their schedules to create the impression passengers were reaching their destinations on time, an investigation by Which? Travel claimed.
So 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's actually running late. For example, the trip from London Heathrow to Edinburgh was allotted a time of 75 minutes or less, back in 1996. But by 2015, the majority of airlines had upped the flight time to 85 minutes, which sounds totally suspicious.
3 It's True: Some Pilots Don't Earn As Much As You Think
Pilots are minted, right? They're the rock stars of the sky, earning the big bucks. Not quite. The reality is that many regional pilots are extremely underpaid, according to NBC.
Like cabin crew, most pilots are only paid for time spent in the air, which doesn't include performing pre-flight duties or waiting for delays. That's a lot of time spent "at work" that they're not getting paid for.
The exception is the top ranks of the regional airline pilots, where captains with 15 years’ experience can earn $100,000 to $110,000 per year.
2 It's True: Planes Can Even Land Safely If The Wheels Are Broken
It might sound like your worst nightmare, but gear-up landings are surprisingly common, and normally safe if performed correctly. There are numerous case studies showing pilots having achieved successful landings without landing gear, according to The Telegraph.
A gear-up landing is one of the many eventualities pilots are trained for, and they know how to do it safely on ground or on water. As an added precaution, if the plane is near a runway, ground staff are alerted beforehand and will spray foam so there's less friction, greatly reducing the risk of fire.
1 It's True: Pilots Don’t Eat The Same Meals As Passengers
Pilots don't eat the same as passengers. They have their own pre-prepared meals. This ensures that if the airline food shipment was dodgy, and passengers start falling ill, the pilots will be unaffected.
But what happens if the pilots' food is contaminated? What happens if the pilot and co-pilot both fall sick? This is also guarded against and pilots are not allowed to share their meals. Eating totally different things ensures that one of them will be in fine fettle, even if the other one gets struck by food poisoning.
References: rd.com; independent.co.uk; news.com.au