Are you one of those people who jets around the world a lot for work? Maybe you’re fortunate enough to enjoy a bank balance that the Kardashians would be proud of, and you’re taking luxury vacations about ten times a year? In either case, you’re probably more than used to the whole concept of flying by now.
It’s an experience that most of us find more than a little uncomfortable the first time. You’re probably exhausted (the hustle and bustle of the average airport will do that to you), nervous, irritable, maybe there was a delay at security, maybe the flight itself was delayed… eventually, though, there you are on the tarmac, looking up at this great, noisy metallic bird.
As a child on the day of my first flight, I remember gazing at the planes, awe-struck, wondering just how in heckola these beasts could fly. I had images of them flapping their wings like birds (I was super disappointed to find that this isn’t how it works). Instead, it’s something highly scientific relating to ‘lift,’ a force generated by the air flowing over the wings.
Even as adults, there are lots of things about planes and flying that we don’t fully understand. Which isn’t surprising, really. What if we told the people of just a few generations ago that we’d be flying up there in hollowed-out metal birds we’d made ourselves? They wouldn’t be having any of it.
Quite understandably, there are many people who are afraid of flying. Lots of these phobias were brought about by unsettling experiences at 30,000 feet, such a turbulence, lightning or a fault requiring an emergency landing. Let’s take a closer look at some of these incidents, and why they’re often nothing to worry about at all.
25 They Get Struck By Lightning Often
If you’re already a little iffy about the whole idea of flying, throwing a thunderstorm and lightning (very, very, frightening, me! Galileo! Galileo!) into the mix is not going to help your nerves. In that situation, all you can think about is the fact that… well, you’re in a plane, which is metal, and lightning tends to really quite like metal.
Fortunately, though, there’s really nothing to fear here. Travel and Leisure explains that, while you are indeed trapped in a big metal lightning conductor, that electricity isn’t going to get anywhere near you:
“…the skin of airplanes—aluminum in older planes, a composite in more modern models—is designed to conduct electricity off of the plane. When lightning strikes a plane, it sends up to 200,000 amperes of electricity rocketing into the plane’s skin. The electricity follows the outer surface of the plane’s frame and then jumps back into the air, thanks to little antenna-like devices called static wicks.”
24 In fact, The Airplane You're In Has Probably Been Struck By Lightning Before
So, yes. You can rest safe in the knowledge that airplanes have in-built protection against electricity. Against electricity far stronger than your average lightning bolt, in fact. Travel and Leisure also report that the fuel tanks and lines are heavily insulated, and that it’s ‘almost impossible’ for lightning to cause an explosion.
This isn’t to say that flying through a storm isn’t a darn harrowing experience, though, especially if it’s your first time doing so. Which it probably isn’t for the pilot, because this happens quite often. Estimates suggest that every airplane in service is struck around once per year.
23 It Could Be *YOU* (Whose Airplane Gets Struck)
All in all, then, you’re almost certainly safe from lightning while on board a plane. Even with that knowledge, though, it’s no comfort to the people who have to experience it first hand. I have, and I can tell you that it is not the way you want to liven up a quick hop over the Mediterranean (it’s only around two hours from London to Barcelona).
Here are a couple more encouraging thoughts on lightning, then: that whole hitting-every-aircraft-at-least-once-a-year thing might seem bad, but it’s important to keep in mind that (as Flight Safety reports) this averages out at once per 1,000 hours of flying time.
22 We Really Shouldn't Use Our Cellphone While Flying
As I say, then, there are a lot of complex little details about flying that most of us don’t understand. If you’re not in the industry, in particular, you probably just take everything at face value and roll with it.
One of the big ones, especially for inexperienced fliers, is the prohibition of cellphones. It’s another of those vague things that, like the flight of the plane itself, we often only have a vague understanding of. It’s drummed into us regardless, though, and is the whole reason why flight modes are a feature in the first place. Is somebody going to send the aircraft into a steep nosedive if they try and make a call? No.
21 So Many People Ignore The Advice To Switch Cell Phones Off
Following on from that last entry, it’s clear that a lot of this flight mode talk has been greatly exaggerated. According to The Telegraph, a flight attendant known only as ‘Betty’ stated in an interview,
“Nobody turns off their phones. I don’t, even. All of those commands are really just precautionary. No one cares.”
It’s probably best not to be quite that laissez faire about it all, but whatever’s been drummed into our heads from an early age, it’s just not a big deal. It’s always best to do as you’re told in these situations, though. After all, you’re quite likely to fall asleep up there soon anyway.
20 There’s Really No Getting Away From Turbulence
If you’re one of the people who feels a little iffy about flying, what is it exactly that you don’t like? Is it the general claustrophobic feeling? There’s no darn room up there, after all, and it’s common to feel very antsy on long-haul flights.
One of the biggest issues lots of people have is turbulence. The fact is, it’s never quite the same. Sometimes, you’ll just briefly judder a little more than usual. In more extreme instances, it feels like the whole plane’s being shaken apart.
It isn’t, though. That’s the thing to bear in mind. Like a ship on choppy seas, it may make you feel totally uncomfortable, but no harm is being done to the craft itself in the vast majority of cases.
19 What’s Making Turbulence Worse? Well, We Are, Apparently
If you’re a fairly regular flier, the chances are that you’ve experienced turbulence to some extent or another.
At best, it might’ve just shaken the drinks on your tray table a little bit (remember the T-Rex footsteps shaking the water in Jurassic Park?). At worst, the luggage in the overhead compartments might have been bumping around like a pinball machine. You never quite know what you’re going to get, or how long it’s going to last.
The not-so-great news is that instances of turbulence (including clear air turbulence, which is harder for the pilot to predict) seem to be increasing. According to Advanced Science News, this is partly due to climate change.
18 Turbulence Is Very Stressful For The Aircraft, Too
So, yes. In short, there’s no questioning the fact that turbulence can be a darn frightening thing to encounter on a flight. It’s one of the leading causes of people feeling reluctant to fly, and if you’ve been hit hard by it, you’ll completely understand.
Is it anything to be really concerned about, though? Not really. Ask The Pilot offers some very reassuring insider information on the subject, starting with the fact the plane isn’t moving remotely as much as you might think. “Altitude, bank, and pitch will change only slightly during turbulence… in the cockpit we see just a twitch on the altimeter,” writes airline pilot and travel blogger Patrick Smith.
Slightly more forebodingly, (yet still encouragingly) he adds,
“[airplanes] can withstand an extreme amount of stress, and the level of turbulence required to dislodge an engine or cause structural damage is something even the most frequent flyer — or pilot for that matter — won’t experience in a lifetime of traveling. Over the whole history of modern commercial aviation, the number of jetliner crashes caused by turbulence, even indirectly, can be counted on one hand.”
17 The Big Bad Bacteria Are Aboard
Speaking as a bit of a hypochondriac and germophobe, there’s something else that makes me feel all kinds of uneasy about flying. You guessed it, it’s all those reports about lurking bacteria and viruses.
As SkyScanner reports, the conditions on flights can be just great for catching colds and such. The air, the close proximity to everybody (as I say, there is absolutely zero room on a lot of flights)… we’re like a buffet for bacteria up there.
Or so you might believe. A little insider knowledge confirms that planes aren’t just recirculating and recirculating air at us, as some nervous fliers believe.
16 There’s Only So Much You Can Do To Keep Germs At Bay
So, how about that airplane air? As it turns out, it’s really nothing to be scared of. Here’s Sky Scanner to make you feel a little better about that tricky subject: “A 2013 report conducted for the Federal Aviation Administration in the US concluded that while fresh air is germ-free at high altitudes, aircraft HEPA filters effectively remove bacteria and viruses, as well as dust and fungi.”
So, that’s reassuring. The other thing to keep in mind is that, while surfaces like the tray tables can harbour germs for some time, you can do your best to combat this. How? With wipes, hand sanitiser, and good ol’ fashioned meticulous hygiene.
There’ll always be a chance of catching something, as there is with any gathering of lots of people, but you can take the same steps you usually would to try and protect yourself.
15 Test Pilots Have To Try And Stop The Plane, Fully-Loaded At Full Speed, With Worn Brake Pads
There’s no doubt that pilots have an incredibly responsible, incredibly stressful job to do. If there’s a silver lining for them, it’s that the planes under their command have been safety-tested to within an inch of their great metallic existence.
Test pilots, however? The things those poor souls have to go through to reassure us that our airplanes are safe. Take something simple, like testing the brakes:
As Lifehacker reports, “Planes are loaded to their maximum weight and equipped with worn brake pads. The plane is then brought to takeoff speed before it hits the brakes to come to a complete stop.”
14 People Deliberately Try To Break The Plane’s Wings
If there’s any element of airplane travel that’s really got to me, it’d have to be the wings. Yes, I had this childish fantasy that I’d be able to watch them flapping from my window seat, but… I was a child. You’ve got to make allowances for that sort of thing.
The thing that worries adult-sized me about an airplane’s wings is this: they just look so darn fragile out there. If you’ve ever had similar thoughts, rest assured that they’re so much more robust than they appear. In wing flexibility testing,
“The plane’s wings are bent to varying degrees—sometimes up to 90 degrees—and eventually bent until they snap. This is to find their breaking point, which always requires far more force than any plane has ever experienced in actual flight. Wings are very strong and designed to bend and bounce.”
13 And Deliberately Fly Planes In The Most Extreme Conditions
Next up, we have another crucial part of airplane testing. We already know that temperatures are pretty darn extreme up there (they frequently reach around -65 Fahrenheit, colder than all but the iciest darn places on the planet), so precautions are taken in that area too.
While you can have a good idea of how conditions will be on any given flight path, there’s always a degree of unpredictability involved there. As such, “Planes are operated and flown in extremely hot and cold temperatures to make sure their engines, materials, and systems work properly in all conditions.”
Again, the extremes are pushed to ensure that airplanes will be completely safe at temperatures far below (and above) those they’re regularly going to encounter.
12 Birds (Not Live Ones) Are Fired Into The Engines During Testing
The majority of people who have fears about flying focus on the usual things. Turbulence and the possibility of lightning strikes are two big ones we’ve already addressed, whether it’s just the idea of it or it’s actually happened to you.
One slightly more obscure –yet completely possible—fear is that of birds being sucked into the engines. In the past, these sorts of incidents may have had catastrophic results, but today’s airplanes are far more robust than their older counterparts. To ensure this, a procedure called ingestion testing takes place. This sees mock-birds fired into the engines (according to Lifehacker), to check that they’ll be able to withstand the real-live thing.
11 They Even Try To Fill Planes With Water
Speaking of ingestion testing, there’s another procedure involved. We’ve already seen that airplanes are tested to ensure they can endure extremes of heat, cold and storms, but what about huge quantities of water?
The craft’s ability to handle that is determined by the water intake take. In this frightening-sounding check, “the plane lands in a water-covered runway as if there was heavy rainfall. This is to ensure a ton of water doesn’t get into the engines.”
This is particularly encouraging. After all, along with lightning, water is one of those things that really, really doesn’t mix with expensive electronics and such. You’ve got to be prepared for that too.
10 ‘Ditching’ Airplanes In Water Is A Good Thing
So, there we are. That was a quick whistlestop tour of some of the extensive, extensive testing that the average aircraft has to endure, long before anybody gets to head off to their vacation in the Bahamas in it.
On the subject of water, though, there’s one thing planes can do that fliers hope never to have to experience: water landings. Also known by the less-than-encouraging ‘ditching,’ it is, quite clearly, a last-ditch option.
It is an option, though, and that’s sure to be a comfort for travellers terrified by the prospect of planes having trouble over water. It’s a very rare occurrence, but it does happen.
9 The Miracle On The Hudson Was… Well, Just That
Of course, I can’t talk about daring water landings without touching on the legendary Miracle on the Hudson. This astonishing event took place on January 15 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 departed from LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
Shortly after taking off, the plane struck a flock of Canada geese (no test is infallible, but we won’t dwell on that) and lost all engine power. Pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger III saw no option but to shoot for a controlled ditching in the Hudson River. He performed the manoeuvre perfectly, saving the lives of everybody on board.
As The Telegraph reports, he later lamented the fact that pilots receive such little training in this matter, but let’s hope that’s a lesson learned.
8 They Sometimes Fly Without All Their Engines Functioning
Are you one of those people who always totally over-packs for a trip? Me too. It’s always worth it for that peace of mind, I think. After all, there are things that you should always keep spares of. An emergency extra parachute, say. Or, in the case of airplanes, a whole darn engine.
Twin-engine aircraft are completely capable of flying with only one of their engines functioning. So are those with more than two engines. It’s even better than that, too, as Flight Deck Friend explains:
“…engines are built to an incredibly high standard and are very robust as a result. If a failure does occur, the engine is designed to contain any problems and stop it spreading to the rest of the aircraft.”
7 Heck, They Sometimes Fly With No Engines At All
It’s great to know that today’s airplanes and air crew are so prepared for just about any foreseeable situation. Back on the subject of the engines, any fires that break out can be put out by the pilot right there from the cockpit. The casing’s even fireproof, Flight Deck Friend goes on, to ensure the flames don’t spread anywhere else.
If you still need more engine-related reassurance, how about the story of Air Transat Flight 236? After fuel leaks and rising oil pressure over the Atlantic Ocean, the craft successfully glided to an airport 100 miles away, with no fuel or engine power!
6 Planes Don’t Always Carry The Right Amount Of Fuel
As we’ve seen throughout this rundown, then, airlines take care to ensure that their planes don’t only meet stringent safety guides, but exceed them. An aircraft’s wings, for instance, can withstand force far beyond any they’re actually going to encounter on a flight.
Sadly, one thing that it seems airlines can safely get away with is cutting costs with fuel. The Huffington Post states that “some airlines are reportedly flying with less-than-recommended fuel levels in an effort to save money.”
The question is, were those recommendations a little over-generous in the first place? With big businesses being the way they are in this world, let’s hope so.
5 Some Seats Might Be A Safer Bet Than Others
Now, in the event of a crash or other emergency situation, the tail end of the airplane is the safest place to be. That’s just the way statistics have pointed.
There’s something else to note here too, though. Your position in the aircraft is darn important in more ways than one. As The Huffington Post also reports, you’re going to want to be sure that you’re sitting no further than five rows away from an exit whenever you can.
“Passengers who sit farther than five rows from an exit have greatly reduced chances of successfully evacuating a plane during an emergency,” they state, though considering the rarity of these sorts of situations and the nature of them, the odds of such a thing actually coming into play are astronomical.
4 The Horrors Of ‘Airplane Ear’
The whole experience of flying can be harrowing for all sorts of reasons. Long waits at the airport, perhaps a last minute change so you have to hurry all the way across the terminal, maybe another hour-long wait to take off once you’ve actually boarded the aircraft itself…
Well, those are more inconveniences than harrowing. Just like lightning, turbulence and the phenomenon sometimes known as ‘Airplane Ear.’
You know that feeling, when you yawn on a flight and your ears pop horribly? That’s the one. As Bustle reports, the founder and CEO of Nanak Flights, Rishi Kapoor, says,
"Airplane ear is one of the more uncomfortable experiences while you're in an airplane… usually, the air pressure in your inner ear is similar to the outside of it, but when the plane takes off, the exterior air pressure changes significantly fast and your inner ear's air pressure hasn't had enough time to acclimate, causing a small vacuum effect."
While it’s largely harmless, Airplane Ear is feared by many fliers, and there isn’t an awful lot you can do to help it. Just keep swallowing.
3 Perhaps The Most Unsettling Things Of All: The Updraft
Now, Homer Simpson may have relished the idea of “soaring majestically, like a candy wrapper caught in an updraft” while parasailing, but in reality, updrafts are not something you want to get caught up in.
As we’ve seen, turbulence can be really darn frightening, but is entirely harmless for the most part. Updrafts, meanwhile, are warm pockets of air, strong enough to lift the plane to dangerous altitudes or even cause the pilot to lose control.
Frightening a prospect as this is, the good news is that they tend to be accompanied by violent thunderstorms, which can be causes for flight cancellations. A terrible inconvenience, yes, but when you consider the possible alternative…
2 Your Pilot’s Often Going To Be *Beyond* Exhausted
As I say, then, being a commercial pilot is a demanding, stressful, often sorely-underappreciated vocation. As airlines become more competitive and push to make more money wherever they can (saw the skimping on fuel), it’s the overworked pilots that feel most of the strain. As Reader’s Digest reports, one captain has confessed,
“Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud.”
If there’s a positive here, it’s that pilots can get opportunities to sleep on flights, and it’s perfectly okay to do so. As Flight Deck Friend explains,
“This is not something to be alarmed about. In pilot terms we call sleeping controlled rest. This procedure has been proven to improve safety and it is more common on longer range flights scheduled overnight. The principle is to allow a pilot to get up to 45 minutes of sleep at periods of low workload (in the cruise). This should improve their alertness levels during periods of high workload, for example the descent, approach and landing.”
1 Your Plane Might Be A Lot Older Than You Think
Over the course of this rundown, we’ve seen that today’s aircraft are much more robust and capable than you may have thought. They’re resistant to just about any eventuality that they might encounter, from extreme conditions to lightning, fires, and other emergencies.
Some aircraft, however, have been doing the rounds for a long time. College Park Airport in Maryland, US, Traveller reports, has been in operation since 1909. Meanwhile, the oldest passenger plane still in operation is believed to be a Boeing 737-200, registered PK-OCG for Airfast Indonesia. It was built in 1970!
Is this anything to worry about? Seemingly not. According to Thrillist, the biggest complaint about older aircraft is that “older planes with outdated toilet systems are still up there flying, hence the occasional reports of raw frozen sewage falling from the sky.”
Disgusting, but not so worrying… unless it lands on you.