By Nikki Vargas
You’re on an evening flight, smooth sailing at 37,000 feet when the plane suddenly hits rough turbulence. The ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign goes on, the pilot makes an announcement for passengers to take their seats, and the once quiet plane begins to shake.
Despite yourself, a montage of ‘worst case scenario’ scenes starts running through your mind as you clutch the arm divider. You begin making mental bargains with the universe. Just let this tin can land safely and I promise I’ll start a charity, you think to yourself. Welcome to flying, or at least the fears that people have of it.
This past week, I asked Culture Trip readers what their biggest flying related fear was, and it seems travelers are all bonded by the same worries when boarding a flight. Enter Patrick Smith. Patrick is an experienced commercial airline pilot who has been flying since 1990. Doubling as the host and curator of Ask the Pilot, Patrick authored the book Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, which addresses – in more detail – many concerns of nervous fliers. From turbulence to lightning hitting the plane, here are your worst flying fears, addressed:
Culture Trip: Our readers want to know which is more dangerous: takeoff or landing?
Patrick Smith: Neither are “dangerous.” Inherently, though, it’s fair to say that takeoff is a more precarious maneuver than landing. During takeoff, the airplane is making the transition from ground to flight, with thinner lift and stall margins. You also have the hazards of high-speed abort should something go wrong. It’s landings that fearful flyers hate, but in deference to the principles of lift, gravity, and momentum, this anxiety is misplaced. Not that you should be, but if you insist on being nervous, takeoff is your time.
CT: We have to ask, in the event of an emergency water landing, would passengers and crew actually survive?
PS: There’s no easy answer to this, because the context can vary so much. Are we talking the ocean, a lake, or a river? Daylight or darkness? What’s the weather, and how rough is the water? And what has gone wrong in the first place to necessitate such a thing? There have been a number of emergency water landings over the years, under different conditions with different results.
Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew amply demonstrated a best-case survivability of a water landing in the US Airways flight 1549 incident on the Hudson River. They had daylight, good weather, and the calm surface of the river alongside a busy city with emergency crews only seconds away. Landing on the open ocean, on the other hand, at night, far from land in rough seas, would be a much more dangerous challenge.
CT: What would happen if a plane were struck by lightning while flying?
PS: Planes are hit by lightning more frequently than you might expect. An individual jetliner is struck about once every two years, on average, and are designed accordingly. The energy does not travel through the cabin electrocuting the passengers and blowing things up; it is discharged overboard through the plane’s aluminum 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.
CT: What would happen if a bird gets sucked into one of the plane’s engine?
PS: I should hardly have to mention that strikes are occasionally dangerous, as we saw in 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 glided into the Hudson River when both engines failed after colliding with a flock of Canada geese. Modern turbofan engines are resilient, but they don’t take kindly to the ingestion of foreign objects, particularly those slamming into their rotating blades at high speeds.
Birds don’t clog an engine, but can bend or fracture the internal blades, causing power loss. The heavier the bird, the greater the potential for harm. Flying at 250 knots – in the United States, that’s the maximum allowable speed below 10,000 feet – where most birds are found, hitting an average-sized goose will subject a plane to an impact force of over 50,000 pounds. Even small birds pose a threat if struck en masse. For example, In 1960 an Eastern Airlines turboprop went down in Boston after an encounter with a flock of starlings.
All of that said, planes and birds collide all the time, and in all but the rarest cases the damage tends to be minor or nonexistent, unless you’re looking at it from the bird’s point of view. As you’d expect, aircraft components are engineered to tolerate such impacts.
CT: How about if an engine fails completely, can a plane still fly?
PS: Every commercial airplane is certified to fly with a failed engine. Per regulation, planes must be capable of lifting off, accelerating, and climbing away, even with total failure of an engine at the most critical point of the takeoff roll, while still on the ground. This guarantee extends beyond the airport perimeter to account for buildings, mountains, antennae, and whatever else.
For each airport – indeed each runway – data is computed not only to ensure the ability to fly, but also to avoid off-airport obstructions, following an engine failure. Losing an engine during the cruise portion of flight, while still serious, is less critical and easier to manage. Even if all of the engines were to somehow fail, the plane would not fall from the sky. While it may surprise you, it’s not the least bit uncommon for jets to descend at what a pilot calls “flight idle,” with the engines run back to a zero-thrust condition. They’re still operating and powering crucial systems, but providing no push. You’ve been gliding many times without knowing it. It happens on just about every flight.
CT: Is there an ideal place to sit on a plane to increase chances of survival in the event of a crash?
PS: Statistically, the safest place to be in a crash is as far back as possible in the very last row. That said, there have been accidents where people in the front survived while people in the back did not. So, like so much in aviation, it depends.
In any event, with crashes as rare as they are, choosing your seat based on potential survivability is a bit extreme. Plus, the back of the plane tends to bump and sway more during turbulence. You’ve marginally increased your odds of survival in the minuscule chance of an accident, but you’re going to have a far less comfortable flight in the likelier chance of hitting some rough air.
CT: Speaking of rough air, let’s talk about turbulence. Can extreme turbulence ever cause a plane to crash?
PS: Turbulence is far and away the number one concern of anxious passengers. Intuitively, this makes sense. Everybody who steps on a plane is uneasy on some level, and there’s no more poignant reminder of flying’s innate precariousness than a good walloping at 37,000 feet. Except that, in all but the rarest circumstances, it’s not dangerous.
For all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket. Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash. Turbulence is an aggravating nuisance for everybody, including the crew, but it’s also – for lack of a better term – normal.
From a pilot’s perspective it is ordinarily seen as a convenience issue, not a safety issue. So, that I’m not accused of sugarcoating, yes – extreme turbulence can damage an aircraft and every year a small number of passengers are hurt during inflight encounters with strong turbulence. Usually, however, these are people who fell or were thrown about because they weren’t belted in when they should have been.
This also gets into something that I like to call Passenger Embellishment Factor (PEF). People have a habit of over-interpreting even the most basic sensations of flight. They can’t always help it – nervous flyers especially – but altitudes, speeds, and angles are perceived to be far more severe than they really are. During turbulence, for instance, people sense that an airplane is dropping hundreds of feet at a time, when in reality the displacement is seldom more than ten or twenty feet, barely a twitch on the altimeter
CT: So in what situation would you – as a pilot – be concerned for the crew and passengers onboard?
PS: Well, in a lot of ways, a pilot is always worried for the safety of the crew and passengers. Passengers will ask pilots if we’re ever frightened and do we consider the possibility that the next flight could be our last? This always has struck me as both a profound and asinine question. “Yes,” I’ll answer. “Of course I’m scared. I’m always scared.” You can take that with the wink and smirk it deserves, but nonetheless, it contains a nugget of truth. Do pilots worry about crashing? Of course they do. As a matter of practicality, they have to. It’s their job. It’s in their best interest, and yours as well.
Now, that’s not quite what you asked, and I know what you’re getting at: you want to know which things most worry and scare pilots. I’d put cargo fires on that list, along with tire explosions at high runway speed, the possibility of ground collisions at busy airports in bad weather, and so on. But lists like these give people the wrong idea of what pilots actually do for a living, and they don’t accurately reflect how we are trained.
CT: In the many years that you’ve been an airline pilot, what is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you while flying?
PS: The scariest thing that ever happened to me in an plane occurred in 1986, when I was a 20 year-old private pilot still learning the ropes of basic flying. Unlike airliners, private planes routinely operate under so-called VFR, or visual flight rules, and without the watchful guidance of air traffic control. There are safeguards in place – radio and traffic pattern protocols, staggered cruising altitudes, and so on – but avoiding airborne collisions is primarily a matter of old fashioned see-and-avoid.
[While flying one evening] there, in front of me, as if somebody had splashed it onto the windshield, was another aircraft. It was so close that I could clearly see the pilot sitting in the left seat. I did not reach, there wasn’t enough time to process any left, right, up or down resolution. Only luck—the slightest difference in our respective altitudes and trajectories—prevented the two machines from colliding. Before I could move, the plane was gone, disappearing above and to the left by about 15 feet.
The full story if interested can be found here. The point is, the fact that I need to go back that far, and the fact that not a single incident jumps out at me in all the years since, is a testament to just how safe commercial flying is.