Air Travel – Mysteries Unveiled

plane-3p_photoblog900David Pogue writes:

Technology and air travel have always gone hand in hand, and they’re only getting more intertwined. From security at the airport to the rules about using electronics in flight to the final resting place of the plane’s toilet contents, airplanes and tech are a constant source of conflict, passion — and questions.

If you’d like the answers, I highly recommend Patrick Smith’s new book, “Cockpit Confidential.” Mr. Smith is a pilot and blogger; much of the book’s format and contents are on display at his Web site,, or in the archives of the “Ask the Pilot” column he wrote for for years.

But as a frequent flyer, I’d much rather have the book, which is a far more comprehensive book of questions and answers about airplanes, airports, airlines and the psychology of flying. Here are some excerpts — factoids that every flier should know:

“Turbulence scares me to death. Do I have reason to be afraid?”

No. “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.”

“If all of a jet’s engines were to fail, can the plane glide to a landing?”

Yes. “There’s no greater prospect of instant calamity than switching off the engine in your car when coasting downhill. The car keeps going, and a plane will too.”

“I understand that planes can jettison fuel. Is this done to lighten the load for landing?”

Yes. “For a few reasons, the obvious one being that touching down puts higher stresses on an airframe than taking off.” But Mr. Smith also points out that only some airplane models have the ability to dump fuel — the big ones. “The 747, the 777, the A340, and the A330 all can dump fuel. A 737, an A320, or an RJ cannot. These smaller jets must circle or, if need be, land overweight.”

“What happens when lightning hits an airplane?”

Nothing. The energy “is discharged overboard through the plane’s aluminum skin, which is an excellent electrical conductor.”

“Are the contents of airplane toilets jettisoned during flight?”

No. “There is no way to jettison the contents of the lavatories during flight.” Instead, the toilet contents are vacuumed out into a tank truck at the end of the flight.

“What do the dings and chimes mean?”

There are two kinds of chimes. “The first kind is basically just a phone call” from the cockpit to the flight attendants; it means, “pick up the intercom.” The other type is a “signaling device for the cabin crew” — when the seat-belt sign is turned on or off, when the plane reaches 10,000 feet (so that electronics are o.k. to use) and when initial descent begins, so it’s time to prepare the plane for landing.

“Many of the three-letter codes for airports make no sense.”

The non-obvious ones are probably holdovers from the airports’ previous names. “MCO is derived from MCCoy Field, the original name for Orlando International. Chicago O’Hare’s identifier, ORD, pays honors to the old Orchard Field.”

I should mention, by the way, that this book is frequently funny. For example, the author notes, “A campaign was launched in 2002 to change the identifier for the Sioux City, Iowa, from SUX to something less objectionable. The campaign failed.”

“We are told that modern commercial airplanes can essential fly themselves.”

Emphatically no. “A plane is able to fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself.” Autopilot is a tool, but “you still need to tell it what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.”

“Why the annoying rules pertaining to window shades, seat backs, tray tables, and cabin lights during takeoffs and landings?”

“Your tray has to be latched so that, in the event of an impact or sudden deceleration, you don’t impale yourself on it. The restriction on seat recline provides easier access to the aisle and also keeps your body in the safest position.” Raising your window shade, meanwhile, “Makes it easier for the flight attendants to assess any exterior hazards— fire, debris — that might interfere with an emergency evacuation.” Dimming the lights is the same precaution.

“Is it true that pilots reduce oxygen levels to keep passengers docile?”


“Could some crazy or ill-intentioned person open one of the doors during flight?”

No. “You cannot — I repeat, cannot — open the doors or emergency hatches of an airplane in flight. The cabin pressure won’t allow it.”

Are cellphones and gadgets really dangerous to flight?

It depends. Laptops have to be put away for takeoff and landing “to prevent them from becoming high-speed projectiles during a sudden deceleration or impact.” As for tablets and e-book readers, “it’s tough to take a prohibition seriously now that many pilots are using tablets in the cockpit.” That’s why the Federal Aviation Administration is considering relaxing the ban on those gadgets.

And can cellphones really disrupt cockpit equipment? Probably not. “I’d venture to guess at least half of all phones, whether inadvertently or out of laziness, are left on during flight. If indeed this was a recipe for disaster, I think we’d have more evidence by now.”

My favorite bits of “Cockpit Confidential” are Mr. Smith’s rants. He’s a frequent passenger as well as a pilot, so he’s well equipped to rail about the stupidity of the methods for boarding a plane, and about the Transportation Security Administration’s expensive, absurdly misguided efforts. (One of the book’s funniest passages: the tale of the time he tried to carry airline silverware onto a flight, “part of my hotel survival kit.” The T.S.A. agent confiscated them — even though it was the same silverware the airline itself issues to passengers in flight!)

Truth is, the world would be a better place if the airline industry weren’t so secretive in the first place. The actions of pilots are hidden behind safety-reinforced doors, they speak to the flight attendants with signals and jargon and the airlines’ behavior in scheduling and pricing flights are always mysterious. They’d serve all of us better, including themselves, by offering a little transparency.

Until that day arrives, “Cockpit Confidential” is the document that belongs in the seat-back pocket in front of you.