Captain Keith answers your questions

Why does a plane fly?

A plane flies because the wings provide A lifting force by creating a suction on the top of the wing and a cushion  of thick air underneath. When the lifting force is more than the weight the plane climbs, when it’s equal the plane flues level. If the lifting force is less than the weight the plane will descend. Planes fly because of the laws of gravity and science not despite them.

Why are there clouds?

Because the air contains moisture and because the air becomes cooler when it rises, the moisture condenses into visible particles. This is like steam condensing on cold tiles in a bathroom except that in a cloud in the particles are very very small. However when they become larger they fall as rain. If the temperature is below freezing these drops will fall as hail.

Why do I get funny feelings on the plane?

Because humans are designed to travel in a forward direction and because we normally look where we are going, any travel different from this will make us feel funny. In an aeroplane we are travelling in three dimensions. We can go forward at different speeds and we can go up and down and around corners. We can do all of these things at the same time. Being on a plane is like being on a fairground ride except that it is much safer and the forces are not as great. But of course, even though you can’t tell, you’re travelling at much higher speeds

Why can’t  I tell what the plane is doing?

Because if you cannot see out of the plane your eyes and your balancing system in your ears cannot work together. Without some sort of external reference it will be impossible for you to know how your body is moving. 

Why can’t I go in the cockpit?

It is considered a security hazard to allow anyone other than the crew to have access to the cockpit. The cabin crew have a special code to advise the pilots when they need to have access.

Why do the wings move?

The wings moved to take up the forces and stresses and strains on the wings during flight. There are many examples of rigid things not being as strong as flexible versions of the same thing. The Eiffel tower is a good example of movement in what otherwise appears to be a rigid structure. Most modern buildings are designed to have some sort of ‘give’ in them. 

Why is it so noisy on takeoff?

It is noisy on takeoff because you are surrounded by noise, when you gather speed you begin to leave the noise behind you. The engines on an aircraft are very powerful and therefore very noisy. The aeroplane is designed to be quietest when it is cruising. Apart from the noise of the engines, on the runway will cause tire noise because of the grooves in the runway to drain the water.

Why are some landings so heavy?

If the runway is covered in rain water it is better for the aircraft to land firmly so that the water is not trapped between the tire and the runway. This means that the brakes can be used immediately and will be more effective

Why are pilots allowed to sleep in flight?

It is impossible to demand that pilots do not feel tired in flight. It is much better to deal with the problem then pretend that it does not exist.

The pilots are allowed to sleep in-flight only under certain circumstances. On long flights it is clearly undesirable for pilots to pretend to be awake. It is much better to agree with the other crew member that they should take turns to rest.

Some of the requirements are that the aircraft must be in cruising flight with the autopilot engaged at a time of low workload. The cabin crew are required to visit the flight deck every 20 minutes if one pilot is sleeping to ensure that the other pilot is awake.  there are many other requirements of course.

Why is there turbulence?

Turbulence is caused by the  irregular movement of air. When there is a difference of pressure between two places  the air will move from high pressure to low-pressure. If this air is disrupted by mountains or by colliding with other air masses there will be turbulence. It is just like two rivers meeting. White water on a river is the best example of turbulence but in water. If we could see the air moving like we see turbulent water moving most people would not be worried so much about turbulence.

Why might an aircraft do a Go Around?

An aircraft may do a Go Around because of a blocked runway or because the pilot is not satisfied that the aircraft is in the correct position to complete a landing. If the visibility is such that the pilot cannot see the runway at the appropriate height he or she is obliged to do a Go Around. During the approach to land the pilots must ensure that the flaps,wheels and power settings are correct for that stage of the approach, if not a Go Around is   mandatory. 

Why do I get scared?

There are many reasons that people are scared of flying but it is a perfectly normal feeling, more than 40% of the population are anxious about flying. You should not see it as a weakness but just as a part of who you are

Why do the crew look anxious sometimes?

Have you thought about the crew may be thinking about something other than serving your tea or coffee or refreshments? Perhaps they are worrying about their mortgage or if their car will start when they get back to their base.

Why can some people not worry about flying but I do?

Why are some people good at playing the piano and other people good at sport? It’s just the way people are made. However there are things that you can do to help yourself to stop worrying about flying. The best thing you can do to address your fear is to follow the programme that we suggest here.

Why do aeroplanes take off into the wind?

If you try to launch a kite in the wrong direction you will discover that the person holding the string will have to run very quickly to get enough they are under the kite for it to fly. A plane facing the wind for takeoff already has some airspeed. In fact a small aeroplane pointing into a very strong wind will try to fly even if the engine is not running. In fact if you were to have a strong enough person and thick enough string you could fly it like a kite.

Why do the flaps come out for takeoff?

The flaps make the wings larger and this means they will develop more lift than a smaller wing travelling at the same speed. This means that the plane can take off at a lower speed because it will get sufficient lift sooner.

Why can I hear a regular bumping noise while we take off?

This is the noise of the nose wheel striking the lights that illuminate the centre of the runway.

Why does an aeroplane sometimes bump more than once when it lands?

If an aeroplane is landing across the wind it will land on the wheel on the side of the oncoming of the wind, then the other wheel will touch down and finally the nose wheel  will touchdown. This may seem like too many bumps but it is the correct technique to use when landing in a crosswind.

Why doesn’t the captain tell us were getting into turbulence?

Quite often it is because it is such a normal thing to the crew that they just may not remember to tell you. However if they put on the seatbelt signs you must follow the instructions. Before flight to the captain will refer to his weather charts to see if there is going to be any turbulence.

Why can’t we visit the pilot?

Some airlines will allow you to visit the pilot before the flight starts. However once the engines are started it will not be possible.

Why does the pilot have to lift the nose so high at takeoff?

In a modern airliner a pilot will raise the nose approximately 15° for the takeoff. In the cockpit this does not seem very high because it is something that the pilot is used to doing. However if you are sitting at the back of the plane you will feel it go down as the plane starts to fly. This is because you are sitting behind the wheels and the tail will go down as the nose goes up. But this will last only a fraction of a second.

Why do the cabin crew tell us to change seats for takeoff but we can go back to the seat when we are airborne? 

The aircraft has to be correctly balanced for takeoff. At a lower speeds the aircraft controls are not as effective as at high speed. If the aircraft is not balanced properly the amount of control that the pilot has might be limited. Once the aeroplane is flying at its cruising speed it is easier to counteract any movement of the passengers in the cabin. The plane may be in balance for landing if you change seats and stay in them for landing. Planes will still fly if they are not in balance but like every part of flying, we try to do everything as accurately as we can to keep flying safe for you and the crew. 

Why do we have to have our seat belts on all the time?

It is always a good policy to have your seat belt on all the time just in case there is some unexpected turbulence. Some airlines now recommend it as their standard policy. If the pilots consider that the flight might be bumpy they will turn on the seat belt signs and keep them on. It is always better to keep them on. However at the discretion of the cabin crew you may be able to leave your seats to visit the toilets.

Why do some airports have long runways and others manage with short runways?

According to what sort of aircraft are using the airport so the length of the runway varies. However at very high altitude all very high-temperature airports long runways are necessary because of the reduced aircraft performance under these conditions.

Why is it smoother in big aeroplanes rather than small ones?

It is not necessarily the case that it is smoother, this is a matter of opinion and  personal experience.

Why do some aircraft had engines at the back and others have them under the wings?

There is no particular reason where the engines are located apart from the designers preferences. There are advantages of having the engines at the back because the noise for all the passengers is reduced. In the event of an engine malfunction because the engines of the back of closer to the centre of the plane it is less likely to swing and therefore easier to fly. When the engines are on the wings it is easier for the engineers to maintain them because they have access from all around the engine.

What is turbulence?

Turbulence is caused by the movement of air due to a change of temperature, direction or windspeed.

What is a Go Around?

A Go Around is the procedure that a pilot will use when choosing not to land after having approached the runway

What causes accidents?

There are very few accidents caused by technical problems. Most accidents are the result of misunderstandings in the flight deck between the pilots. Accidents are statistically very rare but the media find them irresistible to report in anything other than sensationalist language. Modern training involves Human Factors awareness.

What causes thunderstorms?

When  a large bubble of air is warmed up it will rise in the same way that a hot air balloon rises when the inside it is heated. As air rises it will normally cool down and eventually be at the same temperature as the air around it. When this happens the air will stop rising. However there are some conditions where the air will continue to rise, and will even suck in even more air from the bottom of the cloud by virtue of the momentum of the air going up. There are conditions where rather than cooling in relation to the  surrounding air the bubble of air actually becomes warmer and therefore continues to rise. Sometimes this causes the cloud to grow bigger and bigger until it is self-sufficient in gathering surrounding air to keep it growing. Within this cloud the molecules of air  rub against each other causing static electricity. This is lightning. The noise given off by the discharge of lightning is thunder. Because the cloud is so large and contains so much moisture in the rainfall from it is very heavy.

What is wind shear?

Wind shear is the change of windspeed and  direction of the prevailing wind. It is caused mainly by the friction of the earth against the air meaning that as you go higher the wind becomes stronger. For an aeroplane approaching to land it means that there is a possible loss of speed as it gets closer to the ground.

What is a microburst?

If you imagine pouring a bucket of water from an upstairs window onto the ground below, you can imagine how much it would splash in every direction. A microburst is when this happens with a mass of air. For example when a thunderstorm starts to decay the air which has been sucked up into it eventually has to fall out. When it does it scatters in every direction just like the water from the bucket. This means that an aeroplane flying through it near the ground will undergo an increase in speed followed by an increase in rate of descent followed by a reduction in airspeed. Because of the inertia of the aeroplane it can become unstable which can make control of the approach difficult. Aircraft have equipment which can detect this situation.

What is an traffic control clearance?

An air traffic control clearance is an instruction issued to an aircraft permitting it to do a particular thing such as, takeoff, land, change altitude or follow a particular route. Aircraft captains are required to follow all their traffic-control clearances unless they feel that their aircraft would be endangered.

What is a near miss?

There is no such thing as a near miss it is now called an Air Prox which stands for an air proximity report. It does not mean that there has been the possibility of a collision but means that the normal standards of separation have not been met.

What is TCAS?

The Traffic and Collision Avoidance System gives information to the pilots about other aircraft that are nearby and which could be a hazard. Under some circumstances it will issue instructions to the pilots to change the flight path. Some aircraft show the pilot exactly how much to change direction. These instructions are co-ordinated with the instructions given to the other aircraft.

What are the most common causes of a fear of flying?

The most common cause of a fear of flying is  turbulence. This is closely followed by being anxious about the takeoff or having had a bad experience on a flight. Sometimes a significant life event will precipitate a fear of flying.  Quite often falling in love, getting married, having children, bereavement or developing a relationship can start a fear.

What stops a door being opened in-flight?

The pressure on a door in flight is in the region of 16 tonnes. Once an aircraft is airborne the mechanism on the door is disabled.

What to do the pilots do at cruising height?

The pilot’s task is to monitor the flight path, which means checking the route, maintaining the correct speeds, checking the fuel reserves and monitoring the weather for destination and diversions. The crew will also discuss the approach and landing arrival routing.

What is the difference between a jet and a propeller plane?

Only very small propeller aircraft have engines similar to the ones of those in a car. All the rest have turbo prop jet engines which turn a propeller, or pure jet engines which supply thrust by forcing hot air out of the back of them. A propeller plane is more likely to be operating on short routes and with a maximum passenger load of about 80 people. Most modern turbo prop aircraft have the same sort of flight instrumentation as large commercial aircraft.

What causes clouds to form?

Clouds form when the moisture contained within an air mass is cooled to a level where it condenses and becomes visible.

What sort of clouds of the worst for flying in?

From a flying point of view the cloud type make very little difference to flying the plane. The one cloud  that no pilot would fly in, is a thunderstorm.

What is clear air turbulence?

Clear air turbulence is defined as turbulence which occurs at high altitude without associated cloud indications.

What is an approach ban?

And approach ban occurs when the weather conditions are below (worse than) those required conditions for landing by that type of aircraft on that particular runway.

What is a near miss?

There is no such thing as a near miss unless you are a newspaper reporter commenting on an Air Prox.

What distance are aircraft apart in-flight?  

Because the speeds of aircraft change during the flight, separation is usually a function of time, so the faster a plane flies the greater geographic separation it will have from other aircraft. Went approaching to land aircraft are approximately 3 miles apart. During the cruise aircraft are normally ten minutes apart which is approximately 80 nautical miles.

What is the co-pilot for?

The co-pilot is a legally required member of  the crew for any aircraft above a certain weight.

What is a Go Around?

The Go Around as a procedure used by the pilot to climb away from the approach path when the conditions are not suitable to continue the approach or the landing.

What is a holding pattern?

A holding pattern is a procedure flown by an aircraft so that it maintains its position within a small geographic area. This means that air traffic control can regulate the flow of aircraft towards the runway(s) in use.

What is an emergency descent? 

We do not use the expression emergency descent nowadays, it has been renamed to rapid descent. The rapid descent procedure is used when an aircraft loses, or partially loses, its pressurisation and needs to descend quickly to and altitude where there is sufficient oxygen for the passengers. This is normally about 10,000 feet.

What is an aileron?

An aileron is a moving flap on the rear edge at the end of each wing. They move in opposite directions to turn the aircraft. High-speed jet aircraft are fitted with extra ailerons which are closer to the cabin so that they do not over-control the aircraft when it is flying at high speed.

What is a stabiliser?

The stabiliser is the small wing at the back of the aircraft which keeps the aircraft steady in level flight and allows the pilot to raise or lower the nose.

What happens if there is too much baggage on board?

There are enormous safety margins on commercial aircraft and it is very unlikely that there will ever be too much of baggage on board. Every piece of baggage is accounted for and weighed. The load sheet is computer-controlled and will refuse to add any additional weight if the maximum takeoff weight has been reached.

What are all the noises on a plane?

An aircraft in-flight has to support the needs of all its passengers. They need to be warm, entertained, provided with drinks, oxygen and they need to be fed. All of the equipment needed for that makes a noise. Then there are all the control systems that the aircraft needs to fly, flaps and  wheels which need hydraulic or electrical power to make them work. These motors and pumps make a lot of noise. There is also the continuous sound of the air rushing past the plane. When the pilot extends the flaps or wheels there is additional noise from the slipstream.

What is the reason for so much noise on landing?

Once the aircraft has landed it will usually use its reverse thrust from the engines to slow down. Because the engines are working at approximately 75% of their maximum power there is a lot of noise. as the plane brakes you will hear the sound of  things moving and shaking inside the baggage lockers. 

What are the panels sticking up on the top of the wing?

And these panels are known as the air-brakes or spoilers. When they are extended the smooth airflow over the wings is interrupted which will either slow the  aircraft or allow it to descend more quickly. On landing when the panels extend the lift from the wings is reduced and so the weight is taken onto the wheels which will then brake more efficiently.

What causes fog?

Fog is the same as cloud, but which occurs  on and near the ground. Warm moist air near the ground  cools rapidly on a clear night. The moisture condenses out causing fog to form.

What is the worst weather a plane can fly in?

To a pilot weather would never be described as the worst. A pilot will speak about limiting weather which means that it is at the operational limit of the aircraft. A passenger would not be able to tell if the aircraft was flying in this sort of weather. Most passengers measure the weather in relation to turbulence and comfort. They also measure it in relation to how it would affect them on the roads.

What is the lowest height a plane can go to before deciding to Go Around?

Modern aircraft can land without the pilots having to see the runway at all. However the aircraft needs to have two or three autopilots working perfectly and ground equipment which is operating to a very high standard of reliability. Ground equipment such as this will be protected from anything interfering with their transmissions. It will also have a backup electrical supply

Where should I sit to feel the least turbulence?

The best place to sit on aircraft is over the wings if you wish to have the most comfortable ride. The benefits of first or business class will also make you feel more comfortable. If you sit at the very back you will feel the movements of the plane just a little more.

Where are the fuel tanks in a plane?

An aeroplane has several fuel tanks and usually they are located in the wings. Long-distance aircraft have fuel tanks in the tailplane as well. There is a section between the wings which also contains fuel.

Where are you most likely to encounter turbulence?

There are no hard and fast rules about where you will encounter turbulence.

Where do Go-Arounds occur?

You will only experience a Go Around while making an approach to land.

Where is the safest seat on a plane?

There is no safest place to sit on a plane. All seats are equally safe. However you can make your own seat safer by knowing exactly how you could reach your nearest emergency exit, knowing how to use your oxygen mask, and keeping your seat belt done up securely when required to do so. You can also make your seat safer by mentally rehearsing what you would do if you were required to evacuate the aircraft. You can make your seats safer by listening to the instructions and directions of the cabin crew while they give their safety briefing. Despite what you may think almost all aeroplane accidents are survivable.

Where shall I go for my first holiday?

Go to the most interesting place possible and then you will spend less time thinking about your flight home which is what most fearful flyers will  usually waste their time doing!

Where are the safest airports?

There are no airports more or less safe than others. Aircraft will only operate into airports that are approved for their use. Airports have restrictions imposed upon them according to their size and location with regard to local terrain. If there are non-standard procedures to reach the airfield there will be weather limitations applied.

Where do the captain and copilots sit?

The captain sits on the left-hand side as you look forward and co-pilot on the right. On a helicopter however, the captain sits on the right hand side. Sometimes when training, the actual captain of the aircraft will sit in the co-pilot’s seat on the right.

When is turbulence at its worst?

There is no time when turbulence is at its worst, except in the centre of a thunderstorm. There is no point in thinking that if you are in turbulence that it will get worse and worse. If you were flying in the other direction it would be getting better and better. A good example of the expression “You can’t have it both ways”.

When do pilots have to Go Around?

Pilots are obliged  to Go Around if the aircraft is not flying according to certain laid down conditions and if the runway conditions are outside the limits for that crew and that aircraft. 

When can a copilot become a captain?

A co-pilot will be promoted to captain when he or she has sufficient experience on that type of aircraft and in aviation in general. Most captains will have had at least five years experience as a co-pilot.

When is it not possible to land?

All pilots will make an approach but always have in their mind that it will have to be abandoned or ‘thrown away’ in pilot speak. The conditions when it is not possible to land is if the weather is unsuitable, if the runway is blocked or occupied by another aircraft, if a runway inspection is being made, if Air traffic-control instruct the aircraft to Go Around or at the captains discretion.

When is flying prohibited?

Flying is prohibited if the airspace is occupied by military activity, or it is over a war zone, or if special rules have been applied. Flying is also prohibited when there is of volcanic ash in or near an airway.

When will I overcome my fear?

You will overcome your fear when you have sufficient knowledge about the things that frighten you, and when you heve learnt some strategies to deal with your feelings of anxiety. This may take a day or it may take six months up the fact is that you can, and if you have to desire, you will overcome your fear. Follow our advice here.

When does the pilot get the latest weather report for landing?

A pilot will get the latest weather report when his or her aircraft is about 15 minutes from the destination. In foggy conditions A visibility report on the runway will be required at 1000 feet above the touchdown elevation. This is about 3 miles from touchdown.

When does the pilot get clearance to take off?

A pilot will get clearance to takeoff only when the runway is clear and any preceding aircraft is at least one minute ahead. If an aircraft has taken off and is turning right, a following aircraft which is going to turn left will be given permission to take off with the additional instruction to keep the other aircraft in sight. This will only be done when the weather conditions are suitable.

When does the pilot get clearance to land?

An aircraft will get clearance to land anywhere between four miles and a half a mile from the runway. If there is a ‘late’ clearance to land, the pilot will be told to “expect late landing clearance”.

When does air atraffic-control  tell pilot when another plane is too close?

A.T.C.  will advise aircraft about other aircraft in its vicinity when issuing clearances. Sometimes they will give information purely for ‘information only’. 

In the event of  possible conflict A.T.C. will tell an aircraft to climb, descend or turn with the additional instructions of ‘immediately’.

How do you do Go Around?

Normally the autopilot will be engaged and to initiate a Go Around the pilot presses a switch. Once the engines have increased power the flaps and wheels will be raised. The pilot will confirm the maximum height to which they are allowed to climb and check the route. It is a very routine procedure which they practice in the simulator in all sorts of weather and with all sorts of technical problems including engine failure.

How does turbulence occur?

Turbulence occurs when air  masses air collide with each other, or when the sun heats the ground and bubbles of  air rise. The only difference between turbulence and currents and waves on the sea, is that you cannot see the air, but you can see water.

How does a pilot qualify for a license?

A pilot has to undergo a lengthy course of training to qualify. It is approximately two years of very intensive training. Standards are very high and no country can issue a recognised license with standards that do not meet the international requirements.

How easy is it to overcome a fear of flying?

You may be lucky and overcome your fear of flying quickly, by just hearing an explanation of something that worries you. Or you may have several things that you worry about which may take time to address. It is easier to overcome the habit of smoking than it is to overcome the habit of having a fear of flying. But if you use the right techniques you will succeed.

How is an aeroplane controlled?

An aeroplane is controlled by a steering ‘wheel’ or ‘stick’. The movements are intuitive. If you pull the control device backwards the nose goes up, push it forward and the nose goes down, move it to the left and the plane will turn left, move it to the right and the plane will turn to the right. Unlike controlling the accelerator and brakes in a car, the pilots’ feet are used to control the rudder. The rudder works like the rudder on a boat, but is rarely used when flying a large aircraft. 

How can I overcome my fear?

You can overcome your fear by using the correct strategies and by improving your knowledge about your fear and about flying. There are no miracle cures and no quick fixes but whatever effort you put in will be worthwhile. Follow the guidance we give on this course.

How do planes fly?

Planes fly because the wings generates more lift than the aeroplane weighs. An aeroplane moves in level flight because the power from the engines exceeds the resistance of the air.

How hard is it to take off?

I could teach you to fly the  takeoff in half an hour in a flight simulator. It is a very straightforward procedure and very much simpler than most people think. However to fly an aircraft with passengers and be able to take into account all the conditions that the occur at  takeoff … it is unlikely that your pilot will swap seats with you.

How hard is it to land?

It is harder to land an aircraft than to take off because you are having to take the aircraft from the sky and put it down on a particular piece of concrete. When taking off at least you have lots of space that you’re going off into. However once the technique of landing any aircraft has been learnt it is relatively straightforward to land any other type of aircraft.

How often does a pilot have to do a landing in fog?

Most pilots will do very few landings where there is no visibility at all. However it is quite common to do landings in restricted visibility. Just a few years ago it would have been impossible to land in conditions that aircraft fly in regularly now.

How can I relax more?

Relaxing is something you can learn to do. The more you practice it the more proficient you will become in doing it. The biggest problem for a fearful flyer is to realise that practice is important. Without the anxiety of flying it would seem a simple thing to be able to sit down and relax and go through breathing and relaxation routines. However when at the airport or on-board your level of anxiety will be much higher and even the simplest tasks will be difficult to perform. You need to know how you feel when you relax you need to know how long it takes you to relax you need to be familiar with feeling relaxed. You must practice.

How can I avoid a panic attack?

It is possible to avoid a panic attack if you have  a good strategy to use when your panic attack begins. Rather than let the panic take over you need to be confident that if you go through your breathing routine that you will avoid the onset of an attack. Remaining calm is important. You will not suffocate or die from a panic attack despite how awful you feel. When on board the cabin crew will be able to help you because they are trained to help passengers.

How does the pilot find the runway?

It is impossible for the pilot not to find the runway if he keeps to his flight plan. The radar controllers will steer the aircraft along the route and then to the holding pattern and then onto the runway. It only remains for the  pilots to connect the autopilot system to the transmissions from the ground and the aircraft will navigate its own way to the runway.

How does the pilot avoid stalling?

Contrary to popular opinion and aircraft does not stall like a car does. When an aircraft stalls it means that the wings have insufficient lift to support the aeroplane and this is usually due to the aircraft flying too slowly. If the aircraft stalls it is very simple to un-stall it by increasing power and lowering the nose.

How is a stall caused?

In a light aeroplane a stall often occurs when the pilot is being inattentive and allows the speed to reduce too much. An inexperienced pilot will occasionally stall a plane during a steep turn. The stalling speed of an aircraft increases during a turn. A modern commercial jet will have lots of warning systems to make sure that the pilot is aware of the speed at which he is flying. If all these were to be ignored the aircraft automatically lowers the nose and un-stalls the aircraft.

How long could you stay up if the engines stopped at 35,000 feet?

If the engines stopped at cruising height you could glide for 30 minutes before you’re on the ground. You could glide for about 120 miles. All the controls work as if the engines were still going.

Some people fly for years and are still nervous: does that mean that these fears are very hard to overcome?

No, it just means that even in years and years of flying you don’t get very much experience of actually being in the air. And the bad feelings that we have always find reinforcement.

Why do things often seem to get worse rather than better?

‘Seem to’ are the right words to describe this. There is evidence that stress builds up over a period of time. Although people subjected to constant stress find coping strategies, they still experience stress. People who are nervous of flying are always building up a bank of bad feelings in exactly the same way that we build up good feelings about things we like. From my experience of nervous flyers, it doesn’t take much to turn bad feelings into good ones. Knowledge, help and confidence are key ingredients. 

Is it true that some people are happy to fly, then suddenly, on one flight, things are so terrifying that they become frightened forever?

It appears so but it’s not really the case. What happens is that people hear stories of dreadful flights then expect the same thing to happen to them. In the meantime they become more and more nervous, more and more apprehensive, until they talk themselves, and everyone else, into one bit of turbulence being ‘the worst flight ever’.

What is turbulence?

Turbulence is the irregular movement of the air. When air travels across the ground it hits things like buildings, towns, hills and mountains and causes the air to bob up and down. You can’t see it affecting an aircraft even when you see one close to the ground… but the passengers can feel it. It always feels worse than it really is.

How dangerous is turbulence?

It is not dangerous. Just keep yourself strapped in tightly and it won’t feel so bad, because you will move with the aircraft, instead of a moment after, which always makes it seem worse.

How uncomfortable can turbulence be?

It’s very uncomfortable in the worst cases. But that’s not the same as being dangerous. It usually feels bad because the occasional feeling of weightlessness gives you a feeling of falling. Remember, what you feel is not the same as what the aircraft is doing.

Can the aircraft withstand turbulence?

Yes. Easily.

Could you lose control of the aircraft because of turbulence?


Are there different types of turbulence?

Yes. They are caused by different things. A jet stream with clear air turbulence normally occurs at high altitude. It occurs when two moving air masses rub edges or collide with each other. It doesn’t bounce you up and down like turbulence near a thunderstorm but is more rapid and it rattles and shakes the aircraft. Rough air turbulence throws the aircraft around and it would be hard for the cabin crew to walk around or to serve you. The fact that the cabin crew suspend their service is no indicator of the seriousness of turbulence – they just don’t want to spill hot coffee over you. 

When you put your seat belt on, pull it as tightly as you can, then snuggle down into the seat and tighten it again and keep tightening it throughout the turbulence, then you’ll move as the aircraft moves. Don’t try to resist the movements but go with them, and remember to breathe slowly and deeply.

What’s that horrible creaking noise during turbulence, and why do overhead lockers mysteriously come open?

The internal fittings on an aircraft are made from fire-resistant mouldings that are slightly flexible. Because the hinges and catches need to be used easily they have a certain amount of ‘give’ in them. After all, you don’t want to spend ages trying to open and close something that is used so frequently. This means that when they shake they squeak, bits rub against other bits, and things move inside the lockers.

It all adds to the overall noise level. And in turbulence that’s what you listen for, isn’t it – noise to support your ideas of danger. 

Why are there so many unusual noises?

You can’t describe them as being unusual if they happen all the time. They’re not unusual to the crew; maybe they are only unusual to you. Spend a moment thinking about the difference between the words ‘unusual’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘unexpected’ and ‘unfamiliar’.

Most, if not all, noises on an aircraft are unfamiliar and, quite often, to make matters seem worse, they are unexpected. Any sudden noises cause a startle response; in other words, we jump. This reaction kicks in even when sitting in a modern aircraft. When the wheels go down we aren’t given a warning by the crew. It’s similar when the pilots have to change speed. There’s a sudden change in engine noise. It’s the unexpected and unfamiliar nature of the noises that makes us feel uneasy.

Does fuel come out of the top of the wing during take-off?

No. What looks like fuel or fuel vapour is the condensation forming because of the suction on the top of the wing. It’s the same principle as water droplets settling on the taps when you run a bath. Air contains moisture, whether you can see it or not… and if you change the pressure or temperature it becomes visible. Don’t you remember being a child and breathing out quickly on a cold day to make ‘steam’ come out of your mouth? We used to call it ‘huffing’.

What’s fuel dumping?

This is the procedure of deliberately reducing the weight of the aircraft by pumping fuel out of the tanks into the air through special valves. You can’t do it accidentally because you have to unlock certain switches to allow it to happen. 

How quickly can fuel be dumped?

It depends upon the aircraft type but it’s about 5 gallons a second.

Why would fuel be dumped overboard?

On all flights an aircraft can take off at a higher weight than it can land at because the strain is coming off the wheels, not being put on them. 

So if after just take-off you needed to land immediately (say, a medical emergency with a passenger) the aircraft would fly to a designated air and reduce the fuel load until the plane was light enough to land. And before you ask me… yes, if necessary, it could land without reducing weight.

What are those unusual feelings and sensations when flying?

Because you can’t always see out and get a reference point, if the aircraft accelerates or slows down or tips its wings or puts the flaps in, you can get sensations of sinking, falling or turning. If our bodies are moved steadily, such as in an aircraft that is gently turning, after a few moments our balancing system resets itself. Instead of measuring the turn it says, ‘This is normal, nothing is happening, I’m steady and I’m upright.’ 

So when the aircraft returns to the level position your head now tells you that you are turning again. 

For example, imagine that you are flying level and the aircraft starts a gentle right turn. You feel the sensation as you move to the right, but after 10-15 seconds your system resets and says, ‘I’m level’. 

If you can’t see out or you are in cloud, you will be convinced that you are level. When the aircraft returns to the level position, your brain thinks it’s going from level to the left. So if the aircraft now really does turn to the left you’ll get the horrible feeling that the plane is about to fall over its left wing. 

The same effect occurs when the plane speeds up and slows down. Your brain will send you a message saying that you are climbing or descending.

Just after take-off, the engine noise changes and it feels as if the nose is dipping, and there is a feeling of falling. What’s happening?

About 3 or 4 minutes after take-off it’s quite possible that the plane has reached its first allowed height, usually about 6,000 feet. At this point the engine power is reduced to stop the plane from climbing. In addition, all aircraft have to limit their speed to about 280 m.p.h. below 10,000 Air Traffic Control reasons. That means another power reduction has to be made. 

Even if you don’t know much about the laws of motion you’ll know that when you put the brakes on in a car you get thrown forwards. The same thing happens in a plane; the difference is that when the plane is climbing you are leaning backwards in your seat. Because the plane is pointing up in the air to help it climb, you first get thrown forwards and then, as the plane slows down, you seem to get pushed forwards again. Because you have a restricted view of the outside world, through those tiny windows, you will get a sensation of going down. But you’re not… I promise. 

Are  airports are friendly or unfriendly places?

Unfriendly. They seem to be built purely for the benefit of the airport authorities and the airlines. The signs are unfriendly and the procedures make you feel as if you’re joining a secret society. Staff become impatient if you aren’t sure what to do next. For instance, what on earth does ‘… now go immediately to gate 14A on the West pier of the Domestic terminal, and tell them you’re “late joiners”’ mean, when you’re at an unfamiliar airport? What does it mean anyway? I wasn’t aware that you had to have a degree in airport geography before you’re allowed to use ‘their’ airport. 

If airport planners spent more time and effort on making the place easy to use, and less time trying to entice you to spend money, we’d all be more relaxed. They don’t care if they stress you out. They just want to process you.

Why are there so many warning lights on the flight deck?

Think of it like this. Modern cars now have warnings when you leave your lights on, if the boot is open, when the engine needs servicing, or if the handbrake is on, and we don’t associate them with danger. 

A warning light to me is a source of information, but to you I suppose the word ‘warning’ can be a source of worry. Let’s call them message lights instead.

Advisory messages tell you what’s going on: for example, the wheels are down.

Caution messages are reminders: for example, auto-pilot is off.

Warning messages say, for example, generator number three has low voltage.

How does an aircraft stay up?

As the plane goes through the air the wings sit on a cushion of ‘thick’ air while on the top of the wing the air becomes thinner and causes suction upwards. The shape of the wing does that by changing the speed of the air on the top and bottom.

The plane gets air over its wings (airflow) by forward movement. Incidentally, birds make airflow by moving their wings. 

It’s worth remembering that even after aeons of evolution birds still don’t fly as efficiently as planes. Have you ever seen a bird carrying passengers?

Compared with aircraft, birds are aerodynamically very inefficient. 

What is a stall?

Stalling is not related to the engines. One of the most widely misunderstood things about flying is stalling. The wings can stall, the engines can’t. 

Most of us connect stalling the engine on a car with an aircraft stalling in flight and think it’s the same thing. In fact, it couldn’t be more different. An engine on a car has stalled when it stops running, by some means other than switching it off. An aircraft stalls if the wings go through the air at the wrong angle. The wings work most efficiently when the air passes over them at the proper angle, which depends upon the speed. All the pilots have to do is to make sure the aircraft always goes fast enough to keep sufficient air going over the wings to support the aircraft.

Is there a backup stall warning system?

All aircraft have two stall warning systems. The first one is called a shaker and the second one a pusher. If the pilot allows the plane to  slow down too much the shaker vibrates the control wheel violently. If that is missed the pusher takes over and pushes the control wheel far enough forward to un-stall the wings by increasing the speed.

How far does an aircraft fall after stalling?

A plane could be un-stalled in as little as 500 feet.

How does a jumbo jet stay up?

Simply because of its enormous wings. The larger the wings, the heavier the aircraft they can support. Lift occurs when air over the top of the wing causes suction: more wing, more suction. Flying is a simple subject.

What are flaps?

Flaps are the moving parts at the back of the wing that come out for take-off and landing. They make the wings ‘bigger’ so that there is more lift produced at the lower speeds during take off and landing.

How are they controlled?

The pilots move a lever in the cockpit. Usually there are five settings for landing. These are set one by one as the aircraft slows down. After take-off (three settings) they are selected up as the aircraft gains speed.

Why are flaps set for only take-off and landing?

To change the size of the wings so they become bigger and more curved … like the wings of a bird when it’s landing. They are only needed at low speeds.

What are ailerons and elevators?

Ailerons are on the back of the wings, out at the wing tips. They make the aircraft bank sideways. The only time you will see them move more than 1 or 2 inches is when the aircraft is taking off or landing. This is because the climbing air speed is slower than the cruising speed, so they are less effective; therefore, they are designed to move more at lower aircraft speeds. The elevators change the aircraft’s elevation (they make the nose  go up and down). The elevators are on the back of the tail plane wing. Moving the controls on an aircraft is like moving a steering wheel on a car the faster you are going the less movement you have to make.

What do the fin and rudder do?

Those are the bits that stick up at the back of the aircraft. They act like a weathervane and keep the aircraft pointing into the airflow. They work in the same way that a yacht’s keel does … except they’re the other way up.

Do all aircraft feel the same to fly?

Modern airliners generally do. The only difference between a light aircraft and a large aircraft is that the pilot has to make allowances for the time it takes for the plane to change direction and speed, but it’s no more than the difference between driving a saloon car and a lorry.

Does a pilot think of how big the aircraft is when flying it?

Pilots joke that they fly the instruments and the rest follows, so it doesn’t really matter how big or small the plane is that’s behind.

What are the tyre pressures of an airliner?

About 150 pounds per square inch. A car tyre is about 30 p.s.i.

How many commercial flights are there in the world in a day?

I can’t find an accurate answer to that anywhere. Count the number of airlines in the world, add together the number of aircraft they have and multiply by six because that’s about the average number of flights each aircraft does in a day.

How does a jet engine work?

Cold air gets sucked or pushed into the big hole in the front, gets heated up by burning fuel in the middle, so that extremely hot and high-speed air gets blown out of the smaller hole at the back.

Why do planes have jet engines?

Because they are more efficient than propeller engines at high altitude. The advantage of flying at high altitude is that you can be above the weather so the flight is more comfortable.

What about aircraft that have propellers?

Most planes, except the very smallest actually, use jet engines that have propellers on the front of them. This gives them the advantage of shorter take-off and landings. Propellers bite into the air more quickly at low speed so they get the plane up to flying speed more quickly.

Which fuel do jets use?

Paraffin, which is like the stuff you put in greenhouse heaters. But it’s carefully refined, stored and delivered. For instance, you couldn’t just take fuel from one aircraft and put it straight into another. It has to be cleaned first.

What’s so special about jet fuel?

In the winter there are always news reports when lorries stop because of frozen diesel fuel. That’s at roughly -10˚ C. Jet fuel has to stay unfrozen down to -40˚ C. If the fuel starts to get down to that temperature the pilots will  ‘warm’ the fuel by flying faster (air friction) or they will can descend into warmer air.

When would the temperature be –40˚ C?

At very high altitude the air temperature is low because the air doesn’t get warmed by the ground. The air cools the wings and, because the fuel tanks are in the wings, the fuel gets colder. Even though the outside temperature is often as low as -56˚ C, the fuel doesn’t get that cold because of insulation around the tanks and because the fuel in them is circulated by pumps. Garden ponds that have a fountain rarely freeze completely. It’s the same principle.

How powerful are the engines?

Most big jet engines are about 70,000 horsepower. On small business jets they are about 2,000 horsepower. A racing car engine is about 800 horsepower.

Do aircraft have keys?

No. There is one main switch to turn on all the electrical systems, and the engines are  started  on separate switches.

Why do aircraft  engines take so long to start?

Because they do not work like a car engine. It takes about 1 minute to start most jet engines, if you are nervous it will seem much longer.

Do aircraft engines ever have major faults?

Very, very rarely, and for $15,000,000 each you wouldn’t expect them to.

Do aircraft engines  get a lot of servicing and checking?

Yes. Before every flight engineers check them for leaks or things that may have come loose. In addition, of course, there all the other checks that are performed every three days, each month and each year. When required, they get a complete overhaul.

Do engines have fire extinguishers fitted in them?

Yes, and they are very efficient. Each engine has two.

Do aircraft carry spare batteries?

The aircraft supply of electricity comes from the generators so a plane would  never run on its battery. You could say that the battery is always spare. If needed, the battery can supply enough electricity to fly most aircraft for at least an hour and a half.

What happens if an engine stops?

If it’s a two-engined aircraft pilots are required to  land at a suitable nearby airport. A three- or four-engined aircraft can continue to its destination. One of the interesting things about jet engines is that even if they are not giving power they can still provide power to hydraulic pumps and generators because they are turned by the airflow going through them.

How is an engine put into reverse so quickly on landing?

Because the engines don’t reverse, they don’t turn the other way. The reversers simply push the air that comes out of the back of the engine forwards instead of backwards.

How many speeds does a plane fly at?

A pilot is interested in three speeds. First and foremost, the speed of the air over the wings. That’s air speed. Then the speed over the ground. That’s called groundspeed. And then the real speed at which he is travelling. That’s called the true air speed. As an aircraft climbs, the air becomes thinner and colder. An aircraft measures speed by the amount of air being forced down a tube. The less air going down the tube, the lower the indication of speed. At high altitude the air is very thin so at any speed there won’t be much air to go down the tube. But the wings don’t mind, they still get enough air over them to lift the plane because of the true speed.

Why three speeds?

A plane flies at the proper air speed to make sure the wings work efficiently at different stages of the flight.

True air speed is the actual speed through the air.

Groundspeed is used for navigation. It’s the true speed plus or minus the wind effect.

At 500 knots groundspeed, you travel 500 nautical miles in an hour. If it’s 500 miles between two places it’ll take 1 hour to travel between them.

Why do some planes have two engines, some three and jumbos four?

Before the Boeing 757 was designed, it was thought that engines weren’t reliable enough to allow them on two-engined planes flying long routes over water. So the three-engined Tri-Star and DC10 were developed to reduce the operating costs on those routes. After millions of hours of flight the engines were found to be reliable enough to be used on two-engined planes to fly across the Atlantic and other oceanic routes. Modern engine monitoring systems send information to the ground so that health checks can be carried out during flight.

Do two-engined aircraft fly special routes to stay near land?

They used to have to fly a route that stayed within 2 hours’ flying distance of an airport. Then it changed to 3 hours. Now they follow roughly the same routes as jumbo jets.

How much fuel does an aircraft carry?

Most aircraft on local flights will have about 2,000 gallons on board. A long-range jumbo flight might have 40,000 gallons in its tanks. A 767 would carry about 15,000 gallons of fuel to go to New York, because there has to some some extra in case the weather or traffic conditions delay the flight.

How much fuel does a plane have to carry?

Enough for the route plus… extra for diverting to another airport plus … extra for holding at the destination plus…extra for the just in case factor. Each hour approximately 10% of ‘extra fuel’ is consumed because of the ‘extra weight’. 

What is a blind landing?

A blind landing is another name for an auto land (an automatic landing). These are landings made in very low visibility. They are flown automatically by two or more automatic pilots working together. But pilots often do auto lands in good weather too, for practice. If an aircraft is capable of automatic landings then a pilot on that type has to perform three automatic landings every six months to keep his licence valid.

What is meant by low visibility?

Surprisingly, the conditions that pilots describe as low visibility are much worse than they are for a car driver. Road conditions would be considered bad if visibility were reduced to 100 yards or so. At 100 yards, the roads would be at a standstill. On a runway the conditions are measured by the number of runway lights that are visible (in reality this is done electronically), but of course the lights are very bright and they point exactly along the runway. You know that the fog lights on a car can be seen much further away than the ordinary lights; so it is with runway lights. A pilot’s idea of poor visibility is very different from yours.

Is a blind (Automatic) landing hard to do?

No, because the pilots are not doing anything except monitoring the autopilots.

Why are there so many delays when it’s foggy?

Aircraft need more space between them when doing blind landings so that they don’t get in the way of the radio guidance signals from the ground. But the main reason for delays in bad visibility is that not all airports are equipped with the ground facilities to allow blind landings. In poor visibility the taxiing traffic slows down, bigger gaps are left between taxiing aircraft, so the airport becomes more and more congested as time passes.

Airports like Heathrow have taxiway lighting systems that show the routings the pilots have to follow, which helps to keep traffic moving. But there are not many airports like that. 

What are automatic pilots able to do?

An autopilot can do anything a human pilot can do, except take off and taxi. Because taking off is so easy to do there’s no help needed. Finding the touchdown point in thick fog would be impossible without help from the autopilot.

An autopilot can keep an aircraft straight, keep it level (height), turn corners, go up, go down, maintain a pre-determined height after climbing and do the same after descending. It can maintain any set speed after going up, in level flight or going down, it can follow a radio beam, can maintain a speed, control a speed, change speeds and remind you of speeds. It can navigate, advise the pilot when to climb, to save fuel, when to descend and can land. It can be connected 20 seconds after take-off and then fly the entire route, land, put on the brakes and keep the plane exactly in the middle of the runway.

Does it keep the aircraft steady?

Yes. If turbulence makes one wing go down, the autopilot will correct for that because it wants to keep the aircraft going in a steady (constant) direction. But the natural stability of the aircraft will help as well.

What is stability?

If a wing goes down, the aircraft slips sideways and causes the lift on the downside wing to increase, which makes it come up again. The lift on the higher wing is decreased, so it goes down. If the aircraft skids from left to right or right to left (like turning without banking), the bit that sticks up at the back acts like a huge weathervane and turns the aircraft back the way it was pointing. If the nose goes up or down, the small tail wing will give a correction to make it level out again. When an aircraft slips sideways as the wing goes down it’s a matter of  a few inches – not hundreds of feet.

What safety features and equipment are there on aircraft?

Fire extinguishers, automatic oxygen supplies, lifejackets, life rafts, life cots, standby (spare) instruments, fire blankets, an axe, smoke hoods, fire detectors, smoke detectors, de-icing devices, aircraft avoidance equipment, rate-of-descent warnings, flap warnings, undercarriage warnings, too-fast warnings, too-slow warnings, too-high warnings, too-low warnings, not-working warnings. Open-door warnings, toilet smoke warnings, automatic toilet fire extinguishers. First-aid kits, checklists, handbooks, direct-to-company radio links, engineering assistance, technical assistance, medical assistance. Automatic air traffic control signals. Weather radar. Navigation system warnings, instrument warnings, loudhailers, orange hats to identify the crew. Portable oxygen for sick passengers. Aspirins, painkillers. The best safety feature is the well trained crew.

What is the advantage of using the automatic pilot?

Flying the aircraft is considered a low-skill task for the autopilot because it doesn’t have to think. Meanwhile the pilot can get on with the management of the flight. Brains are best used for thinking and planning. It wouldn’t make sense to use the skill of a human to do something that a piece of machinery can do. And when the human can’t manage because of visibility, as in blind landings, the autopilot can actually do it better.

Are planes allowed to fly without automatic pilots?

A modern aircraft is not allowed to fly without a working autopilot.

How is it switched on?

Most airlines use a push button that shows blank if it’s off or, if it’s connected, says ‘CMD’, which means ‘command.’

Can it be overridden?


Do autopilots malfunction?

Autopilots don’t go wrong nowadays. But if the autopilot has a small problem and is still able to fly the plane it will display an amber light called a caution. An autopilot caution light means ‘take note of what’s going on… the pilot might need to intervene later’. If it’s not capable of flying the plane, it will disconnect and make a loud warning noise, and display a very obvious red light that says ‘autopilot disconnect’. 

A small problem may mean that the height control is only working to plus or minus 30 feet instead of plus or minus 10 feet.

What sort of people make the best pilots?

The ones that can fly the plane accurately, smoothly, think clearly and stick to the book. They have to be good team members and have the confidence to speak up when they think it’s necessary.

How easy is it to fly a jet aircraft?

With the right training almost anyone who is sensible could learn to fly one.

How many years of training does it take to become a pilot?

Two years to get a commercial pilot’s licence and several thousand hours of experience to become a captain.

Do pilots have to re-train on each aircraft they fly?

For a fully qualified and experienced pilot it takes about 40 hours of simulator flying and then about twenty actual flights to qualify. A two-week ground school is where pilots learn about the technical side of the aircraft.

Can pilots fly all the aircraft that they are qualified on?

No. a pilot  can only be qualified on one big aircraft at a time.  A pilot  may only fly one that has been flown previously only  after completing a refresher training course.

Do pilots ever take chances?

No, and why should they want to? 

Commercial pilots have to stick to the book. Almost everything that can happen to a flight has been thought about and is written into the manuals. Corporate culpability in the wake of several incidents ensures that airlines keep within the rules and in turn they make sure that their pilots do.

What does a check pilot do?

A check pilot is someone who observes pilots working in their normal environment and assesses them with regard to how well they apply the company procedures and the law. A check pilot doesn’t advise on the training that is required to achieve the standard, neither does he give training. He reports his findings to the chief pilot of his fleet. The Aviation Authorities have access to all check flight reports.

What does a training pilot do?

A training pilot teaches pilots how to fly the aircraft and tests them on emergency procedures. He/she reports their findings to the chief training pilot of his fleet. The Aviation Authorities have access to all training reports.

Who are the best pilots: young ones or old ones?

Who are the best drivers? Who are the best at anything? It depends what is meant by ‘best’. Old pilots have more experience; young pilots are very good at the actual flying skills and learning new things. Usually crews are made up of one of each, simply because of the experience levels.

How many tests do pilots have in the course of a year?

These are the tests that all pilots have to pass in one year to stay qualified.

Flying skills – normal. Flying skills – emergencies (in a flight simulator). Technical knowledge. Safety procedures. First aid and medical. Two flights under observation (in an aircraft on a commercial flight).Two medical examinations. Human factors skills.

What happens pilots don’t get on with each other?

Since the mid-1980s there has been a complete change in the way crews are trained. In addition to technical knowledge and piloting skills, all pilots have to undergo what is called human factors training. In the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s – it would have been worth more than a co-pilot’s life to point out a captain’s mistake. Human factors training has changed that attitude. 

Crews are expected to speak up when they don’t agree with things that are being done or if they see things they don’t understand. Crews are required by law to brief each other about their duties and actions during take-off, landing, during the cruise and in the event of a malfunction. Nowadays the captain will insist on hearing the co-pilot’s view and during the pre-flight brief will remind him or her of that. Pilots and cabin crew now have to attend courses on human factors each year as a part of their refresher training.

Do pilots choose who they work with?

Not usually. An airline with more than a handful of pilots and cabin crew would find it very difficult to personalise rosters, although most companies try their best to do so.

Do pilots often fly with the same person?

Even in a big international airline it’s surprising how often pilots fly with the same people.

How many flights can a pilot operate in one day?

One, if it’s a long one. Two, if it’s a long one with a short one immediately following it. Or a maximum of six if they are all short flights. Some very small airlines that do short hops on single pilot aircraft can do even more.

Are pilots allowed to fly if they are sick?

No. Pilots can not choose to fly if they are feeling ill. The law requires them to be fit for duty. If a pilot has a cold the pressurisation effects can’t be balanced quickly enough in the inner ear and could cause damage to the eardrum. So pilots never fly with a cold. Nor may they fly after seeing the dentist. They may not Scuba dive, drink alcohol nor give blood prior to flight.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue differs from tiredness. When tired, sleeping will restore you to activity. You can sleep and feel refreshed. Fatigue is long-term and needs a different cure. In cases of fatigue a pilot is required to report unfit for duty.

What restrictions are there on what pilots eat?

Pilots have to eat different types of meals when on duty. Seafood or anything that is likely to cause an upset stomach is not used in crew meals. Crew members not on duty still have to eat different meals when they are away from base and staying in hotels to reduce the chances of food poisoning.

What could be done if both pilots were incapacitated?

It would be extraordinary if it happened. Usually, there’s a pilot on board somewhere positioning to another flight duty.

When do pilots retire?

Some airlines retire pilots at fifty-five, but sixty to sixty-five is the usual retirement age. Some countries (France, for example) won’t allow captains older than sixty to fly in their airspace. As pilots  get older they may be allowed to fly only as a co-pilot.

How does a pilot know what height to climb to?

The controller who gives take-off permission also allows a plane  to climb to the ‘stop’ height, usually about 6,000 feet. This is decided by the departure route that is given before taxiing  to the runway. After becoming airborne the controller will instruct the pilots to speak to the next controller, who is allowed to give clearance to another height, usually about 20,000 feet. Then eventually, when in contact with the airways controller, he gives permission to climb to the cruising level that is shown on the flight plan.

What happens if the radios stop working?

Pilots adopt the radio failure procedures which allows the plane to follow the agreed flight plan all the way to the destination.

Does the autopilot do the landing?

Sometimes. Autopilots are 100 percent safe and reliable. In fact, the autopilot can put a plane in exactly the same position on the runway touchdown ten times out of ten.

Does a plane have windscreen heaters and wipers?

Yes; the heaters are electrical like some of the upmarket cars. But the cockpit air circulates around them as well. The windows never mist up. The windscreen wipers have fast or slow settings and we have rain repellent that stops the rain sticking to the screens.

How far can be seen from the flight deck?

In good visibility, about 120 miles at cruising height.

What is a crosswind?

A crosswind is a wind that blows across the direction that an aircraft is wanting to go whether it’s on take-off, landing or when en route. There is no limit to the amount of crosswind allowed when cruising, but for taking off and landing it is about 50 m.p.h. maximum. 

What is a tailwind?

Any component of a  wind that blows from behind an aircraft. 

What is a headwind?

Any component of a wind that blows towards an aircraft.

What makes the weather?

Weather is made up of air. And the air has three qualities: movement, temperature and moisture. The weather depends upon how hot (or cold) the air is, how much moisture it contains and if it’s moving or not.

How does the weather happen?

If you imagine a town surrounded by fields and the hot sun beating down it’s easy to see that the town will heat up quicker than the fields because it’s made of thicker things, such as houses and cars and concrete. As they get hotter they heat the air over the town. When it gets hot enough the air suddenly breaks away and rises like a bubble, and it keeps rising until it cools to the same temperature as the air surrounding it. (Things cool down as they go up.) 

The moisture appears out of the air, not as rain, but as tiny water particles that are so light that they continue floating upwards in the current of air. In fact they become clouds. These are the fluffy ones called cumulus. If there’s a lot of moisture in the rising air the water particles join up and fall as rain.

What’s the difference between a cumulus cloud, a shower cloud, and a thundercloud?

The only difference is in size. But to become different sizes the clouds need more moisture in them to start with, and the temperature of the surrounding air has to be such that the cloud goes up a long way. And finally, to turn into a thundercloud, the air has to be unstable. And that means that even if a bubble of air is getting cooler as it goes up it still stays warmer than the surrounding air.

What happens when lightning strikes a plane?

Nothing. The electricity does not and can not enter the plane. It is discharged by ‘static wicks’. Remember that when you are near thunderclouds the air is bouncing you around anyway, so that would make a passenger think the lightning was making the aircraft move.

What makes electricity form in clouds?

The particles of air brushing against each other cause friction, and if you’ve ever caused friction between your shoes and a brand new carpet you’ll know how much static electricity can be made. That spark you get between your finger and the metal thing you touch is a miniature form of lightning.

How does the pilot know if the weather is good enough to fly in?

A pilot is only interested in weather in order to answer four questions. 

What is it like for taking off?

What is it like for landing?

What is it like at cruising height?

And is any of this going to change?

Do hailstones only come from thunderclouds?

No. Any cloud that has strong up-currents could cause hail to form, and that is more common than you would imagine. Of course by the time the hailstones have fallen from the clouds and hit the ground they have usually melted and we feel them as rain. Hailstones are frozen raindrops.

Is fog just thick cloud on the ground?

Yes. It is called fog rather than cloud because it forms near the ground and under certain conditions. If the air is warm and moist and the ground suddenly cools down, as it does on a cloudless night, the air cools down and is unable to contain the moisture so it condenses out as water droplets. Sea fog formation is slightly different because it results from the cooling of warm moist air as it crosses airs of cold water.

How thick does fog have to be to stop a plane from landing?

The best equipped aircraft and crews can land in any thickness of fog.

What are air pockets?

There are no such things as air pockets: What happens to you in an aircraft is that it feels as if it is dropping … like going over a hump back bridge at speed. The faster you go, the more you feel the bump. That’s what happens when a plane gets a bump in flight. When the plane comes down again on the other side, you think it is an air pocket.

Can planes take off in rain?

Yes, because rain has no effect on an aircraft at all. It doesn’t stick to the wings so it doesn’t affect the aerodynamics. It doesn’t affect the engines either. Screen wipers give excellent visibility along the runway regardless of the amount of rain.

How do you work out the miles per gallon?

If your car does 30 miles to the gallon and you are going to see your aunt who lives 90 miles away you’ll need 3 gallons to get there, whether you go today or tomorrow. In an aircraft the wind will affect the journey time. And winds at 35,000 feet or thereabouts are usually blowing at 70-80 m.p.h., and often at 100+ m.p.h.

Here’s a bit of fun. Imagine an aircraft that uses 1,000 gallons of fuel per hour.

We’re going on a flight of 2,000 miles

We cruise at 500 m.p.h.

Flight time will be 4 hours

Fuel needed will be 4,000 gallons

Now imagine on the way there the wind is blowing at 100 m.p.h. against us. This means that instead of travelling at 500 m.p.h. over the ground we are now travelling at 400 m.p.h. At that speed it will take longer (because we’re going slower). In fact it will take us 5 hours. That’s an extra hour’s fuel, so we need another 1,000 gallons. So this trip needs a total of 5,000 gallons.

Coming back is not so bad because, in addition to our cruising speed of 500 m.p.h., the wind will push us along at another 100 m.p.h., thereby increasing our speed on the journey back to 600 m.p.h.

At 600 m.p.h. we are traveling at 10 miles per minute

So flying 2,000 miles will take 200 minutes.

Total flight time home again is 3 hours and 20 minutes, which is 3,000 gallons for 3 hours’ flying plus 333.3 gallons for the 20 minutes. Total fuel needed is 3,333 gallons.

The difference in time between the outbound flight and the inbound one is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

So the two flights would carry very different amounts of fuel.

The difference in fuel between the two flights is 1,667 gallons. So one flight might be able to carry more passengers and cargo than the other.

Why do passengers feel unsafe during turbulence?

A simple question with a long answer. A few explanations first. There are six main feelings or sensations connected with turbulence: up and down, slowing down and speeding up, heaving and going sideways. I’ll deal with them in turn.


Which feeling do you prefer – going up or going down? In a lift (‘elevator’ to my American readers) although we get a ‘heavy’ feeling when the lift sets off to go up, it’s still a better feeling than that awful one we get as the lift slows down before stopping at a higher floor. What’s happening is that you keep going up and the lift slows down. That’s why you feel as if you are coming off the floor. EVEN THOUGH YOU ARE GOING UP YOU ACTUALLY GET A FEELING OF FALLING.

The strange thing is that you get the same feeling when a lift starts to go down. You stay where you are and the lift falls away from you until you start falling and catch it up. Whether you are slowing down from going up, or speeding up before going down, the feeling is the same.

During turbulence the aircraft is going up and down just like a lift but over a much shorter time and height. What you don’t know is whether the next movement is up or down, so you don’t have the chance to prepare… you don’t know what the next feeling will be. It’s worth remembering that we associate a feeling of falling with danger. Few people hurt themselves by jumping up and hitting their head on the branch of a tree but many of us have hurt ourselves when falling from a branch. In turbulence, the aircraft is alternately going up and down; well, strictly speaking, it might do two small ups and one big down, or two small downs and one big up. Whatever it does, it certainly doesn’t feel normal. What’s more, you have no control over it so it doesn’t feel safe, either.

BACKWARDS AND FORWARDS (Slowing down and speeding up)

Which do you prefer to do in a car – accelerate quickly or brake sharply? A car salesman will tell you enthusiastically that a car will reach 60 m.p.h. in 6.8 seconds but he won’t tell you that it’ll stop from that speed in 4.6 seconds, even though it’s a much more impressive figure. We associate slowing down with danger because we assume that something must be impeding our progress. Slowing down is an uncomfortable feeling compared with going faster. In turbulence the aircraft is flying in gusty conditions. When the aircraft encounters a gust, which will last about 1 or 2 seconds, it slows down very slightly. You experience this as being thrown forwards in your seat. A plane never goes backwards in flight, but it does feel as if it suddenly slows down.


Is well known to anyone who has been on a boat or who sails or who has been tipped out of a chair. It’s the feeling where you go forwards up and over. If you think of a small boat going up one side of a wave then tipping forwards just before it comes down the other side, then you know what heave is.


Going round a corner with someone who drives too fast is another uncomfortable feeling. You get thrown from one side of the seat to the other. Because your head is heavy and can pivot easily on your shoulders, it moves quicker and further than your body so you become giddy as well. Now combine going up, down, forwards, backwards, side to side and heaving in a very short period of time, and keep those movements going for more than a few minutes, and what have you got? Turbulence?

Not quite, because the effects of turbulence are more like, up, backwards, heave, up, sideways, down, sideways, heave, down, up, forwards, forwards, sideways, down, backwards, down, up, sideways, forwards, sideways, heave. A short break and then more up, backwards, heave, up, sideways, down, sideways, heave, down, up, forwards, sideways, down, backwards, down, up, forwards, heave.

What does ‘mayday’ mean?

‘Mayday’ stands for m’aidez, which is French for ‘help me’. Mayday is the international signal for distress. If a pilot makes a mayday call, all other aircraft have to copy the message they hear and assist in sending it to a ground station. No one else may use the mayday channel for communication.

How good are air traffic controllers?

Air traffic controllers, almost without exception, are excellent. They have years of training. A controller at major airports will have had years of experience in supporting roles before carrying the full responsibility of controlling. They will act as an assistant while they get accustomed to the procedures in force at an airport before they work on their own. Some smaller airports might allow you to visit them and see what they do.

How do air traffic controllers ‘talk you down’?

They don’t. However nice it would be to think that there’s someone on the ground free of pressure to land the aircraft, it is sadly… untrue. But they can give help with the navigation. Their radar picture and map are so accurate that they know exactly where an aircraft is at all times, so no aircraft really needs navigation equipment.

When I fly to Athens from London how does the arrival airport know when my aircraft will arrive, and how does my pilot know if he is at the right height when he gets to the airport?

In the same way that your tour operator can organise a coach to meet your flight to transport you to your hotel, so departure messages are sent to all the countries that your flight will go over. Nothing happens by chance or without planning. 

If an airline has a regular flight to Athens every Monday, all the information for that flight will be stored in the ATC computer:

Aircraft type

Take-off time requested

Speed at cruising height

Requested cruising height

Requested routing… because some countries are cheaper to fly over than others

Alternative landing airport

On the day of the flight the airline ‘activates’ the flight plan by confirming with ATC that the flight is operating. ATC will make ‘space’ for that flight and, on receipt of that message, all the countries on the route will make space too. Unlike a railway where the signals can stop a train when the next

 section of track is occupied, the air traffic system has to organise everything before it can let anyone take off.

What happens if one aircraft catches up with the one in front?

It won’t but if it were to will be asked to slow down. But don’t forget the radar controller will see it catching up and intervene if the two aircraft become less than about 80 miles apart.

Is that why they have to give their cruising speed on the flight plan?

Yes. Then ATC at the departure airport can let faster aircraft take off before the slower ones if they happen to be ready to take off at the same time.

So what happens to all the space that’s made available for my flight to Athens if we take off late because a passenger gets lost in the terminal?

They save it for a while, then give it to someone else who might want the entire route or part of it. That’s what an ATC slot time is. These come into force when airports and airways are so busy that ATC can’t swap routes and take-off times so easily. Although it may not look busy where you are, it may not be your part of the route that’s congested.

What about crossing the Atlantic where there is no radar?

Aircraft give very accurate position reports to the controllers in Shannon and Northern Canada who are in contact with each other. They plot the positions of aircraft along the routes. Aircraft going in opposite directions aren’t on the same route because if the wind blew in a direction that helped one aircraft it wouldn’t be helping the other. So if those going east are flying over one part of the Atlantic, those going west are somewhere else. This makes controlling them easier and explains why radar coverage is not essential. This is called the Organised Track System.

Are the routes constantly changing?

Not constantly. They are reviewed and revised every 12 hours or so, according to the weather. Each morning the routes are decided and notified to all airlines who then choose the ones that suit them. They are reorganised when there are significant changes in the winds.

What does a holding pattern involve and is it difficult?

An aircraft has to hold when there is not enough clear space ahead of it to continue. Usually ATC will say to an aircraft, ‘Expect to hold at Dover’, and sometimes they will add, ‘You may reduce speed now if you wish’. Sometimes, to keep aircraft apart and to reduce holding times, aircraft are asked to reduce speed en route. Aircraft approaching an airport are never closer to each other than about 10 miles. On the final approach to the runway, when all aircraft are travelling at about the same speed, they are about 3 miles apart. Remember that the slower they go, the closer they can be to each other without danger because they are all separated by the same amount of time.

It seems that jumbo jets and small planes fly in the same airspace. Is that true?

The small aircraft are allowed to fly up to a certain height and jets would not be allowed to go below a certain height. And there’s a gap between the two heights.

What precautions are in place to minimise the chance of terrorists hijacking aircraft?

Any information regarding security should be publicised as little as possible. Locked cockpit doors are one line of defence, of course; high-quality security at airports is another; public awareness and intelligence-gathering are less spectacular but powerful influences on deterring terrorists. Worldwide authorities governing air transport work together and constantly review their security. Terrorists gain advantages when passengers leave unattended bags around and when they are uncooperative with security workers. Terrorists watch for breaches in security processes and use them to their advantage. Every passenger can do something towards security by sticking to the rules.

When the engines start up the lights go on and off and there are a lot of unusual sounds. Why?

An aircraft can supply its own electricity and air conditioning on the ground, using a small jet engine positioned at the back of the aircraft by the tail. It’s called the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). 

But the APU is much more expensive to run than the electrical power supplied by the airport authorities. They supply power through a ground connection which may be a diesel-engined generator on the back of a lorry. So airlines usually choose to have the lorry supplying electricity to the aircraft rather than its own APU. The problem is that lorries don’t fly too well, so at some stage, they have to be disconnected. 

Because generators have to connect to the aircraft’s electrical system very accurately there’s always a delay between an engine starting and the generators connecting. That’s when the lights go on and off.

Each time the power supply changes the aircraft measures how much electricity there is available and turns things on and off accordingly. High-powered things like air conditioning, fans, electrical hydraulic pumps and galley power are automatically turned off and on during the start sequence so that the power can be directed to starting the engines. And they’re all noisy bits of equipment, so you will notice them going on and off.

What would a pilot do if the windscreen cracked?

Nothing. Each section of the screen is made up of three layers of toughened glass, so if one breaks the other two maintain the air pressure in the cabin.

Do co-pilots ever do the takeoff or landing?

Even though the procedures are strictly laid down, they do allow for the pilots to change roles. Normally the captain will fly the first leg (flight) and then the co-pilot flies the next, and so on. It’s up to the captain’s judgement and the rule book to decide whether the conditions are suitable for the co-pilot to fly the aircraft. Usually the captain will be the more experienced of the two anyway.

Can an aircraft operate with something not working?

Every piece of equipment on the aircraft is listed in a manual called the Dispatch Manual. It will say if an item has to be serviceable or if it can be accepted as ‘an allowable defect’. If it is allowable then very stringent conditions are imposed about the use of the aircraft. All the items in the manual are considered and approved by the manufacturer, by the aviation authority and by the airline.

What about something in the cockpit?

The same thing applies. But the captain always has the right to refuse to fly with an allowable defect. Just because the book says he can accept it doesn’t mean that he must.

How are the engines started?

Pilots check with the ground engineer that it’s safe to start. Jet engines take in so much air that any debris, including people, could be sucked into the engines if they are too close. And they blow out so much hot air that the air behind the engine has to be clear too.

When the engineer says, ‘clear to start engines’, the pilots read through a short checklist including things such as ‘handbrake on’, They check that the fuel pumps are running (they’re automatic on a car) and that the doors are closed and all the passengers are seated. The switches we use to start the engines are like the circular switch on a microwave. They select ‘ground-start’ and air is blown through the engine to turn it. When it’s at a high enough speed the fuel switch is turned which allows fuel into the engine, and within a minute the engine is running.

Why does it take so long to start? A car starts immediately.

A car has a different type of engine.

Does a plane have automatic brakes?

Yes. The brakes go on automatically during an aborted take-off so the pilots can concentrate on keeping the aircraft pointing straight down the runway. The aircraft system can sense the position of certain controls at any time. If the flaps are in a position used for take-off, and if the power is increased beyond a certain amount, the aircraft will say to itself ‘the pilot wants to take off’. If subsequently the pilots reduce power, the aircraft will say to itself ‘the pilot has changed his mind… he doesn’t want to take off’. On sensing that, the system will say ‘if he doesn’t want to take off then he must want to stop… so I shall put the brakes on for him’. And it can apply the brakes harder and more quickly without skidding the wheels than any human pilot.

How do pilots know which runway to use?

When pilots board their aircraft, one of the things they do is listen to the information service. This broadcasts the weather conditions, the take-off runway and any special information that may be important, such as a change of the take-off runway or if a taxiway is closed for repair. Knowing which runway is in use means the pilots can see which departure procedure they will have to use for their route.

How do pilots know which way to go?

By referring to the airfield chart which shows all the runways and taxiways.  ATC will say ‘Follow the greens to 27L’ which means exactly what it says: ‘Follow the green taxiway lights and they’ll take you to the Runway Two Seven Left.’ Green lights along the centre of the taxiways are turned on by the ground controller to take planes all the way to the runway. Red lights across a taxiway mean that a plane has to wait.

What does the captain mean when they say they’re waiting for the ship’s papers?

The traffic dispatcher is responsible for preparing the legal documents for the flight and presenting them to the captain before the flight. The flight cannot take place unless the papers are signed by both the dispatcher and the captain. It is a legal requirement for the number of passengers to be recorded, as well as the amount of fuel and cargo that is on board before an aircraft is allowed to take off. Seating all the passengers in the back or the front of the cabin may cause the aircraft to be out of balance. So the fuel and passengers have to be distributed in a way that keeps the aircraft in balance for the whole flight.

What exactly are The Ship’s Papers?

The captain can’t fly the aircraft until he has confirmed that it has been loaded properly. He also needs to know what sort of cargo is on board. If there are animals in the hold the heaters must be turned on. The baggage is not warmed during the flight; and that is why it is so cold when you pick it up at arrivals.

Why does the pilot have to wait for the dispatcher sometimes?

Because it may be necessary to take extra passengers or fuel because of the route or weather, and sometimes accept cargo that was not taken on an earlier flight. The flight may wait for transiting passengers from flights that arrive late. They have to be accounted for legally. The dispatcher’s target is to get the flight to leave on time. They are responsible for the coordination of everything affecting the departure. Waiting for the dispatcher is not a reason to start worrying.

What do the refuellers do?

The refueller’s job is vital and highly skilled. They don’t just put the right amount of fuel onboard. They check the quality of the fuel, its temperature and its density. They ensure that the fuel is put into the correct tanks, and they advise the dispatcher and captain of any discrepancies. They are not petrol pump dispensers by any means. They are trained in the safety aspects of fuel delivery and fire precautions. To prevent static electricity causing sparks the refueller has to bond the aircraft to the tanker before refueling begins. He does this by connecting a length of wire to the aircraft from the tanker.

Can a plane be refueled with passengers on board?

Yes, as long as the exits are available and clear of obstructions and there is a crew member near each exit. The ‘No Smoking’ signs must be on, and the ‘Seat belts Fastened’ signs must be off.

What happens to an aircraft overnight?

Engineers put the aircraft ‘to bed’, as they say. They turn off all the equipment, put all the switches into safe positions, put the brakes on and close any valves and access panels that are open and which otherwise might encourage stowaways and others. They put locks into the wheels to make sure that when they ‘wake’ the aircraft in the morning the wheels can’t be retracted accidentally. They put streamers on all these things to show that they need to be removed before flight. Then they put blocks under the aircraft’s wheels to make sure these can’t move and kiss it goodnight. Engineers just love their aircraft.

Why do the crew tell me what to do in an ‘emergency’ if one almost never happens?

Just in case. The whole of the aviation industry works on the ‘just-in-case’ factor.

In reality, is it worth listening to the safety briefing?

YES YES YES. Always listen to any safety briefing and always read the safety card. Never talk during the safety briefing in case someone else wants to hear it too. Out of simple courtesy and politeness do not continue to read newspapers or magazines during the safety briefing. 

When we listen to the safety briefing, do we feel that we are tempting providence to be prepared?

Is a motorcyclist more likely to fall off if they are wearing a safety helmet?

Are yachtsmen more likely to fall into the sea if they wear life jackets?

Are you more likely to have a car accident if you wear a seat belt?

Of course not… but if things were to go wrong you’d be in a much better position than someone who hasn’t bothered. 

Why do the crew dim the lights for take-off and landing at night?

So that your eyes could adjust to the dark conditions quickly if you had to leave the aircraft quickly.

The engines move in flight. Should they do that?

Yes. They’re far less likely to be damaged when there is a bit of give in the structure rather than if it were rigid. Most structures have some give in them. Remember that the Eiffel Tower sways in the wind and that’s over a hundred years old, so it’s not a new discovery.

Why doesn’t the engine vibrate like a car engine?

If you spent $10 million (over £7.5 million) on a car engine it probably wouldn’t vibrate either, and if you looked after it as carefully as they do aircraft engines, then it wouldn’t wear out either. It’s a different type of engine; the parts inside a jet engine go round. The parts inside a car engine go up and down.

Why are there gaps in the wing when we take off and land?

They allow keep the air flowing smoothly between the flaps and wing; when the air flows smoothly the wing can make more lift. 

The difference in speed when an aircraft is taking off or landing and when it is at cruising speed is about 500 m.p.h. When the aircraft flies slowly it needs bigger wings to support its weight, so parts of the wing unfold from inside the wing structure to make the wing size larger.

Why don’t airlines issue parachutes?

It’s a highly skilled process to use a parachute; there’s more to it than reading some simple instructions on a card. You might feel safer with one but what’s the reality? If each passenger got out in 4 seconds it would take 20 minutes to deal with 300 passengers. An aircraft would travel at least 60 miles in that time.

Is it safe to ditch in the water?

Very few aircraft have had to ditch and, of those that have, most have been fairly successful. There are procedures if an aircraft has to ditch. All trans-oceanic aircraft have several life rafts that are carried in or near the doors. They are fully equipped for all the people carried on the aircraft to survive at sea. They have protective canopies, first aid equipment and emergency radio transmitters. 

Life jackets are located beneath your seat on the aircraft. You should check that there is one for you; some people think they pay so much for their ticket that they are entitled to steal theirs. Check that yours is there.

What does ‘Doors to manual’ mean ?

The doors are in manual when you board the aircraft. They can be open and closed without anything else happening. As the pilots start the engines while the aircraft is being pushed off the jetty, the captain or engineer asks the cabin crew to set the ‘doors to automatic’. The doors are now ‘armed’, so the escape slides will deploy if the doors are opened. After landing, when the aircraft approaches the disembarkation point the captain calls ‘Doors to manual’. When the doors are set to manual, opening them does not trigger the escape slides.

Why will the doors not open in flight?

Because the doors are too big to go out through the hole that they fill. When the doors on an aircraft open inwards they fit like an ordinary door in your house. You can only open your doors at home in one direction because the builder fits a strip of wood on one side that stops the door opening the other way. So as you close the door it rests against the piece of wood attached to the doorframe and can’t go through the opening. Just as a plug can’t go down the plughole. 

In addition, when the aircraft is pressurised, the force on the door to keep it closed is about half a ton of force on each square foot of the door. At home that would be about 7 or 8 tons of force. On aircraft whose doors open outwards, bars extend as the lever moves to the closed position to prevent the door opening.

If there was a fire in one engine,  could the aircraft fly on and for how long?

Yes. It could fly for all the while it’s got fuel on board, and because it started with enough fuel to get to its destination that’s how far it could fly.

Is there an automatic sprinkler system that would extinguish the fire?

Yes. Each engine has two fire extinguisher bottles. If the fire warning continues after the first extinguisher has been set off, the other fire bottle is discharged 30 seconds later. The fire warning is a bell and a red light on the switches that control the engine. Even if the aircraft has two engines it can still fly on without danger. However, international law requires it to land at the nearest suitable airport. An aircraft with more than two engines is allowed to continue to its destination.

How safe are you when going through bad turbulence?

You are completely safe. If you’re in the rear of the aircraft the turbulence seems worse than if you’re sitting over the wings, because you’re furthest away from where it all balances. You will be more comfortable if you have your seat belt fastened securely. The aircraft is built to withstand forces far beyond those you’d ever encounter in turbulence.

Could the engine fall off?

No. But it’s designed to come off in extreme circumstances to protect the wing. For example, if the engine were vibrating and shaking so much that it could damage the wing then it would detach under the strain. Engines are perfectly safe and secure under all conditions including the most extreme circumstances. It’s the ‘just-in-case’ factor again.

If the aircraft landed on the sea would there be enough time to get out before it sank?

Yes. Landing on water is such a rare event, but those that have ‘ditched’ spent enough time afloat to allow people to get off. Fuel, of course, is lighter than water so that would help to keep the aircraft afloat. Aircraft are designed to float with the doors above the waterline as well.

How often are aircraft given safety checks?

Before every flight. Every three days. Every year. Every 3 years.

… then they are taken to pieces and rebuilt about every 5 years or so. Different manufacturers have slightly different rules. 

How often do cabin crew undergo refresher training?

Cabin crew have about three days’ refresher training each year. This will include training on normal safety procedures, fire fighting, first aid, a technical test and human factors training. Before their flights, most airlines require their crews to have a question and answer session and discuss possible scenarios that might occur on board.

Can you take a used bit from one aircraft and use it on another?

Yes. But used aircraft parts are not the same as finding something in a breakers’ yard where you might pick up a dodgy second-hand starter motor. It’s not like trying to fit a part from a Ford Escort on to a Vauxhall Cavalier. Parts are carefully maintained and catalogued throughout their lives. Every bit of maintenance work is recorded: every time a part is fitted or removed it is recorded on its ‘personal history’ sheet.

How does the Captain know that the aircraft has been checked?

Before a flight the captain will inspect the aircraft’s logbook to ensure that the maintenance schedule is up to date and signed for. Then the pilots will make their own inspection of the exterior of the aircraft. And before the captain inspects the log, an engineer will have checked and signed it to confirm their own pre-flight check and to confirm how much fuel and oil is on board.

How hot is the air coming out the back of a jet engine?

About 500˚ C.

Which maps do pilots use on a flight?

Maps have been replaced with flight computers on almost every modern aircraft. These computers contain all the navigational information for the aircraft on any of the routes it flies. A large international airline will buy worldwide information from a supplier, then have a licence to divide it into local routes: European, Middle East, Pacific, North Atlantic, or whatever it needs. These databases are updated monthly. The engineers input current information by plugging their wires into a terminal and uploading information in a matter of minutes. An aircraft will always have two sources of data: the current one and the old one, or the current one and the one that’s about to come into force. But they still carry a selection of paper maps – just in case. Soon aircraft will be paperless. All the information about the performance, navigation, weight and balance will be available electronically.

Why doesn’t the pilot say that he’s about to bank the plane?

Because it would interfere with his concentration if he had to, and of course it happens so often that he’d spend his life talking to the passengers. A bus driver doesn’t tell you each time he changes gear. Banking is normal to the pilot.

Why is the plane banked for so long sometimes?

Because if you banked steeply at cruising height the forces on you at 600 m.p.h. would be quite high, so the aircraft turns very gently to reduce them. In fact, to do a complete circle takes over a quarter of an hour. And if you started a turn over the middle of London it would cover half of Surrey, nearly all of Sussex and a large part of Kent. The diameter of a turn at 600 m.p.h., taking a quarter of an hour, would be about 50 miles. You’d be over Brighton halfway around a turn that started over London.

How does ice affect an aircraft?

If ice is on the wings or tail plane it upsets the smooth flow of air and reduces the amount of lift the wing can make. Aircraft have to be completely clear of ice and snow before they take off.

How is snow and ice removed?

The engineer will arrange for a de-icing rig to spray the aircraft with a fluid that will remove ice or snow and prevent it settling on the aircraft. 

How steeply is an aircraft climbing after take-off?

As you know by now, there are two views of everything in a plane – the pilot’s and the passengers’. The passengers will want to know what the angle is and that could be 20 to 25 degrees nose up. The pilot will want to know the rate of climb in thousands of feet per minute, and typically that might be 2,000 to 4,000 feet per minute. They’ll want to know that in order to work out how long it will take to reach a particular height. So if Air Traffic Control say to the captain, ‘Can you be at 12,000 feet by Brighton?’ they can work it out.

What’s the difference between altitude and height?

Height is the height above an airport, and altitude is the height above sea level. In real life, though, we refer to the height of a mountain, not its altitude. In aviation when we refer to the height of anything, other than the aircraft, we mean its height above mean sea level. 

What would the pilot do if all the engines failed?

The pilots would refer to their ‘all engines failed’ checklist and carry out the procedures. First, to control the aircraft. Second, to navigate the aircraft. Then to restart the engines. 

How can you see where you’re flying when it’s dark?

Pilots only navigate and fly by looking at the instruments, whether it’s bright sunlight, a foggy day, thick cloud or a dark night. They don’t have to look out of the window to navigate.

How much weight can a plane hold? Do you have fewer people on the plane if they’re all fat?

If we had fifty sumo wrestlers on a small short-haul aircraft that has a limited range of weights (unlike a jumbo which can be empty or carry 500 people) then that would be taken into account. After all, they’re likely to be a little heavier than fifty ballerinas from the Bolshoi Ballet. 

What would happen if there was a fire inside the plane?

The cabin crews are trained to deal with it. They know that certain fires need certain types of extinguisher. You wouldn’t, for example, squirt a water extinguisher on to an electrical fire. Crews know that to fight an oven fire you don’t open it to look inside; you open it wide enough to get the extinguisher nozzle in, then discharge it.

Do all cabin crew have training in first aid?

Yes. They are trained to a very high standard and they are tested every year. 

How does the weather affect the performance of an aircraft,?

The weather conditions do affect the performance. The hotter the day or night, the thinner the air. The thinner the air, the less of it there is to go over the wings or through the engines, so they don’t work as effectively. So the aircraft has a higher power requirement for take-off (remember we normally use less than maximum power for take-off) or they take off at a lower weight. Airports in hot climates, or at high altitude, have very long runways anyway. 

How much of the runway do the landing lights illuminate?

That’s something I’ve never thought about. They show enough of what you want to see. I suppose the best description would be to say that they show more of the runway than car headlights show of the road in front of you. But they don’t do that until you are over the runway. They don’t show you where the runway is; the runway lights do that. The landing lights don’t pick out the runway for you from a long way out if that’s what you’re asking.

How far away can you see an airport?

On a bright, clear day, and if the pilot is familiar with the airfield it can be identified from about 12 to 15 miles away.

What are the tyre pressures on an aircraft?

The Boeings 757’s are about 144 pounds per square inch.

How does a jet engine work?

A jet engine works by sucking cold air into the front, heating it up in the middle and blowing the hot air out of the back. It pushes forward because the hot air goes out of the back quicker than the cold air goes in the front.

Does an aircraft move because it’s being pushed along by the jet exhaust, not driven along like the wheels on a car?

Yes. And when we taxi the aircraft we use very low power. In fact, you only have to release the brakes on some aircraft and they will start to move.

What are hydraulics?

Hydraulics is the process of using liquid under pressure to exert a force that couldn’t be exerted manually. It’s like using a pressure hose to wash a car, or a plunger to clear the sink.

If you have power steering on your car and you have owned a car without it then you’ll know the benefits of power assistance. Aircraft have hydraulic pumps on each engine. The hydraulic systems power:

The flying controls

The flaps

The raising and lowering of the wheels

The brakes

What is an emergency?(Non normal Procedure)

An emergency is any situation which, if ignored, would endanger the aircraft. However, there are circumstances, such as an engine failure, that pilots have to treat as an emergency even though there is no immediate risk to the aircraft. That means they have to deal with it without delay. An emergency is the highest category of malfunction on an aircraft but what you think of as an emergency is not the same as a pilots idea of one. Don’t let uninformed newspaper stories influence you. In the last 20 years, these circumstances are described as non-normal.

Do pilots practise them?

Yes. Every six months they practise in the simulator and are tested on all the emergency procedures. That includes engine failure during take-off, emergency descent and depressurisation, and less critical things such as flaps and wheels not working properly. And there are routine problems such as electrical and hydraulic failures.

Do pilots practise normal things?

Yes. One of the major leaps in simulator training has been the recognition that practising normal things is an effective way of learning. A crew is given an imaginary flight. They are given an aircraft that might have limitations imposed on it. The pilots, behaving like a normal crew, find from their manuals the correct way to operate the ‘flight’ under the circumstances. During the ‘flight’ other problems are introduced, such as a passenger being taken ill or a someone smoking in a toilet, and the crew has to make the sorts of decisions that they might have to take on a real flight. The entire ‘flight’ is recorded on videotape. After the ‘flight’ the crew members are encouraged to discuss their decisions and behaviour with each other. This is done under the guidance and help of the training captain.

How hard is it to fly the aircraft if an engine stops during the take-off?

There are two procedures. One is used if there’s room to stop on the runway, and the other is used if the plane is going ‘ too fast’ to stop. In the first case the throttles are closed and the brakes applied.  In the second the plane has nearly got enough speed to fly anyway so the take off is continued.  Once the wheels are up, the pilots will then prepare to divert, continue to the destination, or land the aircraft.

Is this the V1 speed? The point of no return?

Yes. Before the V1 speed we stop and after V1 we continue the take-off. The expression ‘point of no return’ is used in bad documentaries and Hollywood films.

How hard is it to land if an engine has stopped?

It’s as hard or as easy as pushing a supermarket trolley that won’t steer straight and which keeps heading off to one side. Once you’ve worked out the angle at which to push it to get through the aisles and car park it’s quite easy. Pilots practise all the angles and suchlike in the simulator, so we know what it’s going to be like.

What must pilots do when there is a malfunction on board? 

Problems that require immediate attention are called emergencies and the checklist procedures will ensure a safe outcome. Flying is not new and nearly all the emergencies have been identified now. Sticking to the book is the way to ensure success. Incidentally, pilots who do not comply with the laid-down procedures do not pass their competency checks and their licences become invalid.

What advice would you give to nervous passengers?

The reality is that flying is safe. Flying is just a job, and a safe one that carries no extra insurance premiums. The people who fly aircraft are ordinary people who tend their gardens, have their hobbies, play CDs and watch the TV. They are not, and neither do they have to be, supermen or superwomen. 

I hope you enjoyed these questions and answers,

Captain Keith.

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