Cockpit Confidential: Insider Secrets and Advice from an Airline Pilot

Airline travel is a hassle, a miracle, exhausting, and exhilarating. Commercial pilot Patrick Smith has demystified the experience—from where to sit to what that racket is just after you land—in his new book.

The dangers of turbulence

Well, the fact is: turbulence is perfectly normal and even the worst turbulence is not much more than a nuisance. Smith stresses that turbulence cannot turn a plane over or cause it to go into a tail spin. (While we're on the subject, I have my own way of dealing with turbulence—I close my eyes and pretend I'm on a bus, which makes me quickly realize that airplane turbulence is always way smoother than the the bumps and curves your body endures on the road.)

Under pressure

"Though we hear talk of 'cabin pressure' all the time—and I've been known to throw the term around myself—most of us don't really know what we're talking about. The cabin air is pressurized, of course, because up at 30,000 feet there isn't much air pressure or oxygen. But a plane's cabin is not adjusted to match the pressure you'd find at sea level—far from it. That kind of pressure would put too much, well, pressure, on a jet's structure. So, cabin pressure typically matches what you'd find between 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, comparable to, say, Denver or Mexico City."

And while we're on the subject of air pressure...

Smith also notes that passengers' fear that the doors or emergency hatches of the plane might be opened mid-flight, causing the contents of the plane to be sucked out into the wild blue yonder, is completely groundless. A plane's doors and hatches cannot open once the cabin is pressured precisely because of the pressure. Also, the urban myth that pets and luggage are stored in an unpressurized compartment is false—temperatures outside the plane at 30,000 feet are sub-zero and it would not be possible to move living things and, for instance, shampoo, without pressurization and heat.

Safety and older planes

One of the reasons planes are so expensive is that they don't have a shelf life—though older planes may require more maintenance, they are no less safe than newer planes and in theory do not need to be retired.

How does a plane land in foggy weather?

Some travelers will take comfort in knowing that, when weather gets iffy and visibility is poor, the instrument landing system (ILS) is used, picking up on two "guidance beams"—one horizontal and one vertical—transmitted from the ground. The pilot uses the "crosshairs" to guide the plane, but once the plane is about 200 feet from the ground, the pilot must be able to see the runway or the landing will be postponed.

What's that racket just after a plane lands?

It's just the jet engines switching to "reverse" to slow the plane down. Smith also notes that a "rough landing" by passengers' standards is not a reliable measure of a pilot's skill. Many variables go into landing a plane, and bumps and even slightly sideways landings are sometimes unavoidable and even intentional. Sure, he's a pilot himself, but I hope you'll bear in mind his suggestion that you judge the pilot and crew by the entire flight experience and not just the moment when the wheels touch down.

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