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Cockpit Confidential: A Pilot Answers Your Most Urgent Questions

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
July 26, 2017
Pilots in the plane cockpit
Nikolai Sorokin/Dreamstime
Air travel is a hassle, a miracle, exhausting, and exhilarating. Here, airline pilot and author Patrick Smith demystifies the experience—from where to sit to what that racket is just after you land.

You might say that Patrick Smith knows a thing or two about air travel. He flies jets for a major carrier and has been a professional pilot for more than 20 years; he is the host of askthepilot.com and for 10 years wrote Salon.com's column Ask the Pilot. His book, Cockpit Confidential, answers travelers' most pressing questions—including advice about the best seats for jittery fliers, explanations of disturbing events like turbulence and iffy landings, and the lowdown on the overall safety of flying.

I caught up with Smith and posed some of my own most pressing questions to him—I hope they reflect what you're most curious about, too. Here, his answers along with some tidbits from Cockpit Confidential, a fun, informative read that I highly recommend.

Get your kids a cockpit visit

Smith reminds us, "Many people wrongly assume that the cockpit is entirely off limits. This isn't so. Cockpit visits are welcome while the plane is parked at the gate, either before or after the flight. Provided things aren't too busy, we're usually more than happy to have a guest stop by. It's flattering when somebody takes that much interest in what we do. And this isn't just for kids. If you've never seen a cockpit up close before, and you're curious, come on up. For nervous flyers, a chat with the crew and a look around is often reassuring. Be sure to ask a flight attendant first, but nine times in ten it won't be any problem."

The best seats for jittery fliers

While Smith doesn't idly dispense "tips," he does offer solid advice for passengers on those topics he's most qualified to speak about. "If you're a fearful flyer bothered by turbulence and/or engine noise," he says, "avoid sitting in the rearmost rows. It's noisier in the back, and the aircraft tends to sway more during spells of rough air. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference, but the smoothest seats are usually those over the wings."

Advice for the truly fearful

The good news is that fearful fliers are not alone. "The first thing to keep in mind is that everybody is on some level afraid of flying," Smith says. "This is normal, whether you're a first-timer or an annual million-miler. The problem is when this fear becomes irrational and unmanageable. Often in such cases, no amount of statistics or straight talk from a pilot are going to make a difference, and what's really needed is professional counseling. For some people, one thing that helps is a "dry run" prior to the day you plan to fly. Take a trip out to the airport and go through the motions, familiarizing yourself with the process. Walk through the terminal, watch some airplanes take off and land, etc. Many of the most stressful aspects  of flying—long lines, noise, etc.—take place on the ground, long before you're actually on the plane, and this is a way of priming yourself for these hassles. Another good idea, of course, is to get yourself a copy of Cockpit Confidential."

What's the deal with airline food?

Smith reminds us that though the topic might still be ripe for stand-up routines, airline food has greatly improved. "On shorter flights, the old plastic trays and beef-or-chicken entree options have been replaced by buy-on-board options. Usually it's a sandwich or wrap of some kind, and they tend to be decent. On long-haul flights, full catered meals are still the norm, and frankly they are a lot tastier than people give them credit for. And if you're fortunate enough to be in first or business class, of course, long-haul meal presentations are often exceptionally good, with four or more gourmet courses and a carefully selected wine list. The more prestigious carriers—Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, British Airways, et al.—take their catering very seriously. Some Turkish Airlines flights carry an on-board chef who prepares and supervises the business class meals. U.S. airlines, to their credit, have markedly improved their service standards over the past few years. This includes better food and drink options in both economy and premium classes, in some cases rivaling the better European, Asian, and Middle Eastern airlines."

Spanning the globe on one tank

Over the years, Smith's readers have asked what plane has the longest range. The answer is the Boeing 777-200LR, which can cover a staggering 9,000 nautical miles without refueling, making it possible to connect just about every major city on earth via nonstop flights. He also notes that the longest scheduled flights offered by major carriers are less than 8,000 miles and include flights from Australia to Texas and from Texas to the Middle East.

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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