More Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How appropriate is it to ask to meet the pilots on my flight? Will they think I am crazy? When is the best time to ask? I always feel like I would be bothering the pilots and wasting their time.

A. Even with all the new security regulations it is VERY appropriate to ask to meet the pilots! That is the one most important thing you can do to feel better. It really helps to know and trust who is flying the plane. You are not "crazy" to want to meet them. You would want to meet your doctor before he did surgery, wouldn't you? I know I would. We frequently get visitors and they are always welcome. Try to board a little early so that you will have plenty of time. Just remember that once the plane is ready to depart, you should no longer ask to meet the pilots.

Q. Is it true that the radar cannot detect clear air turbulence? How dangerous is turbulence? My main fear is that even the capable crew might panic when something so big and sudden hits.

A. Turbulence troubles quite a few people, you are not alone. Doppler radar has made displaying turbulence a reality, although up at cruise altitude we still encounter unexpected turbulence. Rough turbulence is very rare, and usually very brief. I have never witnessed any crewmember show signs of panic during turbulence. You really must believe that turbulence will not hurt the airplane. Turbulence always feels worse in the cabin than in the cockpit. It is also an issue of being the one who is in control. Whenever you fly take the time to discuss turbulence with your pilots before your flight. See what they have to say about it, and if turbulence is forecast for your route. That should go a long ways towards easing your concerns.

Q. Can doors be opened in flight?

A. Some people worry that if a passenger were to lose their self control during flight that they might be able to open a cabin door. The doors cannot be opened in flight. The doors act as a plug when the cabin is pressurized. The pressure holds the door tightly against its door jam seal. You would only be able to get a door open if the plane was depressurized. On the ground there is a safety switch which makes sure the plane is depressurized to allow you to open the doors in an emergency. When a door is opened in an emergency, a slide automatically inflates allowing everyone to escape rapidly.

Q. What happens if a passenger has a medical problem like a heart attack?

The flight attendants are well trained for such events. They can administer oxygen and they have an automatic defibrillator as well as other medicines and equipment contained in a medical kit. Often a PA is made asking if any doctors, nurses, paramedics, etc. are on board to help (often there is someone with experience). All the while the pilots declare a "medical emergency" with ATC to obtain priority handling to land at the nearest suitable airport.

Q. I've felt planes slow down after take off. That makes me think something is wrong with the plane and we have to turn around and land again. Why do they do that?

A. Often speed and power changes are required by ATC to fit us in line with other airplanes. We try to do this as smoothly as possible, but this is normal.

Q. I've been on planes that tilted (sideways) so much during the landing I thought the wing would hit the ground before the landing gear. Is that possible?

A. During landings the wings will tilt in reaction to the wind. In response to a crosswind we will tilt the upwind wing downward to keep the plane tracking straight down the runway. These crosswind landings are learned very early on in our basic pilot training. But I can understand how passengers might think the wing will contact the runway.

Q. What are air pockets? How big can they be? Does their size affect the control of the plane? Are they just a form of turbulence?

A. Air pockets are in need of a better name. There are no "pockets" of air out there waiting for planes to fall into! Sometimes as we change altitude the headwind may reduce or change to a tailwind and it feels like we are falling, but it just takes a second or two for the planes momentum to catch up to the new wind it is reacting to. If the wind change is great enough, we add power to make up for the temporary difference.

Q. My greatest time of stress is during the moment of lift-off and continues maybe 20-30 minutes into the flight. For some reason I'm afraid that the engines are going to blow from all of the enormous strain that is being put upon them during this time.

A. One reason the engines are so reliable is that we only use a portion of the available power during takeoff. The engines are capable of producing much more power, but to reduce maintenance and increase reliability, we don't use full throttle. In simulator training we get to experience just how much extra power is available, and it's impressive. So next time you are taking off, remember the engines are actually taking it easy!

Q. What do you do if an engine catches fire?

A. Engine fires are very rare. However, if we do have a fire there are many ways to fight it. With the pull of the fire handle we can shut off all fuel and hydraulics going to the engine. This starves the fire of combustibles. Then, when we twist the handle we shoot a fire-extinguishing agent all around the engine. Then we wait 30 seconds, and can shoot another extinguisher if necessary.

Q. What if you do fly into a bad thunderstorm?

A. First, we do everything we can to avoid thunderstorms by a wide margin. We use both ground based and airborn radar to locate the storms. If we do somehow end up in a thunderstorm we set up the plane to handle the rain and turbulence. We turn on the backup igniters to ensure the engines will continue to run even in very heavy rain. We also fly the plane at the best "Turbulence Penetration" speed. This is the speed which gives us the most controllability, while being slow enough that it guarantees that the plane cannot be damaged by the bumpy air. We fly straight ahead and should be out of the storm fly out of the storm as quickly as possible.

Q. What happens if the plane drops suddenly in a strong down draft?

A. Strong downdrafts are also very rare and usually very short in duration. If we encounter a "microburst" downdraft (usually the strongest type of downdraft), we have procedures to obtain the maximum performance to combat the downdraft. We can increase the engine thrust to a "reserve" setting which is much greater than normal maximum. And then we can use all excess airspeed to convert the energy for climbing. We routinely practice this maneuver each year at recurrent training.

Q. Does one feel less turbulence on larger aircraft, e.g. 747s, than smaller aircraft like 757-200?

A. Turbulence seems to be the number one thing that bothers people about flying. The 747 may be just a little less influenced by turbulence than the 757 but I don't know if it would be worth adjusting your travel plans around. If you get a chance, re-read the section about turbulence in my course. People often exaggerate how bad they think turbulence is.

Regional jets now account for more than one in four of the nation's domestic flights, up 14 percent from 2001, according to a recent study by Reconnecting America, a transportation policy group. According to a recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the increasing role of the regional jet has created a backlash among some frequent fliers. They say the planes were a welcome upgrade from turboprops but are no substitute for full-size planes on long trips. "I feel for the guys who are 6-foot-5. Their knees are in their eyeballs," said one executive, who travels often for his job as spokesman for an Atlanta-based Internet service provider. He dislikes the limited carry-on space, low ceilings and what he feels is the sometimes-choppier ride of regional jets vs. midsize jets. He tries to avoid them as much as possible. A Denver retiree who travels widely fumes about the growing use of regional jets, especially for longer flights. "It's like getting into a submarine," he said. "There are no headsets, no in-flight entertainment of any sort. Tiny restrooms. The bar is limited because there's no galley space. Now they want people to sit in these things for three or four hours."

Q. What is wake turbulence?

A. Like a boat that leaves a wake behind it on a lake, wake turbulence is formed behind aircraft in flight. The wake behind an aircraft lasts for a couple of minutes and tends to slowly sink below the aircrafts flight path. All pilots are taught to be aware of wake turbulence. A wake encounter is not necessarily hazardous. When crossing the wake of an aircraft you may experience one or more quick jolts or you may experience some wing rocking. Government and industry groups are making concerted efforts to minimize or eliminate the hazards of wake turbulence.

Q. How do we avoid wake turbulence?

A. We establish a safe interval behind other aircraft. Air traffic controllers provide at least a 2 to 3 minute time separation behind aircraft landing or departing. We remain at or above the flight path of the preceding aircraft and we fly slightly upwind. Wake encounters are very rare because wake turbulence affects such a small area and exists for only a brief period of time, but we always strive to avoid it to provide you with a safe and smooth flight.

Q. Why do take offs scare me so much?

A. Take off is a phase of flight that scares a lot of people. Some of the sensations you might expect include the sound of the engines and the feeling of acceleration. Another thing you may notice is your ears may feel funny because of an air pressure change in the cabin. This happens because the plane’s pressurization system begins to activate during take off. The pressurization system will actually make the climb more comfortable on your ears by gently adjusting the cabin pressure. Once at cruise altitude, the cabin pressure is similar to the air pressure you would experience if you drove to the mountains – about 7,000 feet. From a pilot’s prospective, take offs really aren’t a big deal. We apply power, steer the plane straight down the runway, and once we reach the proper speed, we tilt the nose of the plane up so the wings can begin generating lift and away we go. Remember that airplanes are meant to fly and actually handle better in the air than on the ground.

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