Whether you’re a nervous flier or not, arriving safely at your destination is no doubt always on your mind when traveling by airplane. From what’s causing that midair turbulence to who’s actually manning the controls, there are a lot of things to wonder about as you gaze out the plane’s window. To find out what really goes on behind the cockpit door, we asked the only people who’d know: pilots. Read on to find out what regional and major airline aviators had to say about working up in the air.
Takeoff has its risks, but they are extremely low.
No pilot will ever say that any part of the flying experience is unsafe, yet they will admit that takeoff is the most critical part of a flight. “The airplane is heavy, full of fuel and flying at a relatively low speed, and the engines are at or near full power,” says George,* who has been a major commercial airline pilot for 22 years. “An engine failure shortly after liftoff requires quick recognition of the situation.” For that reason, engine failures are practiced in a flight simulator every six months to a year. However, according to the pilots we spoke with, the real deal is extremely rare.
Pilots don’t work with the same cockpit crew every time.
When pilots make their monthly scheduling bids, they can ask to fly with particular crew members, but requests are granted based on seniority only. “Most captains and copilots don’t know each other and likely just met that day or that week,” says Mike,* a regional airline pilot and author of GeekInTheCockpit.com. And regardless of how friendly your captain may sound over the loudspeaker, the atmosphere in the cockpit can sometimes be pretty tense. “Sometimes two people just don’t mesh. I’ve flown with guys I can’t stand. It just means hours and hours of silence during the flight.” Yet the pilots we spoke with stress that, despite any personal feelings, both the captain and first officer always obey protocol when it comes to flight procedure and, if there’s ever a disagreement, the captain has the final say.
Autopilot will never replace a real pilot.
If there’s one big falsehood about flying, it’s the idea that autopilot takes care of everything. “It’s such a misleading term,” says Smith. While the autopilot setting—which helps with everything from vertical and horizontal navigation to speed control—can improve the pilot’s capabilities, it doesn’t mean that you can just jump in a plane and press “fly.” In addition, airplanes themselves are very different, and require specific operation training. “When you transition from one model to another, you go through a full training course, including classroom and simulator training, which can be anywhere from four to eight weeks long depending on the airline,” says Smith. Photo: Thinkstock
Passengers really do need to turn off their cell phones.
Although it’s unlikely that a cell phone signal would interfere with aircraft equipment and data transmission, it’s better to err on the side of caution, says Smith. For the duration of the flight, your phone should always be powered down or on “Airplane Mode,” which will disable any wireless features (to comply with airline regulations) while still allowing you to listen to music or take photos. The request to power down and put away other electronics during takeoff and landing, however, is a different story. “The main reason we ask you to stow your laptop is because it’s like another piece of luggage, and could inadvertently become a projectile if there’s a sudden change in acceleration,” says Smith. Similarly, MP3 players aren’t in danger of interfering with your plane’s signals; you’re asked to put them away so you can listen to the safety instructions—earbud-free