The 11 questions pilots get asked all the time

Dec 14, 2019

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As Christmas party season is well under way, I’m reminded of one of my favourite aviation jokes… how do you know there’s a pilot at a party? They’ll tell you.

Whilst that joke isn’t likely to make your top 10 jokes of 2019, there’s an embarrassingly high amount of truth to the punchline. Maybe it’s because we’re proud of what we do, or maybe it’s because it always sparks conversation.

Whilst not everyone has experience of piloting an aircraft, most people have some experience of being a passenger on one. It’s something people relate to and which we have in common. Namely locking yourself in a pressurised metal tube and propelling it six miles above the earth at 550 mph. When you break it down, the concept is pretty absurd.

As this common experience sparks a conversation, no matter what the circle, quite often the same questions get asked over and over again.

So, to give you some conversational ammunition for your Christmas party, I’ve answered the most common of these questions so you’re ready to impress your audience — the pilot hat is optional.

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Is toilet waste dumped overboard?

No. Do you want the contents of your neighbours toilets dumped in your garden? So why would the thousands of aircraft flying around the earth right now do the same? Whenever a toilet is flushed, a high-pressure suction system drags the contents through a series of pipes to a waste tank. When the aircraft lands, one lucky individual at the airport has the job of emptying this tank into a truck. It’s then driven away to be safely disposed of.

Emirates A380 bathroom – whether it’s from the toilet, sink or shower, it all goes into a storage tank. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

But what about these stories of blocks of frozen excrement falling from aircraft, I hear you say?

Like with any story, there may well be some artistic license. Whilst the valve to drain the waste tank remains closed during the flight, there is always a chance that some liquid matter could escape. This is equally true of the fresh water tank. If this happens mid-flight, in the -50 degree Celsius outside air, the liquid will freeze.

As the aircraft descends to land, the air warms up and the ice starts to melt and the ice will fall away. That said, the amount of liquid leaking will normally be so small that any ice forming will be very small — small enough to break up and cause no problems on the ground.  

Planes fly themselves nowadays, right?

This is by far and away the best way to test a pilot’s sense of humour. Ask this question and see them fill up with rage, or, give you a wry laugh, curse under their breath or calmly give you an explanation as to why you’re wrong.

I always compare the autopilot to writing a letter on Microsoft Word. When you use Word, who’s writing the letter? You or the computer? If you hold down the Y key, it will write YYYYYYYYYYYY beautifully across your screen, but it will mean nothing. It’s the same with the autopilot.

Two pilots at work during departure of Dallas Fort Worth Airport in United States of America. The view from the flight deck with high workload the beginning night through the wind shield

The autopilot is only as good as the instructions the pilots give it. If we tell it to fly a heading of north at 3,000 feet, it will do it beautifully… right into the side of a mountain. There are few prizes awarded for that.

Pilots use the autopilot to do the dog’s work or keeping the wings level and the aircraft pointing where we want it to go. Any changes to the flight path must be commanded by the pilots.  

The brace position is just to protect dental records

This is one of the more bizarre statements I’ve heard, but if it’s a question worth asking, there’s an answer worth giving. The brace position, adopted in the event of an emergency landing, is there to give you the greatest chance of survival.

It normally requires you to place your head on the seat in front and place your hands on top. This does two things. Firstly, it stops your face from being violently slammed into the seat back in the case of a rapid deceleration. Secondly, it protects your face from falling objects.

Always read the safety card. You never know when you may need it.

If you ever have to adopt the brace position, do not interlink your fingers. Place your weaker hand over your dominant hand, covering it as much as you can. By doing this, should something fall on you, you’ll only damage your weaker hand. This will leave your dominant hand able to release the seat belt so you can leave the aircraft.  

Why do we need to open the window blinds and put our tray table up for takeoff and landing?

Once again, this is purely for your safety and of those around you.

Imagine being on the takeoff run when suddenly the aircraft starts decelerating and comes to a halt. The cabin starts to fill with smoke and the Captain orders an evacuation. If you’re sat by a door, brilliant, you’re out first. If you sat by a window, this is going to take a little longer.

Now imagine that the people in the middle and aisle seats have left their tables down. All of a sudden, it’s even more difficult to reach that exit.

As a crew member, even though we never plan on the unthinkable happening, we always prepare for it. This is why the flight attendants stroll through the cabin before takeoff and landing to ensure that everything is prepared for the unexpected. This is the same with the window blinds.

By keeping them open, it gives all the cabin occupants great situational awareness of what’s going on outside the aircraft. So, should the need to evacuate arise, doors aren’t opened onto a hazardous situation.

It’s for this reason why, as a passenger, I’ll always keep my shoes on until the aircraft is safely airborne.  

Do oxygen masks actually provide oxygen?

If the cabin loses pressurisation at 43,000 feet, the cruising level the 787 Dreamliner often flies at, you have around 15 seconds in which to fit your mask. This is known as the Time of Useful Consciousness. Beyond this time, you will start to suffer from the effects of hypoxia and ultimately, without help, fall unconscious.

In the flight deck, the first thing we do in this situation is put our oxygen masks on. Once this is done, we can start to bring the aircraft down to an altitude where it is safe to breathe with additional oxygen. This may take several minutes so the oxygen provided through the masks is essential during this time. Oxygen masks are vital to keeping you safe in the event of an emergency.


Can you open a cabin door from the inside once in the air?

Not true. Aircraft doors operate with a “plug” system. To open the door, it must be pulled into the aircraft ever so slightly. As the aircraft climbs away from the ground, the cabin is pressurised, forcing the door to plug the door frame. So long as the aircraft cabin is pressurised, it’s impossible to open the door.  

Do pilots have a parachute under their seats?

See above. If you can’t open the door, what’s the point in having a parachute. We’re in this together! 

Does each pilot eat different meals while flying?

This used to be true, but not any more. The old line of thought used to be that there was a relatively high risk of contracting food poisoning from the onboard food. Therefore, to stop both pilots becoming incapacitated mid-flight, they should never eat the same food.

However, with advances in the standards of food hygiene during cooking and transport, the risk of this has been greatly reduced. Crew are probably more likely to get sick from food in a restaurant or home than they are from the food on board.

Does cabin air make you sick?

Yes, it’s true that some air in the cabin is recycled. However, air on modern aircraft are cleaner than ever. The 787 Dreamliner is the only commercial aircraft flying that takes its cabin air directly from the fresh air outside and not from the engines. Some of this is recycled, passed through hospital-grade HEPA filters to remove viruses and bacteria. However, even this air is refreshed every few minutes.

If you feel still feel that you get sick from aircraft air, have a think about the pilots and cabin crew who work in that environment every single day. If aircraft air really was that bad for you, surely we’d be ill all the time… yet we’re not.  

Can lightning make a plane crash?

Thunderstorms are awe-inspiring phenomena. They can spring up in a matter of minutes, expel mind-boggling amounts of energy before disappearing into thin air again. Whilst the energy within a storm cloud can be hazardous to aircraft, the high voltage from a lightning strike actually poses very little threat. This is because the structure of an aircraft acts as a Faraday cage —  an enclosure used to block electromagnetic fields. 

A perfect example of the Faraday cage an aircraft creates. Lighting strikes one part of the aircraft, travels over the skin and out of another path, keeping all inside safe.

As you know, metal is a good conductor of electricity. It therefore will attract a lightning strike. However, because it’s such a good conductor, the current will travel round the outside of the aircraft fuselage and not penetrate inside it. As a result, the biggest effect a lightning strike has on an aircraft is a few small burn marks. And that’s it.  

Do air pockets cause turbulence?

Let’s get one thing straight. There are no such things as “air pockets”. Air behaves very much water. It’s fluid. As the concept of having a “water pocket” is quite ridiculous, it should help you see why air pockets cannot exist.

In its most basic form, turbulence is caused by changes in the airflow around the aircraft. It’s these fluctuations in airflow that cause the bumps. Back to our water analogy, it’s very much liking being on a boat. As the water below the boat moves, the motion of the boat changes. The boat will never “fall through” the water, it will just bob up and down — and it’s the same concept in the air.

Bottom line

Aircraft and air travel still holds interest and intrigue amongst even the most frequent flyers — just ask some of my colleagues at The Points Guy U.K.! As a result of this interest, all kinds of bizarre rumours and stories can be dreamed up. Most pilots enjoy talking about a job of which they are proud to call their career. We take great pride in what we do and how we do it. So next time a question pops into your head about aviation, say hello to your pilots on your next flight or drop me an email and I’ll be happy to help.

Featured image by Getty/Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd

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