May 5, 2015

Let’s Scare the Passengers

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Written by: Erika Armstrong
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If it wasn’t for company policy requiring me to go and find some smooth air, I’d just tighten my seat belt, put my arms up in the air and yell, “yeehaw!” I know what these airplanes are capable of, and turbulence — even severe (which is so rare, you’d really have to try and find it) — isn’t going to harm the airplane. I understand every sight, sound and movement of the airplane, but it’s easy to forget that those same inputs can scare passengers. From the moment a person becomes a passenger, there are reasons that, without explanation, could cause fear to burble to the surface.

The first drip of anxiety can start by simply standing in the ticketing line. You show up at the airport with what you thought was plenty of time, but suddenly that line isn’t moving and you start looking at your watch. You have nothing else to look at except all the strangers around you, and you are expected to passively wait. A low level fear begins, settles in, and stays with you for the rest of your trip.

Next, security. All around you are TSA, uniforms, warnings about terrorism, explosives and flashbacks to 9/11 bounce around the back of your head.  Then you must undress, remove your shoes, dump your bags, and remember where you put your tickets. These have nothing to do with the flight itself, but these are components of anxiety that you now take with you onboard and you probably don’t even realize it’s beginning to bother you.

Now, you’re in your seat. You’re getting bumped in the head by other people’s bags, your seat belt is twisted, and there is a strange smell – not quite human. What looked like a huge airplane from the outside, suddenly feels small now that all those people are inside.  Maybe you’re not usually claustrophobic, but unknowingly, these crowded conditions add to your anxiety.

You hear the cabin door close. The sound changes. Voices are a murmur. Your flight is beginning and now I’ll tell you what’s happening in one sentence: Your pilots, who have spent many years, thousands of hours training, flying and studying are about to get you to your destination, safely. They’re not as worried about being on time as they are about the safety of your flight. Every thought, action and decision is made to keep you safe. I can tell you that there around three million people who fly every day, about 18 million flights per year, but the problem with statistics is that they do not stop people from being afraid to fly. So, the top four fear triggers for passengers are turbulence, unknown sounds, lightning, and fear of mechanical failure. Here is more information to empower yourself to acknowledge and fight the fear.

1) Turbulence. Like I said, “yeehaw!” As a pilot, it’s a blast. But, yes, we know it spills your coffee, fills the barf bags and makes you nervous, so you’ll hear the engines change power settings as we try to find you smooth air. We’re talking to air traffic control (ATC) about it and getting reports from other pilots in the area. We all help each other find smooth air, but there are just some days where it’s not going to happen. Big weather systems can dominate an area at all altitudes, so during those minutes when we have to ride it out, just remember that these airplanes are put through wing loading tests that defy reality. New airplanes are required to withstand 150 percent of the maximum expected load for four seconds. So, think of the worst severe turbulence that’s ever been encountered, and remember that the airplane can withstand 50 percent more than that!  The danger of turbulence, of course, are those people and things not belted in. The flight attendants are most at risk, so pilots inform them if there is forecasted turbulence. We have them seated for safety. Not wearing your seatbelt puts you and others around you in danger. Just wear your seatbelt and you’ve eliminated the danger. You have the power.

2) Scary sounds. More than anything you experience, it’s the constant unknown sounds all around you that subconsciously tell you something is scary. The sounds vary, depending on what type of aircraft you’re on. Airbus makes a lot of extra weird noises. The first weird noise occurs on the ground, while you’re waiting for pushback. It sounds like a barking mechanical dog. Arff! Arff! Arff! The dog’s name is PTU (power transfer unit), and all it’s doing is providing hydraulic pressure. Good doggie. You might also hear a shrill, long whine at the gate right before departure and again after landing. It’s just an electric hydraulic pump used to open/close the cargo door – or, maybe it’s the groaning of the baggage handlers after tossing a couple hundred bags around.

For all airplanes, you might feel a “thunk” when the tug starts to push your airplane back from the gate. Non-commuter airplanes weigh anywhere from 80,000 lbs (i.e. DC9) to 1.3 million lbs of a new A380-800. Having a tug push that much weight from a dead stop is going to make a few clunks.

As the airplane is getting pushed back, the pilots will start at least one engine. For fuel savings, some airplanes might taxi out on just one engine. Either way, you’ll hear an engine spinning up and as the engine comes to full idle, the pilots might start switching power from the APU (auxiliary power unit – aircraft have them to provide air to start the engines and to provide electricity and air conditioning while on the ground) to the engine. This transfer might cause the lights to flicker or interrupt the flight attendant’s announcements.

After the engine(s) is started, the pilots will start checking flight controls so you’ll see some panels on the wing go up and down and flaps will be lowered to the takeoff setting. You can watch them be set. Just look at the trailing edge of the wing. Setting the flaps will cause some noise as pumps are actuated.

Clunk, clunk, clunk. You taxi to the runway and as the tires go over each slab of concrete or asphalt, there is noise. Along the taxi, the pilots will start any remaining engine(s). There is usually a pause (could be short, long, or very long depending on traffic and weather) when the pilot is waiting in line for takeoff clearance. Once on the runway, the pilots will add power (sometimes in increments) and watch as all the instruments give indications that everything is good to go. It won’t feel like it, but takeoff speeds are around 150-180 mph.

After liftoff, you’ll hear the wind over the fuselage change frequency and as speed increases, the pilots are cleaning up the airplane. Gear come up first with a solid “thunk” as the gear doors close finish off the noise. Then, notches of flaps are tucked back in as speed increases. The pilots want a clean wing and clean fuselage. Every change makes noise as it move into high speed flight condition. At 10,000 feet AGL (above ground level), you’ll hear a “ding” as the pilots let the flight attendants know they can get up. From here on out, you’ll hear a few power changes as the pilots get clearance up to the higher altitudes. Sometimes the airplane is too heavy to climb all the way up there, so they step climb during the flight. Listen to the sound of that wonderful wind, humming across the airfoil. It’s a white noise that if you let it, will lull you into a relaxation as you look out the window and enjoy the view.

On descent, you’ll hear everything in the opposite order. Pilots will be reducing power and your ears will feel the descent. You might see speed-brakes being deployed on the wings, probably because ATC has asked for a speed/altitude crossing restriction, so the pilots have to adjust to what speed ATC wants them at. Many miles out, the pilots are getting their airplanes in line to land. You’ll feel the turns and hear the flaps come out in notches of degrees. Then, the solid, louder grinding of the landing gear coming down into the locked position. The last settings for the flaps are set and then the engines will spool up to carry the extra drag. Once you’ve landed, who cares what the other noises are, right?!

3) Lightning. Maybe along your flight, you’ll see a gorgeous thunderstorm building and see a little lightning. Maybe you’ll feel a little turbulence to go with it. What a wonderful world it is. Lightning is another fear for passengers, but as a pilot, our primary objective is to avoid it. It’s not the lightning so much as the hail that we’d like to avoid (see, I just added and dispelled another fear for you). We have fabulous radar that tells us where the storm power is and we mostly just avoid it. However, lightning can strike when you least expect it. One airliner I was flying got hit by lightning coming into Dallas during a fast moving snowstorm. Yes, weird. The atmosphere was simply electrically charged and the airplane was very attractive to it. All airplanes are engineered to shed static build up/lightning and shield components. There is sometimes a momentary pause in electrical systems, but the engines don’t really care. They just keep on working. The electricity finds a path of least resistance and gets out as quickly as possible. For a passenger, there might be a flash and loud bang as you hear the lightning’s sonic boom, but sound isn’t dangerous. There might be a few moments of foul language as we have to reset a few things, but we, and the airplane, will be fine. And then, we’ll both have a good story to tell.

4) Mechanical. What if an engine falls off or quits running? Okay, so what, we have another. Airplanes are certified to fly even if an engine, or two, fail. Pilots are constantly trained for it. We dream about it. V1…rotate…engine failure…dead foot, dead engine. Just fly the airplane. Repeat. Catastrophic mechanical failure is rare. Yes, there have been instances in the past, but aviation safety has built on those lessons to the point that we’re close to perfection. Perfection is not failure free; it’s catastrophe free. That’s what the industry is striving for. Flight delays are part of this process so embrace its safety. Pilots won’t take airplanes that aren’t safe so they will delay a flight to make sure you’re safe. It’s hard to remember this when you’re on your way to a meeting or visiting loved ones, but delays mean safety. Waiting for safer weather or getting a mechanical issue repaired is part of the big picture. It has to happen so be glad for it.

Passenger intelligence means questioning everything. For a passenger, it’s not always possible to find answers to your questions which can trigger fear and anxiety in the calmest of personalities. Just remember that every person on this airplane is here to get you there, safely. Conquer your fear with knowledge. Now that you know, you can unpack your stowaway fear and enjoy your flight.

Erika Armstrong has been in aviation for 25 years. From the front desk of a busy FBO to the captain’s seat of a commercial airliner, she’s experienced everything in between. Her book A Chick in the Cockpit was purchased by Behler Publications and will be available September 2015. If you want to ask a question or share your fear, she can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Erika Armstrong



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  • There’s another ‘feeling’ that new passengers may find disturbing. If you happen to be seated in the far rear when the airplane rotates off the runway, the back end drops down when you expect to be going up. Sort of like going down in an elevator.