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fear of flying
June 5, 2009 12:41 AM   Subscribe

Ask the Pilot. Columnist Patrick Smith explains why you shouldn't be afraid of flying.

For the past several years, the invaluable Patrick Stewart has been answering common passenger questions, including:

Is turbulence dangerous?
What are the safest airlines?
No really, what are the safest airlines?
How dangerous is in-flight decompression?
Too hot to fly? A plane crossed in front of us? WHAT??
What does a runway near-miss mean?
Will using an electronic device really down a plane?
posted by lalex (42 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, I thought though he captained the Enterprise on TV, didn't know he actually piloted earth-only vessels allso.
posted by ALongDecember at 12:47 AM on June 5, 2009


Patrick Stewart hey?

Next arcticle: how close is too close with Borg cubes?
posted by nudar at 12:48 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


damn beaten to the punch
posted by nudar at 12:48 AM on June 5, 2009


yikes! I'd beg the mods to edit, but I can't help looking forward to the next slew of jokes.
posted by lalex at 12:52 AM on June 5, 2009


Tell the mods to make it so.

Ok, sorry. This is a neat column. Also related is the blog of former CNN Space and Aviation correspondent and pilot Miles O'Brien.
posted by ALongDecember at 12:53 AM on June 5, 2009


Yeah, Miles O'Brien's aviation/aerospace blog is superb. I wanted to add it in to this post but trueslant seems like it's been down all night?
posted by lalex at 12:56 AM on June 5, 2009


Ha! I just did something similar in a recent FPP. I wrote that "Armadillos can walk on the bottom of the ocean." I was daydreaming about surfing, and that's what came out. Ooops.

(I'm not suggesting you were daydreaming about Patrick Stewart.)

(But were you?)
posted by iamkimiam at 12:59 AM on June 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


(I'm not suggesting you were daydreaming about Patrick Stewart.)

(But were you?)


OF COURSE NOT!

shut up
posted by lalex at 1:04 AM on June 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


Ok, sorry. This is a neat column. Also related is the blog of former CNN Space and Aviation correspondent and pilot Miles O'Brien.

Related in Two different ways!
posted by delmoi at 1:11 AM on June 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


Ask the professional pilot whether we should continue to employ large numbers of professional pilots? Hmm... I'm guessing he says yes.
posted by pracowity at 1:14 AM on June 5, 2009


Back to the topic of the post: This is very, very helpful stuff. Thanks so much for posting it.
posted by jbickers at 1:22 AM on June 5, 2009


On a related note, Air France jet's flight-control system under scrutiny.

Somewhat unbelievably the missing Air France flight has still not been located, and earlier reports that some debris was found have turned out to be false. Thus, as I understand it, not a single piece of debris has yet to be retrieved from this flight.
posted by ornate insect at 1:38 AM on June 5, 2009


"Yes! Thanks to stringent new regulations, we're now more sober than ever!"
posted by boo_radley at 2:32 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Re: cellphones in flight - I remember a university professor explaining that the danger is to the cell networks, not the planes. As a client moves from cell A to cell B, his details are passed from one tower to the next to maintain connectivity. The explanation goes that the network software would be overloaded by the sheer velocity of clients moving from one cell to the next at aircraft speed, i.e., the client would be in cell C before his details had been completely transferred from cell A to cell B.

Whether or not this explanation is true is irrelevant to its usefulness as evidence of your thorough knowledge of all spheres of trivia, should the topic arise in conversation. [This disclaimer should be appended to everything I have ever said in my life.]
posted by mhjb at 3:15 AM on June 5, 2009


Ask the Pilot. Columnist Patrick Smith explains why you shouldn't be afraid of flying.

Most of us already aren't afraid of flying. Those with acrophobia are unlikely to be swayed by a pilot, and all of the statistics in the world won't help allay their fears.

An interesting column for sure, but I doubt the veracity of this line in the post.
posted by explosion at 3:39 AM on June 5, 2009


But he doesn't cover this.
posted by birdherder at 4:48 AM on June 5, 2009


The unfortunate thing is that he winds up having to explain how safe flying is every time there's a disaster. He's right, of course, but for the skittish, the correlation must be unmissable: horrible event / preternaturally assuring column.

Maybe he should adopt the kids' book approach of tackling the issue directly. This week in Ask The Pilot: "Sometimes planes blow up."
posted by bicyclefish at 4:53 AM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


kids' book approach

Everybody Poops - In Airplanes
Goodnight Noon (Jet Lag Makes Me Sleepy)
Curious George and the TSA Cavity Search
posted by backseatpilot at 5:10 AM on June 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


I used to be a nervous flier then a pilot friend of my parents told me two things that put everything in perspective.

First, in a car you will easily drive 60+ miles per hour on a two-lane road with other cars coming at you at 60+ miles per hour only a few feet away from you and you would never even blink. When two planes come withing thousands of feet from each other it's considered a near miss and the FAA has an investigation.

The other thing he told me was that if anything happened up there, chances are I would never know it anyway.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:21 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ask the professional pilot whether we should continue to employ large numbers of professional pilots?

Is the alternative to employ hobbyists?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:44 AM on June 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


Re: cellphones in flight - I remember a university professor explaining that the danger is to the cell networks, not the planes.

That's half the danger. The other half is air rage. Given the number of inconsiderate moves pulled by the average traveller *, I can only imaging that if they did allow cellphone use on planes, air rage would become the norm. All I need is an elbow in my side the entire flight, listening to X jabber on about whatever.

*my current favorite, the "stop at the end of the escalator and futz with bags" move
posted by eriko at 6:13 AM on June 5, 2009


Patrick Smith's columns have always been interesting, but his slant just bothers me for some reason. When he was an unemployed airline pilot, his bitterness and travel-writer / plane-spotter / airline-groupie tendencies came to the fore. Now that he is back in the cockpit, his occasional anti-general aviation ( us little guys ) tendencies are out.

To me, he is a great travel writer. He can tell you which terminals are most comfortable, what destinations are coolest, but when writing about flying? Shrug. This rather brutal letter on a past posting sort of nails it for me. Sorry Patrick, but it does.
posted by sea at 6:49 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am going to print out this column on air turbulence, bring it with me the next time I fly and read that shit over and over and over like it's the fucking 23rd Psalm.
posted by The Straightener at 7:09 AM on June 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


> I used to be a nervous flier then a pilot friend of my parents told me two things that put everything in perspective.

Just imagine how terrified of driving everyone would be if every single fatal car crash everywhere made front pages headlines around the world.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:10 AM on June 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


I agree with sea: Smith is a superb travel writer, but his view on passenger flights are sometimes a bit spotty. A year or two ago he wrote something about Air Canada's new a la carte system of ticket pricing being tremendously popular. (For those of you who do not fly that much or fly on airlines that do not do this, this is the practice of modifying your ticket price in accordance with certain options -- flying without checked baggage? Save nine dollars! Not requesting window or aisle? Save fifteen dollars! Want a pillow and blanket? Pay three dollars!)

Anyway, every passenger I know would use the term "nickeled and dimed" for AC's policies here, and I know no one who loves it. I e-mailed Smith after the column and in his reply he said he had relied on Air Canada's statements about the popularity of the policy.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:10 AM on June 5, 2009


Just imagine how terrified of driving everyone would be if every single fatal car crash everywhere made front pages headlines around the world.

When other forms of transportation that carry the number of people planes do crash and burn and everyone dies it generally does make headlines.
posted by The Straightener at 7:27 AM on June 5, 2009


the missing Air France flight has still not been located
There was a Twilight Zone episode like that--something about going through a time warp.

The unfortunate thing is that he winds up having to explain how safe flying is every time there's a disaster.

There's a lot less chance of dying with flying than with driving. The problem is that when there are deaths, they often happen all at once--a plane full of people.

Whenever there is disasterous plane crash, news organizations should put it in perspective by also listing how many people died in car crashes that same day, or even that week or month. (Typically, in the US, it is over 100 a day).
posted by eye of newt at 7:40 AM on June 5, 2009


This rather brutal letter on a past posting sort of nails it for me. Sorry Patrick, but it does.
posted by sea at 6:49 AM on June 5


Charlie, Whiskey Alfa Alfa.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:59 AM on June 5, 2009


Charlie, Whiskey Alfa Alfa

"Comprende, we all agree"?
posted by exogenous at 8:07 AM on June 5, 2009


For obvious reasons, much of the concern over flying centers on the human factor (e.g., the condition or experience of the pilot, the overall safety record of the airline, etc.). For me, the natural factors are much more terrifying, in part because they remind us that we haven't come quite as far as we'd like to think. Ice, for example. And lightning, the same force that once provided us with fire through terrifying randomness, may be responsible for bringing down one of our most sophisticated machines with little or no warning. Scary.
posted by walrus hunter at 8:50 AM on June 5, 2009


Regarding turbulence, the realm of discomfort is well below structural load limits, but the turbulence in a thunderstom can exceed those limits. At that point, turbulence is kind of a misnomer; it amounts to severe updrafts and downdrafts in excess of the aircraft performance capabilities. A plane in a thunderstorm can go quickly from full aerodynamic stall to well over the ship's never-exceed speed. Passenger airplanes should always give thunderstorms a wide berth.

It's natural to look at the dramatic power of natural forces, then look at the legitimate fear of death hard-wired into us, and arrive at the sentiment expressed by walrus hunter. But we have learned, through careful observation and design, how to measure and mitigate the risk factors, build appropriate procedures, and make flying safe. So it's upsetting to see that great achievement dismissed in the public mind when aircraft operators (crews and airlines) fail to apply aviation's collective knowledge and wisdom.
posted by maniabug at 9:08 AM on June 5, 2009


My stepmother is a hobby pilot, and she has always told me that the most dangerous point of any flight are the three minutes that start ticking the moment you commence take off. The second most dangerous time (but not nearly as dangerous) is landing. I do not know if this is entirely accurate, but this was how she described it to me as a very young child going for my first plane ride with her. Being a somewhat nervous nelly, since I was a child, I count out the three minutes from the moment we take off down the runway, and I nervously eye the position of the plane's wings and nose and landing. Those were the only things I feared, I was clean and happy with the rest of the flight. And hell, let's be honet - landing wasn't even that bad. Then the TAM jet went off the tarmac at Congonhas. And before that the Gol flight fell out of the sky when it collided with the Legacy. Now, as far as anyone can tell, FOR NO GOOD REASON this Air France flight went down in the Atlantic several hours after takeoff, and no one can even find the damn thing.
I don't think that I am going to fly again for a loooooooong time.
posted by msali at 9:16 AM on June 5, 2009


It's easy to take glib generalizations too literally. There's something to the three minutes. Certainly, a plane close to the ground is in bigger trouble if the engine craps out than if it's higher up, because gliding distance is a function of altitude.

But powerplant failure is only one kind of trouble, and in commercial transport it's very rare. Flying is a complex synthesis of factors including mechanics, weather, performance, biology, psychology, navigation, and communication. It is tedious and expensive to do it safely over and over again. The planning and discipline involved in safe operations mean flying is a head game that punishes haste, hope, and hubris.

The weak point is that our flying institutions are not up to the task. The industry is driven---and divided---by consumers who want rock bottom prices, shareholders who want consistent profits, and regulators who want to stay out of court. In that environment, the critical decisions will sometimes fall through the cracks.

No way should that aircraft have flown into a thunderstorm. Whose fault was it? I don't know that we'll find the answer at the bottom of the sea.
posted by maniabug at 9:36 AM on June 5, 2009


Most of us already aren't afraid of flying. Those with acrophobia are unlikely to be swayed by a pilot, and all of the statistics in the world won't help allay their fears.

Yes, we are. At least I am. "Turbulence is normal" (and "planes need turbulence to fly" from an Air Force aviator friend) helped me quite a bit. Made my weekly flights for work quite a bit more bearable. If it turns out the Air France plane was indeed brought down by turbulence, I'll have to find some other factoid to focus on.

Anyway, who's going to start the list of 100 reasons while Kirk is a better pilot than this guy?
posted by txvtchick at 10:42 AM on June 5, 2009


"...100 reasons WHY Kirk is a better pilot..." Sheesh.
posted by txvtchick at 10:44 AM on June 5, 2009


Re: cellphones in flight - I remember a university professor explaining that the danger is to the cell networks, not the planes.

I remember reading that it was mostly because people would pay even less attention than they do now should something go wrong, plus if a plane had to stop short for some reason then the cellphones, laptops etc., would be airborne missiles. This is why they don't allow personal electronic devices either below 10,000 feet. (I know that a lot of airlines have PTVs etc, etc, but they can and do break in when the pilot or flight attendants talk)


Even if and (ugh, oh please ha shem no!) when cellphones are allowed during flight, I gan guarantee you that they will NOT be allowed below 10,000 feet.
posted by xetere at 11:37 AM on June 5, 2009


My GSM cellphone definitely interferes with cockpit avionics. It produces that annoying buzzing sound that anything with a speaker gets when GSM is around. I've only ever noticed it on the COM radios, but it's possible that it affects other systems. However, I believe that what goes in airliners is hardened a little better against electromagnetic interference.

One other "fun" interference trick you can do in an airplane: aircraft are still required to have a magnetic compass in the cockpit. Headsets have permanent magnets in the speakers, so you can hold your headset up to the compass and it will deviate. The issue with this is that (on small aircraft, anyway), the compass is usually mounted on top of the instrument panel, which is also a perfect shelf to throw your headset on to after a flight. Doing so can permanently affect the compass.

Also, there's a short list of "approved" electronic devices specifically called out in 14 CFR, and the most bizarre item on there is an electric razor. Most everything else is up to the discretion of the operator (as in, they have to prove it doesn't interfere with the safe operation of the aircraft before passengers can use it).
posted by backseatpilot at 11:52 AM on June 5, 2009


Most of us already aren't afraid of flying. Those with acrophobia are unlikely to be swayed by a pilot, and all of the statistics in the world won't help allay their fears.


Actually, this column has helped me greatly with my own fear of flying. I think you're wrong when you say most of us aren't afraid of flying. No, most people don't have a phobia, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of people afraid of flying.

For me, I used to get really anxious before flying. And then I would quietly panic during takeoff and landing, as well as turbulence, convinced every pressure change was the plane dropping. Learning about how planes work, how difficult it is to bring down a large commercial jet, and what's actually going on in the cockpit down helped enormously.

Now I'm pretty much ok with flying. I get a bit nervous during bumpy landings, but otherwise I can relax, which is nice, since I fly a lot.
posted by lunasol at 12:41 PM on June 5, 2009


I'm weird in that I *love* flying. I just hate the conditions the airlines now create for passengers, which are disgraceful and disrespectful much of the time. But I still get as excited as I was when I first flew as a little boy every time I take off, which is about once every 2 weeks in recent years. I don't think I've ever been afraid on an airplane. But it's a lot less fun than it used to be, because everyone is just so miserable.

As for cell phone use in flight, please fucking please no. In flight internet is an awesome development I've been using a lot lately. But the thought of being trapped in close proximity to the average cell phone user who already pisses me off by yakking at top volume for several minutes after the command has been given to shut off cell phones, and who starts in again the second the plane is wheels down, makes me contemplate my capacity for violence.

If you use your cell phone on an airplane, or a train, please for the love of all that is holy use a fucking normal voice you'd use to talk to your seatmate.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:05 PM on June 5, 2009


Re: cellphones in flight - I remember a university professor explaining that the danger is to the cell networks, not the planes. As a client moves from cell A to cell B, his details are passed from one tower to the next to maintain connectivity. The explanation goes that the network software would be overloaded by the sheer velocity of clients moving from one cell to the next at aircraft speed, i.e., the client would be in cell C before his details had been completely transferred from cell A to cell B.

That's absurd. Nokia and other cellphone companies have been lobbying to allow cellphone use in planes, and Nokia actually chartered a flight where they let everyone talk on their cellphones for the duration. It sounds like your professor was just making stuff up. The reason it's a problem (IIRC) is that cellphones use the same radio frequencies as some safety devices, so while the plane will still fly just fine the worry is it might interfere with radar or some safety device not give a proper warning, or something like that.
posted by delmoi at 4:30 PM on June 5, 2009


From someone older than cell phones:

Cell phones and other electronic gadgets were banned in planes because it was thought that they might interfere with flight electronics. But that is not how plane electronics are designed. Otherwise a plane would crash every time it flies near a radio tower, which emits many thousand times more power. They know better now (though there are still some doubters).

Cell phone calls are handed off from one cell station to another, and they are designed to work when driving, not when going at 400 miles per hour. But I think the university professor was wrong when he said that this was an issue, because the phones won't even be able to connect to a cell tower when you get to a certain height.

What Nokia is lobbying for is for planes to basically put a low-power cell station in the plane, and presumably send the phone calls to specialized receivers on the ground or in satellites. The airlines have been testing this, but there's a lot of debate, not about the technology, but about the social impact of lots of obnoxious phone calls in a crowded area that you can't escape.
posted by eye of newt at 10:17 PM on June 5, 2009


An news article that covers much of cell-phones-in-planes issue, with the added conclusion that cell phone use will be allowed in planes in the future simply because airlines will money money from it.
posted by eye of newt at 10:25 PM on June 5, 2009


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