10 Secrets Your Pilots Know — but You Don’t


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Commercial flying has become so common that a frequent flyer might confidently believe they know everything that happens on a flight. Spoiler alert: They’d be wrong. There are still so many parts of the flying experience that remain a mystery. 

Pilots, on the other hand, with their extensive training and experience, can indeed say they know everything there is to know about planes and flying. The thing is, they won’t necessarily tell you everything. Here are 10 secrets that your captain knows but you don’t.

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1. Planes Break Down More Often Than You Think

Planes experience technical glitches more often than you might imagine. While the thought alone is enough to make the heart race — especially if you are an anxious flyer — don’t be too concerned. Thanks to rigid inspections and maintenance protocols, any problems or malfunctions are identified and addressed long before they could become serious — and often without you ever knowing. 

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2. They Control Cabin Temperature

You might wonder why sometimes the cabin feels like a tropical getaway and other times you reach for that complimentary blanket. It’s the pilot you should turn to, not the flight attendants: Pilots are in control of the temperature settings on the flight. The cooling air comes from the engines, and initially, it’s too hot to be comfortable. An air cycle machine cools this air down, using atmospheric air to adjust the temperature. During takeoff, the air conditioning (A/C) packs are turned off to redirect engine power for liftoff, which might make the cabin warmer at the start of the flight.

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3. There’s a Reason for Dimming Lights

Cabin lights are dimmed during takeoff and landing at night to adjust passengers’ eyes to the dark in case of an evacuation. Dimming the lights allows your eyes to pre-adjust to darkness,” Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, told The Telegraph. “So that you’re not suddenly blinded if something happens and the power goes out, and you’re dashing for the doors in darkness or smoke.”

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4. They Sleep During Flights

Wait. What? Yes, pilots are humans too, and while you doze off mid-flight, they occasionally get tired of flying you across the ocean and need some shuteye as well. Don’t panic; a pilot wouldn’t randomly take a nap during a one-hour domestic flight. Sleeping is only allowed on long-haul flights, in designated rest areas, and with extra pilots available to take over the controls. Delta Airlines includes additional pilots and rest areas for both pilots and flight attendants on their long international flights. 

“A flight from the U.S. to Europe, for example, will usually have three pilots,” Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and founder of the Ask the Pilot blog, told The Washington Post. “At any given time, a minimum of two pilots are in the cockpit, and the third pilot is on a rest break.”

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5. They Don’t Eat the Same Food as You

Pilots don’t eat the same food as you — not because they are better than you, but as a safety measure. In fact, they eat different food from the co-pilot as well in case of food poisoning. This means that if one crew member falls sick during the flight, there’s someone on hand to operate the aircraft. But that’s not to say that the crew always gets meals provided — crew meals are normally provided during international hauls only, not domestic flights.

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6. Tap Water on Flights Is Nasty

There’s a reason crew members never drink coffee or tea on a plane, and neither should you. In-flight beverages are made using tap water, which, on many planes, is downright filthy. According to flight attendants, the tanks that store water on planes are rarely cleaned, and the ports to empty the toilets and refill drinking water are near each other and can cross-contaminate when serviced at the same time.

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspected the water from 300 planes and found that 15% of the samples contained coliform, a bacteria commonly found in feces (barf). So, next time the drink cart passes during your flight, you should probably skip coffee and tea and stick to bottled beverages. 

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7. Planes Get Struck by Lightning All the Time.

While the idea of being struck by lightning at 30,000 feet might sound like a nervous flyer’s worst nightmare, in reality, it’s hardly a cause for alarm. The outer skin of an airplane is made from materials that conduct electricity, such as aluminum, which allows the lightning to pass over the aircraft’s body and exit without causing damage. Pilots are extensively trained to navigate through storms safely, and the aircraft’s systems are robust enough to maintain normal operation even after a lightning strike.

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8. Takeoff and Landing Are the Most Risky Parts of the Flight

You’re far more likely to be eaten by a shark than experience a plane crash. Flying is the safest mode of travel, with a 95.7% survival rate (even in accidents!). However, on the rare occasion that accidents occur, they are most likely to happen during the first few minutes after takeoff or in the last minutes before landing. Takeoff and initial climb, which make up 2% of flight time, account for 14% of fatal accidents. 

But the real risk lies in the final descent and landing — just 4% of flight time but responsible for a staggering 49% of accidents. The danger in this phase is due to the aircraft being “low and slow,” giving pilots limited time to react to problems.

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9. They Often Forget To Turn Off the Seatbelt Sign

Those who have seen “Say Anything” understand the importance of the “ding” sound when the seatbelt sign is turned off. But sometimes that happens well into the flight, even when it’s smooth. Well, that’s because the pilots often forget to switch off the seat belt sign. That doesn’t mean you should ignore it entirely, but if it’s been on for a while without there being any major bumps, you can probably move about the cabin.

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10. Turbulence Isn’t Dangerous, but Updraft Is

While turbulence is the biggest trigger for every nervous flyer, it is very unlikely to cause a plane crash. What pilots dread the most is encountering a sudden updraft, an atmospheric condition caused by rising warm air that appears during thunderstorm formation. 

“A plane flies into a massive updraft, which you can’t see on the radar at night, and it’s like hitting a giant speed bump at 500 miles an hour,” John Nance, aviation safety analyst and retired airline captain, told Reader’s Digest. “It throws everything up in the air and then down very violently. That’s not the same as turbulence, which bounces everyone around for a while.”

This article was produced and syndicated by MediaFeed.

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