If you fly enough times, you’re bound to have at least one or two experiences that you could have done without. While occasional turbulence, which is usually light, or a hard landing may rattle your nerves, there is really no reason to be concerned about your personal safety.
It is well-documented that commercial air travel is far safer than driving your own car.
Flying has more than its share of myths and half-truths. Let’s dispel some of the more common misconceptions to help put your mind at ease for your next flight.
Myth #1 - Aircraft doors can be opened during a flight.
Commercial airliner doors and emergency exits cannot be opened while in flight due to the aircraft being pressurized. This creates a seal that even the world’s strongest person would be unable to overcome. While an occasional unruly passenger may attempt to disprove the science, it just isn’t humanly possible.
The pressurization process begins before the aircraft even leaves the ground, and as the plane gains altitude, the seal becomes that much tighter.
Myth #2 - You can get sucked into an airplane toilet.
Flushing the toilet on a commercial aircraft emits a sound like no other. The loud sucking action of the toilet seems like anything and anyone in the compact lavatory enclosure could disappear in an instant.
Rest assured, though lightweight items that are unsecured in the lavatory sometimes do end up in the toilet’s receptacle, there is no record of any airline losing a passenger in this manner. Yet.
Myth #3 - When an aircraft stalls, its engine shuts off like a car.
An aircraft stall and automobile stall are two totally different situations. Of course, when your car stalls, the engine shuts down unexpectedly, making it necessary to restart the engine.
When an aircraft stalls, which is a highly unlikely occurrence, especially for a commercial airliner, the airflow over the leading edge (front) of the wings is insufficient to maintain flight.
Generally, this means that the nose of the aircraft is too high, a scenario that modern aircraft systems can almost always preclude from happening.
Lowering the nose is the quick and easy way out of most stalls, sometimes accompanied by an increase in engine power. You can rest assured that jet and propeller engines do not shut off during a stall, or at any other time during a flight.
Myth #4 - Pilots avoid flying through the Bermuda Triangle
Not true today, and in fact, this has never been the case. Believed to have been a ploy to sell magazines and books in the 1950s and 60s, this region of the Atlantic Ocean stretches from Bermuda to Miami, southeast to Puerto Rico, and includes the Bahamas.
Also known as the Devil’s Triangle, urban legend has it that scores of ships and planes have mysteriously disappeared while traveling through the area. The truth of the matter is that pilots (and ships) do not avoid this area, and it is not considered dangerous to fly through.
Myth #5 - Did you hear about the jetliner that lost an engine?”
While this certainly sounds like a scary situation, ‘losing an engine’ is something that pilots handle without much fanfare when it occurs. And, to set your mind at ease, it doesn’t mean that an engine has fallen from the aircraft. When an aircraft engine needs to be shut down by the cockpit crew, pilots are well-trained in how to fly the aircraft on a single engine until they can safely land.
This very infrequent scenario may be caused by a cockpit indicator that an engine is running hot, or that there is even an engine fire. Thankfully, aircraft engines have built-in fire extinguishers that quickly put the flames out without endangering the aircraft or its occupants.
The reality is that many pilots go through their entire flight careers without ever having a single engine failure.
Myth #6 - Planes crash due to turbulence.
We can all agree that turbulence can make even the heartiest of flyers feel uncomfortable on occasion. However, turbulence is rarely involved in aircraft crashes. Aircraft are built to withstand all kinds of atmospheric conditions, including heavy turbulence, which is something that very few passengers will ever experience.
In fact, while you may think you’ve fallen hundreds of feet when encountering an ‘air pocket’, realistically, aircraft systems are so sensitive to outside air changes that a decrease in altitude of more than 20 feet is unusual. It’s more the sudden change in altitude, up or down, that can lead to some understandable passenger apprehension.
Today’s meteorological advances have made it easier than ever for pilots to avoid the worst of turbulence that’s forecasted along your route of flight.
Myth #7 - Today’s modern aircraft fly themselves, while the pilots are there ‘just in case’.
Well, not quite, though aircraft computerization is the farthest advanced in history. Pilots, however, are integral to the safe operation of commercial airliners and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
In fact, it’s the pilots who program the aircraft computers, telling them what to do and when to do it. So, while the plane’s computer is programmed as to what routes to follow, altitudes to fly, the speed during each leg of the flight, and when to make changes, it’s the pilot who inputs this information into the system. And it’s also the pilot who makes adjustments that become necessary during the flight as dictated by weather, or ATC (Air Traffic Control) instructions while en route.
While you may have heard otherwise, no modern jetliner to date is capable of making an automatic takeoff. However, it is true that Boeing and Airbus aircraft can autoland. But it takes plenty of pilot input to program and manage such a landing.
Autolandings are infrequent, and usually reserved for times such as near-zero visibility due to fog. Chances are you have never been on a flight where the aircraft landed itself.
Myth #8 - It isn’t possible to survive a plane crash.
This myth has been disproven time and time again. To begin with, the safety of the airline industry is second to none. You would need to fly on close to 10,000,000 departures before becoming a fatality. To put that in perspective, you would need to fly every single day for the next 274 years just to reach 100,000 flights, not even 1,000,000, let alone 10,000,000.
Furthermore, based on additional crash statistics provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, you will be involved in approximately 4.5 crashes while driving a car or truck and experience 1 serious injury within your lifetime.
I like the airplane odds a lot better.
The facts also prove that most people who are unfortunately a passenger in a plane crash, do survive the accident.
Today’s modern aircraft are developed and built according to strict regulations that are recognized around the world. They are easy to quickly evacuate on land or on the surface of a body of water, extremely fire-resistant, and hold together incredibly well despite the major impact of a crash.
Commercial airlines are so well built that they can withstand tremendous trauma and still allow the passengers to safely exit the aircraft afterward. But do be sure to follow the flight attendant’s instructions which include wearing your seat belt and leaving your personal items behind during an evacuation.
Myth # 9 - Viruses and bacteria can quickly spread by the air in planes.
Actually, the opposite is true. Multiple studies have determined that the air in a commercial aircraft is far safer to breathe than the air found in many other crowded venues.
- FAA - Aircraft Cabin Bleed Air Contaminants: A Review
- Georgia Institute of Technology - Indoor air quality study shows aircraft in flight may have the lowest particulate levels
- F. Weng - Studies on the transmission of airborne infectious diseases, especially SARS-CoV-2, in airliner cabins have been inconclusive because there were too few well-defined cases in which infection was proven to occur in the cabin rather than elsewhere in the travel process.
Aircraft air is constantly in motion from the time that the engines are started. It goes through a rather complex process that combines the air currently aboard the aircraft, and fresh air ingested from the engines.
Boeing claims that from 94 to 99.9% of microbes in aircraft cabin air are captured by its hospital quality filters, and that cabin air is totally refreshed every two to three minutes.
While no longer required, you can add another level of protection by wearing an N95 mask over your nose and mouth during your flight.
1. Boeing. (n.d.). Travel with confidence. The Boeing Company Official Website. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://www.boeing.com/confident-travel/cabin-air.html
2. Day, G. A. (2015). Aircraft Cabin Bleed Air Contaminants: A Review. Federal Aviation Administration. https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/data_research/research/med_humanfacs/oamtechreports/201520.pdf
3. Nast, C. (2021, February 22). How planes keep flying after an engine catches fire. WIRED. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://www.wired.com/story/boeing-777-engine-fire-twin-jet-failure-flight/
4. SKYbrary. (n.d.). Engine fire protection. SKYbrary Aviation Safety. https://skybrary.aero/articles/engine-fire-protection
5. Toon, J. (2021, March 2). Indoor air quality study shows aircraft in flight may have lowest particulate levels | Research horizons | Georgia Tech's research news. Research News | Research. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://rh.gatech.edu/news/644903/indoor-air-quality-study-shows-aircraft-flight-may-have-lowest-particulate-levels
6. Wang, F. (2022, April 28). Recent progress on studies of airborne infectious disease transmission, air quality, and thermal comfort in the airliner cabin air environment. PubMed Central (PMC). Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9111434/