Interview with a Pilot: Terrorists, Takeoff and Turbulence

*This article is part three of a three part series on the fear of flying. You can read part one here and part two here. Hopefully this interview and learning more about planes and flying will help you step through that plane door with a little bit more confidence!*

As a pilot, what is one thing you would say to someone who is scared to fly?

Aeroplanes are super, super, strong, and are designed to fly safely for year after year after year in all sorts of weather, and pilots are well trained in how to fly them.  There are lots of systems- called redundancy- so that if one system fails then another will take over.  That’s why there are two or more engines!!  So if an engine fails you may not ‘like’ the feeling, or the situation, but it’s still completely safe!!

One thing that can be really beneficial for someone who is uneasy about flying is to take a flight in a light aeroplane (yes, only one engine!!) with an instructor who is sympathetic to your uneasiness, and who can show you what everything ‘does’ and the sensations you feel when certain actions are made, for example extending the flaps.  Another possibility is one of the ‘fear of flying’ courses run by airlines which usually include some time in a Full Flight simulator so that you can see a flight from a pilot’s point of view.And don’t hang-out with young trainee pilots who have lots of exaggerated ‘war-stories’ to tell!!

Out the flight deck window

And do you ever get nervous during a rough flight?

I don’t think any pilots enjoy flying in rough conditions, and because we don’t like it we know that you passengers don’t like it either!!  So I wouldn’t say I get nervous, but it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes there’s just nothing you can do in the short term to get out of the turbulence, so you just have to hang in there for a while.  It’s not that it’s dangerous, but it can certainly be uncomfortable.

Why do planes sometimes feel like they are speeding up and then slowing down? (This always used to freak me out)

Probably because they are!! Jet aircraft are usually ‘set’ by the pilot to fly at a constant speed during cruise and anything that influences that speed such as sudden changes in wind will cause the system that controls the power produced by the engines- the Auto Thrust- to alter the power of the engines to compensate for the speed change.  Passengers, particularly those nearest the engines, will hear or feel these small changes.  If we expect to encounter rough air, for example approaching an area of thunderstorms, we will put the seat-belt sign on as a precaution and perhaps slow the aircraft down slightly so that it rides better in any turbulence we encounter.  When we’re clear of the turbulence we will speed-up to normal cruise speed again.  Also, Air Traffic Control can ask us to maintain different speeds during a flight, particularly as we get close to destination.

Speaking of being freaked out, why does the plane sometimes go very quiet?  Is this the engines being turned down?

Yes, it is the engines being throttled back to give less power.  It can be very noticeable after takeoff on a twin-engine aircraft such as the Airbus A330 when Climb power is selected (reduced from Takeoff power), but can also be heard when starting descent, or when slowing down for landing.  Most descents are made with idle power, i.e.. the engines are still going, but producing almost no power.  The engines do not need to run flat-out all the time, the only time we normally use close to full power is at takeoff or during an aborted landing.

With the disappearance of flight MH370, there has been a lot of talk about terrorism. Are there a lot of procedures to keep passengers safe from terrorists?

Yes, the whole airline industry, and the wider world too, needs to be aware and alert for terrorism, which obviously is a sad fact of life.  There are all sorts of procedures and systems in place to help prevent terrorist acts and to handle situations if they do arise.  Things such as the security screening that everyone goes through after check-in, which can be a bit annoying but should be looked on as a really good thing, as it is totally intended to increase your safety.  That is just one example, there are lots of other systems in place too. We who work in the airline industry truly value your life, just as we value our own, and sincerely try to make your travel experience a safe one, and as far as we are able, an enjoyable one.

Okay lets get down to business. What are the most common reasons planes crash? Do rules and regulations change in order to prevent these disasters happening again?

The most common reason nowadays is ‘pilot error’. Put simply, the pilots allow the aircraft to get into a situation that becomes dangerous.  This is where good training plays a hugely important role.  Airlines put a LOT of effort and money into training pilots (and all other airline personnel) to fly correctly and make good decisions and work well as a team.  Rules and regulations can help, but good training is really the key.  Aeroplanes are hugely safer now than even a few years ago, with many systems to help prevent bad situations, but well-trained pilots are still vital.

Well that concludes our fear of flying series. Just remember that being afraid to fly is not embarrassing and can happen to even the most seasoned travellers. Please feel free to send me an email if you have any more questions you would like answered.

Do you have any questions about flying? I can definitely pass them onto our pilot who would be happy to answer! Please leave a comment or email


4 thoughts on “Interview with a Pilot: Terrorists, Takeoff and Turbulence

  1. I liked this series a lot 🙂 Now if he can tell us how to get upgraded to those empty first class seats!

  2. Me too! 🙂 I used to be scared as well on flights, but then noticed that under turbulence and when all of these strange noises occur nothing ever happens, so I learnt it’s just normal! But for someone who’s is not used to fly these are great advices!!!

    1. I quite enjoy flying now! But being scared can ruin otherwise good trips. 🙂 it’s nice to know what the strange noises are.

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