Straight from the pilot's mouth, these five facts will make you feel so much better taking off.
Afraid of flying? Airline pilot Patrick Smith shares everything you need to know about flying and more in his book, Cockpit Confidential. Here are our favourite flight-fright lessons from the bestselling tell-all.
1. On flying older planes
Newer models mean better amenities but not fewer accidents. "Commercial aircraft are built to last more or less indefinitely," writes Smith, noting that jets can remain in service for more than 30 years. "The older a plane gets, the more and better care it needs, and inspection criteria grow increasingly strict." Aged and more well-used planes are more rigorously checked for corrosion and metal fatigue, and thanks to these safety standards, in the air, age is nothing to fear.
2. On liftoff versus landing
Smith gives us the lowdown: "Inherently, takeoff is the more critical point than landing. Here, the airplane is making the transition from ground to flight, and its grip on the latter is much more tentative than it is when coming down. It's landings that fearful flyers hate, but in deference to the principles of lift, gravity, and momentum, this anxiety is misplaced. Not that you should be, but if you insist on being nervous, takeoff is your time—from just prior to liftoff through the first twenty seconds or so of flight."
3. On the terror of turbulence
"Turbulence: spiller of coffee, jostler of luggage, filler of barf bags, rattler of nerves." It's an apt description from Smith, who's quick to add that, while turbulence is the number-one concern of fearful flyers, it's not so dangerous. "From a pilot's perspective," he writes, "it is ordinarily seen as a convenience issue, not a safety issue." Common causes include cotton-candy cumulus clouds as well as mountain ranges, warm and cold fronts and jet streams. There's no way to avoid turbulence, but you can sit strategically. "The smoothest place to sit is over the wings, nearest to the plane's centers of lift and gravity," writes Smith, adding that the roughest spot is usually "in the rearmost rows, closest to the tail, [where] the knocking and swaying is more pronounced."
4. On fuel flames
Can diverted flights run out of fuel? It's highly unlikely. "A 747 tops off its tanks at just over forty-five thousand total gallons," writes Smith, explaining that fuel is stored in the wings, the centre fuselage and the tail. "Flights rarely depart with full tanks, however, as lugging around excess tonnage is expensive, impractical and limits the amount of cargo or passengers you can carry. Figuring out how much needs to be aboard is a somewhat scientific undertaking, with some hard-and-fast rules." He offers the U.S. domestic rule as an example of how conservative the criteria are: "There must always be enough to carry a plane to its intended destination, then to its designated alternate airport(s), and then for at least another forty-five minutes. The resulting minimum is nonnegotiable."
5. On pets in planes
Your furry friend will be safely stowed in a comfortably warm spot—"the underfloor holds are always pressurized and heated," writes Smith—but that's the extent of what the staff can do. "The flight crew is always told when animals are aboard. Passengers are known to send handwritten notes to the cockpit asking that we take special care, but this isn't really necessary, and in any case, there's not a lot we can do," writes Smith. "There's no access between the main deck and the lower holds, so we can't carry treats to your friend below."