Flight Plan

Busting myths about the risks aircraft face while in the air

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on October 29, 2019 Published on October 29, 2019

Flying is really one of the safest modes of transport. Here’s some fact-checking by Ashwini Phadnis

Can an aircraft’s door open mid-flight, sucking out passengers and bags? If it’s a Hollywood movie, then, yes, it can. But not in real life.

Does an aircraft have secret crawl places? Again, if it’s a Hollywood film, then, yes, it can. But not in real life.

Propagated largely by the extremely slick and tech-driven Hollywood movies, such myths have become a part of today’s flying experience.

Remember Air Force One where Harrison Ford moves around freely all over the aircraft, even finding a mobile phone in someone’s bag in the cargo hold? And Ford dangles mid-air after throwing out the villain till he is pulled to safety by a helicopter?

Talk to pilots and they laugh at most of these myths. They are unanimous that flying is the safest mode of transport. However, though extremely rare, accidents do happen because primarily there are three factors involved in the safe operations of an aircraft — human, technical and environmental. “Any of them on that day could be large enough to disturb, damage or crash the most modern or the strongest aircraft,” says a private sector airline pilot.

Here we look at some popular myths and tell you why they are not true.

Myth: If one engine fails, the plane will crash

Not so.

It is possible to fly an aircraft without any engine functioning for up to 240 minutes. In some cases, even longer. The Extended diversion time operations (EDTO) to the nearest functional airport — where a plane can land in an emergency like all its engines failing — has been extended to 240 minutes from the 60 minutes earlier as aircraft and engines have become more reliable. Further, pilots and crew members are trained to ensure that they can fly the damaged plane to safety.

Myth: Oxygen masks coming down means there is a serious problem with the aircraft

Not really.

The oxygen masks drop in case of loss of cabin pressure, and for no other reason. This does not indicate any problems with the airplane’s ability to fly safely.

All aircraft have oxygen masks because, as the plane climbs towards its cruising level, the atmospheric pressure drops with an increase in altitude. Human beings, in general, cannot get sufficient oxygen from the atmospheric air at an altitude higher than 10,000 feet. Hence they are provided supplemental oxygen.

Since modern passenger jets typically fly between 30,000 and 40,000 feet, the cabin is pressurised using compressed air from the engine, making the flight more comfortable. Oxygen masks drop only to meet the physiological requirements of passengers in an oxygen-deficient environment.

Myth: Lightning striking an aircraft can lead to its crashing

Not to worry.

Pilots say that today’s aircraft are so well insulated that it is seldom that a lightning strike can damage an aircraft and even if it does it will not lead to the plane crashing.

Myth: An aircraft’s door can open mid-air, sucking out passengers and their bags

Not quite so.

A senior pilot with over 25,000 hours of flying says this is highly unlikely. “The aircraft door opens inwards. The higher you go, the more pressure there is. The higher you are, the tighter the aircraft door gets shut, with the expanding aircraft body,” he says, making it impossible for the door to open mid-air.

Myth: If a window breaks mid-air, the plane will crash

Highly unlikely.

Pilots point out that an aircraft window has three to four layers which are very difficult to break. Pilots call a window breaking a structural failure. They point out that since the pressure outside the aircraft is less than that inside the aircraft, everything loose tends to get sucked out if a window does break.

A window or two getting blown out will de-pressurise the aircraft. It could injure people because of the sudden drop in temperature and pressure. In such a situation, the pilot will try and do an emergency descent to try and equalise the pressure as much as possible.

Myth: An aircraft can throw out things from the cargo hold to lose weight

Stuff of tales, this.

Pilots call this a typical movie myth. “It is possible in the movies but not in real life,” says an Air India pilot, laughing.

Normal cargo doors on an aircraft are designed to open outwards. But with the pressurisation in the aircraft at its cruising altitude this is pretty much impossible. There is one cargo door on the aircraft which opens inwards — this is near the tail and is the place where excess hand-baggage is stored.

“You will need to have a human being in it while in flight to open it. But he will die because of lack of oxygen and the cold,” explains a senior pilot.

Myth: The maximum chances of an aircraft crashing are during take off and landing

Not now.

Historically, approach and landing accidents accounted for about two-third of hull losses globally. Over the last half-a-decade, there has been a marked reduction in approach and landing accidents. “The fact that the approach and landing phases accounted for a large percentage of accidents was recognised by the industry and regulators, and a lot of strategies were put in place to achieve a substantial reduction in this,” says a pilot.

Myth: The safest seats on a flight are at the back of the aircraft

No such thing.

Since most fatalities are caused by vertical acceleration, it becomes immaterial where one is seated. “In my opinion, it is much more logical and practical to find a carrier with an excellent safety record than trying to select a ‘perceived’ safe seat!” says a pilot.

Published on October 29, 2019
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