My Executive

Lightning won't hurt planes

FLYING DEMYSTIFIED: Patrick Smith's Cockpit Confidential is a comprehensive title of questions and answers about planes, airports, airlines and the psychology of flying.


    Sep 16, 2013

    Lightning won't hurt planes

    From security at the airport to the rules about using electronics in flight to the final resting place of the plane's toilet contents, planes and tech are a constant source of conflict, passion - and questions.

    Commercial pilot and blogger ( Patrick Smith has launched a book, Cockpit Confidential, a comprehensive title of questions and answers about planes, airports, airlines and the psychology of flying.

    Here are excerpts from The New York Times.

    Turbulence scares me to death. Do I have a reason to be afraid?

    No. A plane cannot be flipped upside down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket. Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash.

    If all of a jet's engines were to fail, can the plane glide to a landing?

    Yes. There's no greater prospect of instant calamity than switching off the engine in your car when coasting downhill. The car keeps going, and a plane will too.

    I understand that planes can jettison fuel. Is this done to lighten the load for landing?

    Yes. For a few reasons, the obvious one being that touching down puts higher stresses on an airframe than taking off.

    But only some plane models have the ability to dump fuel - the big ones. The 747, the 777, the A340, and the A330 can dump fuel.

    A 737, an A320, or an RJ cannot. These smaller jets must circle or, if need be, land overweight.

    What happens when lightning hits a plane?

    Nothing. The energy is discharged overboard through the plane's aluminium skin, which is an excellent electrical conductor.

    Are the contents of plane toilets jettisoned during flight?

    No. There is no way to jettison the contents of the lavatories during flight. Instead, the toilet contents are vacuumed out into a tank truck at the end of the flight.

    What do the dings and chimes mean?

    There are two kinds of chimes. The first kind is basically just a phone call from the cockpit to the flight attendants; it means "pick up the intercom".

    The other type is a "signalling device for the cabin crew" - when the seat-belt sign is turned off or on, when the plane reaches 10,000 feet (3,048m), so that electronics are OK to use, and when initial descent begins (so it's time to prepare the plane for landing).

    Many of the three-letter codes for airports make no sense.

    The non-obvious ones are probably hold-overs from the airports' previous names. MCO is derived from McCoy Field, the original name for Orlando International. Chicago O'Hare's identifier, ORD, pays honours to the old Orchard Field.

    A campaign was launched in 2002 to change the identifier for Sioux City, Iowa, from SUX to something less objectionable. The campaign failed.

    We are told that modern commercial planes can essentially fly themselves.

    Emphatically no. A plane is able to fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself. Autopilot is a tool, but you still need to tell it what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

    Why the annoying rules pertaining to window shades, seat backs, tray tables and cabin lights during take-offs and landings?

    Your tray has to be latched so that, in the event of an impact or sudden deceleration, you don't impale yourself on it. The restriction on seat recline provides easier access to the aisle and also keeps your body in the safest position.

    Raising your window shade makes it easier for the flight attendants to assess any exterior hazards - fire, debris - that might interfere with an emergency evacuation. Dimming the lights is the same precaution.

    Could some crazy or ill-intentioned person open one of the doors during flight?

    No. You cannot - I repeat, cannot - open the doors or emergency hatches of a plane in flight. The cabin pressure won't allow it.

    Are mobile phones and gadgets really dangerous to flight?

    It depends. Laptops have to be put away for take-offs and landings to prevent them from becoming high-speed projectiles during a sudden deceleration or impact.

    As for tablets and e-book readers, it's tough to take a prohibition seriously now that many pilots are using tablets in the cockpit. That's why the Federal Aviation Administration is considering relaxing the ban on those gadgets.

    And can mobile phones really disrupt cockpit equipment?

    Probably not. I'd venture to guess at least half of all phones, whether inadvertently or out of laziness, are left on during flight. If indeed this was a recipe for disaster, I think we'd have more evidence by now.