Secrets of the Skies: Flight Attendants and Pilots Tell All

Airline crew members answer your questions — the good, the bad, and the stinky — about air travel. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Anyone who’s ever gotten on a plane with children knows they often ask lots of questions about flying. How exactly does a plane fly? How does it take off? How does it land?

Well, that’s the problem with kids: sometimes they’re too darned practical. Fact is, most of us adults don’t know the answers to those very logical questions — nor do we care. Instead, we wanna know the juicy details, like how much hooking up is going on planes? Where do the flight attendants sleep? And, really: Why are flight attendants so strict about making us put up our tray tables before landing?

Related: Airplane Insider: Secrets I Learned Sitting Next to an Airline Pilot

Yahoo Travel talked to a group of pilots and flight attendants to learn the answers to air travel questions you may not have even known you had.

Do flight attendants ever get nervous during flights?

Is she nervous? Flight attendants have a rule: never let `em see you sweat. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Let’s face it: No one wants to see a scared flight attendant. But in the rare circumstance when something’s not right on a plane, he or she might be just as nervous as you are. It just may not be for the reason you think.

So what turns Heather Poole, flight attendant and author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, into a nervous flyer? “Turbulence doesn’t scare me, but unruly passengers do,” she admits. “You never know what someone is capable of doing, and there’s no calling the cops or the fire department at 30,000 feet. It’s just us and them.”

Whatever the flight attendant is scared of, you’ll never know it. “I am human and I do get scared,” says veteran flight attendant Emily Witkop. “You will never see it on my face. People gauge their reactions on how we are handling a situation (’If she panics so can I!!!’). So I have an impeccable poker face on the airplane. If I am scared or praying a little bit, you will never know.”

Do pilots ever get nervous during flights?

A panicky pilot? Not likely. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Pilots are safely enclosed in the cockpit, so they don’t need a poker face to reassure passengers when things get dicey. But ex-airline pilot and licensed therapist Tom Bunn, who founded SOAR to help people conquer their flying fears, says you’ll rarely see a pilot sweat. “With flying as it is today, I don’t think airline pilots would characterize what they feel as being nervous,” he says.

But Bunn, who flew for Pan Am from 1965 until 1986, says things were different in the old days. “Back when we flew 707s and DC-8s on trans-Atlantic flights from some airports in Europe, runways were just long enough for the plane to take off and leave the 10 percent margin legally required,” Bunn remembers. “If an engine were to fail as the plane was approaching flying speed — though [technically] there was enough runway to get the plane into the air — the 10 percent margin did not leave room for comfort. Fortunately, the planes flown now have so much power that runways are more than adequate.” That’s a relief.

Do people really hook up on airplanes?

Hands where we can see `em, you two! (Photo: Thinkstock)

C’mon, you know the answer to this one. “Yes, people hook up on planes,” says flight attendant Witkop. “You create a club called ‘The Mile-High Club’ and think people aren’t trying to be members?!?!”

But the mid-air hookups may be waning. “I have noticed a decline in mile-high ‘connections’ in the bathroom,” says “Betty,” an anonymous flight attendant and author of the book, “Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase: Hilarious Stories of Air Travel by the World’s Favorite Flight Attendant.” Betty attributes the apparent drop in lavatory lovin’ to, of all things, germaphobia. “The bathrooms are small and not very clean,” Betty says. But she adds, “You still see airplane hanky-panky in seats under blankets.”

Do pilots ever screw up the landing?

Landings: some pilots are better than others. (Photo: Thinkstock)

“There is some variation in talent in flying a plane just as there is variation in talent in sports,” says the former airline pilot Tom Bunn. “Some pilots can kiss the plane on the runway every time. Some hardly ever do.”

But don’t worry; just because your pilot lands ugly doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in danger. “The smoothness of the landing has little if anything to do with safety,” says Bunn. “The plane’s landing gear is strong enough to handle the slam-it-on-the deck kind of landings made on an aircraft carrier.”

And maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t quibble about “smooth vs. bumpy” landings and keep things in perspective. Says aviation safety expert and amateur pilot Kyle Bailey: “Remember the old saying: Any landing you walk away from is a good landing.“

What are flight attendant sleeping quarters like — and do they have pajamas?

Crew quarters on a Boeing Dreamliner. (Photo: Getty Images)

Flight attendants on domestic flights typically don’t have sleeping quarters but they might on an international haul. “The crew rest quarters can be either upstairs or downstairs and they almost always have a low ceiling so you have to crouch,” says Betty. “Aircraft types differ but they usually have a top and lower bunk and they all have privacy curtains. Picture overnight train bunks and each crew member gets a sheet, pillow and duvet. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit, but it’s really nice and a luxury to be able to to take a nap at work!”

But some flight attendants make themselves a little too comfortable before they go to sleep. “I personally don’t disrobe but some flight attendants choose to take some or all of their uniforms off,” says Betty. “A few months ago a young male fight attendant came back from crew rest traumatized after seeing a flight attendant who had taken her skirt off.

What do flight attendants feel about passengers, um… going number two in the lavatory?

Before you decide what you do in here, please think of your friendly flight attendants. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go. But that doesn’t mean the flight attendants like it.

Related: WARNING: What Happens in the Airplane Bathroom Doesn’t Stay in the Airplane Bathroom

“We hate it,” says Witkop. “It’s a normal function, but why do people wait to leave us those precious gifts and smells when they have been at the airport for hours? We have tried over the years to come up with methods to mask the unpleasantness, but sometime no amount of coffee grinds or spray will work.”

What do the flight attendants eat?

They serve our food, but what do the flight attendants eat? (Photo: Thinkstock)

“That depends on if you are on a international or domestic flight,” says Betty. “On international flights we are boarded a first class crew meal and we usually eat it standing up in the galley.” On domestic flights it’s a crap shoot if there will be anything to eat so flight attendants carry a lunch box full of food from home. When you see flight attendants in the airport with a bunch of luggage, they are probably working on small planes with a lot of short flights and nothing to eat so one of their bags is full of food.”

Heather Poole is one of those food-packing flight attendants. “I always bring my own food with me on the plane because we always run out,” she says. “That and I’m kind of sick of eating the same old thing all the time.

Related: Finally: Airplane Food that Won’t Make You Gag—No, Really!

But you can use the flight attendants’ eating habits to your advantage. “Flight attendants and pilots always know the best and cheapest places to eat in airports,” says Emily Witkop. “If you see us in line, you should eat there and ask us what’s good.”

Are pilots really required to eat different in-flight meals?

Three pilots, three different meals? Maybe, but not always. (Photo: Thinkstock)

It’s not a law but, yes, for many pilots eating the same meal is verboten. The reason why is apparent to anyone who’s seen the movie Airplane (and if you haven’t, you should because it literally is one of the funniest movies of all time). “Typically, as a ‘best practice’ pilot and co-pilots’ meals will differ to prevent illness from food-borne bacteria, contamination, spoilage,” says Bailey.

“Pilots are supposed to, but it doesn’t always happen,” says Bunn. He explains: “Remember what airplane food looks like? That’s pretty much what crew meals look like. One pilot is given a crew meal. The other pilot is given a different crew meal. When exposed to the same food day in and day out, the pilots may take a pass on the crew meals, and hope there are some leftover passenger meals. They may opt for left over passenger meals, even if it means both eat the same meal.”

But that cheat does come with a built-in safety check. “Since the passengers have already eaten, if no passengers got sick, the meals must be okay,” says Bunn.

Could a normal person be talked into landing a passenger jet, like we see in movies?

“Airplane” star Robert Hays, along with “Otto” the autopilot at “Airplane’s” 30th anniversary celebration. Surely they still can’t be serious about landing a plane. (Photo: Getty Images)

Something else we see on Airplane: a passenger landing a commercial jet with instructions from air traffic control. Can that happen? “That possibility is pretty far out,” says Bunn. “How would a passenger know how to use the radio?”

Alright, let’s assume the passenger finds and operates the radio. In that case, Bunn says they might be home free. “A passenger could follow instructions well enough to set the autopilot up for an automatic landing, and the plane could land itself.”

Can airplane doors be opened mid-flight?

Fortunately, these are very hard to open mid-flight. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Occasionally, we see news reports of someone freaking out and trying to open an airplane’s door mid-flight. Fortunately, even when flight attendants and air marshals can’t protect passengers from that potentially dangerous situation, the laws of physics will.

“Air pressure within the cabin is too great” to open doors mid-flight,” says Bunn. The air pressure in a commercial jet is typically much stronger than the air pressure outside of the plane, meaning the doors are effectively sealed shut.

How “likely” is a successful water landing, really?

This truly was a Miracle on the Hudson. (Photo: AP)

It’s part of the safety briefing: “in the unlikely event of a water landing….” But aside from the 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed a US Airways jet in New York’s Hudson River, how likely is it that you’ll have a successful water landing?

Aviation safety expert Kyle Bailey doesn’t like the odds. “Water crash landings typically are less desirable than an emergency happening over a flat piece of land,” he says, adding that in emergency water landings, planes risk tumbling and breaking apart.

Still, former airline pilot Tom Bunn offers a reassuring note. “Historically, most water landings are survivable,” he says. “Weather conditions matter. It is better when the surface is smooth, as the Hudson River was for Sullenberger.”

How fast do airline pilots typically go when flying?

One thing you’ll rarely hear an airline pilot say: “Let’s see what this baby can do!”

Do airline pilots ever indulge their Top Gun “Danger Zone” fantasies and push their planes into the red?

“Cruise speed on a jet airliner is in the area of 550 miles per hour,” says Bunn. And, yes, speed matters. And while they can’t get speeding tickets, pilots have a good reason not to go too crazy on the speed. Says Bailey: “All airplanes have structural cruising speeds which If exceeded could cause components of airplane to fail.”

Does having your seat up for landing really make a difference?

When flight attendants tell you to put up your seats and tray tables, it’s in your best interest to listen. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Flight attendants generally don’t waste their time setting and enforcing meaningless rules; if they tell you to do something, there’s usually a reason. The order to put your seat and tray tables up for landing is no exception.

“Because on impact you fly forward,” says Witkop, pointing out that in a hard landing, “even a few inches can make a difference for you.”

Heather Poole is more blunt about it. “Of course it matters!” she says. “If there’s an emergency, you’re reclined seat is going to keep the person behind you from getting out as quickly as possible. Time matters: Put your damn seat up.” Yes, ma’am!

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