We’re awake now. But not for long. (Photo: Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images)
Any time you step into a plane, your life is in the hands of a stranger. Although the cockpit may seem like a secretive, closed-off space, what happens in that tiny command center is always done with your safety in mind. But there’s a reason why a lot of the cockpit’s activities aren’t broadcast out to flyers for their in-flight enjoyment.
Sometimes our behavior might spook you.
Who exactly is at the controls? (Photo: Chris Sattlberger/Blend Images/Getty Images)
1. We fly blind. if you were allowed to visit the cockpit during a westbound flight late in the afternoon, you probably would see much of the windshield covered. Pilots use whatever is at hand — papers, maps, or even tray liners — to block the sun. It just doesn’t make sense to sit there for hours staring at the sun. Although it may be terrifying to see that the pilots are flying “blind,” rest assured that all planes are equipped with TCAS, which stands for Traffic Collision Avoidance System. Pilots can see all nearby airborne flights much better — and farther— on the TCAS radar screen than with the naked eye.
We don’t need to “see” where we are going. (Photo: Donovan Reese/Photodisc/Getty Images)
2. We take naps. It’s not legal, but legal or not, naps are a necessity. On long night flights, the best way to make sure both pilots don’t fall asleep at the same time is for pilots to take turns taking a fifteen minute nap in order to shake their sleepiness. Though illegal for U.S. pilots, controlled naps are allowed in the United Kingdom. As aviation consultant Mark Weiss puts it, “I would rather have somebody take a nap during a cruise part of a flight so that pilot would be at peak performance during a high-traffic situation or a landing.”
The seat belt sign isn’t for our health. (Photo: Edward Simpson/Flickr)
3. We can’t dodge turbulence. When the plane starts to shake, do you ever wonder why your pilot doesn’t simply steer around it? Although your pilot will always try to give you the smoothest ride possible, clear air turbulence (CAT) can’t be predicted accurately enough for flights to be planned around it. The only reliable CAT advance notice comes from pilots ahead of you on the same route. If a pilot ahead reports CAT, your pilot will try to avoid it. It doesn’t help to go left or right. Circumnavigating CAT doesn’t work because it would mean flying a great distance off course. Sometimes, there just aren’t any smooth altitudes.
They may look pretty, but they can be dangerous. (Photo: Frank Chen/Moment Open/Getty Images)
Storm clouds that cause turbulence are called cumulonimbus clouds, or CBs for short. CBs can be circumnavigated during cruise. But it becomes harder to do so when landing. As the plane gets closer to the airport, your pilot has less latitude about going off course. The plane has to be lined up with the runway when five miles from landing. Turns off course are not possible during the last five miles, so if a CB is in the way, landings are temporarily halted to allow the CB to drift away.
In any case, turbulence is not a problem for the plane. It is a problem, however, for anxious fliers. Even if you know it is safe, turbulence can still cause fear. When the plane drops, a part of the brain called the amygdala releases stress hormones. The amygdala reacts to feelings of falling and that’s a good. Think about it: If you are on a ladder painting the ceiling and start to fall, the amygdala is going to zap you with stress hormones. The hormones hijack your awareness. They force you to forget about the ceiling and look where you are headed —the floor.
When the plane drops again and again, the amygdala bombards you with one shot of stress hormones after another. It’s hard to stay convinced that you are safe. My free app at http://www.fearofflying.com/app helps. It measures the turbulence and proves that you are safe. And proof that you are safe can help.
A pilot’s goal is always to reach the ground safely. (Photo: Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images)
Remember: Your pilot cannot get the cockpit on the ground without getting the cabin — where you are — on the ground. You care about self-preservation. So does your pilot. Your pilot’s self-preservation pretty much guarantees yours. It’s a much better deal that you get from our doctor or lawyer or used car salesperson. They are not in the same boat as you are.
4. Flight schedules are based on outdated pseudo-science. Prior to 1978, each airline worked out schedules with its pilots to accommodate the routes the airline flew while protecting the pilots from undue fatigue. But after 1978’s deregulation, all that changed. Competition between airlines became so fierce that pilots were forced to fly more hours with less rest. Fatigue led to accidents. At the beginning of this year, new rules established by the FAA and supposedly based on scientific study, went into effect which gave pilots a reasonable amount of uninterrupted rest between days of flying, but increased the number of hours a two-pilot crew could fly per day from eight to nine hours!
Under these new pseudo-scientific rules, a pilot who reports for duty at 7 a.m. can be on duty for fourteen hours. That may sound reasonable until you consider that being at work at 7 a.m. may mean getting up at 3 a.m., leaving home at 4 a.m., and driving two hours to the airport. That allows only twenty minutes for traffic and forty minutes to catch the bus from crew parking to the terminal. Your pilot can be forced to work until 9 p.m., eighteen hours after waking up — if lucky — from five to six hours of sleep.
According to research done in Australia, a person who has driven more than eight hours has the same ability to function as a person with a blood alcohol level of .05. The research also showed a person who has been awake for eighteen hours function like a person with a blood alcohol of .05. What does that say about your pilot who is landing the plane after flying nine hours or being up eighteen hours?
Pilots are stuck with the new rules, and no matter how fatigued a pilot may be, refusing to fly means big trouble. As a pilot, you don’t fly fatigued, you can’t keep your job. Don¹t expect things to get better. So, if you want a pilot who is fully awake after a full night’s sleep, don’t fly earlier than 10 a.m.. If you want to be sure your pilot’s performance
is better than a drunk driver, steer clear of short flights after 7 p.m. Longer domestic flights and international flights that depart after 7 p.m. are not a problem in this regard because on such flights pilots are usually beginning their work day.
Captain Tom is a former commercial airline pilot, who after retirement in the 90’s, went back to school to become a licensed therapist. Since then, he has counseled thousands of people across the globe who have a fear of flying through his program, SOAR. His first book, SOAR: The Breakthorough Treatment For Fear of Flying, is currently available on Amazon.