Fearful Flyers: What Not To Worry About.
Didn’t help much when you were a kid, at night, scared, and your mom said, “There’s no monster–go to sleep,” did it? Because fear doesn’t respond well to “shut up.”
So rather than dismissing the fears of white-knuckle flyers by saying, “There’s nothing to worry about,” I’ve taken to asking those fearful passengers, “What is it that worries you about flying?” That way we can actually examine their area of concern and shed a little light in their darkness, maybe helping them relax. It’ll be a long night otherwise, plus a lot of wasted fear that could have been vanquished with the flip of a light switch.
Here’s some of what I’ve been told by fearful flyers, plus what I’ve been able to pass along to them to help worry less, or even not at all. If you know someone who is afraid to fly, share this with them–it might help. If you have concerns about flying, share them with me. I want to be able to help you and the countless others who’d like to fly–or have partners or family who wish they’d fly–to understand what not to worry about when it comes to flying.
From what I’ve gathered from nervous folks before or after a flight, several key worries seem to recur among the group. Most of these concerns center around a particular phase of flight (for example, take-off) or a flight sensation (say, turbulence, or a rapid descent) but the common denominator in them all is this: the unknown. Like the darkness in that scared kid’s bedroom. So let me shed some light on these areas to fill in the blanks for you, to unveil the unknown so you can relax. Because what you don’t know can help you.
First, of course, is The Take-Off. Seems like you just rocket down the runway in a thunderous roar, tilt back and climb off the runway, right?
If you only knew.
First, you should know that every parameter involved in the take-off, from aircraft weight to fuel weight to wind factors to runway slope to outside air temperature to aircraft center of gravity are all computed to the nearest hundredth–and then recomputed one more time before we reach the end of the runway.
That’s important for me–and for you–because we need to have the correct speed and thrust setting for the exact conditions. And think for a minute about both thrust settings and speeds.
Here’s the big boy engine–one of two, of course–on my jet, the 737-800. It can put out up to 27,000 pounds of thrust, but we seldom use more than 22,000 pounds per take-off.
So what? The “so what” is that means we have five tons of thrust to spare if we need it. We are actually over-powered if we need the extra kick. And consider this when you think of that: the design of the jet is that if we achieve a certain minimum speed (yes, that’s calculated and recalculated before flight) I can continue the take-off on just one big boy engine–easily. Or, if I’m below the maximum stopping speed (ditto the “recalculated” comment above) I can safely abort on the runway.
And in case you’re reading for detail, yes, the maximum stopping speed will ALWAYS be above the minimum single-engine take-off speed, so ultimately, the deck is stacked in our favor: we can take-off or stop under all conditions. Feeling more secure on take-off yet? Well wait–we’re not done rigging things our way.
There’s a safety margin built into the safety margin: we know what the stopping capability of the jet is–but we’ll knock 20% off of the performance, adding an additional safety margin to our stopping capability. In other words, if we know it takes 4,000 feet to stop at our precisely recalculated weight–we’ll require 5,000 feet of runway to do it.
But wait–we’re still not done stacking the deck in our favor.
Although we have thrust reversers that will throw out a 22 ton anchor to stop us–we won’t even count their effect and will calculate the stopping distance without them.
So let’s recap: on take-off, we have tons of extra thrust available if we need it. The aircraft is designed to fly–and fly well–on just one engine, once we reach the minimum take-off speed. And that speed is always below the maximum stopping speed based on factors biased toward a safe stop as I explained.
So we can stop or go, safely, no matter what. That’s all part of the design of your jet.
Those design limits affect another in-flight boogie-man, turbulence. The engineers designed a load factor limit way above anything a rational person would ever expect.
That is, they took a G-limit that would probably give a horse an aneurysm, then again, added 50% to it. That’s the limit for operating the aircraft in turbulence. Wait for it . . .
. . . then they added another 20% to that for good measure. Your jet is designed to endure a shaking like Charro on crack and still go about its business. Although I’ve never asked a nervous flyer because I’m trying to calm them, not piss them off, if you are a white knuckle flyer, do you worry about your car falling apart whenever you cross railroad tracks? Probably not–even though your car is NOT designed with the stress tolerances of our jet. Just something to think about.
Now, let’s turn to the third big bagaboo: landing. There’s probably a lot about landing that you don’t know that would most likely make you feel more confident if you did.
First, once again, safety margins: the landing stopping distances are biased in our favor with 20% additional distance tacked on, plus our thrust reversers and their enormous power not even counted. Put that in your hip pocket and now let’s talk about weather.
It looks like pea soup from the cabin windows, doesn’t it? But not from where I sit.
It’s like x-ray vision: see the runway outline? It’s exactly overlaying the real runway, computed by a half dozen computers reading a handful of GPS systems reading a couple dozen satellites and figuring our position accurately to within a matter of feet. So, whether there’s pea soup from our cruise altitude to the ground, no matter: I can see accurately and we will land safely.
Or, if I’m not satisfied that the byzantine range of safe landing requirements are met, we have the fuel to go elsewhere. And the entire enroute portion of our flight, I’m constantly checking the destination weather, as well as the weather at potential divert options.
That’s one of the many things I’m doing on the flight deck so you can relax in back and enjoy the inflight entertainment (they were showing “The Office” last week). I have an eye on our “special clock”–fuel flow–which is our most meaningful measurement of how long we can fly. If things turn bad weatherwise at our destination, no problem: we’ll land at a safe and suitable alternate with lots of extra gas for unforeseen contingencies. That’s kind of the way I’m designed, after 25 years in this airline’s cockpits. And they back me 110% on that.
So let’s review the landing edge we’ve claimed for ourselves: we will have fuel to fly to our destination, shoot an approach and if it’s not satisfactory for any one of a hundred good reasons I can and do think of–we’re out of town, safely to an alternate with better conditions. Our stopping distance is biased in our favor. And I have been graciously granted x-ray vision by my airline (you should know that my airline, American Airlines, and Alaska are the only two using this “Heads Up Display” system) for all critical phases of flight.
Finally, there’s the big catch-all nervous flyer concern, and that is, not being in control. Right?
Wrong. You are in control just by choosing your flight. If it is on a major carrier–not a “regional” or “commuter” air carrier, you get me. Not just “me” as in me, but all of us and I’m typical of the major airline pilot: seven years as an Air Force pilot flying worldwide, twenty-five plus years in our cockpits, captain since 1991, and many, many thousands of pilot-in-command hours with the commensurate number of take-off and landings to match. Like all of our cockpit crews, “this ain’t my first rodeo.” You’ve chosen your crew well–by choosing a major U.S. airline.
You also chose well in your aircraft options by choosing a major airline with a huge maintenance and engineering department keeping the state-of-the-art jets healthy. And the airline has thousands of highly experienced and rigorously qualified pilots operating their fleet safely. Add to that your new-found insight into take-offs, turbulence and landing and you are in control as soon as you wisely book your flight.
That’s all it takes, and everything in regard to your flight safety is biased in your favor. Does that help shed a little more light on your darkest thoughts about flying?
If you are a fearful flyer, or if you know one, share this blog. Hopefully it makes one major point that helps folks relax in the air: there’s a lot of stuff to not worry about. If only your mom had explained when she told you that so many years ago.