Is it easier to get drunk while flying? Are modern planes flown by autopilots? We test the great myths of flying

30 July 2018

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A story published last week about a Ryanair flight being grounded after some passengers started bleeding from their ears was another opportunity for conspiracy theorists to pronounce upon one of the great myths of flying.

Contrary to some claims, this involuntary (and minor) exsanguination was not caused by the flight breaking the sound barrier (all commercial aircraft flights break the sound barrier) but rather by a sudden loss of pressure in the cabin.

The passengers may have taken fright, and quite understandably, but what they suffered was no more dramatic than a minor nose bleed.

The episode brought-to-mind some of the myths routinely perpetrated about air travel. Here are a few.

  1. Germs are not recycled through a plane’s cabin air system.  A popular misconception is that you’re more likely to suffer from flu or a cold if you fly. In fact, commercial aircraft are fitted with high efficiency particulate air filters that capture 99.9995% of microbes and germs found in the air, according to the International Air Transport Association.
  2. It’s not easier to get drunk while flying. While it may be tempting to believe you can recoup some of the cost of your airfare by getting drunk on the cheap, there’s no evidence to support this. Some people might believe it to be true is because the nausea/dizziness caused by dehydration is more pronounced during cruising at altitude. In any event, it’s illegal for airline staff to allow passengers to get drunk although I’m sure, like me, you’ll have seen this ‘law’ breached from time-to-time.
  3. Using your mobile phone aboard a flight won't cause it to crash. You’ll always be told to switch off your electronic gadgets before take-off, but this is because it’s irritating to air traffic controllers. The truth is that using your mobile phone will have no effect on the plane’s navigation system and you’ll cause more damage by throwing it at the pilot’s head.
  4. Air stewards and stewardesses are not forbidden from fraternising with passengers. Few if any airlines have this rule and none enforce it which explains why two of my friends are now married to stewardesses they met while flying. A reason why some stewardesses can appear disengaged or even frosty is because they’re hit-on by passengers they have allowed to get drunk.
  5. Aircraft don’t dump their toilet waste while flying. There is many an urban myth about people claiming their house has been coated with excrement falling out of the sky. If this has ever happened, it wasn’t caused by a commercial aircraft. The WCs’ contents are sucked down a pipe to waste tanks at the rear of the aircraft. The waste tanks are emptied – as they should be – at the airport after every landing, regardless of how full they are.
  6. Flight crew can’t turn on the autopilot and go for a sleep. Some people believe airplanes are actually flown by autopilot which is not the case. The autopilot is essentially an advanced Satnav, providing input and support regarding direction and position, but there’s always a human in control of the airplane.
  7. Thunderstorms or turbulence can’t down an aircraft. Pilots will always try to avoid storms because they cause turbulence which can be uncomfortable and frightening for passengers, but modern aircraft are robust enough to weather even the most violent storm. While a lightning strike on an aircraft can damage its systems, not to the extent that safety is impaired. If this happens, a comprehensive inspection is conducted once the plane has landed.
  8. Assuming the brace position can actually save your life. Some people believe passengers are told to assume the brace position to prevent them looking out of the window and panicking if a plane is about to crash. In fact, the position helps deflect the force of impact from your body into the chair in front of you, while at the same time protecting your vital organs.
  9. Airline staff can’t arrest you. Pilots and cabin crew don’t have extra-legal powers – they’re not police officers. However, a pilot can order a suspect to be handcuffed  on-board a flight until the plane is grounded and the proper authorities can take over. Also, if they have a dying passenger aboard, they’re authorised to take their last will.
  10. Total engine failure won’t cause a plane to drop from the sky. The role of an engine is to allow a plane to reach take-off speed and to propel it forward, not to keep it airborne. A plane is essentially a giant glider which can be flown and landed without an engine. Pilots are rigorously trained in how to land an aircraft that has suffered a total engine failure.

 

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