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Fear of Flying? Learn from a Pilot

Fear of Flying? Learn from a Pilot

I am an anxious flyer, and I take comfort in that fact that I am not alone. 

While flying back from Portugal in the Summer, I had to close my eyes and do some deep breathing as we took off and flew through some rather windy and turbulent weather. On the outside its all smiles though, I don’t want to share my fear with my kids, but inside my tummy was doing somersaults and as I repeated to myself “turbulence is just speed bumps for airplanes” over and over again. 

In an effort to ease my fears I often will seek out information. And I know just the person for the job.

Today we welcome back Sales Wicks, Senior First Officer for Swiss.

Last week Sales answered lots of questions from both myself and the SFT Instagram community that centred on turbulence. Today it’s time to learn about lightening, flight paths and Sales top tips for jetlag!

SFT: What happens to a plane if it is struck by lightening? Is it dangerous?

SALES: Personally, I have experienced one lightening strike myself. It has happened shortly after departing Tel Aviv while flying around an area of disturbed air when we got struck. For a few split seconds it was totally bright and we have heard a loud bang. All our systems showed good indications and we consequently continued the flight to our destination. After landing the mechanics inspected the airplane and found two tiny marks, where the lightening hit the planes skin and where it exited again.

As pilots we do circumnavigate weather phenomena just like storm clouds with some safe distance. Nevertheless, there is always a chance that we still get struck by lightening and statistics show that an individual jet liner is struck about once every two years, on average. 

Just as with my personal experience, there might be some exterior damage – a superficial entry or exit wound – or minor injury to the plane’s electrical systems, but a strike typically leaves little or no evidence. That’s because planes, just like cars, act very good as a Faraday Cage. This means, that the space inside the metal (passenger cabin, wings, fuel tanks and so on) – is protected from electric currents.

Statistics further show, that strikes are most likely to happen when passing through or around cumulonimbus clouds, between two and five kilometres from the ground. An altitude band that we cross while climbing or descending, but overflying way above while at cruising altitude. 

To put it into a nutshell: You need not be concerned.

  We are just reaching the airspace of Myanmar as the sun slowly peeks above the horizon. A beautiful sight with impressive thunderstorms along the horizon.

We are just reaching the airspace of Myanmar as the sun slowly peeks above the horizon. A beautiful sight with impressive thunderstorms along the horizon.

SFT: How do Pilots calculate the flight path?

SALES: Each and every flight is planned by our flight dispatcher and their computer-based tools. While short haul flights usually follow similar to same routes, intercontinental flights tend to vary more in their routings. This is due to ever changing high altitude wind systems and other weather phenomena. 

Before each flight the flight crew will get briefed on the upcoming flight including the applicable weather en route and at our destination. Will will further check the information regarding the airports and areas we are going to overfly.

At the end of this process we will decide on the amount of fuel that we are going to take for the flight in order to cover the trip as well as some reserves for unforeseen circumstances just like circumnavigating some weather enroute, not getting the planned cruising altitude due to other traffic blocking it or intense traffic at our destination leading to some holding patterns before commencing the approach.

  We are approaching the Alps coming in from Athens as an impressive wall of convective weather makes us take a detour around this area of increased thunderstorms.

We are approaching the Alps coming in from Athens as an impressive wall of convective weather makes us take a detour around this area of increased thunderstorms.

SFT: When flying over countries in conflict, how does flight clearance work and who is in charge of this?

SALES: Either the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), or the respective state issues information regarding areas that are in a conflict. Furthermore, every airline or a conglomerate of airlines analyse the security situation of their destinations as well as the areas continuously. If the airways aren’t already closed by the respective authorities, the airlines will simply re-route the flights around the area affected. 

We pilots will get information about these areas in our flight documentations thus making us aware that if we are deviating from the planned route, we should still steer clear of the affected area.

  Have you ever seen the earths own shadow? You either have to climb up a high mountain or be on an airplane to visit that optical phenomenon. Here we are reaching the US east coast heading into the night across the North Atlantic Ocean bound for Switzerland.

Have you ever seen the earths own shadow? You either have to climb up a high mountain or be on an airplane to visit that optical phenomenon. Here we are reaching the US east coast heading into the night across the North Atlantic Ocean bound for Switzerland.

SFT: I get nervous when a plane takes a sharp turn, can you calm my nerves about this?

SALES: Some airports are located in confined areas that will require us to turn away from the runway axis shortly after lift-off. At some airports this is also due to noise abatement in order to avoid densely populated areas while still relatively close over the ground.

A good example for such a early turn is Nice at the Coté d’Azur. The airport is located on an artificial landfill just south of the city. The greater Nice area is located in bay with some mountains to the north and west. While taking off, we need to take an early turn towards the sea in order to stay well clear from the terrain. This is a normal procedure required by every plane departing.

  While you are asleep I get to watch the beautiful night sky.

While you are asleep I get to watch the beautiful night sky.

SFT: What is the main cause of most plane accidents?

SALES: Did you know that 2017 has been a very safe year in civil aviation with no accident recorded?

But not only accidents will be investigated by an independent group of experts, also incidents will be look at closer and their findings will improve safety further. A few decades ago airplane accidents have been more frequent as the technology of flying was still at its beginning. 

Nowadays as the technology took some massive leaps forward, being airborne is among the safest modes of transport. Still accidents continue to happen, this time mainly because of human error. The accident investigations usually show that an accident never happens because of one single issue. It’s almost always a combination of factors that lead to an accident.

Therefore, the statistics for the causes of aircraft crashes are not always clear. It is however widely accepted that a reasonable of accidents are based on human errors (such as the pilots or maintenance crew) and while the weather only plays a minor role. 

 

SFT: Is it best to keep my shoes on during the entire flight?

SALES: Well, definitely during take-off and landing but during the cruise phase I suggest you to make yourself comfortable as much as you can.

  A beautiful early morning takes us along the Swiss alps. Can you name the mountains we are seeing to our left?

A beautiful early morning takes us along the Swiss alps. Can you name the mountains we are seeing to our left?

SFT: How do airports make it possible for planes to land quickly one after the other, like every 90 seconds, at Heathrow? 

SALES: As mentioned in the blog post about turbulence, each and every plane creates wake turbulences, just like the waves a boat creates. These wakes extend from the wing tips as long as the wing creates lift, thus whenever flying. Like with boats and ships, the bigger the plane, the more significant are the wake turbulences. That’s why the arrivals of airplanes are based on so-called “Wake Turbulence Category”, which separates planes based on their maximum take-off weight. 

The air traffic controller manages the traffic departing and arriving based on these categories. It requires a certain separation either based on time or distance. It is increased when a smaller plane succeeds a larger one and reduced if the sequence is vice-versa. It can be as low as 90 seconds.

  Like drawing a map. Flying over the state of Belgium during dusk show the massive network of roads.

Like drawing a map. Flying over the state of Belgium during dusk show the massive network of roads.

SFT: What are you jet lag tips?

SALES: In the end I assume the reaction to a new time zone differs from person to person and it varies with age. As a general rule of thumb your body will adjust by one hour a day to a new time zone. This is why I as a pilot would rather say I experience fatigue or lack of sleep more than jetlag as we don’t stay long enough at our far-distant destinations. 

Depending on whether your stay is brief (less than three days) or longer (a week) I would make sure to:

  • Relax my schedule and give my body rest whenever I feel tired
  • Get a good sleep before my flight to be well-rested before the journey
  • Stay awake until an early local bedtime when arriving at a new place
  • Catch up on sleep to get the same amount of sleep as I usually get in 24 hrs.
  • Drink a lot (water), and avoid coffee.
  • Get some exercise
  • Eat and drink right (your body is used to certain times, changing these will cause some reactions)
  • Get as much daylight as you can
  • Avoid alcohol (of course strictly while on duty, and eight hours before). It’s effects at altitude increase tiredness and cause dehydration.

 

A huge thank you to Sales for the in-depth answers to our questions. If you turbulence is something that makes you nervous, make sure you check out the first part of this series, where Sales answers commonly asked questions about turbulence. 

Want a more in-depth look into the job of a pilot? Sales shares wonderful insights into his job through his Instagram Stories as well as some amazing photography. More stories and photos appear on his blog Beyond Clouds

Are you a nervous flyer? Do you have any tips or tricks to help calm the nerves? I would love to hear from you! 

 

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