Most of us take human flight for granted. We board a plane in one city, get off in another, and rarely think about the scientific laws and incredible technology that make the in-between possible. Flying through turbulence, or experiencing a bumpy landing is like getting caught off-guard by a pop quiz you didn't study for. Unfortunately, all you have to go off of are some vague statistics you heard about flight being the safest way to travel and terrifying plane crashes you see in movies and on the news. It turns out, there are a handful of pretty crucial things we've gotten just completely wrong about how people fly and get killed while doing so.
#5. Any Hole in an Aircraft Will Eventually Tear Open the Plane
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Whether caused by gunfight or a violent bit of turbulence, a hole in the side of a plane will continue to grow and suck people out into the sky until it's closed or the plane has disintegrated. It's so reliable that in Iron Man 3, the bad guy says "Go Fish" before he blows off a plane's door because he knows the resulting hole is about to suck every person and chair out into the cold sunlight like it opened under the house in Poltergeist.
In Goldfinger, Bond shoots out a small plane window and holds tight while the villain is sucked out from clear across the room.
The hole in the side of the plane from Passenger 57 spends 2 minutes acting as a massive wind tunnel, before it sucks the plane's door clean off, leaving a bigger hole and an even suckier wind tunnel.
This is, of course, why airlines are so insistent that you wear a seatbelt and refrain from gunplay, even after the plane has reached a safe cruising altitude.
In 2011, a 5-square-foot hole (the size of most windows in your house assuming you don't live on a cruise ship) opened in the roof of a Southwest Airlines flight. It was cruising at 37,000 feet, meaning the pressure inside and outside of the plane were at what scientists refer to as peak explodiness. But when the explosive decompression occurred, the hole didn't suck anyone out, nor did it grow in size and ferocity as time went on. And it wasn't the first time such a dramatic action movie spectacle has failed to develop. That's just not how holes in airplanes behave.
We're not going to lie to you. Having a hole in the airplane you're inside of is, generally speaking, worse than not having that happen. When a hole opens in an airplane, the inside of that plane will experience something called explosive decompression. People who happen to be directly next to especially large holes when this occurs can be sucked out -- it's happened a handful of times throughout the history of commercial flight. It has to be a giant hole, the people need to be directly next to it when it opens, and they can't be wearing their seatbelt. So, close but no dice Final Destination. Turns out rows or airplane seats generally aren't designed to easily slide out like the drawers of a card catalogue.
In fact, if you aren't immediately sucked out, and you don't go stick your head out like a dog on the highway, you should be OK. Whether bowel movement or decompression, the modifier "explosive" means a whole lot of decompression is taking place in an extremely brief period of time. When the barrier between the pressurized air inside the plane and the low pressure air outside is removed, the air inside the plane is going to explode out of the hole in a matter of seconds. If the plane doesn't disintegrate when the initial hole opens, it's pretty safe to assume the hole will not grow any larger, because the decompression is over, and also because it turns out planes are made of metal and not wet tissue paper.
#4. Aircraft Are Quick to Start
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Need to escape a bad situation quickly? According to movies like X-Men, Independence Day, and The A-Team, you might as well make your getaway in a plane or helicopter. In the movies, starting an aircraft, no matter the size, is only slightly more complex than starting a car. Flip a couple random switches, turn on some random lights, and push that big lever thing forward. See ya, bitches!
"Now to waste 4,000 rounds of ammo, firing at people and not hitting them."
Here's a list of the checks that every 747 needs to go through before each flight. There are 79 steps before you get to the section labeled "before starting," and another 44 steps before takeoff. That's a total of 123 checks required to get your plane off the ground. Try to keep that in mind the next time you're annoyed at the flight attendants for running you through a five-step safety video.
The little Huey helicopter you see the A-Team cruising around in during their latest movie requires nine pages of checks before taking off, and that's assuming the pilot blows off all the silly stuff, like, pre-flighting the aircraft to make sure the mechanic didn't leave his stash of weed in one of the engine intakes.
We're about to fly Colombian Airlines, baby. If you know what we mean.
Since they came up with the idea to make planes that can shoot at stuff, every military with an air force has been trying to increase the speed with which they're able to get fighter jets into the air. The U.S. Air Force keeps fighter jets on alert around the clock, ready to mobilize and deploy as fast as possible. The quickest time they're able to guarantee? Fifteen minutes. Fifteen freaking minutes? If a commercial airliner takes 15 minutes to depart from the gate, people start making exasperated faces to each other.
After the 9/11 attacks, conspiracy theorists suggested that something fishy was going on because the U.S. military didn't get fighter jets to the site of a highjacked plane in 10 minutes. It's unclear where they got that 10-minute figure from, but the 9/11 Commission revealed that there were only 14 fighter jets in the entire continental United States that were ready to be airborne on short notice. Due to crazy fast work, and the severity of the situation, those planes were able to get into the air in just eight minutes, at which point they would have had to travel across a state or two in order to do what the "truthers" claim was an inevitability.
"Um, sir? Should we reconsider the name 'Operation Cover-Up'?"
The readiness of aircraft is a sliding scale determined by a number of different factors. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, America was able to get the time from call to "wheels up" down to just a few minutes, but to do that they had to leave the planes on the runway with the engines running, which meant constantly refueling them and cycling in fresh pilots. If it's completely shut down, with no auxiliary or electrical power applied, a complex aircraft will usually takes 20 minutes to even be ready to fly.
So the next time you're watching a movie where the good guy sneaks into a plane and takes off quickly before anyone notices, keep in mind that the entire U.S. Air Force working together under the most urgent circumstances they've ever faced weren't able to achieve such efficiency.
"Scramble the fighters" is more of a relative term.
#3. In Emergencies, an Aircraft Cockpit is a Dramatic Place
There's a problem on the aircrafts in Battle: LA, The Aviator, Flight, Alive, and Cast Away. The cockpit looks like the inside of a bad acid trip. A cacophony of warning buzzers and lights accompany any problem. The survival of everyone aboard depends solely on how loud the pilots can yell at each other and possibly on how hard they can pull on the control column.
There are a limited number of problems where a buzzer or any other audio alarm will go off for any length of time -- usually those are things like the altitude or terrain warnings. Most aircraft will have a light accompanied by a voice, called "Bitching Betty," or a "bee-bonk" noise to get the pilot's attention, then another light or line of text on a screen saying what the problem is. Basically, the plane will give you a slap on the head saying, "Wake up, asshole!" and that's it.
The mechanical alarms can be so subtle that deadly crashes have often been blamed on dysfunctional communication between the flight crew -- a co-pilot who was too polite to warn his boss that he was confidently steering them into the side of the mountain. You need a living, breathing person in the cockpit who knows it's their job to scream, "Fuck, mountain!" because the automatic "Fuck, mountain!" alarm doesn't exist.
That's pilot for, "I just stuck that alarm up a screaming passenger's ass."
For every plane crash caused by inexplicable politeness, there are hundreds where the pilot relied on their years of training to save the day, something that's way easier to do when you don't have an air horn going off in your ear telling them not to do it. Imagine your company installed an air horn to continuously blast in your ear to alert you every time your job became extremely difficult and important not to dick up. Landing a plane that's on fire is hard enough.
Pilots, especially professional pilots in military and commercial aviation, undergo incessant training on how to act calmly during an emergency, communicating with each other and using the entire crew to solve the problem. Once the most immediate tasks required to keep the aircraft flying are done, the next step is almost always to break out a checklist and read the steps out loud. That's right, during an emergency, the most important thing is for one of the pilots to start reading a book.
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Maybe have some tea to calm the nerves.
They try to methodically solve the problem in order to bring the aircraft safely to a landing. That's the reason Jim Lovell, the Navy pilot in command of Apollo 13, said "Houston, we have a problem," not "Holy fucking shit, Houston! We're all going to die!"