5 Myths About Flying Everyone Believes (Thanks to Movies)
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.
Any Hole in an Aircraft Will Eventually Tear Open the Plane
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.
Aircraft Are Quick to Start
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.
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.
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!"
Helicopter Rotors are Like Giant Swords Waiting to Chop You to Pieces in a Crash
Helicopters are one of the steepest risk-reward propositions available to humans. The reward is that you get to ride around inside a metal dragonfly with wings that are giant, whirring swords. The risk is that your chances of surviving a helicopter crash are about as good as your chances of winning an egg toss when your partner is an industrial blender on high. They're called choppers for a reason. If you've seen the movie The Last Boy Scout, you know that the blades of a helicopter can turn a screaming man into a fine pink mist without the aircraft so much as changing course. And if you've seen 28 Days Later, you know that helicopters are really just a poor excuse to turn a lawn mower inside out and convert zombies into restaurant style salsa. Apparently, that sword hat is itching to fly off its handle, and when it does, it's going to chew up anything or anybody that gets in its way, unless it falls apart, in which case you'll be treated to a giant sword-throwing display.
And that's why when they land, the blades can be shot off at crowds as a mass "control device."
Due to the fact that they often happen low to the ground, at speeds that would get you shouted at on the highway, helicopter crashes are actually fatal less often than airplane crashes. But what about the deadly parade of giant, gravel-chewing swords that go flying everywhere in a crash?
It turns out chopper is a slightly overdramatic nickname, since helicopters are not built to chop through anything but air. Another name for a helicopter is "rotary-wing aircraft." The helicopter's "blades" are actually just wings. They aren't swords made to slice through skulls. They're made to slice through the air, which happens to be far less dense than the half-inch of stone helmet currently protecting your think pudding.
The fancier version has bubblegum in the center.
Notice that it's mostly made of things like "foam" and "honeycomb" instead of "adamantium razor blades." That "stainless steel erosion shield" is for protection against things like dust and sand, which can actually do a number on helicopter blades to the point of needing to be replaced. Because a rotor blade is the helicopter's wing, it's made to be a specific shape that generates lift.
The metal is surprisingly pliable, and whacking through dozens of zombie skulls or an adult human body will bend the rotor out of its optimal shape, into something more akin to a dented baseball bat -- not known for its aerodynamic properties. So while we wouldn't recommend sticking your head close to one, you probably don't need to worry that a loose helicopter blade is going to chase you down and chew through the concrete wall you're hiding behind.
Well, that is unless you're being purposely stalked by one.
Plane Crash = Plummeting to Certain Death Inside a Zero Gravity Chamber of Horrors
According to Fight Club, the reason planes come equipped with oxygen masks is because "Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you're taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate." According to stand-up comedians and the stupid people who quote them, assuming the crash position is only good for kissing your own ass goodbye. Conspiracy theorists have even suggested that the posture is intended to only protect your teeth so that your body is easy to identify.
While you may not believe that, the stupid and cynical get away with such statements because of our shared assumption that plane crashes are as hopelessly fatal and terrifyingly violent as they look in every movie ever.
Onscreen plane crashes tend to follow a loose three-act structure. At some point when the plane is high above the Earth, the air starts violently jump kicking everything, a bag or two falls out of its overhead compartment, the oxygen masks fall down, and a bunch of extras get to put their acting lessons to use.
Up next, gravity is going to fail. A few people will be sucked to the roof and slammed to the ground like they're being manhandled by an invisible wrestler ...
We wish there was a way to spell a sort of sucking sound.
If you're lucky, a fireball will sweep backward through the cabin, granting you and your fellow passengers a quick death in an orderly, front to back fashion ...
If you watch the news, you probably suspect crashes that look like the ones in movies are happening all the time. Perhaps you saw this terrifying footage of a 747 plummeting out of the sky on takeoff.
Holy bazookas, that's exactly what you always feared was going to happen. It's like whatever rules of physics you've been coasting along on for every flight you've ever taken just suddenly decide to stop working, and the plane falls from the sky like a stone.
Movies create impossible crashes because most of them (80 percent) happen during takeoff and landing and just aren't terrifying looking enough to keep you glued to your seat. The news isn't allowed to completely make stuff up, but they can use terrifying footage out of context. For instance, the plane that fell out of the air in Afghanistan in that terrifying video was transporting heavy duty military vehicles. One of the 18-ton vehicles came loose and rolled to the back of the plane, causing it to pitch upward until it couldn't fly anymore. Terrifying video, horrible tragedy, completely unrelated to any flight that isn't transporting something that weighs 18 tons.
Perhaps the most dangerous myth that movies perpetuate is the idea that you're completely screwed no matter what you do in a plane crash. In Fearless, the movie's hero leaves his seat during an emergency landing to walk around the cabin and spread his Zen-like acceptance of death to the rest of the passengers. In reality, most plane crashes are totally survivable as long as you do exactly what the flight attendants advised during that speech you slept through. We've covered before that 95 percent of people survive plane crashes, and one of the main reasons is that "kiss your ass goodbye" landing position. In Australia, a plane crashed while the 16 passengers aboard were sleeping. The only survivor was the one who woke up and assumed the emergency crash position.
Between December 2001 and June 2013, if you were on a commercial airliner like the ones you see in any of the above movies, your chances of dying in a fatal crash were zero. Not virtually zero. Literally zero. The crash landing of the Air Asiana flight that killed three people in San Francisco to end that streak was a horrifying tragedy. But it was also the first fatal accident in North America involving a major airline since 2001. Guess which aspect was endlessly covered by the national media!
Maybe you've seen articles like this one from AOL Travel.com, with the headline "Qantas Flight Loses Pressure, Drops 26,000 Feet." A different title reporting the same incident declared "Passenger terror as another Qantas jet fault causes plane to plummet 25,000ft mid-flight." That makes it sound like, in the middle of a flight, the plane just up and went into free fall. The writer of that headline doesn't want you to know that the story is actually about an air conditioner failure. The 26,000 feet were "dropped" on purpose by the pilots, as part of a controlled descent to get the plane to lower, more breathable air. By those standards, every flight you've ever taken has "dropped" at least that many feet. You're a survivor!
"This is your captain speaking. If you'll look out the left side of the plane, you'll see your eminent demise."
The truth is commercial airplanes like the ones movies always show plummeting out of the sky like a stone are pretty much incapable of doing that. Their bodies are designed to have a gliding ratio of 15 to 1, which means they will glide 15 feet forward for every one foot they fall, even without anything pushing them but the air over their wings. Even if your plane tried falling out of the air in mid-flight, the aerodynamics of its carefully designed body would cause the air it was falling through to pass over its wings and keep it flying.
This isn't a hypothetical design feature. Pilots have glided completely full commercial airliners over 100 miles to safe landings. It's called a "dead-stick" landing, as opposed to emergency landings that still have at least one engine working, which are referred to as "precautionary landings." That's right, if three of your four engines flame out on takeoff, and the pilot decides to turn around and land the plane, he's considered "precautionary."
Carl is a full-time military pilot and a part-time smart ass. He occasionally says something worthwhile on Twitter and writes for non-dick-joke publications such as Small Wars Journal and the Marine Corps Gazette, among others.
Related Reading: For a list of planes just as deadly as Hollywood wants every 747 to be, click this link. That crash in World War Z won't seem so bad once you've read about the plane that MELTED PEOPLE'S FACES. Next, lighten things up and read about the time a fist fight between the pilot, co-pilot and crew left a flight unmanned for ten minutes. Close out your study in aviation with this look at the most badass pilots in history.
We have some bad news: alcohol doesn't actually warm you up, Thomas Edison was a thieving dickface and your favorite book sellers are now taking pre-orders for a text book written and illustrated entirely by the Cracked team! Hitting shelves in October, Cracked's De-Textbook is a fully-illustrated, systematic deconstruction of all of the bullshit you learned in school.
It's loaded with facts about history, your body, and the world around you that your teachers didn't want you to know. And as a bonus? We've also included the kinkiest sex acts ever described in the Bible.