Fear of flying or pteromerhanophobia is a very real and debilitating anxiety for many passengers, mostly exacerbated by lack of information. Not being in control is bad enough but ignorance and refusal to seek knowledge can lead to irrational fears that will forever haunt the victim. The good news is that passengers nowadays take the trouble to educate themselves by asking questions on many issues related to flying. Many have personally written to Captain Lim Khoy Hing with their worries and queries. Here are some of the commonly raised questions about flying.
Words: Capt. Lim Khoy Hing
Q: Are pilots aware of other planes around them?
A female passenger wrote asking whether a pilot knows how many planes are flying around him and at what heights? Her fear was that a plane might accidentally fly into another one from underneath or vice versa.
To answer this question, I cannot stress enough that pilots are fully aware of the traffic around their planes. They get the relevant information from the TCAS (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System). The TCAS can even warn pilots if their planes are on a collision course and direct them to a different path in order to prevent a mishap.
Recently, a new technology was introduced onto the Airbus A380 where traffic avoidance is automatically carried out by the autopilot. At present, on planes prior to the A380, if the crew receives a signal that another plane is on a collision course, they will disconnect the autopilot and manoeuvre the plane manually to avoid the crash. With this new technology, traffic avoidance will now be performed by machine rather than by man.
Additionally, planes fly above each other separated by 1,000 feet when flying below 29,000 feet and, 2,000 feet when flying above 29,000 feet.
Q: Do planes have external cameras?
The same passenger also asked if planes come with cameras attached to detect in advance if other planes are accidently approaching them.
The fact is that planes do not require cameras to view surrounding traffic as the TCAS can do a much better job at keeping track of other nearby planes. However, the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 do have cameras positioned at strategic locations, mainly to view the plane’s exterior due to its size and for manoeuvring purposes on the ground.
Q: If a plane loses its engines on a long haul flight such as Vancouver to Hong Kong, are there enough airports enroute for it to land safely?
In an emergency whereby a plane is forced to land, there are enough airports between Vancouver and Hong Kong for the plane to divert to.
Q: What about routes over large expanse of ocean such as Toronto and England that is separated by the Atlantic Ocean? What are the options if the plane loses all engines?
Losing all engines is a very remote possibility. Nevertheless, in the event that it does happen, a plane can glide for about 100 miles from around 40,000 feet. Where there are no airports within range in this very rare emergency, the plane may have to ditch onto water.
However, there are sufficient airports between Toronto and England for a plane to divert to in case of a medical emergency or when one of its engines fails.
The routes of the aircraft are meticulously planned by qualified dispatchers who base it on the shortest distance and, weather conditions along the journey. These routes have to satisfy strict requirements such that they are always within a diversion airport at any given point.
Q: Do pilots sleep during flight?
Another traveller wrote in to ask if a pilot can fly an airplane for 13 hours at one stretch without sleeping all night while sitting comfortably in his seat.
It is interesting to note that pilots do not man a flight for such long durations. Strict regulations ensure that all flights exceeding 12 hours must be crewed by two captains and two co-pilots. As such, each set will be on duty in the cockpit for six and a half hours only, allowing the other set to rest.
Q: What happens if an accident arises whilst the captain is asleep?
Pilots are not allowed to sleep whilst on duty. Even if they accidently do fall asleep, as happened in one flight in the USA (where the plane overshot its destination), the auto pilot would still be in control and guide the plane in air.
Q: How do some pilots land and take off smoothly than others?
Whether takeoffs and landings are smooth or bumpy depends on external interferences such as turbulence, crosswinds or uneven runway surfaces. It is almost impossible to make a smooth landing every time due to aforementioned extenuating factors. There is this humorous story going around whereby after a rough landing, the flight attendant makes an announcement: “Ladies & Gentlemen, welcome to San Francisco International Airport. We apologise for the bumpy landing. It’s not the captain’s fault. It’s not the co-pilot’s fault! It’s the asphalt (runway surface)!
Q: How do pilots handle turbulence effectively?
Turbulence is normal and part and parcel of flying on most flights. I’ve mentioned in past articles that turbulence is not to be feared. It is an issue of discomfort rather than safety, as long as passengers are securely fastened to their seats. Normally, the plane flies on autopilot even in turbulence. Passengers are warned of impending turbulence, and the captain would try his best to avoid them. Prior to entering turbulence, seatbelt signs are switched on and the cruising speed is reduced; just like how you would approach a hump on the road in your car.
Q: In twin motor planes, if one stops, are pilots able to land safely?
Modern aircraft have jet engines. Motor or piston engines are no longer used on most transport planes nowadays. Nevertheless, all pilots are trained to fly on one engine and land the plane safely should the other one fail during all phases of a flight. You should not worry about this as it is the most practised exercise (engine failure after take-off) during a pilot’s training!
Q: What happens if the pilot raises the landing gears accidently on the ground?
The design of commercial airplanes is such that as long as the plane is on the ground, it is not possible to raise the landing gears. This is because of the ‘weight switches’ on the gears. When the gear is compressed whilst on the ground, it disconnects an electrical circuit that prevents the switch from being activated. So, even if the pilot deliberately raises the lever to ‘UP’, it will not move and nothing will happen.
Once airborne, the microswitch or ‘weight switch’ reconnects the electrical circuit, as the weight of the aircraft is lifted off the ground. Only then can the pilot retract the gears.
However, on some planes or non-commercial jets (fighter planes), you can select the gear to the ‘UP’ position on the ground. This is useful in some fighter planes when there is a loss of braking ability: The fastest way to stop the plane in an emergency is to retract the landing gears!
As mentioned, fear is conquered by knowledge, and knowledge comes from experience. Having fl own around 10 million miles, I feel that flying is one of the safest modes of transportation, and hopefully, my answers here will go a certain distance in allaying your fears and anxiety.
Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories,check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.