Airplane and Airline FAQ: Introduction

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What Was That Noise?!

Many airline passengers feel an in-flight bump or hear an innocent sound -- the landing gear being stored, for example -- their imaginations run amok, picturing lightning bolts or ice on the wings or a cabin door flying open.The pilot’s and flight attendants’ reassuring words may not be enough to calm a nervous flyer’s feats.

Now our guide, Airplane and Airline FAQ, demystifies air travel once and for all. Whether you love or hate flying, this insider’s look at one of the safest forms of transportation today is a must for every airline passenger.Among the fascinating facts include:

• An airplane’s wings are both incredibly strong and flexible. Like tall buildings, they are designed to sway and bend in high winds. A 407,000-pound 767’s wings can support well over 1,000,000 pounds of weight.

• Airplane tires are inflated with dry nitrogen to reduce flammability. Each has its own set of brakes. At touchdown the tires spin up from zero to the landing speed of almost 150, mph instantly.

• A major airline has approximately 2,500 flights serving 150,000 passengers daily. A fully provisioned 747 holds 491 cups, 972 plates, 847 glasses, 176 bottles of wine and 25 gallons of liquor.

In our guide, we consulted veteran commercial pilots and aircraft engineers at NASA to explain everything you always wanted to know about flying, but were afraid to ask—all in easy non-technical language. From nose to tail, from meal-carts to compass readings... here are the straight facts about airlines, airplanes and the people behind the controls. So fasten your seatbelts, relax, and take an informative journey through the friendly skies.

Airplane and Airline FAQ:


Most of us were introduced to the marvels of air travel in the same way. It started with a strange noise, a curious roar of combustion high up in the air, and the wonderful sight of an enormous birdlike contraption streaking gracefully through the sky.

“What is that?” we asked our parents, wide-eyed and fascinated.

“An airplane,” they answered. “Can you say ‘airplane’?”

From then on, we continued to point at airplanes flying overhead. We pretended to fly by extending our arms and imitating the whooshing sound of powerful engines. If we were lucky, we caught sight of a streaking plane leaving long, white, billowy jet trails in the blue sky, like some kind of heavenly handwriting.

At some point we got on a plane and discovered the magic of flying for ourselves.

Impressions of flight are formed early. However, those impressions change over time, influenced by newspapers, tales from friends and family, television, movies, and finally, by personal experience.

For many fliers an airplane trip is one of life’s most fascinating and wondrous experiences. One minute you’re on the ground, the next you’re soaring through the air on a technological magic carpet ride. Consider this: The Wright brothers’ entire first flight could have taken place inside the fuselage of one of today’s jumbo jets. The engine of a modern widebody is larger in diameter than an old DC-3 airplane. Most commercial aircraft are able to fly at an altitude of more than eight miles and at speeds of nearly ten miles per minute. And when it comes to landing, state-of-the-art navigational equipment can pinpoint a precise spot clear on the other side of the globe.

For some of us, as we grow older and more cynical, an airplane flight becomes cause for concern and worry. After we buckle ourselves in, our minds whirl with myriad questions. What would happen if the plane lost an engine? What if it lost two engines? Or what if all the engines stopped in mid-flight?

What if one of the hydraulic systems failed? The electrical system? What if the cabin lost pressure? What about thunderstorms, lightning and hail? What is turbulence? Can it damage the plane? What are those strange noises?

Other people are even worse fliers. They don’t want the first thing to do with airplanes. These are the downright fearful passengers who fly only out of necessity—and not without a drink, a tranquilizer, or a comforting hand to hold. Yet time and time again, statistics confirm the relative safety of air travel. There are over 17,000 domestic flights 365 days a year, with nary a single minor incident.

But numbers provide little comfort to the white-knuckle flier. Why? Simply because statistics don’t address the overwhelming fear of not being in control, of the unknown.

Then, there are those most laid-back of air travelers, the nonchalant fliers. These are people for whom airplanes are merely transportation, a convenient and quick way to get from point A to point B. The nonchalant flier is primarily concerned with good service, timeliness, and a hassle-free trip. If they have any thoughts about air travel, they revolve around mechanical problems that cause delays, gate-holds, runway traffic, and order of takeoff.

To varying degrees most air travelers, whether frequent or otherwise, fall into all of these categories—a little concerned, a little fearful, admittedly fascinated, and, at times, nonchalant. How these emotions are balanced depends in large part on how much we know about airplanes. Unfortunately, routine information about air travel—the nuts and bolts of how airplanes work—has not been readily available to those with nontechnical backgrounds.

Even though more than sixty million Americans fly routinely every year—more if international flights are considered—passengers have very little knowledge of how airplanes fly and what pilots do. Most passengers don’t even understand basic aerodynamics. Often, one’s fear of flying is in inverse proportion to one’s knowledge of flight. Were people to know more, they would be less afraid.

That’s the reason for this guide, From Takeoff to Landing. It will attempt to demystify the secrets of flying. The questions every curious airline passenger has wanted to know but had no one to ask will be addressed in nontechnical, easy-to-understand language.

The fascinated flier will find discussions of all the buttons and gauges in the cockpit. The nervous traveler will discover the meaning of all those strange noises and sounds that seem to crop up during flight, as well as what’s actually happening when the ride gets bumpy. Even catastrophic “what if” situations will be discussed, as will flight crew training and certification.

By the end, you might feel as if you could fly the plane—even if you’re sitting in coach!

There is a reason this guide is more comprehensive than any previous web sites, guides or books on commercial air travel. Ed Sternstein has been flying for twenty-one years, the last twelve as a pilot with Delta Air Lines. In that time, he has experienced the gamut of flight conditions, from turbulence to hazardous weather to mechanical malfunctions to various system anomalies. Yet all of his flights, regardless of the problem or discrepancy that popped up, have been completely safe.

How can this be so? Because of the comprehensive system of checks and balances between the pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, fuelers, air traffic controllers, the FAA, and everyone else involved in the flight of a commercial airline—all the things most air travelers don’t know about but should in order to feel safe and secure.

The guide works, too. Todd Gold, Ed’s co-author, is a journalist and frequent flier who estimates he has flown at least once a month for the past eight years and never enjoyed a single flight. In turbulence, he has been known to pick up the in-flight telephone and dial 911. Working with Ed has changed his mind about flying.

“I worked on this guide out of absolute necessity,” he says. “I’ve been told numerous times that there is only one way to overcome a fear of flying, and that’s to learn to fly.

“This guide won’t actually teach you how to fly a 747, but it’s the first guide I have ever encountered—and I’ve read them all—that comes close. Read it, and you’ll know almost everything about a commercial plane ride, from what the ground crew is doing before the flight to why the pilot turns on the seat-belt sign when it gets rocky.”

Adds Ed, “To be honest, I’m more comfortable traveling as a pilot than a passenger. I like to fly and I like to be in control.

“But when I am a passenger, which is frequent, I enjoy answering questions about aviation and explaining the various sounds and sensations of flying. And when I tell people that the odd noises, turbulence, in-air vibrations, and less-than-perfect landings are routine, it’s because I understand what’s going on.

“Now it’s your turn to understand. It’s your turn to know the pilot’s perspective It’s your turn to have the information that helps make flying both fascinating and fun.”

Next: Preflight Planning

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