Whether you're a jet setter or a nervous flier, if you sit and think about it hard enough, the fact that we have built machines that soar into the sky for thousands of miles with hundreds of people aboard is baffling. Even though it's common to have flight jitters — flying is one of the safest modes of transportation. Wrapping our heads around flying can actually be a bit challenging; however, Professor Doug Drury, head of aviation at CQUniversity in Australia, is here to help answer our questions.
1. What are the odds of dying in a plane crash?
"One in over 200 thousand are the odds of you dying in a plane crash, and one in just a little over 100 are the chances of you dying in an automobile accident," says Drury. For comparison, according to the National Safety Council, your odds of dying in 2020 in the U.S. by drowning were 1 in 1,024, and choking on food was 1 in 2,745.
Chances of crashing are highest during takeoff and landing because pilots are closer to the ground and have the least time to react to anything potentially going wrong. The worst crash in history happened in Tenerife, Spain, in March 1977. Two airplanes collided while still at the airport, one beginning takeoff and the other backtracking on the same runway — resulting in 583 dead.
According to the European Transport Safety Council, approximately 90 percent of airplane crashes are survivable, with no passenger dying or at least somebody surviving. Drury notes it's important to remember that no two plane crashes are ever the same. Because they are rare, plane crashes are unique among each other, and there's no definite outcome for any of them.
2. What are the safest seats on a plane?
"At the end of the day, there really is, and it's the middle seat and the very last row, which is where nobody in their right mind would choose if they could," says Drury. "But statistically, it is the safest because you have the bulkhead right behind you, you have people on either side of you adding a bit of a buffer, and you've got the row in front of you doing the same."
In most cases, planes crash head first, meaning that being at the front of the plane puts you more in harm's way. Similarly, seats in the middle of the aircraft might seem the most shielded, but they're right where the airplane wings are, which are used to store some of the craft's fuel and are pretty flammable. The fatality rate of the middle aisle seat is 44 percent, compared to that of the middle rear seat, which is 28 percent, according to an investigation by TIME.
3. Is it true that fire spreads really quickly in a plane? Is that mainly the hazard in a crash situation?
Fire during a flight is probably the most dangerous thing that can happen on an airplane. It can start in the engine, cabin or aircraft machinery.
In the past, it used to be that the materials used to make airplanes easily caught on fire and produced toxic smoke, says Drury, and that hazardous black smoke would cause many deaths by inhalation. "This is why they say if you survive an accident, get down on the floor. Because there's usually a pocket of air that's not as polluted as standing up on an airplane."
Materials used today in aircrafts don't actually tend to go up in flames that quickly, and much of the material is actually flame retardant — but aviation fuel, for example, will still burn and produce toxic smoke if ignited. "In the event of an emergency, try to get out as quickly as you can," Drury says.
4. Why are planes white?
White is traditionally the chosen color for commercial airplanes because it reflects the sun — preventing the aircraft from heating up quickly. This can expend a lot of energy to keep the plane cool.
Plus, it takes a lot of layers of paint to cover an airplane, adding weight to the aircraft. "Which is why American Airlines stripped all their airplanes down to the basic metal finish and just had their stripe down the side with their logo on it," says Drury. There's one iconic exception though: Most of Air New Zealand's vehicles are painted black because it's the brand's color.
5. Does turning off your phone while flying make any difference?
"It absolutely does," says Drury. Initially, research showed that passengers' electronics — like laptops or mp3 players — could cause some electromagnetic interference with aircraft navigation systems, and that's why they were all banned on flights. Then, as technology advanced and aviation authorities started implementing new regulations, shielding the aircraft and creating different frequency bandwidths reserved for aircraft staff, interference stopped being the bane of pilots' lives.
As mobile phone networks have also improved over the years, interference is again a growing issue.
"Let's say aviation uses frequencies 50 to 100, whilst personal electronics use frequencies one to 49," says Drury. "Whilst mobile phones with 4G or below were in the spectrum of one to 35, now 5G brings mobile phones to a frequency of 46. So we're now within four degrees of interfering with the aviation frequency range." Specifically, mobile use of 5G could interfere with communications on the ground — like the navigation systems crucial for safe takeoff and landing.
"[One pilot] said, 'we have this one airport where this happens to us all the time, and we can tell it's when somebody has their phone on,'" says Drury. As a result, there are ongoing negotiations between mobile providers, airlines and aviation regulators to find a middle ground where everybody can communicate interference-free.
6. What's the deal with chemtrails?
According to Drury, chemtrails are a conspiracy theory. No airplanes release hazardous or hypnotic chemicals to control populations on the ground.
When you look up at the sky and see that white trail, what you see is water vapor that's exhausted from the airplane. At that altitude, the trail of hot water actually mixes with the frigid outside temperatures and becomes tiny flecks of ice. That's why it's easy to see from the ground.
However, scientists are working on theories about counteracting global warming, which involve releasing some materials into the Earth's atmosphere to reflect sunshine away from the planet better, but this is still just theoretical.
7. What happens if a plane gets struck by lightning?
These are near-daily events. "I've been struck by lightning three times in my career," says Drury. According to Finnair's website, lightning usually strikes an aircraft on the front. "The aircraft is designed to shed lightning and protect who is inside," says Drury. On the edge of the wings, there are pieces of wire which shed any of the electricity that the wing absorbs and quickly disperses it back into the atmosphere.
Read More: Five Incredible Weather Phenomena
8. When and why do airplanes go through turbulence?
This is technically called clear air turbulence, and it's just when there are high-altitude jet streams and tunnels of air that are moving faster than their surroundings.
"Like freight trains in the sky at altitude," Drury says.
"This is the real reason why flight attendants and pilots have to keep their seatbelts fastened. It's not because of the risk of crashing; it's because of clear air turbulence," says Drury. Turbulence is also going to become more frequent with the growth of climate change and extreme weather events, according to Drury.
9. Is there anything I shouldn't wear when boarding a flight?
There isn't anything that you absolutely shouldn't wear when on a flight, according to Drury, but remember that you want to be comfortable — especially in case of an emergency. You want to be able to move freely and swiftly. Plus, any sharp jewelry you're wearing could possibly slam into you or your seat neighbor. "I don't wear anything that's going to fly off and maybe become a projectile," says Drury.
10. Can planes fly with any damage? Like a broken engine?
"Airplanes are designed to fly on one engine. That is the rule," says Drury, although losing an engine is still rare. "One engine is designed to get you to the airport and land." In some cases, the airliner will have to drop down to a lower altitude where there are better conditions to fly with one engine.
11. Do birds actually hit planes? Is that a real problem?
"Bird strikes happen quite often," says Drury, mostly during landing and takeoff. Birds either crash against the windscreen or get sucked into the engine. They're called "wildlife strikes," and they've destroyed almost 300 aircraft and killed more than 300 people from 1988 to 2021, across the globe, according to the Federal Aviation Administration of the U.S.
In one of the most iconic airplane malfunctions in history, also dubbed "the miracle on the Hudson," in New York in 2009, birds caused both engines to fail. The pilots made an emergency landing by gliding onto the Hudson River. There were no casualties.
There are whole aviation safety programs dedicated solely to wildlife management — studying the migration patterns of different types of birds for pilots to avoid in flight. "With this understanding, we have a higher awareness around airports of what you may encounter," says Drury.
12. Why must we put the window shade up during landing and takeoff?
"We normally do it in case there is an accident, so you can immediately tell whether there is fire and whether you can use that side of the airplane to escape from over the wings or whatever," says Drury.
The tray table needs to be locked, and the backrest needs to be placed in a seated position because these tiny tweaks make getting in and out of the seating area easier in case of an emergency.
13. Are pilots flushing our poop out in the air?
No. That's also a myth. The vacuum toilets on airplanes suck the waste out and slide it into large tanks in the bottom back of the airplane's tail — where it's stored for the whole flight. Once landed, a truck connects to the tank, draws all the waste out and takes it to the local sewage system.
However, odors from the sewage are released outside during the flight. "That odor gets vented out into the atmosphere, but not the waste. It's like airplanes are passing gas every time somebody flushes," says Drury.
14. Is it true that your senses of taste and smell are weakened when you're in the air?
Yes, it's true, and airlines keep that in mind when planning their catering. The altitude and the type of air you're breathing in an airplane — air that's depressurized and much less humid, sometimes even at less than 12 percent — can throw off your senses, suppressing your taste and smell.
This is why airlines collaborate with chefs who specialize in figuring out how to make food taste better thousands of feet above the ground. "For example, airlines add salt to our foods. Salt makes the food taste better at altitude," says Drury. "Some airlines even have wines that are made specifically for drinking at higher altitudes; they work with local vineyards to make them."