Home News Pilots Answer The Mysterious Questions Behind Flight Rules and Air Travel

Pilots Answer The Mysterious Questions Behind Flight Rules and Air Travel

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Ever wonder where pilots sleep on planes, why people clap upon landing, and what happens when a passenger dies mid-flight?

Newsweek spoke to pilots who unpacked some of the weird and wonderful mysteries of air travel.

With a median annual salary of $134,630, being a pilot was No. 47 in the latest ranking of the 100 Best Jobs by U.S. News & World Report. There is plenty more to the job, and the airline industry, than meets the eye.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and the author of Cockpit Confidential, told Newsweek: “Commercial air travel has long been a breeding ground for myths, conspiracy theories, urban legends, and plain old misunderstandings. Much of what people think they know about flying is wrong…I’ve spent the better part of two decades trying to set the record straight.”

Pilots in the cockpit of a plane.
A stock image of the view of a cockpit, with two pilots operating a plane. Newsweek spoke to pilots who unpacked some of the weird and wonderful mysteries of air travel.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

Why Do People Clap at the End of a Flight?

Passengers would, in the past, routinely burst into applause each time their plane touched down, according to Smith. “I came of age, flying-wise, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the phenomenon was still widespread. No surprise that it seldom happens anymore.”

However, you still see people clapping from time to time and when it does, it seems to be largely an “economy class phenomenon.”

Smith said: “You’ll be apt to look for socioeconomic meaning to this, and maybe there is one, but the dynamics of economy class—more people sitting closer together—lend itself to the occasion.

“There’s a certain communal spirit, especially after a long-haul flight, when you’ve spent several hours in a relatively intimate space with hundreds of people. I don’t see it as a judgment on the landing so much as a big collective handshake,” he explained.

Passengers clapping on a plane.
A stock image of passengers clapping on a plane. Passengers would, in the past, routinely burst into applause each time their plane touched down.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

Is There A Secret Room Somewhere On the Aircraft?

Dan Bubb, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is a historian and former airline pilot, told Newsweek that pilots and flight attendants have “a secret compartment in the top of the aircraft that is inaccessible and invisible to passengers.”

Smith said pilots retire in a bunk room that is “squirreled away” somewhere on, above, or below the main passenger deck. On aircraft that don’t have these bunks, a designated first or business-class seat is used instead, often cordoned off with a curtain.

The pilot said “long-haul flights carry augmented cockpit crews” who work in shifts. While this varies by country and airline, Smith noted that “a carrier’s in-house rules are sometimes more restrictive than the government rules.”

For example, for the airline that Smith files for, flights scheduled to be over eight hours long but fewer than 12 hours carry three pilots, which includes one captain and two first officers.

Cabin crew sleeping area on plane.
A stock image of a cabin crew sleeping area aboard a plane. Airline experts have revealed that a compartment for crew to rest is inaccessible and invisible to passengers.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Co-Pilot May Actually Be The One Taking Off And Landing The Plane

Pilot Smith said there are always at least two pilots in a jetliner cockpit (a captain and a first officer) when the flight is in operation and both are fully qualified to work the aircraft.

The first officer (known colloquially as the co-pilot) is “not an apprentice.” The co-pilot shares flying duties with the captain more or less equally. Co-pilots perform just as many take-offs and landings as captains do “in pretty much all weather conditions,” and both are part of the decision-making process during a flight.

The captain, however, is “officially in charge” and “earns a larger paycheck to accompany that responsibility, but both individuals fly the aircraft,” according to Smith.

A co-pilot becomes a captain not by gaining more skills or experience, but “when his or her seniority standing allows it,” he noted.

“Airline seniority bidding is a complicated thing, and a pilot can often have a more comfortable quality of life—salary, aircraft assignment, schedule, and choice of destinations—as a senior co-pilot than as a junior captain. Thus, on a given flight, it’s not terribly uncommon for the co-pilot to be older and more experienced than the captain,” he added.

Two pilots in cockpit of plane.
A stock image of two pilots sitting in the cockpit of a plane. A co-pilot becomes a captain not by gaining more skills or experience, but “when his or her seniority standing allows it,” Smith noted.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

What Happens If A Pilot Gets Sick During a Flight?

Tony Shen, a former pilot who is the president of the Wayman Aviation Academy, told Newsweek that if both pilots fall ill during a flight and there isn’t a third pilot aboard the flight, the flight attendant will look for passengers with flight experience. “No cabin crew members have been trained to either control the plane or communicate with ATC (air traffic control).”

Airline expert Bubb said: “It is extremely rare that both pilots fall ill during a flight. Pilots order different meals for that reason. Some pilots bring their own food they know is safe. If the illness is severe and happens mid-flight, the pilot(s) will declare an emergency and land at the nearest airport to be met by medical personnel.”

What Happens If A Passenger Dies Mid-Flight?

According to Bubb: “If a passenger dies, they will be discreetly removed from the plane, and to avoid upsetting other passengers, the flight crew will not inform the passengers that a [fellow] passenger has died.”

Pilots and flight attendants are trained in first aid and most passenger aircraft have defibrillators on board but “that is about the extent of [the crew’s] training,” the professor said.

If the passenger’s illness requires advanced aid, the pilots will declare an emergency and land at the nearest airport, with medical personnel ready to assist. If the illness is severe, flight attendants will discreetly ask if there is a doctor on board, Bubb explained.

Passenger looking ill on plane.
A stock image of a passenger looking ill on a plane. If the passenger’s illness requires advanced aid, the pilots will make an emergency landing.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

Are There Secret Codes Only Pilots and Flight Crew Use On Planes?

Shen said: “It varies by airline, but all airlines have standard words or codes for communication between flight attendants and pilots using PA systems. In the case of emergencies e.g., hijack, flight attendants will notify pilots using secret words or special call options.”

According to Bubb, “there is no secret code language we use per se,” but there is a “public code language we use.”

For example, “cross-checked” means the flight attendant has done his/her task and another has verified it. Typically, if there is an emergency, the flight crew will talk on the intercom, and flight attendants will explain what’s happening to the passengers and provide instructions if needed. Pilots will also provide additional information if necessary, the professor said.

Should I Be Scared If The Plane Wings Flap During Turbulence?

Bubb said: “If the wings flex (flap like a bird) during turbulence, that is a good thing. It is not good to see the wings remain rigidly stationary.”

Florida-based flight school chief Shen said many people get very nervous and are afraid that the plane would be damaged or broken when it encounters turbulence. But modern airplanes are structurally strong enough to handle turbulence.

“The real danger during turbulence is that passengers can ‘fly’ out the seat and get hurt if the seat belt is not fastened. So it is always recommended to keep your seat belt fastened during flight,” Shen advised.

View of plane wing above clouds.
A stock image of the wing of a plane seen above clouds. Modern airplanes are structurally strong enough to handle turbulence.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

What Do the Pinging Noises Mean on a Plane?

Bubb said that when the plane is on the ground, the “one ding” sound means the plane is “cleared for takeoff.”

But when the plane is in the air, one ding means a passenger is paging a flight attendant. Two dings mean the plane is climbing through 10,000 feet and/or the pilots are asking flight attendants to prepare the cabin for landing.

A “whoosh” sound means “the landing gear is extending in preparation for landing,” Bubb said.

Why Do Plane Window Blinds Need To Stay Up During Take Off and Landing?

Bubb explained that the window shades are required to stay up for safety reasons. For example, during an emergency evacuation, passengers seated in the emergency exit row can “better decide when to open the door.”

Passenger looking out plane window.
A stock image of an airline passenger looking out a plane window. When the plane is on the ground, the “one ding” sound means the plane is “cleared for takeoff.”
iStock / Getty Images Plus

Are Modern Planes Flown By AutoPilot or A Real Pilot?

Smith noted that, contrary to what many may be led to believe, flying remains a very hands-on operation and involves tremendous amounts of input from the crew.

“Our hands might not be steering the airplane directly, as would have been the case in the 1930s, but almost everything the airplane does is commanded, one way or the other, by the pilots. The automation only does what we tell it to do,” the pilot said.

Smith explained the pilots are flying the plane through automation. “You still need to tell the plane what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. There are, for example, no fewer than six different ways that I can program an automatic climb or descent on the jet that I fly, depending on preference and circumstances.

We are telling it which routes to follow, and how to follow them; which speeds and altitudes to fly, and when to fly them; and a hundred other things over the course of a flight. You’d be surprised how busy a cockpit can become—to the point of task-saturation—even with the autopilot [mode] on,” according to Smith.

Pilots “fly” as much or more as they ever have, Smith said, just in a somewhat different way. “The emphasis nowadays is on a different skill set, absolutely, but it’s wrong to say this skill set is somehow less important, or less demanding than the old one.”

Hand on a controller in the cockpit.
A stock image of a hand on a controller in the cockpit of a plane. “The automation only does what we tell it to do,” Pilot Smith said.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

What Are the Perks of Being a Pilot?

The biggest perk is the flight benefits, Shen said. “Most U.S. carriers offer free non-revenue flights to employees and their spouse/partner and children.”

Bubb said pilots, flight attendants, their spouses, and children only have to pay the taxes on tickets. The same applies to “buddy” passes.

“Spouses, children, and ‘buddies’ fly ‘standby’ while the pilots/flight attendants can ride in jump seats [seats for non-passengers who aren’t operating the aircraft] if those seats are unoccupied,” the professor said.

Pilots at airport.
A stock image of two pilots walking along with suitcases next to an aircraft at an airport. The biggest perk is the flight benefits, flight school chief Tony Shen said.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

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