Fear of Flying: A guide to plane safety (guest blog)

Back August 18th, 2017

The current turmoil in the world makes it understandable for passengers to be concerned about air travel safety. Between tragic incidents like the 2015 Germanwings crash, and the unsettling disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, stepping on a plane has recently felt riskier than ever.

Our fears, though they can be very real to us, are statistically unfounded as tighter restrictions and more detailed safety procedures have made flying safer than ever. To put your mind at rest, Dakota Murphey provides answers to five common questions about plane safety.

What is turbulence?

Despite being uncomfortable and, yes, nauseating, turbulence is absolutely not a threat to your flight. It’s a common phenomenon, which has not been responsible for a single plane crash.

Turbulence is simply a disturbance in the air current, typically caused by tall buildings or nearby mountain ranges (during take-off and landing), or atmospheric phenomena like the jet stream or distant storms when experienced at cruising altitude.

Picture the air like the shoreline of a beach. As the flow of waves move along the sand, rock formations or sudden drops beneath the surface cause the waves to change behaviour. Likewise, a jet ski that’s much further away can cause ripples and cross-waves, despite not being an imminent threat.

If a turbulence-related incident occurs, it is most likely to be caused by incorrectly-stored luggage or passengers that are moving around, not wearing their seatbelts.

When do oxygen masks drop?

The oxygen masks above your seat are to provide breathable air in the event of an incident.

The masks are only required if a problem occurs at high altitude, where there is less oxygen available in the air. If the shell of the cabin is compromised at these heights, humans can lose consciousness in as little as 15 seconds, which is why masks are provided to keep you breathing until the pilot brings the plane to a safer altitude. It’s also why you must secure your own mask before helping others.

A pressure switch in the cabin will be triggered once the pressure drops below a certain value, automatically deploying the masks. If for some reason the pressure switch does not register a problem, the masks can also be dropped at the push of a button on the flight deck.

What exactly is the Black Box?

The so called “Black Box” on an aircraft is a recording device, capturing the flight data and conversation within the cockpit of a plane. Oh, and it’s actually bright orange.

Black boxes are the primary source of information when investigating why flight incidents occur. Eyewitness reports can be confused and physical evidence can be difficult to obtain, but a black box should hold the vital information to determine the cause of an accident.

In the event of a plane crash at sea, each black box is fitted with an Underwater Locator Beacon, which emits a signal from as deep as 14,000 feet to help search teams recover it. Boxes are also tested to withstand extreme temperatures and significant physical damage.

It’s mandatory for every plane to carry a black box, and their recordings help to make future flights safer for everyone.

Can the doors open mid-flight?

No, it’s physically impossible for your aircraft’s doors to be opened during the flight.

For starters, the pressure inside the cabin is simply too great. Aircraft doors are shaped to “plug” into the fuselage, so the door can only be pulled inwards, but at cruising altitude there is about 8 pounds of pressure forcing each inch of the cabin door closed, or over 1100 per square foot. On top of that, there are mechanical latches to keep the door locked, which no passenger is a match for.

If the doors somehow defied the laws of physics and flew open, decompression would, unfortunately, whip out any person stood nearby. Luckily, in incidents where the cabin pressure has dropped dramatically (not because of a door flying open), pilots have managed to execute a controlled emergency landing and belted-in passengers have all been fine.

What about freak occurrences?

Aircraft testing is unbelievably rigorous, and your plane only makes it into operation once it’s been proven to withstand more than will ever be required on a flight.

For example, you might be concerned about wings flexing during turbulence? In a test rig, modern plane wings bend up to 90 degrees without breaking. Scared about the engines failing? The jets undergo “ingestion testing” where tonnes of water and occasionally dead poultry is fired into the blades, to mimic bad weather or flocks of birds.

Remember those pressure switches that look after the oxygen masks? Similar devices monitor the whole body of the plane, making sure fuel is being pumped around properly, and to monitor the forces acting both inside and outside the cabin. Even pilot seats contain a pressure sensor, to record when they are at the controls.

What can I do if I’m experiencing a Fear of Flying?

At Anxiety UK we recognise that flying can be a trigger for stress and anxiety. If you are experiencing a fear of flying and would like some support managing this then Anxiety UK can help.

  1. Buy our specialist guide ‘Beat Your Fear of Flying’ by Captain Chris Harrison packed with helpful strategies to tackle your fears head on here.
  2. Alternatively, download our Fear of Flying MP3 by Ursula James here.
  3. Talking therapy is also a great way to help manage your flying fear and as a member of Anxiety UK you are able to access discount-rated CBT, counselling or clinical hypnotherapy. Apply to become a member of Anxiety UK and apply for therapy here.

The views expressed by the contributor are not necessarily those of Anxiety UK, nor can we guarantee the accuracy of the information provided. If you would like to write a blog for AUK please email blog@anxietyuk.org.uk  for more information

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