Okay, readers will have to take my word that I do indeed feel sympathy toward those of you with white knuckles. The ill-at-ease flier in 34B does nothing to enhance the merriment or livelihood of the crew, and in many ways it injures our pride to know we can usually do little to ameliorate your irrational fears of crashing. After evaluating dozens of emails in which readers worry over bizarre calamities the likes of randomly snapping wings and spontaneous plunges to watery doom, the best I can do is throw out the usual flying-versus-driving comparisons and other statistical encouragement: At major airports alone, across America and around the world, airplanes come and go at a rate approaching 100 per hour. This happens every day, every week, every month, every year. Of these, the number of flights that fail in their attempt to successfully defy gravity can be totaled in very short shrift.
If my explanations, which tend to be the stuff of numbers, statistics, and hard facts, fail to provide comfort, then you’ll need to seek it elsewhere. I am not qualified to dissect irrationality or wavering, ambiguous fears of undefined situations (“I feel the plane is going to fall from the sky.”). Despite your wishes, I cannot pretend to be a psychologist, nor, to at least one reader’s disappointment, am I able to recommend nerve-calming sedatives.
Also, many travelers are getting lousy advice. I’m losing count of how many letters begin, “My friend says…, or, “A colleague once told me….,” or, worst of all, “I saw on the Internet…,” inevitably finishing up with such boldly ludicrous assertions as “So what’s the point? If we crash, we’re all going to die anyway.” Who are these people, spies from Amtrak? Or are some of you loath to admit your own superstitions? There are many stories making the rounds, both electronic and otherwise, that are the aviation equivalent of “urban myth,” some of them tantalizingly believable. I realize the airlines — and now, what’s this, intoxicated pilots? — are losing more and more respect among fliers every day, and I anticipate a level of cynicism. But please check with me before perpetuating nonsense.
In my original discussion of pressurization, I misleadingly wrote, “Normal cabin pressure aboard a plane is actually a little higher than sea level.” What I meant is that the altitude of the cabin is a little higher. I was trying to simplify the idea of a pressurized cabin not quite replicating the exact conditions of the ground. At 35,000 feet, the cabin altitude (not the same as the altitude outside) will read 5,000 feet or so, roughly that of Denver. This changes as the plane climbs or descends, and at touchdown the cabin altitude will equal that outside.
Also, a few readers rebuffed some of my answers by throwing military planes into the mix, negating this or that first or biggest plane. I assumed it was understood we were discussing civil aviation only. If such a point was missed previously, allow me to assert it, as the flight attendants love to say, at this time. Also culled from any future discussion are piston-powered, single-pilot aircraft. Following my statement that a passenger had never taken the controls after crew incapacitation, three readers were eager to debunk me by bringing up the case of the student pilot who recently landed a Cessna 402 operated by Cape Air. I was familiar with this, but had excused this category of airplane from the discussion of things “airliner.”
This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.