Whether you’re a nervous flier or not, arriving safely at your destination is no doubt always on your mind when traveling by airplane. From what's causing that midair turbulence to who's actually manning the controls, there are a lot of things to wonder about as you gaze out the plane's window. To find out what really goes on behind the cockpit door, we asked the only people who’d know: pilots. Read on to find out what regional and major airline aviators had to say about working up in the air.
1. Turbulence is annoying, but it’s not a safety issue.
Do you grip your armrests every time the plane hits a patch of rough air? According to the pilots we spoke with, it’s really nothing to worry about. “Turbulence is far and away the number-one concern of anxious passengers,” says Patrick Smith, who has been a major commercial airline pilot for 21 years and is the author of AskthePilot.com. “That always seems so strange to me. We pilots think of it as a comfort—not a safety—issue.” The anxiety caused by a bumpy airplane ride could be due to the common belief that turbulence can break off a wing or flip the plane. “For all intents and purposes, that cannot happen,” Smith says. “Aircrafts are subjected to extremely intense conditions during testing—more so than the most seasoned pilots will ever experience.” In the rare circumstance that a passenger does get injured during turbulence, it’s usually because the person has ignored the "fasten seatbelt" sign and bumped his head or twisted his ankle while walking around.
2. Takeoff has its risks, but they are extremely low.
No pilot will ever say that any part of the flying experience is unsafe, yet they will admit that takeoff is the most critical part of a flight. “The airplane is heavy, full of fuel and flying at a relatively low speed, and the engines are at or near full power,” says George,* who has been a major commercial airline pilot for 22 years. “An engine failure shortly after liftoff requires quick recognition of the situation.” For that reason, engine failures are practiced in a flight simulator every six months to a year. However, according to the pilots we spoke with, the real deal is extremely rare.
3. Captains aren’t necessarily more senior than first officers.
“There’s this idea that the first officer, otherwise known as the copilot, is an apprentice,” says Smith—which couldn't be further from the truth. “Copilots are full-fledged pilots and can operate every aspect of the aircraft, including handling emergencies.” The only difference is that the captain is in charge and has an authoritative role during that particular flight. Although first officers make slightly less than captains, many seasoned pilots will actually remain first officers in order to keep their seniority, which allows them to score the best routes and better work schedules (most pilots prefer back-to-back trips followed by an extended period of time off). According to Dave,* a pilot for a major commercial airline in Canada, this preference is due to the fact that “50 to 60% of pilots in the U.S. commute because they don’t live where their routes fly to and from,” so the block of days off gives them enough time to get back home and relax.
4. Pilots don't work with the same cockpit crew every time.
When pilots make their monthly scheduling bids, they can ask to fly with particular crew members, but requests are granted based on seniority only. “Most captains and copilots don’t know each other and likely just met that day or that week,” says Mike,* a regional airline pilot and author of GeekInTheCockpit.com. And regardless of how friendly your captain may sound over the loudspeaker, the atmosphere in the cockpit can sometimes be pretty tense. “Sometimes two people just don’t mesh. I’ve flown with guys I can’t stand. It just means hours and hours of silence during the flight.” Yet the pilots we spoke with stress that, despite any personal feelings, both the captain and first officer always obey protocol when it comes to flight procedure and, if there’s ever a disagreement, the captain has the final say.
5. Once airborne, pilots don’t always have their eyes glued to the windshield.
After the aircraft has reached its cruising altitude, it’s not necessary for pilots to watch the horizon like a hawk. In addition to communicating with air traffic control and monitoring the aircraft, “pilots may be reading a newspaper or filling out a crossword or sudoku puzzle,” says George. “This multitasking can help keep us alert during a lull.” And on a bright day, pilots may intentionally obscure their view. “When the sun is too strong, we lay a map or a newspaper over the window,” says Joe,* a commercial pilot in Canada. With autopilot steering the plane, “we don’t actually need to look out the windows to fly until right before landing.” But that doesn't mean the cockpit is ever left unattended. For long-haul flights, extra crew members—the number depends on how long the flight is—are rotated in, allowing the crew adequate time to rest in onboard sleeping quarters.
6. As in any career, a pilot’s salary ranges.
You may have heard rumors that pilots are either wildly under- or overpaid. But as in any other profession, compensation varies. “Airline pilots make anywhere from $15,000 a year to between $200,000 and $300,000,” says Smith. “It all depends on which carrier you work for and what your seniority is.” Generally, if a pilot enters the profession through civilian ranks—as opposed to coming in as a military pilot—he or she starts off as a flight instructor or operates cargo planes, gradually working up to flying for a regional carrier, and then, eventually, a major commercial carrier. Does this mean fliers should be nervous about traveling on regional airlines? Not at all, say pilots. According to Smith, all airlines operate under the same Federal Aviation Regulations. Adds Mike: “Regional airline pilots take off and land four to six times per day, versus a major airline pilot, who might land twice a day. Having more experience makes them more comfortable, as well as increases their exposure to different types of incidents.”
7. Autopilot will never replace a real pilot.
If there’s one big falsehood about flying, it’s the idea that autopilot takes care of everything. “It’s such a misleading term,” says Smith. While the autopilot setting—which helps with everything from vertical and horizontal navigation to speed control—can improve the pilot’s capabilities, it doesn’t mean that you can just jump in a plane and press “fly.” In addition, airplanes themselves are very different, and require specific operation training. “When you transition from one model to another, you go through a full training course, including classroom and simulator training, which can be anywhere from four to eight weeks long depending on the airline,” says Smith.
8. Pilots—and airline staff—dislike gate changes and delays just as much as you do.
Airline passengers aren’t the only ones irked by delays and departure-gate changes. “Airlines don’t make gate changes on a whim,” explains Mike. “Each change requires much more work on the part of the airline than on the part of the passenger. Catering, mechanics, fueling trucks, baggage handlers, flight crews and more must all make the move.” According to George, gate changes can be caused by a number of factors: An aircraft needs additional maintenance or an inspection, a flight has been delayed by air traffic control due to weather, or extra security checks are required for passengers. And despite what you may have heard, delays are no fun for pilots either. “Rumors circulate that pilots love delays because we’re getting paid for extra time,” says Smith. “Even when we’re on the clock…we don’t want to be delayed. Wanting to take off on time is a pretty universal thing.”
9. Passengers really do need to turn off their cell phones.
Although it’s unlikely that a cell phone signal would interfere with aircraft equipment and data transmission, it’s better to err on the side of caution, says Smith. For the duration of the flight, your phone should always be powered down or on “Airplane Mode,” which will disable any wireless features (to comply with airline regulations) while still allowing you to listen to music or take photos. The request to power down and put away other electronics during takeoff and landing, however, is a different story. “The main reason we ask you to stow your laptop is because it’s like another piece of luggage, and could inadvertently become a projectile if there’s a sudden change in acceleration,” says Smith. Similarly, MP3 players aren’t in danger of interfering with your plane’s signals; you’re asked to put them away so you can listen to the safety instructions—earbud-free.