The second part of our insight into a Airline Pilot’s life onboard, Skyscanner’s travel man interrogates Captain Jay.
I like to pester people who I perceive know more than I do. Since this is pretty much everyone, I pester a lot. Woe betide you if I am about and you have an interesting job which sounds either complicated or glamorous – this is why the CEO of Skyscanner breathes easily when I see him.
I was therefore delighted when our commercial pilot, Jay, agreed to answer a few more questions which some of you may have pondered during flights. Determined not to lower the tone by asking him about attractive cabin crew and long layovers in five star hotels in the Caribbean, my questions were in no particular order and certainly not connected.
Q. Can I borrow your little black book please?
Q. What are those dinging noises you hear in the cabin just after take off? Wouldn’t it be easier to speak instead?
Jay: Usually they are to tell the crew someone is wanted on the phone. But also, some airlines use a ‘double ding’ to signal that the crew may leave their seats after take off. There are differences between single, double, and triple dings and their use depends on the airline.
Q. “Doors to automatic and cross-check” – what does that mean?
Jay: The doors are equipped with escape slides for use in emergency. When doors are in automatic, the slides are deployed when they’re opened. However, when approaching the parking position, opening doors and the slides deploying leads to great hilarity… sorry, embarrassment, so we switch the doors to manual so that the slides then won’t inflate. The cross-check refers to the door being verified in manual or automatic mode by another cabin crew member.
Q. Why do cabin crew get four-point harnesses and passengers don’t?
Jay: Jealous? Cabin crew have to be aware of their environment during an emergency (so they can initiate emergency procedures if required) so have to be able to see. Therefore, their harness keeps them in a position so they do not need to adopt the brace position unlike passengers.
Q. Glad you mentioned that – would the brace position really do any good?
Jay: Yes. Aeroplanes obviously travel forward at great speed. Now if you crash into the side of a vertical cliff, it isn’t going to help one bit but if you hit the ground and bounce along a little then its going to help a lot. When the aircraft slows suddenly, and you are in the brace position, you will feel a lot of force acting on you but little else.
You will feel flying objects hitting your hand, but as your hand protects your head you will be still remain conscious and be able to function. If you think about it, you should always put your non-preferred hand on the top (since this one is more likely to be injured) so that you can use your preferred hand to help you evacuate the aircraft.
If you weren’t in the brace position, then as you decelerate suddenly, the lap strap will pull you back, your head will then hit your knees possibly rendering unconscious and flying objects will smack you on the head. The proof of this is the 1989 Sioux City accident when 175 passengers (out of 285) survived the crash of an aircraft that was out of control.
Q. Why can’t you use electronic goods during take-off? My iPod is not going to disguise the noise of an emergency surely?
Jay: Two reasons: iPods prevent you hearing an emergency announcement and also prevent you being ‘aware of your environment’ and so reduce your ability to react to events. Secondly, as it’s electronic, it will produce electronic interference.
Normally, this won’t do anything, but if for example, the electronic screening around the autopilot computer was faulty, you could induce unwanted control inputs. This exact scenario has happened for real. The place to discover it is in the cruise, not near the ground.
Q. Why do window blinds have to be up during landing?
Jay: So passengers can get views out of the window? Or maybe so your eyes can adjust to the ambient light conditions outside the aircraft (be it bright or dim) so that in the event of an emergency landing you will be able to see as you exit the aircraft.
Q. Would a plane float if you landed in the sea? Can you land on water and have you practised it?
Jay: It depends on the aircraft type. There have been several cases where gentle controlled landings have left the aeroplane able to be towed by a tug into a local port. However, with a greater impact speed, there’s a higher chance that the fuselage will have a large hole in it – leading to the aircraft sinking. We practice it in the simulator, but not for real. However, I have a seaplane rating, so I have done it once or twice.
Q. What do you think about armed air marshals on flights – would you be happy with it?
Jay: If an air marshal got on my flight as a result of intelligence that passenger ‘X’ was likely to commit an offence, then you wouldn’t find me flying it. I would get off (along with my crew!). However, if the air marshal was with me just as a routine exercise, then why not?
Q. Can you get anything off a plane once it is airborne – hand grenade/bomb etc?
Jay: Depends on the situation – there are ways, but I would never like to resort to them.
Q. Do pilots have any weapons on board?
Their wit and personality.
Q. Are there special intercom codes in the event of a hijacking?
Q. Are cabin crew and pilots trained in self-defence?
Have you guessed that I can’t talk about security yet?
Q. Disappointing. Do you get to eat First Class food or whatever is left at the end?
Yes! Generally after the cabin crew have had their share first…however the nice ones include us in first dibs! However, we pilots will always eat different dishes.
Q. Have you ever been genuinely frightened when flying commercially?
Jay: Nope – if it’s going to get frightening, I’m elsewhere.
Q. Could Joe Bloggs with no flying experience be talked down by a pilot if they had to assume control of a plane – the show Mythbusters seemed to think this was possible – in a simulator at least.
Jay: It is possible in the right aeroplane with auto-land fitted, but should a single thing not go to plan, then you would probably have a major disaster on your hands.
Q. Who is the most famous person or people that has been on one of your planes?
Jay: Several members of the Royal family, U2, Kylie to name drop a few.
Q. Can a crew member or passenger challenge your word or is what you decide law? eg. “Kylie, you have to be my girlfriend.”
Jay: To quote the law "All persons carried in the aeroplane shall obey all lawful commands given by the commander for the purpose of securing the safety of the aeroplane and of persons or property carried therein".
Provided I make a lawful order that is safety related, then what I decide is law. However, if I demand that the passenger in seat 2B takes his jacket off because purple offends me, then I would be stepping outside my authority.
Q. Commercial flight seems to be the only area where we have regressed in terms of technology in the last century with the demise of supersonic travel. Will this make a return do you think?
Jay: The technology has come on, but the certifying authorities and economic realities of running an airline hinder what is technically possible. Hence we haven’t seen Concorde 2 yet.
Q. Do pilots at your airline get unlimited free flights?
Jay: Nope. We get a couple free, but still have to pay taxes. It depends on the airline really.
Q. What, in your opinion will be the next “big thing” in the airline industry?
Jay: Air traffic control system will be shaken up to improve efficiency. That’s after a couple more airlines go broke of course!
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