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Fast facts about air travel

Technology and air travel have always gone hand in hand, and they're only getting more intertwined. From security at the airport to the rules about using electronics in flight to the final resting place of the plane's toilet contents, airplanes and tech are a constant source of conflict, passion — and questions.

If you'd like the answers, I highly recommend Patrick Smith's new book, Cockpit Confidential. Smith is a pilot and blogger. Here are some excerpts — factoids that every flier should know:

Turbulence scares me to death. Do I have reason to be afraid?

No. "A plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket. Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash."

If all of a jet's engines were to fail, can the plane glide to a landing?

Yes. "There's no greater prospect of instant calamity than switching off the engine in your car when coasting downhill. The car keeps going, and a plane will too."

What happens when lightning hits an airplane?

Nothing. The energy "is discharged overboard through the plane's aluminum skin, which is an excellent electrical conductor."

Are the contents of airplane toilets jettisoned during flight?

No. "There is no way to jettison the contents of the lavatories during flight." Instead, the toilet contents are vacuumed out into a tank truck at the end of the flight.

What do the dings and chimes mean?

There are two kinds of chimes. "The first kind is basically just a phone call" from the cockpit to the flight attendants; it means, "pick up the intercom." The other type is a "signaling device for the cabin crew" — when the seat-belt sign is turned on or off, when the plane reaches 10,000 feet (so that electronics are okay) and when initial descent begins, so it's time to prepare the plane for landing.

"Many of the three-letter codes for airports make no sense."

The nonobvious ones are probably holdovers from the airports' previous names. "MCO is derived from McCoy Field, the original name for Orlando International. Chicago O'Hare's identifier, ORD, pays honors to the old Orchard Field."

I should mention, by the way, that this book is frequently funny. For example, the author notes, "A campaign was launched in 2002 to change the identifier for the Sioux City, Iowa, from SUX to something less objectionable. The campaign failed."

We are told that modern commercial airplanes can essentially fly themselves.

Emphatically no. "A plane is able to fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself." Autopilot is a tool, but "you still need to tell it what to do, when to do it, and how to do it."

Why the annoying rules pertaining to window shades, seat backs, tray tables, and cabin lights during takeoffs and landings?

"Your tray has to be latched so that, in the event of an impact or sudden deceleration, you don't impale yourself on it. The restriction on seat recline provides easier access to the aisle and also keeps your body in the safest position." Raising your window shade, meanwhile, "Makes it easier for the flight attendants to assess any exterior hazards— fire, debris — that might interfere with an emergency evacuation." Dimming the lights is the same precaution.

Is it true that pilots reduce oxygen levels to keep passengers docile?

No.

Fast facts about air travel 10/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 25, 2013 6:06pm]

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