Few things are as surrounded by myth, rumor and misconceptions, as the world of aviation. One of the greatest contributions to this is most likely the frequent, and liberal, portrayal in popular culture and media.
Many aviation professionals laughed at the absurdity of the movie “Flight”, and you know that flight scene in Goldfinger were Bond’s nemesis is sucked out from the cabin? Yeah, well... that's definitely not how it would have played out IRL.
Fueled by Hollywood or not, here are some of the most ridiculous aviation myths.
1. "A tiny hole in the cabin will suck all the passengers right out of the airplane"
Going straight back to that Bond scene, this is something that has been portrayed in the movies too many times to count... To be fair, a hole in the cabin is not exactly a good thing, but the effects of it is typically not as dramatic as depicted in most movies.
The exaggerated phenomenon is referred to as an “explosive decompression”. All airplanes are equipped with a air supply and pressurization system. In order sustain a comfortable environment, the air pressure in the cabin is usually equivalent to the pressure at 8000 ft. above sea level. When flying at a higher altitude the difference in air pressure between the external and internal environment of the aircraft increases. The air inside the cabin will exert a force on the walls of the plane as the high pressured air in the plane want to escape outside in order to equalize the difference in pressure.
Typically the controlled environment of a fuselage will not allow for the pressure to escape - but the unlikely event of a puncture or, a hole, appearing in the body of the airplane would result in a loss of pressure.
Now, while an onboard explosion or a massive failure could potentially cause serious and rapid decompression (with disastrous consequences), a small hole in the airplane (here´s looking at that bullet hole of yours Mr. Bond...) will be a lot less dramatic.
Think of it as getting a flat tire - as soon as the barrier between the different pressurized environments breaks, there will be an immediate decompression, the pressure will be equalized, and there will no longer be an airflow from the puncture.
The experience of a hole appearing in the fuselage would most likely be unpleasant - but not automatically result in a apocalyptic vacuum killing of all the passengers and demolishing the plane.
Learn more about how to handle turbulence, wake turbulence and wind shear when the Pilot Talk podcast guides you through this topic. Listen below ⬇️
2. "Oxygen masks are a scam"
“Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you're taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate. It's all right here. Emergency water landing - 600 miles an hour. Blank faces, calm as Hindu cows.”
We blame Brad Pitt for this one.
In the event of oxygen masks being activated, just put them on, it makes the oxygen poor environment at 30 000 ft. a lot more comfortable.
3. "You can get sucked down an airplane toilet"
Worryingly enough, this isn’t an entirely false statement…
Obviously you wouldn’t be sucked out of the airplane - but in theory you could get stuck to the toilet seat if you manage to create a perfect seal between the toilet and your body (Mythbusters tried this one out!).
It’s difficult to achieve, but to be on the safe side, just stand up before flushing…
4. "If the airplane fails mid-flight you will plummet out of the air and fall towards your imminent demise"
Airplane crashes in movies are often seriously dramatic - the typical scenario goes something like this: the plane hits rough turbulence and all of a sudden, BOOM! Passengers and luggage suddenly defy gravity and are tossed around the cabin like rag dolls, while the aircraft itself breaks all rules of physics and plunge like a stone from the sky. This is pretty standard Hollywood, and as a result it’s what most people expect will happen in case a plane stops working mid-flight.
First of all, turbulence is not something you need to worry about, it´s comparable to the ocean waves you experience while on a boat and todays aircraft are definitely designed to cope with it - just check out this video of Boeings wing test and you'll see what I'm talking about.
Now that the issue of turbulence is out of the picture, let´s move on... If all engines would suddenly fail on an aircraft (Please note, that the pilots are still able to fly a plane with 3 out of 4 engines down!) you won’t simply fall out of the sky.
An airplane is designed to keep gliding forward, as long as there is air moving across the wings, a lift will be generated (much like an paper airplane – you probably folded those as a kid?). Your standard passenger aircraft has a glide ratio of 15 to 1, meaning that for every feet the plane drops in altitude, it will move 15 feet forward. So in the case of total engine failure at 30 000 feet, the plane will still glide a significant distance before hitting the ground - making it possible to locate a safe landing spot within gliding distance (A so called dead-stick landing).
We’ll take the opportunity to point out that the chances of surviving an actual plane crash is approximately 95%, and the odds of a plane crash occurring in the first place is one for every 1.2 million flights...
Need a more pedagogic projection of that statistic? Here is a list of things more likely to kill you than a plane crash.
The automatization of the aviation industry has pushed boundaries, improved the capabilities of pilots and increased aviation safety, but to assume that an autopilot can fly a plane on its own is a severe misconception - To quote Patrick Smith: ”A plane is as able to fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself”.
The autopilot is a very useful tool for pilots, however, it’s nothing but a tool, and it can only do what the pilots have programmed it to do. It requires regular inputs to function properly and the pilots must still pay attention to how the autopilot acts.
In contrary to popular assumptions the majority of a flight is still, very much a manual affair, especially when it comes to the crucial stages of take-off and landing.
It is true that technology has come a long way since the dawn of aviation, however, to assume that airplanes fly themselves nowadays, is not only ridiculous, but an insult towards pilots.