8 Airplane Myths The Movie Industry Made Us Believe

Who doesn’t love a good movie? Nothing to take the edge off a stressful day like losing yourself in political intrigue, holding your breath during an intergalactic battle scene, or tearing up as long lost lovers reunite. But as a pilot, nothing spoils my fun like a bad airplane movie myth. These frankly ridiculous plot devices might make for a thrilling film, but have many travellers cowering in their seats. Time to set the record straight and debunk some myths.

Aviation movie myths busted

1. Airplanes are full of secret crawl spaces

Worst offender of this urban myth: Flightplan, which features Jodie Foster on a frantic search through the secret airplane catacombs, making Labyrinth look a morning stroll to the bathroom. In reality, on board real estate is at a premium. Every square centimeter is put to good use ­– leg room is saved for the passenger cabin. There are some larger aircrafts that have access to the cargo hold, but only if you move some seats aside and roll back the carpet. And trust me – there’s no hidden maze beneath your seats.

2. Lose an engine and it’s all over

This one always gets my goat. Even single-engine aircrafts can easily survive losing an engine; there are plenty of examples of planes losing their only engine and gliding in safely for a powerless landing. As for aircrafts with two engines or more? Double as safe. Even if an engine fails during takeoff, pilots have a trained response to make it back to the ground in one piece – and, in fact, an airplane can fly safely with just the one engine.

3. Turbulence? The cabin lights will flash dramatically, the oxygen masks will drop!

My mom – bless her – clings onto the armrests for dear life at the first sign of disturbance. But although many people are afraid of it, turbulence is a natural consequence of flying. The earth’s atmosphere is rarely perfectly smooth, and turbulence is simply the result of the many variations in airspeed, direction, and density. Think of it like bumps in the road. Airplane’s wings are tested to withstand 150% of the maximum stress they will ever encounter – compared to that, turbulence is a piece of cake.

4. A hole in the side of the plane will suck everyone out

We can thank Final Destination, Air Force One and even James Bond for this particular fear. While it’s true that the air pressure outside is lower than inside the aircraft, it’s not enough to go full vacuum cleaner the moment you pop a hole in the side of the plane. After the initial rush of air (which will be about strong enough to blow around loose leaves of paper), the pressure will equalize and the air will just rush past the hole. Sure, it’ll be cold, it’ll be noisy and not all that pleasant – but no baddies will be sucked into oblivion while 007 is (literally) hanging from the rafters.

Final Destination

5. Airplane doors can be opened in flight

Maybe back in 1932, when aircrafts weren’t pressurized yet. Modern aircrafts however are pressurized, and are designed to use this to their advantage. As the airplane climbs, the difference in pressure increases and the plug doors seal themselves shut. To open the door in flight, you’d need to be able to move 24,000 pounds of pressure – which comes down to about 6 cars or 2 fully grown elephants. Unless you have a team of strongmen at the ready, that door ain’t moving.

Opening door aircraft

6. The fuel tank is a ticking time bomb, waiting to blow

As a pilot, Con Air was hilarious. The scene where the airplane barrels down the Las Vegas strip, losing its wings and leaving a fuel-infused inferno behind still makes me giggle. Airplane fuel is only flammable when it’s sprayed; jet engines have complex nozzles and air swirlers in their combustion sections. The fuel is actually designed to be quite flame resistant as a liquid – you could use it to douse a lit match. That waterfall of kerosene gushing from the airplane is more likely to extinguish a stray cigarette butt on the road than to cause an explosion.

Con Air

7. Lightning will blow up the plane

Airplanes actually get struck by lightning more often than you’d think. On average, every airplane gets hit by lightning once a year; this comes down to more than 50 strikes a day, worldwide. And while it can be pretty frightening for passengers, in reality it’s not a big deal. Since the loss of a PanAm Boeing 707 due to lightning in 1962, all aircrafts have been designed to properly deal with it. There’s no chance of it overloading the on board electrical systems or creating a spark in the fuel tank. Airplanes are designed to conduct the electricity around the outside of the cabin and fuel tanks; they become part of the lightning bolt’s route to the ground.

Lightning and aircraft

8. Losing the autopilot will cause the aircraft to crash

In Cabin Pressure, the flight’s autopilot gets hacked, causing the crew to lose control over the airplane. Ridiculous, if funny. In reality, every aircraft system is designed with multiple levels of safety and the autopilot is no exception. Commercial passenger aircrafts have two to three separate autopilot computers, each which can fly the airplane on their own. And even if that fails – pilots are actually trained to fly a plane, not just control the autopilot. Think of the autopilot as a trained monkey that turns the crank on a mechanical organ. If the monkey passes out, the pilot can turn the crank themselves.

Cabin Pressure

So that’s Hollywood debunked for you. I hope I haven’t ruined too many movie moments for you, but on the other hand, you might feel a lot more comfortable the next time you get stuck in turbulence. If you want to watch a good airplane movie, I would have to recommend one of my favorites, which for all its stupid gags is pretty accurate: the eighties classic Airplane! Yes, I’m serious – and don’t call me Shirley.

Join the conversation Show comments

willem heitlager

let them people love it

Jonathan

Willem, you’re right, it is just Hollywood in the end.

Luis Barata

7. Lightning will blow up a plane: what about B 787 Dreamliner mainly composite? My favourite plane? I’ve read about some worries from the NSTB… I´m just a passanger!

Jonathan Franklin

@Luis, no need to worry. Boeing has tested composite hulls and wings with high voltage electrical discharge, and the Dreamliner has been operating commercially for at least 3 years. I’m sure it’s had it’s share of lightning strikes with little or no issue.

Charles Hansen-Quao

Great article! Learned quite a bit, especially about the fuel being fortified enough to quench a lit match.

I was hoping you would have touched on crashes. There are quite a number of movies that seem to defy the laws of physics when the plane is Bout to crash.

Denzel Washington’s movie, Flight, showed an extraordinary manner in which he landed the plane relatively safely. Is the physics of what he did even possible? I Either way, it made for great suspense.

Jonathan

Flight wasn’t all that bad, and the crash sequence when they finally impacted the ground seemed somewhat accurate to be fair. It’s the parts leading up to that sequence which feels a lot like something that could have been a lot less spectacular going through the Hollywood sensationalisation machine. To be fair though, you can fly any airplane inverted, only in aircraft not designed for aerobatics you’d run into problems with the engines as the oil supply uses a gravity sump system. Accurately in this case, the engines did cut out.
Thanks for the kudos Charles, glad you enjoyed the read!

Daphne

Watching the movie Flight (2012) with Dezel Washington made us also wonder if it is possible to make an airscrew with a passegners plane! How about that?

Jonathan

Hi Daphne, Yeah Hollywood did have a good go at aerobatics with that scene, but strictly speaking any plane can actually pull those moves off. It becomes troublesome because all the other onboard systems and engines aren’t designed to be flown upside down. Glad you liked the read!

Walter

Great story and good to know!
The one about the space and the one about the hole in the plane sucking people out I didn’t know.
Thanks!

Jonathan

No worries Walter, glad you liked the read!

Guido

Great informative article, Jonathan. Ideal as a reference for the people with fear of flying. Just too bad you now ruined almost every airplane movie ;)

Jonathan

Oh no Guido, now I feel bad that I’ve ruined movies! That wasn’t my intent! Watch ‘Airplane!’, trust me, it’ll make up for everything! ;-)

Daan

When we flew to Curacao (KL785, 21-06-2015) the 747 was struck by lightning in the first minutes after take-off. We clearly saw the lightning strike the left wingtip. The captain informed the passengers of this event and also explained that there was no danger and that we would continue our flight to SXM and CUR.

What I never understood is how the captain knew we were struck by lightning? From his point of view it is almost impossible to see the wings. Could you shed some light on this?

Daan

BTW: The lightning strike did cause an almost 3 hour delay at SXM because the plane had to be extensively checked for damage. I still pity the guy who did the actual checks on the massive 747 in the blazing heat. Deep respect for the local crew @ SXM.

Jonathan

Hi Daan, we’re also very proud of our KLM family, and what we do to get you to where you want to go as comfortably and safely as possible every time! Fascinating that you saw the bolt of lightning hit the wing! The crew would have known this both because of the noise, but also if you don’t see the bolt, you will see your windows light up with the strike! I’m pretty sure one of the cabin crew probably saw it too and informed the crew. Lightning will almost always cause a bit of damage, and just to be sure the aircraft is still safe, an inspection is always needed

Bram

Bye bye to all Autopilot monkeys, i hope my KLM captain will have the same skills and glider handling knowledge as Skully demonstrated while ditching his craft @ n-2 into the Hudson. Probably Hollywood is still thinking about a script…….

Bram

Sorry Hollywood, I just learned there will be a 9 September 2016 release of the movie “Sully” featuring Tom Hanks as captain Sullenberger. The Warner Bros IMAX movie will be directed by Clint Eastwood. I am anxious to learn about the aeronautical errors showing up during the “replay” of US Airways flight 1549, resulting into the Miracle of the Hudson

Jonathan

Bram, without making too many disclaimers, I’m also wandering how they’re gonna stretch a 11 minute flight into a 90 minute movie…. With regards to my fellow KLM pilots, I have complete faith in their ability and airmanship. KLM prides itself not only in it’s selection process, but also it’s recurrent crew training and checking processes.

Douglas

Great article! With my experience in aviation, I am generally quick to notice inaccuracies in movies when it comes to aviation. I thought one of the most accurate crashes I saw was in Cast Away. One mistake I’ve seen a few time is mismatched throttle controls to type (4-engine aircraft taking off, but pilots only have two throttles…). Compare movies to series like Mayday/Air Crash Investigation, to see what REALLY brings a plane down.

Jonathan

Douglas, gotta agree with how good MayDay ACI can be in covering the facts and the complexities that lead up to an incident. And yes, the cockpit / exterior shot mismatches can be very annoying at times, especially when they show three different aircraft during the outside shot for a plot that takes place on the same plane, in flight the whole time!

Balaji

You are a cruel man. You killed all the thrill in flying ;)

Jonathan

Balaji, geee sorry bout that!! Flying is still really good fun, without the drama ;-)

Jabeen

Thank you! I must be your mum’s twin! I get very tense during turbulence. I am sure your write up will help me next time – I like your “road trip” analogy.

Jonathan

Jabeen, glad to help you calm your fears a bit. Enjoy your next flight, and hope we can be the ones to accomodate you!

Rachida

What a great article, I enjoy debunking articles so much.

Thank you for taking the time to write this article! I wish you many safe flights!

Jonathan

Thanks Rachida, it was my pleasure! Half the credit goes to my behind-the-scenes partner in crime and boyfriend, Phil: He’s the real literary mastermind and my unofficial ‘first’ editor!

Tom J

Good read. A theoretical question as all the Ifs will never coincide: if all flight staff are invalidated, and no suitable cabin crew member available, could a non-initiated bystander land a plane, headphone guided by the Expert in the tower?

Jonathan

Tom, the hypothetical total crew incapacitation question. In theory, yes, once you’ve established two way communication, and conditions were good enough at an airport nearby. It’ll still be a steep learning curve, and you’d be landing the aircraft using the autopilot, meaning conditions must be calm. The biggest first step however is how to you contact air traffic control? You need to know the right frequency for the radio, and how to work the radio! A good place to start if you’re curious is the International emergency frequency, 121.5.

Tasneem AlRumaidhi

I found my gem, IEF 121.5
Thank you Jonathan, great article and greater replies!

Jonathan Franklin

Glad to oblige Tasneem!

Yozu Bruinsma

Hollywood does the same with trains. Ever seen the special agent put on the roof of a speeding Swiss train by helicopter? Suddenly all catenary and electric power lines were gone . And the last coach be broken from an express-train by a criminal. Normally the brakes should go in emergency as soon the air-hose is cut. These movies can make rail- or air-travel for some people a night-mare.

Jonathan

Yozu, we share that special place in transport where Hollywood doesn’t take the time to ask us first ;-) I remember that for instance from the Mission Impossible movie. A bit of a stretch really.

keerthna

Very good info.. I still was under the impression that the vacuum point was true.. Thanks for the enlightenment.. I would feel more secure in my next flights :)

Jonathan

Keerthna, so glad you feel a bit better about flying! Hope we can be the ones to accommodate you on your next trip!

Rachael

Ha! So funny.

Although now I think about it, what about the British Airways pilot who got sucked out of the cockpit when the window rivets gave way? He was definitely “sucked out” but happily his legs caught on the controls and prevented him from being killed…

You should write more – you have a funny writing style.

B1 LAE

That was the initial explosive decompression that blew him out rather than him being “sucked” out. After that it was the airflow that was holding him outside the aircraft, preventing the crew from pulling him back in :-)

Jonathan

Thanks Rachael, glad you liked it! And thanks B1 lae, looks like you’ve also heard of that incident!

Ozren

This article is exactly why I love KLM . Always on point and interesting. Keep up those articles coming, they’re so interesting!

Jonathan

Such kind words, thank you Ozren! We aim to please!

Daz Wilko

Brilliant! So the inflatable auto pilot in Airplane isn’t just the stuff of dreams! Thanks for not completely ruining my childhood ;-)

Jonathan

Daz, more than welcome! Our inflatable autopilots wear clogs, to maintain cultural accuracy ;-)

Roeminah

Lol… I’m just like your mom when it comes to turbulence… terrifying…
How about the movie Flight with Denzel Washington? How the plane crashes… is it possible to crash that way?

Jonathan

Hi Roeminah,
Turbulence does seem really horrible, but again it’s like driving on a dirt road, or if you’re on a boat in stormy seas; the difference is in the plane the ‘road’ or ‘sea’ is invisible; it’s still there, and it’s still moving around. Turbulence is a natural part of flying.
With regards to the movie ‘Flight’, well I think it’s fair to say they embelished the reasons for the aircraft losing control in the first place. There have been incidences in the past of aircraft losing elements of their control axis, but the crew usually was able to correct the situation and complete the flight safely. What’s interesting to note is in ‘Flight’, when the plane finally loses both engines, it continues to glide down to a ‘safe’, albeit firm, landing in a field. This is very accurate, as a loss of all engines would make the airplane pretty much a glider. So yes, it would continue to fly up to it’s lowest possible airspeed; you maintain that speed by letting the aircraft descend slowly. Here’s another insight; all commercial flights start their descent from cruising altitude by reducing the engine thrust to lowest possible idle, and ‘glide’ down towards the destination airport!

Har-el

The incident in “Flight” was loosely based on Alaskan Airlines Flight 261 which crashed in the Pacific Ocean in January, 2000. It was the same aircraft (MD80) and had the same direct cause (jackscrew failure) as the movie, although in the movie the plane was able to be saved until its emergency landing by the pilot purposefully inverting it using the engines and ailerons then rolling it right back before touching down. Unlike the movie though, the real flight rolled on its own, was unrecoverable and went down inverted into the water.

Aside from that, I’d say it’s somewhat possible for an aircraft to have landed as it did after suffering a part failure as seen in “Flight”.

Jonathan

Har-el, nice to read a great comment from someone in the know! I also felt the scene reminded me a bit of the old 737 hard-overs they suffered back int he 80s. And indeed, in the case of Alaskan Airlines, the failure of the component rendered the entire control surface uncontrollable (pardon the pun). Unfortunately things like this sometimes happen before a root potential cause of incidents can be highlighted and corrected.

Roeminah

Didnt the Alaskan Airlines crash because the ‘kielvlak’ broke??
That image on the Aircrash Investigations still haunts in my mind…

Jonathan

Roeminah, my colleague Menno actually wrote a great little piece on turbulence, might wanna give it a gander as well: https://blog.klm.com/what-causes-turbulence/

Roeminah

Thank you for reply… I will read the blog…
It will be also nice to read a blog about the ‘kielvlak’ not falling apart…

Alfredo Gonzalez Sosa

Actually, that kind of movies are for people to be entertained. I always say that in sci-fi movies, for example, you can do whatever you want to -for instance, you can travel through a black hole- because that’s what it is: sci-fi. In the case of aviation-related movies, something similar occours just for the sake of having the viewer sit on the edge of the chair.
:)

Jonathan

Alfredo, absolutely agree with you, and in that capacity I have to say they can be enjoyable. I just get a little bit sad when I see people start to form irrational fears about flying based on movie myths. Sci-Fi gets away with it because we don’t have anything to base it on yet! And even then, sci-fi based in near future timelines often get scrutinized for not following physical limitations and so forth.

Sarah

A really fascinating article. I enjoyed reading it. It will definitely mean ill be less stressed during turbulence in the future too which is a good thing. :)

Jonathan Franklin

Sarah, glad this has helped your next flight be a laid back one!

Frank

Also very funny to see subtitles in the Netherlands. Once saw “Gear up” translated as “opschakelen”

Jonathan Franklin

Frank, that’s hilarious! Usually the subtitles aren’t great, but that is just so deliciously wrong!

Charbel

Good A to Z on flying.

Jonathan Franklin

Thanks Charbel! Glad you liked it!

Antonio Roberto dos Santos

I once had masks fall down during a rough landing of a 737 at La guardia Airport. In my opinion the 737 ‘s smaller ones are the worst plane built by Boeing. Had many close calls around the world with those planes when high winds are present during landing!

B1 LAE

Most popular aircraft on the planet. Must be doing something right :-)

Jonathan

Antonio, you might not believe this, but the 737 is actually the most rhobust, and indeed best sold commercial aircraft in operation. Hard landings on the 737 aren’t hard though, as I know from personal firsthand experience in my previous company. It’s not designed to make the smoothest landings all the time, but here’s the thing, a smooth landing is never necessarily a good landing! Especially on wet runways, or windy conditions, you want to make a firm, what we call ‘positive’ landing so that you take as much energy out of the wings as possible. Otherwise you’ve got a good chance the airplane may get airborne again on one side alone, and you’ll end up with the control headache to handle. Rough enough to knock open the O2 mask compartment, yes it can happen, but yeah that was pretty hard and probably not the full intention of the crew, but due to the high winds out of their control. Bottom line in that case, their skill and the airplanes rhobust design is the reason everyone is still able to walk off the plane, albeit somewhat shaken.

Johanna

Thanks for this science & physics lecture. I cannot stand it when there is bad research for books or movies. Unless it is intentional and meant to be funny

Jonathan

Johanna, thanks for the kind words! I agree, especially with books. Ever read Michael Chrichton’s Airframe? It’s a good example of a pretty nicely researched novel.

Peter Hart

Very good bit of explanation, easy to read which is not so simple to begin with.
Well done!

Jonathan

Peter, thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed the read!

Kodjo

Thank you for that enlightening read. I’m curious, for long haul flights, are there two sets of flight and cabin crew on board? I have a vague memory of reading that somewhere, but wanted to be sure. Also, what are some of the alerts on your cockpit console that would inform your decision (In my case, passengers were on board, brakes released, pilot about to taxi, plane stops, pilot announcement made about a fault alert on his console, need for ground engineers to inspect, flight eventually cancelled after a couple of hours) to abandon a scheduled flight? This happened to me in Melbourne (MEL to LAX) last year, and I’ve been wondering ever since. Thank you Jonathan.

Jonathan

Hi Kodjo, and thanks for your comments! RE your two questions;
1. Yes, on longer flights due to working times and rest limitations, some flights will have extra crew onboard, in the case of flight crew there will be double crew on board. Cabin crew is usually just the required amount plus a few extra to maintain a level of in-flight service. The entire cabin crew will be awake and working for take-off, landing, and during large service moments such as meals during the beginning of the flight, and during the end. The rest of the time the cabin crew usually splits up into two groups, one half goes and rests in onboard rest areas for a few hours, and then the groups split up. Same goes for the cockpit crew, they will all be awake, and present in the cockpit for take-off and landing, but during the flight split up rest periods amongst them. The reason for this is even though your flight may be 11 hours, the crews are usually at the airport already 1:30 hours before departure, and don’t sign off until 30 minutes to an hour after landing; that’s at least a 13 hour working day!
2. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of indications we get in the flight deck. They can range from a myriad of systems on board, and these warning systems themselves can fail. They’re designed to be fail-safe, that is to say if the warning trigger, and not the system itself, fails you’ll still get a warning, although it will be a false warning. Much like in your personal car, that light in the dash saying your engine oil is low could mean the engine oil is indeed low, or the sensor detecting the engine oil level has broken. Better safe than sorry. So for that reason if we get an indication light that could affect the safety of the flight, we always have it investigated. In this case it sounds like one of the system did indeed fail on the ground, and although aircraft have incredible levels of redundancy, this is really meant to keep the flight safe should something fail whilst in-flight (you can’t really pull over and call roadside assistance), so the crew took the right action in ensuring your, your fellow passenger’s and the crew’s safety.

Dennis R

As we who have worked in the oil industry
Jet fuel = posh diesel ;-)

Jonathan

Dennis, lol! What about Jet-B? Posh diesel with a shot of nitrox?

Kelly

Ok I’m am not a great flyer after a flight back from New York, hit air pockets and felt the plane drop suddenly, now any kind of turbulence sends me in a panic. One plane movie instance you didn’t debunk is the plane being tip over with its belly in the air or being blown so hard it spins (last fight back from turkey we hit a Gulf Stream or jet stream and I honestly thought it was going to be flipped over) is this able to actually happen or am I panicking for nothing., genuinely worried about such things.

Jonathan

Hi there Kelly, I’m sorry to hear you had such a bad experience over the North Atlantic. You don’t have to worry though, airplanes travel at such high speeds when cruising there is physically no way they could ever actually flip over or spin around mid-flight.
Air pockets are never fun if you’re scared of turbulence. The strange thing is usually they’re not a sudden drop of several hundred feet, but more often its a gradual lifting of the aircraft followed by a sudden, slight drop again in it’s altitude. Because you can’t see this through the window (nothing to relate your actual altitude to) you don’t notice the gradual lifting, but it would be the same if you were in an elevator that was moving upwards and suddenly stopped. You’d be so used to the upwards motion that the sudden stop would feel like a drop, when actually it isn’t. Air pockets usually don’t go that deep, they just feel a lot worse than what they really are.

Kelly

Thank you for making me feel a little better regarding the plane not being able to flip.. And I will definitely try and remember about the air pockets next time I fly.

Jonathan

Glad to help Kelly!

Sherezade

Great article! Fun to read and well explained – the one about (the lack of) secret passages inside planes is so obvious when you think about it, but needed you to point that out for us!

Jonathan

Sherezade, glad you liked it! Obvious things are always like that though, you should’ve seen me at my car mechanic the other day, really made a dumb assumption! Lol!

David

This is a great read and very educational too. Good to know about the aviation fuel’s inability to freeze in very low temperatures. Airplanes are actually very safe and sophisticated, that’s why its still always a shock when one disspaears or crashes.
As much as I fly and watch aircraft documentaries, fear is still one thing when those situation arise.

Thanks once again.

Jonathan

David, glad you enjoyed the read! Fear is unfortunately something which is still primal, but it helps to know the facts behind the flare. You’re welcome!

Sharuddin Zane

yes i agree with all the flyboys.what holywood give us is full of bullshit and craps..for us who deals directly with aviations both pilots and engineers its sort of mockery to us.

Jonathan

Sharuddin, just laugh and enjoy the spectacle ;-)

Rob Young

Thank you very informative

Jonathan

Glad you liked it Rob!

Wim Rijksen

Movies are make-believe because audiences won’t pay to see the truth. Thanks for this well written, informative and funny article.

Jonathan

Wim, thanks! Glad you liked it, and yeah I guess there’s a price for showbizz right?

Anna

Myth 4: in the Aloha airlines flight 243 accident a flight attendant was ejected through a hole in the plane, so I’d say this is not entirely impossible.

Too bad Myth Busters is off the air.

Jonathan

Anna, Aloha Airlines 243 was a very isolated incident. A more recent incident that shows the falicy of the perpetual vacuum cleaner is the recent Daallo airlines incident on a A321, where an explosion caused a massive gash in the fuselage, but after that the pressures has equalized very quickly and except for the person causing the explosion, who’s seat belt was compromised for obvious reasons, no one else was sucked out. What happened with flight 243 was the corrosion in the aircraft skin opened a 30cm x 30cm hole in the fuselage between the ribbing beams, directly above the flight attendant, and the initial pressure differential did suck her and debris up towards the beams. They were also compromised, due to corrosion, which is why it didn’t take much more than the momentum of her body and the debris to break open the entire fuselage and unwrap the aircraft’s roof along the first couple of seat rows.
Again here, though, once the pressure was equalized, nothing else happened, and the flight landed safely with only that one casualty. There are more cases of loss of pressurisation where no one, or nothing, got sucked out during the initial differential equalization. But I’m glad you brought it up, it was something that does require a slightly longer explanation, too long for the size of a blog, but something I gladly address here in your comments.
And yes, I so very sorely miss the Myth Busters too!!

Seánie

There are so many of the same issues in medical situations in movies (the biggest is using a defibrillator on a stopped heart, which will do literally nothing).
I enjoy flying because I have read up quite a lot about Hollywood make believe. Speaking of make believe I think I have to watch Labyrinth now.

Jonathan

Seanie, just enjoy Bowie. He’s the only reason to like Labyrinth, IMHO

Andy

Re point 4
What about the BA pilot that got sucked out of the windscreen not too long ago?

Jonathan

Andy, that was back in the 1990, on a BAC 1-11 operating BA5390. What saved him initially I believe was that his trousers got caught along the way, after which the flight engineer could quickly grab his legs and hold onto him. By that stage the initial force from the pressure equalising had pulled him out enough that the air stream flowing past the aircraft would be enough to pull him out completely (like the force on your hand when you stick it out a moving car window). Once again, once the pressure had equalised past that initial second, the flight engineer could using his normal human force hold onto him, and no one else was ‘sucked’ out the now open window. Again, thanks for bringing it up, so that I could explain what the blog’s size would limit me otherwise.

Cin Sha'mer

Regarding Airplane! – You mean there really is a blownup-doll in the cockpit when you engage the autopilot??

Kidding. I loved your article. Thanks!

Jonathan

Cin, he prefers to be called ‘Frank’ ;) Glad you enjoyed the read!

kamalruzz

If modern aircraft designed to deal with any situation and safe, what happen to airasia flight QZ8501? What make it crashed?

Jonathan

Kamalruzz, although modern aircraft are built with several levels of redundancy and safety features, they remain complex machines, and sometimes unfortunately a sequence of events combines with an unforeseen negative interaction between redundant systems and the human beings flying the aircraft. I hate to say it, but the current high level of safety we enjoy these days is partially due to us learning from the mistakes of the past. Wikipedia has a good article reviewing the incident, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indonesia_AirAsia_Flight_8501.
Since then procedures on A320 aircraft have been adopted to ensure crews are aware of possible unwanted effects of carrying out procedures.

Truls

As far as I understand it, if a fly by wire airplane like the airbus 300 to 380 or Boing 777 is hacked, there is no way to bypass the computers completely as there basically are no analog controls. Even when using the “Direct Law” mode or “Mechanical Law” mode the computers are controlling the control surfaces.
Hacking the autopilot or the pilots computers would be bad enough (They could be programmed to display wrong data or alter input controls) or the flight control data computers that read information from the sensors could be hacked and provide altered air speed, altitude and GPS positions which feed into the flight computers, possibly confusing them significantly enough to create a crash. Ideally, hacking the computer(s) that control the control surfaces would give you complete control of the plane. Unrealistic (unless you have physical access to the computers and deep knowledge of the system or the engineers that made the system did something really, really stupid), but possible.

Jonathan

Truls, in theory yes you could give the onboard systems false information. You could even do that on non-fly-by-wire aircraft to send erranous signals to the autopilot. The autopilot monkey isn’t a goldfish however, it does know when an incoming source of information seems weird as it has limitations for the input parameters it receives. If it suddenly notices input data jump strangely, it will tell the crew that it’s no longer receiving viable information, and usually disconnect. It’s up the crew then to fly the aircraft manually. You might think at this stage that the false information will then cause the crew to make mistakes, but usually experience in the aircraft will allow the crew to realize that their information sources are flawed, and us alternative sources to safely continue the flight; we even have a procedure for something as easy as the airspeed indications being unreliable, and continuing flight by a combination of aircraft pitch and power settings, with other references to check. Above all, the basic standby instruments we have in the cockpit are usually hard wired or pneumatically connected to the data sources; there is no computer signal to interfere with.
You are also correct in saying that to do this, you’ll need to have very in depth knowledge of these systems, the computer architecture, gain access to the various data signal wiring. So even if you manage all that, the reason we have pilots is because we’re still a little smarter than monkeys (read autopilots).

Don

Ah but they wouldn’t be secret crawl spaces if you knew about them,

Jonathan

Don…. Shhhh!! They’ll find out!!! ;-)

Ian Van Lange

in the movie wedding singer when they are on the plane to Las Vegas, you see them on a 747 but the out side shot is of a MD 83, I laugh every time I see that. or in Conair when they are in the cargo hold fighting. Air Force One was the best for in secret places to be . to parachute off the end of a 747 at 450 MPH wont just kill you but I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy jumping from it.

Jonathan

Ian, I should’ve consulted you for a few more examples of hollywood ridiculousness! Great ones, thanks!

Edgar Garcia Roncal

Excellent information, we couldn’t expect nothing less from one of the best airlines in the wolrd and the friendlist one

Jonathan

Edgar, such kind words! Thank you, and I’m sure I can speak for my colleagues to say I’m glad you think of us as the friendliest airline to fly with!

Ryan C.

Good article! I actually never knew that one wouldn’t be sucked out of a plane if there was a hole in it. And does a pilot know that their plane has been struck by lightning?

Jonathan

Thanks Ryan! And oh yes, we know when we’re struck. My most vivid memory is with my previous employee, on approach in Rome, flying near a thunderstorm. We were in the middle of thick cloud at night, and suddenly the windshields flashed a bright white intermixed with a ultraviolet hue that was combined with what I can only describe as sounding like a firecracker going off inside a tin can underwater. The noise wasn’t too loud, but that flash was a bit startling. After that the approach and landing was comparatively mundane.

Malcolm Lilburn

A great article,I love flying but the wife not so keen.I will quote parts of your answers the next time we fly.Thanks again.

Jonathan

Thanks Malcolm, hope it helps quell your wife’s fears!

Pedro Gutierrez

Great article Jonathan! You guys at KLM are awesome, I always fly with you guys and it’s outstanding what you all guys do to make your passengers happy, a big hug!

Jonathan

Pedro, big hug back! Thanks for the article, and glad to help as always!

Susan Julien

Thanks to the series “Seconds to Disaster “, I know much of these things can never happen. The only one I didn’t know about is the fuel not catching fire without external help. Good article!

Jonathan

Thanks Susan, glad you enjoyed it!

Cesar Dennehy

I’m a former pilot. Fully enjoyed your post. It answered de common questions I receive in every meeting with friends!

Jonathan

Cesar, former colleague! Glad you enjoyed the read, and you have hit the nail on the head as to why I enjoy writing these blogs too!

Irene ouso

Love it!thanks for this

Niki

Dear Jonathan!

As a student I work as a researcher of public opinion (in Hungary). When I asked people, “Which means of transport is safe?”, most of them give me this answer: The airplane.

And why is that? First of all, we don’t have many of these films. No… Its very hard to find a movie,which have Hungarian version (some of the Airport series, Air Force One).

On the other hand: in one year more people die from car accidents than airplane crash. Just see the news :)

I think a film not affect our opinion, but it makes it very much. Because the aviation-related nonsense things, I very angry, but i watch the film because the aircraft only:D

i’m a lover of flying… but I’ve never flown…. Yet!
My 20th birthday present is a spotter tour in Budapest Airport, I going to take a lot of photographs as soon as I can.

Jonathan Franklin

Hi Niki,
Fascinating that the majority of Hungarians aren’t that worried about aviation as other country’s, and your linking this to the lack of exposure to aviation-disaster movies.
It is indeed the safest way to travel by far. Did you know that the average number of flights between major incident is now higher than the lifespan (in flights) of the most durable components airplanes are made out of? Obviously old components are replaced before they reach their end of life, but it’s fascinating to think we’ve made flying that safe now!
You should book a flight soon, even to visit our beautiful home city of Amsterdam! Look out for our great sales, you’ll snab some great cheap deals on klm.com!

Niki

Yes I know it. And that’s why, travel to airplane safer than a car (for example). In the case of an airplane, people paid more attetion than a car. I know, the planes are chechked before each flight. This is not so in the case of cars. And the rules… In the air you must follow them and the air traffic controllers are watching your every move. But on the road the situation is different. I think that every accident makes flying safer than before. But it’s not true for the roads.

Yeah, I linking this the fewer aviation-disaster movies. I learn as televison maker (photography, journalism, social psychology etc) so I noticed that many everyday accident didn’t care about people, but wherein a lot of people die…

I plan that the next summer or winter go to Amsterdam and maybe Frankfurt. I really looking forward to it.

Evgeniy

If lightening strikes are common, why canceled flight (16th of June 2026 KL 1862, from DUS to ams AMS at 18:15) is considered by KLM as “extraordinary circumstances” and resulted in refusal of paying compensation (according to EU regulation 261/2005) to me for canceled flight, because plane which hit by lightening strike required inspection (and KLM had no resources to make inspection in time). KLM abused my right for compensation, because of “common” event, from my point of view if it’s common than Airline needs to be prepared either to make inspections in time or pay compensation.

Jonathan Franklin

Hello again Evgeniy, I’ve now seen your comment. I’m sorry to hear your flight got cancelled, that’s never any fun. I’ve forwarded your case to our Customer Care team, they’ll get in touch with you to help sort out your claim. And yes, although common for absolute safety every lightning strike requires an inspection. It’s unlucky that your flight was one of the 50 out of 102,500 flights daily worldwide.

Evgeniy

Sorry for typo, must be “EU regulation 261/2004”

Evgeniy

Can anybody explain me why my first comment/question to this blog post from yesterday was deleted?

Jonathan Franklin

Hi Evgeniy,
I’m afraid the only comment I received was regarding a typo. Perhaps your other comment was placed in a different blog, or the webpage misloaded when posting your comment? What was your original question or comment?

Kayden

The forum is a brhegtir place thanks to your posts. Thanks!

Jonathan Franklin

Thanks Kayden!

Jonathan Franklin

Glad to help Artie!

Dan

Jonathan, so in general would it be accurate to say that most air disaster movies are very unrealistic in their depiction of danger or calamity in the skies?

Jonathan Franklin

Hi Dan,
Yes, most of the time it’s just an over dramatisation for the sake of making things more “exciting” then they really are. Thanks for reading!

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Richard

Actually, it’s not entirely true that autopilot failure cannot result in a crash, now, is it? Think of AF447.

Jonathan Franklin

Hi there Richard,

Actually, AF447 was a combination of factors, and when the pitot tubes froze over and caused erranous airspeed indications, the autopilot actually disengaged. It was during the following moments when the aircraft was under manual control that the crew failed to consult each other on the two different conclusions they each made regarding the actual nature of the failure and the aircraft’s state. Like any incident, or incident that unfortunately becomes an accident, there are several factors involved.
The autopilot is best thought of as 3 different cruise controls working at the same time to direct the aircraft in pitch, roll, and speed (thrust). The moment it’s unsure what’s going on, or if it starts to do weird things, the pilots will step in and recover the situation.
AF447 was one of very few cases where that recovery failed on levels of inter-crew communication, aircraft system ergonomics, and training experience.

Maggie

Which is the film that shows two jets flying under the wings of a large plane ,stabilising its descent to enable it to land straight and not dip and crash??

Jonathan Franklin

Hi Maggie,
I’ve been scratching my head with this one, but I honestly can’t think of which movie that might be! I’v tried a google search, but to no avail. If anyone else has an idea?… Sounds like a classic bad aviation movie to watch!

Curt

In regards to your statement about a hole opening up in an airliner, i think you are somewhat mistaken. See the Aloha Air accident where the flight attendant was sucked out of the airplane–fact. Not to mention the “fluid hammer” effect that blew the roof off. In short, she was sucked into the window and for a fraction of a second plugged it, causing the air pressure to build inside the cabin–the fluid hammer effect–which caused so much pressure the plane blew apart. The air has to go somewhere and it takes everything with it. Then, the pressure will equalize.

Jonathan Franklin

Hi there Curt,

Excellent example of fluid dynamics indeed, only here there were other things at play! The airframe Aloha airlines was using was an already aged Boeing 737-200, which had been flying around tropical oceanic environments for pretty much all it’s life. The airframe had started to suffer metal corrosion and fatigue as a result of this, something which wasn’t expected to have such a great effect back in those days (we’re talking about the 70s here if memory serves me correctly). There was even a report by a passenger on that flight after the incident who recalled seeing rust breaching the paintwork of the airframe. Whilst investigators can’t exactly rule out what happened, judging by the way in which the top half of the passenger cabin was ripped off, along with eyewitness reports and debris found after the incident, the most plausible theory is that right above where the cabin crew member was standing at that exact moment (sad case of bad timing), the airframe’s aluminium skin had started to tear off from the frame. The frame itself is a lattice-work of reinforced alloys that holds the skin, which keeps the pressurised compartment together. The lattices are space both longitudinally and laterally by about a foot (30cm), because Boeing did have foresight that IF there should ever be a comprimised section of skin on the hull, it would open within the confines of that lattice and have enough room for the air pressures to equalize very quickly. And in this case, the corrosion had caused the skin just above our poor cabin attendant to peel open. The pressure differential caused a momentary upwards suction, that did lift this person up towards the gap, and unfortunately the corrosion had also affected the latice framework itself. All that was required was the extra force of a body pushing against that to tear the spar of the framework apart, exposing more open hull skin to the oncoming airflow due to the forward flight of the aircraft, that literally continued to tear the rest of the roof of the airframe open like a sardine can.
Had the cabin crew member now been there at exactly that moment, these events would have not had the same outcome, and the aircraft would have just suffered a loss of cabin pressure without the loss of half the airplane’s roof. Unfortunately they never found our lost colleague’s remains, and she is also the only casualty to this incident. Note, once again, the initial buffet can be somewhat forceful, but within a second pressures have equalized and there is no further force pushing anyone outside of the aircraft.

Lenah

Dear Jonathan, thank you for making me laugh!
I don’t appreciate that display of ignorance in movies either..
My dad was a pilot,so I know a bit about plaines and flying them and off course some knowledge of physics never hurt anyone either. Your “- pilots are actually trained to fly a plane..” had me laughing out loud for a couple of minutes!
So thank you for that, I enjoyed reading a piece of your mind. Have a great day!

Jonathan Franklin

Lenah, I’m glad I brought a bit of fun to your day! And it’s nice to chat with someone who’s also a physics-nerd =P
Thanks for replying!

Ben

Hi Johathan
Really enjoyed your piece, can relate to everything you said but, could I possibly point out that the plural of aircraft, actually is, aircraft not aircrafts :)

Jonathan Franklin

Ben, thanks for that! Definitely my bad, typo that won’t get caught by a spell-check and one that slipped through the proof-reads.
Glad you enjoyed the piece, and thanks for reaching out!
Rgrds,

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