Do planes really fly themselves? Is turbulence dangerous? Can you (or your intestines) get sucked into an airplane toilet? These are the important questions we …
As anyone who’s watched a movie set on an
airplane knows, a bad guy firing a gun inside
the cabin means certain disaster. Just one
bullet hole can depressurize the aircraft,
causing it to plummet uncontrollably into
the nearest mountain. What follows is a desperate
fight for survival and perhaps even some cannibalism.
I mean, even if there’s airplane food left,
would you even wanna… *badum tsh* anyway.
But does that really make sense? Can one tiny
hole in an airplane cabin really bring the
whole thing down? Not really. If someone actually
fired a weapon in flight, the bullet would
likely pierce the aluminum siding of the plane,
but the air leak would be so minor that the
aircraft’s pressurization system would easily
be able to compensate for it. It is possible
to shoot out a window, creating a much larger
and potentially passenger-sucking problem.
It’s also not outside the realm of possibility
to hit the fuel tank, which could maybe, possibly,
if a lot went wrong, cause an explosion. But
for the most part, fatal bullet holes in planes
are a misconception created by Hollywood.
And it’s far from the only mistaken idea
we have about aircraft. I’m your host, Justin
Dodd. Fasten your seatbelts, store your tray
table in the upright and locked position,
and join me as we get into some of the most
popular myths about flying in this high-altitude
edition of Misconceptions.
While I understand most people aren’t necessarily
concerned with a shootout breaking out on
a plane, safety in air travel has always been
a popular subject. After all, when you stop
to think about it, the idea of a multi-ton
aircraft somehow surging into the clouds and
maintaining altitude at or above 30,000 feet
can be a little hard to grasp. Which brings
us to our first misconception.
The Misconception: We Understand How Flying
Actually Works
Believe it or not, there’s no one simple
explanation for how planes stay aloft. Scientists
disagree on the principles behind the aerodynamic
force known as lift. Swiss mathematician Daniel
Bernoulli had a go of it in 1738, well not
really because planes were almost 200 years
in the future, but anyway, the Bernoulli school
asserts that air traveling across the top
of a curved wing is faster than air traveling
along the bottom, resulting in lower pressure
and therefore lift. But Bernoulli’s theorem
doesn’t explain why that higher velocity
on top of the wing lowers pressure. It also
doesn’t explain how people can fly upside-down,
where the curved portion is at the bottom.
Newton’s third law of motion can also be
applied, since it means an airplane stays
up by pushing air down, but according to
NASA (except in cases like Space Shuttle reentry
with very high velocity and very low air densities),
the predictions are, quote, “totally inaccurate”.
Both theories were repurposed for flight much
later. Scientists have only incomplete theories
of lift and are still searching for a comprehensive
answer.
The Misconception: Turbulence Is Cause for
Concern
When we travel in cars, we expect a smooth
ride on carefully-maintained highways. But if
there’s a bump in the road or we’re jostled,
we start to worry about our car, our drink,
or our pets maybe. In the air and with turbulence,
spilling our coffee is no longer the worst
possible outcome. A few bumps and we might
think we’ve run into a violent storm that
will result in our last meal being a bag of
peanuts.
As scary as turbulence might be, it’s totally normal.
So normal, in fact, that pilots often know
about it in advance, are trained to handle
it, and are operating planes that are designed
to withstand a tremendous amount of stress.
There are a few different causes of turbulence,
ranging from mountains to weather conditions
to differences in wind speed. But even though
the plane might feel like it’s plummeting
or just diving like Snoopy pretending to fight
the Red Baron, it’s hardly moving—maybe
10 to 40 feet max, which is less than the height
of a Boeing 737. And it’s almost impossible
for normal turbulence to cause a crash. So
long as you obey the fasten seat belt sign,
it’s also very unlikely to even cause any
injuries. According to the Federal Aviation
Administration, only four passengers and five
crew members were seriously injured as a result
of turbulence in 2018. With 778 million people
traveling domestically that year, the odds
are definitely in your favor.
Turbulence in the earlier days of commercial
aviation was a different story. Because planes
weren’t as well-constructed, rough air currents
could be fatal. In 1966, a British Overseas
Airways captain veered off-course near Tokyo
so his passengers could look at Mount Fuji. How nice.
The 140-mile-per-hour winds near the mountain
tore the tail fin apart, sending the plane
down. But that was clear air turbulence, which
is when two different air masses interact
with each other even in clear skies. That
kind of turbulence can’t be detected in
advance by weather radar and might pose slightly
more risk. But you’re still safe. Feeling
like you’re on the inside of a cocktail
shaker is still perfectly normal.
If you find yourself upside-down, however,
then panic is definitely recommended. But at least you
can go down arguing about Bernoulli’s theorem.
Because, I mean, it just doesn’t make sense
if you’re inverted. Bernoulli. Come on,
man. Think about it.
The Misconception: The Plane Flies Itself
It’s true that today’s modern airplanes
are marvels of design and engineering, making
flying one of the safest forms of travel.
In fact, the odds of perishing while flying
are just 1 in 4.7 million. But it’s not
accurate to say that these aluminum beasts
are doing all the work while pilots nap or
play cards in the cockpit. Also I’m not saying
pilots never do these things, but it would
be due to them being terrible pilots, I guess
not because they have nothing else to do.
The media has a habit of promoting the autopilot
capabilities of newer airplanes, and many
systems have become automated, with elements
like navigation, altitude, speed, and engine
power all able to be programmed to stick to
preset operations. Think of it as airplane
cruise control. But it’s still the job of
the pilot to taxi, take off, land, and tell
the plane how best to perform. One example
offered by the popular website AskthePilot.com
compared it to advances in medicine. While
a physician might have more tools at their
disposal, they still need to be around to
treat patients. An airplane might have an
automatic setting for climbing or descending,
but it might also have seven different options
for that automated task. Pilots need to know
how best to use these systems. Autopilot still
needs a pilot.
Planes are automated in the sense pilots might
not have to physically have their hands on
the controls at all times, but we’re not
going to have an empty cockpit anytime soon.
Which brings us to another mistaken belief—that
the second pair of hands, namely a co-pilot,
is somehow a sidekick. Co-pilots are pilots.
They have the same qualifications as the pilot.
They just might be a rung or two down the
seniority ladder. But they still might wind
up flying the plane.
So pilots are there for plenty of good reasons.
Just don’t tell them they did a good job
landing on the tarmac. Though it’s remained
a popular term in describing airport runways,
no airports actually use tarmac, or tarmacadam,
a surface material patented in 1902 that consists
of crushed rock mixed with cement and sealed
with tar. Tarmac could never hold up to today’s
modern aircraft. When you board a plane, you’re
going to where the plane is parked on the
apron. From there, you hit the taxiway and
then the runway. Never the tarmac. Never.
The Misconception: Airplane Toilets Are Very Dangerous
It never seems like a great idea to use an
airplane bathroom. They’re small, they’re
uncomfortable, and the toilets seem to suck
away waste with the force of a Dyson. This
has led some people to believe that flushing
while sitting could vacuum up your intestines
like a person slurping up spaghetti at a restaurant.
That’s the grossest metaphor I could have
chosen I’m so sorry. If you think airplane toilets
are deadly, you’re wrong. But if you think
they’re as safe as the toilet in your house,
you’re also wrong. You know what, let’s
just get into the specifics.
The fear of an involuntary organ donation
might have stemmed in part from a news story
that made the rounds in 2002 and was even
picked up by reputable outlets like the BBC
and Reuters. The story described a woman stuck
on an airplane toilet after flushing and having
to be physically removed from it after landing.
It turns out the story was fictitious, possibly
making the rounds as part of crew training
before someone picked it up and believed it
was real.
Airplane toilets rely on pneumatic vacuum
suction, with the flush button activating
a valve that creates an opening that pulls
all of the bowl’s contents to a storage
tank on the aircraft. Because the tank is
typically positioned far away from passengers,
it needs powerful suction to make the journey.
But there’s no evidence your rear end can
make a perfect seal with the toilet, resulting
in the vacuum taking your intestines for a
ride. That just can’t…what's up? Wait what? What medical journal?
Okay. So let’s revise this misconception
to say it’s almost impossible to have your
butt devoured by an airplane toilet. In 1994,
physicians Stephen Meldon and Stephen Hargarten
reported in the Journal of Travel Medicine
the case of a 37-year-old woman who suffered
a, quote, “significant perineal injury”
after seating herself on a plane commode.
She found herself stuck to the toilet and
needed help from flight attendants to get
off. She was taken to a hospital after landing,
where doctors treated her for a 3 centimeter
vaginal labial laceration.
Okay. Is it possible for an airplane toilet
to cause genital laceration? If you want to
get technical about it, yeah, sure. However, it’s
important to note that this woman inexplicably
decided to raise the toilet seat and sit directly
on top of the bowl, which may have contributed
to the injury. Vacuum toilets are really very
safe and…what? Which medical journal now?
All right. So apparently in 1986, a 70-year-old
woman on a cruise ship had part of her intestines
sucked out by a vacuum toilet. This is according
to a letter submitted by a physician named
J. Brendan Wynne of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
and published in The Journal of the American
Medical Association. Wynne was actually a
passenger on the cruise ship that was docked
near Vancouver, British Columbia, when a doctor
was summoned. He and his wife, who was a nurse,
arrived in the woman’s cabin to find several
feet of her intestine sticking out, the result
of the ship’s violent plumbing system. Blech. That was hard to get all those words out.
But listen—she got medical attention and
she was fine. It’s basically almost virtually
unheard of for anyone to be injured by a vacuum
toilet. But if you can hold it in, maybe just do that.
The Misconception: Oxygen is on standby for emergencies.
OK let's admit it, we’ve all ignored the demonstrations from the flight attendant on every flight we've ever been on.
In the event of an emergency,
blah, blah, oxygen mask fall down, blah
blah, hope you know how to swim.
In theory, those little plastic cups appear
from the overhead compartment in the event
the plane is depressurized and passengers
need supplemental oxygen to avoid passing
out from hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen.
That’s because at 30,000
feet each breath of air doesn’t have enough
oxygen in it for humans to survive. So instead
airplanes pressurize the cabin to around 5000
to 8000 feet, which is why it’s bad if there’s
a loss of pressure. Sometimes those masks
do deliver oxygen from pressurized tanks,
but others put out a kind of bespoke, custom
oxygen.
The masks release chemicals like barium peroxide,
sodium chlorate, and potassium chlorate. While
those might sound like ingredients for your
bathroom cleaner, barium peroxide is found
in fireworks and sodium chlorate is a weed
killer. So, worse than a bathroom cleaner.
But, there’s absolutely nothing to be worried
about from the masks. When burned, they actually
produce breathable oxygen that will keep passengers
from getting loopy. It can last for about
10 to 20 minutes, enough time for the pilot
to figure out a solution for whatever has
gone wrong. Usually, that means descending
to an altitude comfortable for people.
And those little bags attached to the masks?
They’re not supposed to inflate. So don’t
worry about that.
So what’s wrong with regular oxygen? It’s
a safety issue. If canisters of oxygen were
stored on board the aircraft, they’d add
to the weight of the plane and could present
a fire hazard. The chemical substitute is
less hazardous, though it’s also flammable.
That’s why it won’t deploy if there’s
a fire on board the plane. And if there’s
a fire on board the plane, you’ve got bigger problems that a mask isn’t going to fix.
While we’re on the subject of airplane safety
procedures, there are a couple of other misconceptions
to address. You know how the lights dim during
take-off and landing? That’s not done just
to conserve power.
They want passengers to have their eyes acclimated
to the dark, especially if it’s at night.
Grim. But it makes sense, as take-offs and
landings are considered the most potentially
dangerous elements of flying, with final approach
and landings making up roughly half of all
fatal accidents. Why? It’s harder for pilots
to react to problems at lower altitudes. There’s
often not enough time when you’re close
to the ground.
Also, you’re told to keep your seat in the
upright position not solely for your safety,
but for the safety of the person behind you.
In the event they need to stabilize themselves,
they need a straight surface, not your reclining
body, to brace themselves against. And if
they do wind up getting violently tossed around,
it’s better for them to smack their head
on the back of your seat, not you. Keeping
the seats upright also makes it easier to
get off the plane in a hurry.
The good news? You never have to worry about
someone freaking out and opening one of the
emergency exits during the flight. Because
air pressure is higher inside the cabin than
outside, it would require a feat of incredible
physical strength to pull the door inward.
At roughly 6 pounds per square inch of differential
pressure on a door hundreds of square inches
in size, you’d need to be able to move about
a thousand pounds. Not happening. Unless The
Journal of the American Medical Association
wants to chime in. Do they? No? Good.
The Misconception: The TSA Is Law Enforcement
They do have uniforms, they do have authority,
and they can and will seize your bottled water,
but Transportation Security Administration
officers are not actually law enforcement,
and they technically can’t arrest you for
disobeying their orders.
TSA officers are government workers or private
contractors that have a responsibility to
ensure the safety of passengers and take steps
during screening to minimize potential threats.
They can’t arrest you. All they can do is
call actual police, who then could arrest you.
You can also be prevented from boarding your
flight for not complying with the TSA officer’s
instructions.
As for those confiscated items—they don’t
keep them. Contraband might wind up with third-party
contractors, which supply individual states
with inventory that can be resold. So if you
have something that means a lot to you that
got seized, you can check sites like Govdeals.com
or a surplus center near the airport and hope
you find it. You’ll have to pay for it again,
but it’s better than nothing.
That’s our show for today. If you have any
suggestions for a future installment of Misconceptions,
leave it in the comments. And remember, if
the plane starts to shake, the lights are
off, and you’re breathing in weed killer,
don’t panic. At least the toilet didn’t
suck your intestines out. Ah why did
I even bring that up, now I'm thinking about
it. Blech. Thanks for watching.

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