Who doesn’t love going to the movies? Getting lost in political intrigue, holding your breath during a tense space battle, feeling watery-eyed watching two lovers reunite. What I can’t stand in the movies though, is bad aviation myths. It’s frustrating as an aviation professional to sit through the millions of unapologetic moments of misinformation the movie studios keep dishing out to our traveling guests. So, for this blog I’ve decided to set the record straight. Here are my top 8 aviation movie myths, debunked.
1. An airplane is full of secret crawl spaces
I think “Flightplan” (Touchstone Pictures, 2005) was the worst one for this. Jodie Foster’s uncovering all sorts of hidden passageways made Jennifer Connelley’s adventure in “Labyrinth” (Jim Henson Company, 1986) look like the morning trip out of bed to the bathroom.
The truth is on board real estate is at a premium. Effectively every centimeter of space that can be spared is used with the exception of the passenger cabin (we want you to enjoy the space we offer you on board our planes!). Maintenance staff know very well how tight their access spaces to on board systems are, and where some larger aircraft will have the odd panel that, with the right screwdriver, will let you move from the passenger cabin to the cargo hold, you’ll first need to move a few seats aside and roll back the carpet. Trust me, it’s no maze of mystery.
2. Lose an engine and it’s all over
This one always gets me groaning audibly in disappointment. Even single-engine aircraft can easily survive losing an engine; There are examples of planes losing their only engine and gliding in safely for a powerless landing. As for aircraft with two or more engines? Well that’s why they’ve got two or more engines! Aircraft are designed so that even during take-off, if an engine fails at the critical point where we can’t stop safely on the runway anymore, we can still take-off, climb out, fly around, land, and even abandon the approach and climb back out (go-around). It’s called n-1 (n = number of engines) in the biz, and it’s something each pilot trains multiple times a year in the simulator.
3. Turbulence? The cabin lights will flash dramatically, the oxygen masks will drop!
I blame my mother’s fear of flying on this one (yes, fancy that!), as any kind of turbulence what-so-ever gets her squeezing the armrests for dear life. The truth is turbulence is a natural consequence of flying. The earth’s atmosphere is rarely perfectly smooth, and turbulence is the result of these millions of tiny variations in air speed, direction, and density; Think of it as the ‘road’ the plane’s ‘driving’ on. Because it’s such a natural thing, aircraft manufacturers make sure they test new airplanes in the worst possible conditions.
Every airplane’s wings are tested to withstand 150% of the maximum stress they will ever encounter, including turbulence. Even the on board systems, including the lights, are built to take a good beating. As for the oxygen masks, they’re equally secure in their little boxes, and will only come down either when the pilots presses a button in the cockpit, the cabin pressure drops suddenly, or if you have an exceptionally hard landing that jolts the automatic cabin pressure trigger. Turbulence could never generate enough force to pop those compartments open.
4. A hole in the side of the plane will suck everyone out
“Final Destination” (New Line Cinema, 2000), “Air Force One” (Columbia Pictures, 1997), and even James Bond (MGM Studios) have all played with this one. It’s as if the airplane was in the cold dark vacuum of space. It’s true that the air pressure outside at cruising altitude is lower inside the aircraft, but it’s not enough to go full vacuum cleaner the moment you pop a hole in the side of the plane. Initially there will be a rush of air, enough to blow loose papers and items of clothing around. About one second later, the pressure inside and outside equalizes, and you’re just left with air rushing past the hole in the fuselage. It will be noisy, it will be cold (thermodynamics, lower air pressures create lower temperatures), and your oxygen mask will drop, but it won’t be those images of baddies being sucked into oblivion as 007 grips onto the gold-frilled curtains for dear life.
5. The airplane doors can be opened in flight
Maybe back in 1932, yes, when aircraft weren’t pressurized either. Modern aircraft are pressurized, and are designed to use this to their advantage; all airplane doors, including the over-wing exit hatches, are designed like plugs. They all open by somehow sliding or rotating inwards into the cabin before opening outwards through the doorframe. This works because both the door and fuselage are curved. Flush against this frame, the door is stuck into the curved shape like a plug. Put it at any other angle, and it barely slips through the curved doorframe of the fuselage. Since the doors and hatches have to be pulled inwards to be opened, this also means that in flight the pressure differential pushes the door or hatch shut against the seals in the frame. If you want to open it, you’ll be pulling against an impossibly huge amount of force (for those math nerds, it’s about 7.8 psi, or 5.490kg/m2. Calculate that by the surface area of the door, and you’ll see that the door ain’t moving).
6. Aviation fuel can always explode into flames
“Con Air” (Touchstone, 1997) was hilarious. The scene where the airplane barrels down the Las Vegas strip, losing it’s wings and leaving a fuel-infused inferno behind it still makes me giggle. The truth is aviation fuel is actually designed to be quite flame resistant as a liquid. We use “Jet A-1”, kerosene with additives to make it resistant to freezing or evaporation within a large temperature range (in the order of -50c to +70c), and I could quite happily extinguish a lit match in a glass of the stuff. The story becomes different however if you spray it, as this creates an ideal mixture ratio with the oxygen in the air for it to burn. Jet engines are designed to do this with complex nozzles and fuel/air ‘swirlers’ in their combustion sections. Knocking the wings off sliding dramatically down the strip whilst gallons of fuel waterfall out of the middle of the fuselage is more likely going to extinguish that stray cigarette butt on the road.
7. Lightning will blow up a plane
Lightning actually hits aircraft far more often than you’d know. On average, every aircraft will experience one lightning strike a year, that’s more than 50 strikes a day, worldwide. And whilst it can be a frightening experience for passengers, the reality is not much happens. It was a different story back in 1962, when investigators found lightning as the most likely cause for the loss of a PanAm Boeing 707. Since then all aircraft have been designed to deal with lightning properly. Lighting won’t create a spark in the fuel tank or overload on board electrical systems. And on top of this all, when lightning does strike, pretty much all of the charge stays on the outside of the airframe anyway. Airplanes are designed as a metallic “Faraday” cage covered with a skin, which conducts electricity around the outside of the cabin, cargo compartments, and fuel tanks. It’s why when you see YouTube videos of lightning strikes, you’ll see the bolt enters one part of the plane, and leave another. The plane becomes part of the lightning bolt’s route to the ground.
8. Losing the autopilot will cause the aircraft to crash
I always have to think about the movie “Cabin Pressure” (Crescent Entertainment, 2002), where the autopilot gets hacked and the crew on board can’t control the aircraft anymore. Ridiculous, if funny. The reality is every aircraft is designed with several levels of redundancy in every system, and the autopilot is no exception. All medium to large commercial passenger aircraft have two, sometimes three, separate autopilot computers, each of which can fly the airplane on their own. And even if that fails, pilot’s are trained to fly a plane, not just control the autopilot. We can even dispatch for a flight if the autopilot is broken, flying manually with a couple of additional safety restrictions. Think of the autopilot as a trained monkey that turns the crank on a mechanical organ. The pilots tell the ‘monkey’ how fast to turn the crank, and if the monkey passes out the pilots can still turn the crank themselves (poor monkey).
So that’s Hollywood debunked for you. I hope I haven’t ruined too many movie moments for you, but I do hope I’ve made you feel a bit more comfortable about how safe flying really is. If you want to watch a good aviation movie, I would have to recommend my favorite, the 1980 classic “Airplane!” (Paramount Pictures, 1980). Yes, I’m serious (Shirley), even with all it’s stupid gags, it remains one of the most accurate aviation films out there.
So the next time you have the bad luck to get stuck in turbulence, spare a thought for that other person staring intently at the lights, waiting for the masks to drop, and praying a lightning bolt doesn’t blast a hole in the side and suck everyone out into oblivion. Hmm, maybe I should try my luck at screenwriting!