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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Flying a Plane

We asked a pilot our top questions about air travel—from crashes to cabin coffee.
Everything You Want to Know About Flying a Plane_Promo

To me, the entire experience of air travel is anxiety-inducing, from packing, to getting to the airport on time, making it through security, then cruising a casual 39,000 feet above land. While I understand logically that flying is incredibly safe, I'm the first person to ask a flight attendant of a little turbulence, "Was that normal?" and usually treat my anxiety with a strong drink or two as soon as the cart makes it down the aisle. I'd known that my friend, Mandy's dad is a pilot, but had never gotten the chance to talk to him about (my fear of) flying. When I randomly bumped into the two of them having dinner a few months back,  she encouraged me to ask him any questions I had: What is turbulence? Have you ever been in a crash? How many hours is a pilot allowed to fly for? Needless to say, since I didn't want to monopolize their entire meal, he generously offered to do an entire interview with the things I wanted to know the most. Captain Don Moore's answers were so measured and knowledgeable—he's been flying for American Airlines since June of 1979—that I asked him to share some of them below, just in time for the busiest travel time of the year:

Everything You Want to Know About Flying a Plane_Intro
Everything You Want to Know About Flying a Plane_Accidents

Can you break down what turbulence actually is?

It's really an unstable or unsteady movement of the air. The roughness at lower altitudes relates to the constant lifting action of warm moist air rising from the surface, much like warm air in your house rising to the ceiling. As the air ascends, it cools and clouds are formed. At the higher levels most turbulence comes from a combination of shifty winds and temperature changes. All of these factors work together to sometimes create a bumpy flight.

I get nervous any time the seatbelt sign becomes illuminated when we’re approaching turbulence. Can you explain what’s actually happening and if there is any real risk involved?

When we are confident that the air is smooth, the sign is off; when we encounter unexpected rough air or expect it to occur imminently, we turn the sign on. We use a combination of on-board weather radar, wifi-driven weather charts, air traffic control, planes in our vicinity, as well as our experienced eyes to help us fly around the bumpy weather if at all possible. After all, I don't want to spill my coffee, either. My job is to get you to your destination as safely and smoothly as possible.

Have you ever been in a crash? If so, what happened? If not, what’s the closest you’ve ever come to being in a crash, if ever?  

Over 45 years of total flying with no crashes or even anything close. Remember that flying on an airliner is absolutely the safest form of transportation.

Have you ever had to make an emergency landing? If so, what happened? 

Because of the unbelievable reliability and redundancy of our modern planes, serious mechanical issues forcing an emergency landing rarely occurs. That being said, I have, over the years, made landings with electrical, hydraulic, engine and pressurization malfunctions which are all considered abnormal, but not an emergency. We do have a large number of emergency medical landings due to ill or sick passengers.

If there is going to be an issue with a flight, when is the riskiest point during a flight? Is it takeoff/landing or over the water, for example? 

Statistically the most dangerous part of a flight is during takeoff and landing. Cruise flight whether over land or water is the safest.

Is it riskier to fly over water than land? 

The concern here is the availability of suitable airports in the event of an emergency. Obviously options are much more limited over the ocean as opposed to flying over land.

Is it possible to fly through a thunderstorm? Or is it unsafe?

We are aware of the danger of a thunderstorm and never fly an airplane in a storm. In fact, we go around them usually by many miles. The heat is not a problem except for the increased formation of thunderstorms.

As a passenger, where’s the safest place to sit on a plane? 

A lot of discussion on this subject—I'll leave that to the experts in crash investigation. [Editor's Note: According to this article, crash data finds, "Passengers near the tail of a plane were about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the front."]

Have you ever been truly afraid during a flight?  

Never. We train extensively for nearly any emergency or abnormality in a flight.

What’s the most intense flight you’ve ever been on? 

Many years ago deep in South America, I was landing at an airport shrouded in unforcasted fog. With not enough gas to go anywhere else, it took 4 approaches to the runway to finally land.

Why do you hear about so many small plane crashes? Does it have to do with the actual plane or is it because of the pilot’s level of expertise? 

It's probably a combination of both. Although pilots of small planes are required to check the airworthiness of their plane before each flight, their plane is only required to have a thorough inspection once a year. The airliners are inspected before and after each flight and maintained on a much more rigid schedule. As for training, we are constantly tested and evaluated. A small airplane pilot is only required to be given a review every two years.

Is it safer to fly on a new plane than an old plane? 

A newer plane has the latest technology and in some cases might be considered by some to be safer, but an older plane can be flown just as safely. Is it safer to drive in a 2010 car vs a 2017 car? I think a lot has to do with driver.

If something’s wrong with the plane while flying, at what point do you tell the passengers, if at all? 

We have a lot of experienced flyers these days and many notice anything out of the ordinary. We will always take care of minor issues without advising passengers. However, I will always tell passengers of any discrepancies that would affect the flight—I never want a passenger to sit and wonder what is going on. Communication is extremely important.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s really nervous about flying? 

I always feel so bad for those folks. Take a ''fearful flyer'' class if available. Fly at night in the summertime as convective activity (thunderstorms) are their lowest. Winter weather doesn't produce that much unstable air and is generally not as bumpy. Stop by and say "hi" to the pilots—they can hopefully calm some fears.

Everything You Want to Know About Flying a Plane_In the Cockpit

Do you have any strange or uncommon pre-flight rituals that you do? 

I would say no—we are a very standardized and structured group of people.

What’s one thing you always pack in your carry-on that we may be surprised to learn about? 

It's a funny little good luck/good life charm that I picked up in a small shrine in the outskirts of Tokyo many years ago that goes everywhere with me—it's worked so far.

Can you tell us a little bit about whether there’s communication between other planes? If so, what are the conversations like/what information is shared? 

Domestically, we are always talking to air traffic control. Our other radio is set to an emergency channel. Flying in remote parts of the world where we are not actively speaking to an air traffic controller, we have one radio set to a common air-to-air frequency where we speak to other airliners within a couple of hundred mile radius. Generally conversations relate to how bumpy the ride is or is expected and when they plan to climb to a higher altitude—mostly operational but can sometimes drift into personal conversations.

How long can you be actively flying, legally? Do you take breaks (or naps) during international flights, for example? 

Domestic and international flight have totally different rules. Domestically, two pilots fly with no rest breaks. Internationally, three or four pilots can be on any given plane, with breaks depending on the flight time. I generally fly the long haul 15-hour nonstop flights which require four pilots. Breaks are rotated so that the cockpit is staffed with fresh rested pilots, and we have a designated crew bunk area outfitted with two beds and two lounger type seats. The flight attendants also have the same sort of rest area located in a different part of the plane.

How often do you need to be re-trained in flight school? 

Every nine months, we visit our school in Dallas for days of ground and flight simulator recurrent training. In addition, we do lengthy online training quarterly.

What was it like to fly when you first started flying versus now, technology and custom-wise?

Obviously, technology has changed. Ground-based navigation has changed to mostly GPS navigation. The world also seems to have gotten smaller since there are more people flying. 9/11 also really changed our world.

To that point, what is it like to be a post-9/11 pilot versus pre-9/11? 

9/11 was terrible for our country. The airlines have had to make many changes to cope with the aftermath of that day. The flying of the plane remains the same. Although lots of procedures have changed, we are a much more vigilant and safety-minded group.

What’s the most unexpected thing that’s ever happened to you when you’ve flown?

Can't think of a thing. We always try to be prepared for the unexpected.

I’ve heard the pilot & copilot can’t order the same food in case of food poisoning. Is that true?

In the old days, yes, but that's no longer a policy for my company.

What is the biggest drawback of being a pilot? Is it the hours? 

It's actually a great career: You get to travel to some fun parts of the world, a schedule that includes quite a bit of time off, and very decent pay and benefits. Being away from home may be a drawback to some, but there are many other jobs that include travel as much or more.

What is the most moving experience you’ve ever had flying?

I think it was many years ago when I flew the remains of two fallen soldiers to Washington to be buried with honors at Arlington national cemetery. The ceremony of loading and unloading the caskets is something I'll never forget.

What is your favorite thing about being a pilot? 

The freedom and fun you feel when actually flying the plane. It also makes me happy to see the smiles on people's faces when you've taken them safely home or to a long-awaited vacation destination.

Everything You Want to Know About Flying a Plane_Planes and Technology

Why do we have to turn off our cell phones during takeoff and landing? Is this real? Is it actually unsafe? 

I'm certainly not an expert in this area. For now, the FAA is convinced that the signals emitted from a cellphone may cause some disruption in an airplanes systems. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I like to err on the side of safety.

And why do passengers have to “stow large electronics” during takeoff and landing?

The one thing we are always concerned about during a takeoff ground run is the possibility of a rejected takeoff requiring an evacuation out of the doors and window exits. A large electronic device (and I've seen some huge ones) could get in the way of a safe evacuation—it's the same idea as placing carry-on bags under the seat or in the overhead compartment.

I’ve heard so much about how many things are automated now. How much of this is true? Does the plane actually “land itself”?

Auto-land capability has been around for quite a long time, and I've made several over the years. It's a requirement when the weather is below minimums for a pilot to hand-fly, but be assured we are standing by to take over should the automation not perform properly.

Are there any places when you fly where it’s completely off the grid and you can’t get any service?

I haven't flown in every part of the world, but I can tell you that there has been a remarkable technology leap in never being off-the-grid. Some places are quite a bit more antiquated but even by means of World War II radio standards, they know where you are.

Is there any new exciting flying and plane technology that’s on the horizon, so to speak?

Lots of new changes almost daily: Electric-powered planes, hydrogen powered, planes that totally fly without pilots

Everything You Want to Know About Flying a Plane_In-Flight Service & Passengers

Have you ever had an unruly passenger situation? If so, what happened?

We have professionally trained flight attendants who deal with that very thing. They always try to defuse the situation and calm the person down. A majority of the time a rational person realizes that it's not in their best interest to continue being unruly or uncooperative.

Are there actually air marshals on every flight?

The Air Marshal program is wonderful, and it's a closely guarded secret as to which flights they may or may not be on.

I’ve also heard the water on planes with tea/coffee isn’t necessarily sanitary since it’s stored close to the septic tank. Is this true?

The tanks are totally different. The water tanks are certified as being sanitary. In fact, we keep documents on board to prove the fact. The coffee or tea sometimes tastes different from time to time as you realize that the water tanks are filled in different parts of the county or even other countries. 

Thank you, Pilot Moore!

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