The Bizarre Secrets Pilots Keep From Their Passengers

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Ali Goldstein/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Plane passengers are often too caught up in fears about crashing, fantasies about their destination or the struggle against boredom to worry about what their flight crew is doing. However, more fascinating things happen than passengers realize … and pilots and flight attendants like it that way.

Still, some pilots have been willing to share juicy details about what takes place within the cockpit. These are some of the interesting, unsettling, and bizarre behind-the-scenes secrets that pilots keep from their passengers.

Plane Parts Break … a Lot

Just like any other vehicle, planes sometimes break down. However, unlike other vehicles, you can't pull a plane to the side of the road for towing. If the plane is in flight and a part malfunctions, the airline must wait until the plane touches down to repair it.

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Photo Courtesy: WOLFGANG KUMM/DPA/AFP/Getty Images

Fortunately, most of the time, a faulty part doesn't hinder the plane's overall ability to fly, and airplanes are inspected daily to ensure that all parts are working before takeoff. However, if you've ever boarded a flight and experienced a lengthy delay before takeoff, a part may have been fixed or replaced.

Oxygen Masks Are Unreliable

Frequent flyers know that at the beginning of each flight, flight attendants must lead passengers through a somewhat obnoxious safety demonstration. This includes instructing all passengers on what to do in the event they need to utilize the plane's oxygen masks.

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While they'll tell you to fasten your mask over your head before you help anyone else, they won't tell you that there is a fatal flaw to the masks—their supply is limited. Their storage of oxygen is only enough to last the entire airline fifteen minutes. That isn't much time to reach a safe altitude for breathing.

They Hide Engine Failure

If an engine fails on a flying plane, that seems like it should be pretty concerning, right? Experienced pilots don't think so. Modern planes are built to sustain themselves on a single engine. As a result, pilots won't panic a plane full of passengers if an engine isn't functioning.

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Instead of going on the intercom and announcing the failure of an engine, pilots may say that one of the engines is indicating improperly, or they'll say nothing at all. Why send everyone into a frenzy if the plane can continue to fly even with the faulty motor?

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Always Low on Fuel

Believe it or not, airlines never fill up a plane's fuel tank completely before leaving the airport. Instead, they put in enough fuel to get the plane from its starting location to its final destination. If a delay or an emergency were to arise, they would be forced to land at a closer airport to refuel.

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While this might horrify nervous plane passengers, the practice boils down to cost. While plane fuel isn't nearly as pricey as it used to be, airlines are still concerned with pinching pennies where they can, even if it can potentially put passengers at risk.

Pilots Might Catch Zs

The majority of pilots tend to have fairly hectic schedules. After lengthy flights, short breaks, and long work weeks, it's hard to imagine having the energy left to do one's job. Unsurprisingly, many pilots try to catch some Z’s in the one place their passengers want them to be awake: the cockpit.

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That's right — pilots sleep while they're flying. Thanks to technological advancements like autopilot, this is less impractical than it sounds. Still, it's not relieving that pilots feel like they need to get shuteye while steering a plane filled with people thousands of feet up in the air.

Updraft Is a Nightmare

Oftentimes, when a plane ride gets bumpy, passengers begin to fear that the vehicle is going to fall out of the sky. This simply isn't the case; in fact, turbulence is very common on flights. However, what isn't as common — but much more unsettling — is a weather phenomenon known as "updraft."

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Updraft occurs when moist air moves upward during a thunderstorm. This can result in extra lift for the plane that carries the craft up to perilous altitudes. Airlines are so concerned by this weather occurrence that the threat of updraft often results in flight cancellation.

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Dead Passengers Still Fly

Pilots often refer to their passengers as "souls on board." However, when it comes to deceased passengers, they're typically known by the pseudonym "Jim Wilson." Believe it or not, corpses travel on commercial flights all the time. Over 50,000 bodies are moved on planes every year.

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Fortunately for squeamish passengers, you won't be seated next to a corpse. Instead, they'll be cruising in the baggage compartment just beneath your feet. Bodies are packed into shipping containers filled with ice to preserve them. Your luggage may be rubbing up against one of these makeshift coffins!

Pilots Fend Off Boredom

Pilots may be super invested in their careers, but that doesn't mean they don't get bored while working. When they begin to zone out in the cockpit, many pilots turn to reading to keep themselves entertained. Legally, pilots are permitted to read newspapers in the air.

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Articles are short and won't keep their eyes off the monitor for an extended period of time. However, many pilots enjoy reading full-length novels while they're flying, which is definitely not allowed. Who can blame them for wanting to keep themselves busy during excessive air time?

Buckle Up Your Baby

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, parents are allowed to keep children up to age 2 on their laps during flights. However, pilots and flight attendants strongly discourage parents from doing this. What makes it so dangerous?

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If your baby slips out of your hands during a moment of turbulence, acceleration or deceleration, they could become a projectile. This could result in substantial (or even fatal) harm to your baby or your fellow passengers. It's better to buckle up your kids than risk your grip slipping at the wrong moment.

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A Striking Truth

Do you get nervous at the thought of flying through storms? The thought of a bolt of electricity striking your plane can seem pretty terrifying. However, if you have been caught flying in stormy weather, there's a fair chance that you've been struck by lightning.

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Don't panic — it isn't as dramatic as movies and television shows would have you believe. Planes are built to handle the intense elements of thunderstorms, including lightning strikes. Fortunately, your plane won't light on fire, fall from the sky, send you to another dimension or fry you alive if it's struck.

'Airplane Mode' Can Be Essential

Flight attendants don't ask you to put away your phone during certain operations just to annoy you. Hitting the airplane mode button may be the difference between a successful landing and a crash. If a large batch of passengers were to make calls during a takeoff or landing, it could interfere with the navigation equipment.

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This interference can influence instrument readings and may lead them to believe that the plane is higher off the ground than it is. That could result in a catastrophic misreading of landing coordinates and a nasty crash. Your calls can wait!

Water 'Landings' Aren't Real

No pilot would intentionally "land" in a body of water unless it was safer than any spot on land. One of the most famous of these scenarios is that of Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III, who landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after birds crashed into the engines. However, these impromptu "water landings" are few and far between.

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In reality, a "water landing" is a fancy phrase to describe a plane that crashes into an ocean or lake. There are no regulations for these movie-worthy wrecks. Among pilots, these plummets into bodies of water are regarded as crashes — not landings. All pilots can do is attempt to mitigate the damage.

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Planes Are Super Germy

Have you ever experienced post-flight illnesses? It probably isn't because you're sharing air with ill individuals in an enclosed space. Instead, it stems from an unfortunate lack of cleanliness on the part of the airline. While flight attendants typically wipe down the restroom between flights, they don't often have time to clean the passenger seats.

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This means that seatbelts, tray tables, seatbacks, air and light controls as well as anything within arm's reach may be contaminated with a copious amount of infectious germs. Yuck. Many veteran fliers recommend bringing along Germ-X or cleaning wipes on any flight.

Your Electronics Are Dangerous

Besides flipping your phone's service off, flight attendants may ask you to put away all electronics before takeoff or landing. This isn't to keep you from the temptation of turning your data back on. Instead, it prevents turbulence from knocking your devices from your hands.

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A rough takeoff or landing can cause passengers to lose their grip on their items. This leads to the dangerous possibility of your possessions becoming projectiles. No one wants to get smacked in the head with a laptop going hundreds of miles an hour.

They Speak in Unsettling Codes

Pilots have their own language, and it's more than alphabet soup. When communicating with crew who aren't in the cockpit, pilots use coded language in order to keep messages hidden from passengers. While not all scenarios they code are threatening, there are some phrases that no passenger wants to hear.

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One of the codes that should make your hair stand on end is "Code Bravo." This makes crew members aware of an unspecified danger that the pilot doesn't want their passengers to know about. "7500" is also chilling: it means that the plane is being — or will be — hijacked.

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90 Percent of Flying Is Autopilot

Flights are far less hands-on than you might think. The Telegraph reported that 90 percent of flights are completed by autopilot, with that last 10 percent being under the full control of the person commanding the plane. Still, autopilot doesn't mean that the plane is flying itself.

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These programs wouldn't work without monitoring, control and interference from the pilot. However, besides takeoffs and landings, much of any flight is completed in full by the efforts of the autopilot system. This may be how pilots find the time to read, rest and nosh.

Flight Attendants Are Always Watching

Flight attendants often offer friendly greetings as you enter the plane. However, it isn't all a matter of courtesy. Rather, as passengers board, they study each face they see and take account of those who give off negative or troublesome energy.

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Avoiding eye contact or excessive nervousness are red flags for flight attendants. They keep an eye on shifty passengers throughout the flight to ensure they don't cause trouble. Even if you're not a troublemaker, a flight attendant likely always has their eyes on your row … so don't break any rules!

Your Pilot's Landing May Be Their First

If you ask any pilot, they can tell you that the hardest (and most rewarding) part of flying is landing the plane. This is why pilots spend months in simulations just to practice their landings. However, the first time that they put their training into practice is when they've got a plane full of passengers.

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Although an instructor hovers over their shoulders, they can't do much to help the pilot in terms of getting the aircraft on the ground. Fortunately, most pilots complete successful landings. Many of them believe that the simulations are harder to land than the actual plane.

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Guns Are Allowed in the Cockpit

It may be hard to believe, but firearms are allowed in the cockpit of U.S. flights. Pilots who are registered as Federal Flight Deck Officers are allowed to carry a gun on an aircraft. Weapons can assist pilots in the event of a hijacking or violent criminal activity on the planes.

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Fortunately, pilots who are allowed to carry guns must undergo vigorous training. To earn the right, they must be drilled about proper storage, safety and use of their firearms. However, the majority of commercial pilots likely don't travel with a gun.

They're Severely Dehydrated

Most passengers want a pilot who is healthy, well-rested and adequately nourished to command their plane. Unfortunately, while pilots get some shuteye in the cockpit — and enjoy upgraded meals — they tend not to drink much water. Pilots have strict regulations on how much they can use the bathroom during any flight.

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As a result, the majority of pilots don't drink many fluids while flying, even when their flights exceed twelve hours. Most end up severely dehydrated. When they do drink, they often have to wait for hours to use the restroom, placing strain on their bladder and leading to kidney stones.

Co-Pilots Are Often Strangers

Hundreds of pilots within any given network are passed around between dozens of different planes. Chances are, they haven't worked with their co-pilot before. In other occupations, this could lead to miscommunication, conflict and chaos in a working relationship.

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Fortunately, pilots are trained to understand one another and anticipate each other's moves. They are able to work as well with a close friend as they are with a total stranger. Still, it's a little unsettling to imagine two strangers steering a plane full of people together. If they don't get along, who knows what could go wrong?

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Your Ticket May Be for Another Flight

A large majority of people purchase plane tickets online ahead of their flights in order to ensure they have a good flight at a convenient time. However, forking out a significant amount of money for seats on a major airline may not be as rewarding as you think.

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While you may believe you're flying with a well-known airline, it's more likely that you’re flying on a regional aircraft that was outsourced by a company like Southwest, Delta, United or other large network. What does this mean for your flight? Potentially Lesser safety standards and inexperienced pilots.

Pilots Despise Certain Airports

While we would like to think that our pilots are confident and comfortable with takeoffs and landings, this isn't always the case — especially in hazardous airports. There are certain spots around the country that pilots despise flying to, particularly Reagan National in Washington, D.C. and John Wayne in California.

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Why do they hate these locations? Many of the most-despised airports have runways that are super short, which makes takeoffs and landings extremely difficult and dangerous. Others, such as John Wayne Airport, have restrictions in place that limit how much noise a pilot can make after takeoff.

Dimmer Lights Are a Life-Saver

There is a chilling reason for why airlines dim their overhead lights before landing. While it creates a peaceful atmosphere for anxious fliers, it also serves to adjust passengers' eyes to darker light in the event of an emergency.

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If a bad landing causes the plane to flip or lose power, the flight crew wants to ensure that passengers' eyes are adjusted to a dark setting. That way, they can quickly reorient themselves following a crash. This can help immensely in the event of an evacuation. Still, it makes the dimming of the lights less soothing.

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Some Airplanes Have Bedrooms

If the prospect of your pilot or crew taking a cat-nap in the cockpit unsettles you, this will make you want to steer clear of flying altogether. Due to the demanding work hours of pilots and flight attendants (which can exceed sixteen hours), certain planes have built-in bedrooms for the crew to get some much-needed rest.

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These rest areas are typically hidden behind secret passageways disguised as luggage bins or doors to the cockpit. They often come in the form of a small bed that can be hidden behind a hearty set of curtains for privacy.

The 'Fasten Seatbelt' Sign Is Coded

Many passengers feel some annoyance when they see the "fasten seatbelt" sign ping to life. However, it isn't always because a jarring amount of turbulence is ahead. Pilots also use this panel to send secret messages to flight attendants.

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Depending on the number of times that the seatbelt sign flashes, the pilot may be telling the flight crew to sit down, signal that they're running low fuel, or even suggest that they're thirsty and want something to drink. Your seatbelt sign may be saying far more than "buckle up" to the flight crew.

Pilots Have Medical Conditions

Medical conditions, chronic illnesses and other physical or mental disorders don't necessarily disqualify someone from becoming a pilot. While airline pilots don't share their health history with their passengers, many of them suffer from long-term illnesses or are managing chronic disorders.

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Certain physical and psychological disorders, especially those which are severe in nature, can disqualify people from becoming pilots. However, many pilots with health issues and disabilities have thrived in their careers despite any anticipated limitations. They make balancing their health and their rigorous occupation look like a piece of cake!

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Plane Water Is Disgusting

When your flight attendant comes by with a drink cart, you may want to skip out on the refreshments. In 2009, The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Aircraft Drinking Rule Act in response to an unsettling study on airline water.

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The study uncovered that a majority of planes get their drinking water from old, bacteria-riddled water tanks. Due to new regulations, airlines now serve water that comes out of a plastic bottle. However, be wary of ordering ice in an airline drink, as it tends to come from the same source as their non-bottled water.

They Leave People Behind

If you've ever raced to a gate to catch your flight, you know the jolt of panic that sets in when you realize you might miss the plane's departure. While we'd all like to believe that airlines have mercy on latecomers, the Department of Transportation has cracked down on tardiness.

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As a result, airlines often leave late passengers behind, even if a large group hasn't made it to the gate. This sadly holds true for connecting flights where one of the planes is behind schedule. It's not the passengers' fault, but the airplanes must keep moving.

Some Rules Confuse the Crew

While it’s no secret that the strict rules on airplanes can irk passengers, many regulations don't even make sense to seasoned airline pilots. US Airways Captain Jack Stephan told Aviation Humor:

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"Like the fact that when we’re at 39,000 feet going 400 miles an hour, in a plane that could hit turbulence at any minute, [flight attendants] can walk around and serve hot coffee and Chateaubriand. But when we’re on the ground on a flat piece of asphalt going five to ten miles per hour, they’ve got to be buckled in like they’re at NASCAR."

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