Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Flying Trivia

This one was written for the August issue of Asian Airlines & Aerospace magazine. The magazine is not out, so the one folk or two who're reading my blog will be the first to encounter it.

Flying Trivia

There are a lot of things we take for granted, or don’t care about when on a flight. For instance, who controls the aircraft? If your answer was the captain, you would be right. You were expecting a different answer weren’t you? Well, there are some things everyone knows and others no one may know. Here, we offer answers so some frequently pondered upon questions.

Most of the answers were found in seniorindia.com (your guess is as good as mine). Some of the answers are informative, some are valuable, and others actually made the writer contemplate moving into a tiny cave in the Himalayas.

If you have queries during a flight, whom do you ask?

Of course, soul searching and questioning yourself is good for existential reasons, but when it concerns important biological functions (the location of the lavatory), you need to seek the assistance of those in the know. The people in the know here would be the flight attendants.

An inflight supervisor coordinates the work of all flight attendants and usually looks after passengers in the First Class compartment. If you happen to find yourself in the first class cabin, raise of glass of champagne in a toast for us.

Before take off

What exactly should you NOT take into an aircraft?

Of course, the usual culprits include knives, daggers, swords, firearms and babies. Okay, I was kidding about the last one, unless of course, they happen to be armed and dangerous. We all know the security paranoia that’s permeating the industry, so it is not tough to know which things can go in and which can’t. Here are some of the goods considered to be dangerous: explosives, compressed or toxic gases, flammable liquids, easily ignitable or self-ignitable solids, substances that develop flammable gases on contact with water, oxidising, poisonous, infectious or corrosive substances, or magnetising materials.

According to the site, exempted from this list are life-support articles like heart pacemakers containing radioactive materials like a plutonium battery or other items such as smoking materials carried on your person, medicinal and toilet articles (without aerosols).

There is also the issue of using electronic equipment. This is not a problem, unless they interfere with the aircraft’s electronic system. Imagine an aircraft touching down in Timbuktu instead of Singapore’s Changi International Airport just because you were using your Nokia 6680 mobile phone. You know how dependent pilots are to all those electronics gadgets in the cockpit. You can, of course, use cassette recorders, pocket calculators and electric razors. Like Sean Connery’s character says in the movie The Rock, “You can’t cut my b***s with a trimmer, can you.”

And, if you are not sure, ask the authorities at the airport before boarding an aircraft. If you get wide-eyed, terrified responses, you’ll know what to do or not.

There, alas, remains the question of pets. If you can’t live without your kitty, it is high time to consider getting her married off. Just kidding. You can always freeze them cryogenically and thaw them when you get to your destination. Again, I am just kidding.

Jokes aside, according to the site, domestic pets can travel safely in the temperature controlled and well-lit aircraft. But you must ensure that secure crates or pet boxes are used before booking them into the aircraft. The site says that if you think your pet should “travel with you in the cabin, it may be possible under certain conditions: Your pet must be well-trained and healthy, and not too large.” I am not sure what this means exactly; maybe the cat you are carrying is supposed to know which button to press to call the attendant, and know how to use the lavatory as an added bonus. In any case, we hope you understand what we are talking about. Also, don’t forget to inform your neighbour – he/she might be allergic to cats.

What’s out there?

Once you get to your aircraft and take a seat and look out of the window you will notice something – the lack of clouds. This is probably due to the fact that the aircraft has not taken off yet. What you will see is a flurry of activity involving containers, pallet loaders, tankers, catering vehicles, cleaning vehicles and a black cat crossing the path of your plane (think Matrix and déjà vu at this point and start looking for Agents). All the activity, aside from the cat, revolves around the loading of cargo as well as food and fuel. The containers and pallets are loaded beneath and sometimes in the cabin.

Those flying in winter will notice the aircraft being sprayed with liquid. Don’t be alarmed; it’s not for the mosquitoes. It is a de-icer, an environmentally friendly mixture of hot water and glycol. According to the website, the hot water removes any snow, frost and ice clinging to the outside of the aircraft, and the glycol forms a thin protective film to prevent re-freezing so that all moving parts stay mobile and surfaces remain aerodynamically 'clean', guaranteeing maximum aerodynamic efficiency during take off and further flight.

Here is a crucial question concerning a life-threatening moment: Can one use the aircraft toilet just before take off?

When the plane is parked on the runway, why not! Unless you plan on taking some time and the plane is ready to take off. Imagine the mess if the plane begins to taxi and actually takes off. You don’t even want to imagine what you’d look like when you eventually emerge.

Now, why do those flaps and rudders move just before take off?

I used to imagine some kid in the cockpit going, “yippee!” and playing with all those switches. That’s why I thought the flaps and the rudders flipped about before take off. Well, as usual, I was wrong. It’s the cockpit crew running a final check to ensure that the rudder and flaps are in perfect working condition. You should start worrying if you hear a loud “oops!” from the cockpit.

Why are some flights delayed during take off?

Those living in KL, Bangkok and Manila will know the answer to this question. It’s the bloody traffic. This may actually be the first instance where the word ‘bloody’ has been used in this magazine, but there is always a first time and it did seem appropriate.

Airports and the air traffic control are struggling to keep pace with the increase in air traffic. The situation is further aggravated by military and VIP flights. I do hope air traffic control personnel are well compensated for their high stress jobs.

Flight delays also result from bad weather, unscheduled repairs or lack of punctuality on a previous flight that may have utilized the same aircraft. There is also the possibility that the pilots ate something, which disagreed with them for lunch.

Fear of flying

Your flight is a relaxed one. You are having your fifth or sixth whiskey on the rocks when some turbulence is followed by news that sobers you up instantly: “An engine has failed!”

The first thing to do is of course, pray. The next thing to do is panic. But you really should not worry. Remember when you were young, and your favourite goldfish died of too much fresh air? Well, your dad would have told you, “Don’t worry, there is always another.”

This is exactly the same situation; there is always another engine. Which is why there are no single engine aircraft. If there were, we would strictly advice you to avoid them. If one of the engines of a twin-jet aircraft fails, the other can still provide enough power to continue the flight safely

What if both engines fail? Well, then we hope and pray for a miracle. Actually, the aircraft will generally be able to safely glide to the nearest airport. There is however, nothing wrong is saying a prayer or two and keeping your fingers crossed as an added measure.

We’ve already seen that the weather can delay flights. What if the bad weather occurs during a flight? Do we then do the opposite of the Indian Rain Dance?

Fear not. Your pilot will consult air traffic control and steer a course around it to spare passengers the discomfort of turbulence. Usually, lightning presents no threat to the aircraft as seniorindian.com noted that since the cabin is made of metal and forms a so-called Taraday cage, it could afford perfect protection for everyone on board. The cage acts as a protective screen shielding the occupants from the external electric field generated by lightning.

Speaking of lightning, what about turbulence? What the heck is turbulence? And what the heck does heck mean anyway?

We shall ignore the last question go directly to the first question, which will provide an answer to the second question.

Here’s what wikipedia has to offer in terms of a definition:

In fluid dynamics, turbulence or turbulent flow is a flow regime characterised by low momentum diffusion, high momentum convection, and rapid variation of pressure and velocity in space and time. Flow that is not turbulent is called laminar flow. The (dimensionless) Reynolds number characterises whether flow conditions lead to laminar or turbulent flow.

If you are confused, you are not alone.

Lets get back to seniorindian.com, which simplifies matters greatly: “Turbulence is not only encountered in cloud-bands and stormy weather; it occasionally occurs in perfectly clear air. Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) builds up at altitudes of ten to fifteen km at the edge of 'jetstreams’. One can find these long narrow air-streams gusting at 100 to 500 km per hour over the Atlantic. CAT is often unpredictable, it occurs without warning and generally lasts only a few seconds or minutes. The jolts can be quite violent, however.”

You should therefore be very careful when you choose to pick your teeth.

Can turbulence the aircraft’s wings to snap, like what happens when hungry writers are faced with a platter of sizzling Buffalo wings?

According to seniorindian.com, the answer is a resounding NO. It would appear that the wingtips of a Boeing 747, for example, can be bent about eight metres above and four metres below their normal position before there is even the faintest theoretical danger of rupture. Even the worst turbulence encountered could not cause that kind of deformation. The engine vibrations seen during turbulence are also well within design tolerances. Stress and strain ratings in aircraft constructions are based on extensive air turbulence studies at all atmospheric levels. Furthermore, regular inspections are made to check that even in the unlikely event of a critical load, neither the airframe nor the wings sustain any damage.

Thank the gods and the stars above for seniorindia.com. Next time you see the wing bending about eight metres or so, don’t panic. If it bends more than eight metres, it’s time to stop gawking and start praying.

That’s all for now. There are probably more things you may wish know and do not know or simply do not wish to know about flying. We may come back discuss these matters from time to time, especially if this writer returns without having experienced any panic attacks on a flight. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed and watch that black cat.


Anonymous said...

quite a good effort in making the whole piece light... :)


Groucho said...

Thanks X, or can I call you Fool. Whoever you are. God bless you and have a safe fright, I mean, flight.