13+ Things Your Pilot Won’t Tell You

We asked pilots from across the country to give us straight answers about maddening safety rules, inexplicable delays, the air and attitudes up there—and what really happens behind the cockpit door. What they told us will change the way you fly.

By Michelle Crouch
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    I’ve been struck by lightning twice.

    Most pilots have. Airplanes are built to take it. You hear a big boom and see a big flash and that’s it. You’re not going to fall out of the sky.” —Pilot for a regional carrier, Charlotte, North Carolina

    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    You may not be getting the airline you paid for.

    You may go to an airline website and buy a ticket, pull up to its desk at the curb, and get onto an airplane that has a similar name painted on it, but half the time, you’re really on a regional airline. The regionals aren’t held to the same safety standards as the majors: Their pilots aren’t required to have as much training and experience, and the public doesn’t know that. —Captain at a major airline

    If you’re a nervous flier, book a morning flight.

    The heating of the ground later causes bumpier air, and it’s much more likely to thunderstorm in the afternoon. —Jerry Johnson, pilot, Los Angeles

    The smoothest place to sit is often over or near the wing.

    The bumpiest place to sit is in the back. A plane is like a seesaw. If you’re in the middle, you don’t move as much. —Patrick Smith, pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential

    The general flow of air in any airplane is from front to back. So if you’re really concerned about breathing the freshest possible air or not getting too hot, sit as close to the front as you can. Planes are generally warmest in the back. —Tech pilot at a regional airline, Texas

    There is no safest place to sit. In one accident, the people in the back are dead; in the next, it’s the people up front.John Nance, aviation safety analyst and retired airline captain, Seattle

    People don’t understand why they can’t use their cell phones.

    Well, what can happen is 12 people will decide to call someone just before landing, and I can get a false reading on my instruments saying that we are higher than we really are. —J
    Jim Tilmon, retired American Airlines pilot, Phoenix

    We don’t make you stow your laptop because we’re worried about electronic interference. It’s about having a projectile on your lap. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get hit in the head by a MacBook going 200 miles per hour. And we’re not trying to ruin your fun by making you take off your headphones. We just want you to be able to hear us if there’s an emergency. —Patrick Smith

    Some FAA rules don’t make sense to us either.

    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 an hour, they’ve got to be buckled in like they’re at NASCAR.—Jack Stephan, US Airways captain based in Annapolis, Maryland, who has been flying since 1984

    Alexander Hassentein/Getty Images

    It's updrafts, not turbulence, we really worry about.

    A plane flies into a massive updraft, which you can’t see on the radar at night, and it’s like hitting a giant speed bump at 500 miles an hour. It throws everything up in the air and then down very violently. That’s not the same as turbulence, which bounces everyone around for a while. —John Nance, aviation safety analyst and retired airline captain, Seattle

    Pilots find it perplexing that so many people are afraid of turbulence. It’s all but impossible for turbulence to cause a crash. We avoid turbulence not because we’re afraid the wing is going to fall off but because it’s
annoying. —Patrick Smith

    iStockphoto/Thinkstock

    Being on time is more important than getting everyone there.

    The Department of Transportation has put such an emphasis on on-time performance that we pretty much aren’t allowed to delay a flight anymore, even if there are 20 people on a connecting flight that’s coming in just a little late. —Commercial pilot, Charlotte, North Carolina

    No, it’s not your imagination: Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals. So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes.—AirTran Airways captain, Atlanta

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    I’m constantly under pressure to carry less fuel than I’m comfortable with.

    Airlines are always looking at the bottom line, and you burn fuel carrying fuel. Sometimes if you carry just enough fuel and you hit thunderstorms or delays, then suddenly you’re running out of gas and you have to go to an alternate airport. —Captain at a major airline

    You'll never hear, "One of our engines just failed.”

    What they’ll say instead: “One of our engines is indicating improperly.” (Or more likely, they’ll say nothing, and you’ll never know the difference. Most planes fly fine with one engine down.)You'll also never hear, "Well, folks, the visibility out there is zero.” Instead they'll say: “There’s some fog in the Washington area.”

    There’s no such thing as a water landing.

     It’s called crashing into the ocean. —Pilot, South Carolina

    The truth is, we’re exhausted.

    Our work rules allow us to be on duty 16 hours without a break. That’s many more hours than a truck driver. And unlike a truck driver, who can pull over at the next rest stop, we can’t pull over at the next cloud.—Captain at a major airline

    Do pilots sleep in (the cockpit)? Definitely. Sometimes it’s just a ten-minute catnap, but it happens. —John Greaves, airline accident lawyer and former airline captain, Los Angeles

    When you get on that airplane at 7 a.m., you want your pilot to be rested and ready. But the hotels they put us in now are so bad that there are many nights when I toss and turn. They’re in bad neighborhoods, they’re loud, they’ve got bedbugs, and there have been stabbings in the parking lot. —Jack Stephan

    Sometimes the airline won’t give us lunch breaks or even time to eat. We have to delay flights just so we can get food. —First officer on a regional carrier

    Most people get sick after traveling not because of what they breathe but because of what they touch.

    Always assume that the tray table and the button to push the seat back have not been wiped down, though we do wipe down the lavatory. —Patrick Smith

    It’s one thing if the pilot puts the seat belt sign on for the passengers...

    But if he tells the flight attendants to sit down, you’d better listen. That means there’s some serious turbulence ahead. —John Greaves

    Driving is WAY scarier than flying a plane.

    People always ask, "What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?" I tell them it was a van ride from the Los Angeles airport to the hotel, and I’m not kidding. —Jack Stephan

    David McNew/Getty Images

    Most of the time, how you land is a good indicator of a pilot’s skill.

    So if you want to say something nice to a pilot as you’re getting off the plane, say ‘Nice landing.’ We do appreciate that. Joe D’Eon, a pilot at a major airline who produces a podcast at flywithjoe.com

    Win McNamee/Getty Images

    The two worst airports for us: Reagan National in Washington, D.C., and John Wayne in Orange County, California.

    You’re flying by the seat of your pants trying to get in and out of those airports. John Wayne is especially bad because the rich folks who live near the airport don’t like jet noise, so they have this noise abatement procedure where you basically have to turn the plane into a ballistic missile as soon as you’re airborne.
 —Pilot, South Carolina

    At some airports with really short runways, you’re not going to have a smooth landing no matter how good we are: John Wayne Airport; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Chicago Midway; and Reagan National. —Joe D’Eon

    Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

    Remember: Bad weather exists BETWEEN cities, too

    This happens all the time: We’ll be in Pittsburgh going to Philly, and there will be a weather delay. The weather in Pittsburgh is beautiful. Then I’ll hear passengers saying, ‘You know, I just called my friend in Philly, and it’s beautiful there too,’ like there’s some kind of conspiracy or something. But in the airspace between Pittsburgh and Philly there’s a huge thunderstorm. —Jack Stephan

    Hemera/Thinkstock

    Is traveling with a baby in your lap safe? No.

    It’s extremely dangerous. If there’s any impact or deceleration, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose hold of your kid, and he becomes a projectile. But the government’s logic is that if we made you buy an expensive seat for your baby, you’d just drive, and you’re more likely to be injured driving than flying. —Patrick Smith

    iStockphoto/Thinkstock

    Passengers: PLEASE be more mindful of yourself and others.

    Most of you wouldn’t consider going down the highway at 60 miles an hour without your seat belt fastened. But when we’re hurtling through the air at 500 miles an hour and we turn off the seat belt sign, half of you take your seat belts off. But if we hit a little air pocket, your head will be on the ceiling. —Captain at a major airline

    If you’re going to recline your seat, for God’s sake, please check behind you first. You have no idea how many laptops are broken every year by boorish passengers who slam their seat back with total disregard to what’s going on behind them. —John Nance

    Tim Boyle/Getty Images

    Whatever you pay to fly, we pay more.

    Please don’t complain to me about your lost bags or the rotten service or that the airline did this or that. My retirement was taken to help subsidize your $39 airfare. —Pilot, South Carolina

    I know pilots who spend a quarter million on their education and training, then that first year as a pilot, they qualify for food stamps. —Furloughed first officer, Texas

    We miss the peanuts too. —US Airways pilot, South Carolina

    We don’t wear our hats in the cockpit, by the way

    On TV and in the comics, you always see these pilots with their hats on, and they have their headsets on over the hat, and that always makes us laugh. —Joe D’Eon

    iStockphoto/Thinkstock

    There's a good reason for everything we ask you to do.

    We ask you to put up the window shade so the flight attendants can see outside in an emergency, to assess if one side is better for an evacuation. It also lets light into the cabin if it goes dark and helps passengers get oriented if the plane flips or rolls over. —Patrick Smith

    iStockphoto/Thinkstock

    We hear some dumb things.

    Here’s a news flash: We’re not sitting in the cockpit listening to the ball game. Sometimes we can ask the controllers to go to their break room to check the score. But when I fly to Pittsburgh on a Sunday afternoon, the passengers send the flight attendants up at least ten times to ask us the Steelers score.
 —Commercial pilot, Charlotte, North Carolina

    I am so tired of hearing ‘Oh my God, you’re a girl pilot.’ When you see a black pilot, do you say ‘Oh my God, you’re a black pilot’? —Pilot for a regional carrier

    People tend to think the airplane is just flying itself. Trust me, that’s not true. It can fly by itself sometimes. But you’ve always got your hands on the controls waiting for it to mess up. And it does mess up. —Pilot, South Carolina

    Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

    Those buddy passes they give us?

    I give them only to my enemies now. Sure, you can get a $1,000 airfare to Seattle for $100. But since you have to fly standby, it will take you three months to get back because you can’t get a seat. —Pilot, South Carolina

    Comstock/Thinkstock

    Some insider advice:

    I always tell my kids to travel in sturdy shoes. If you have to evacuate and your flip-flops fall off, there you are standing on the hot tarmac or in the weeds in your bare feet. —Joe D’Eon

    Cold on the airplane? Tell your flight attendant. We’re in a constant battle with them over the temperature. They’re moving all the time, up and down the aisles, so they are always calling and saying, ‘Turn up the air.’ But most passengers I know are freezing. —Captain at a major carrier

    Tim Boyle/Getty Images

    Here’s the truth about airline jobs:

    You don’t have as much time off as your neighbors think you have, you don’t make as much money as your relatives think you make, and you don’t have as many girlfriends as your wife thinks you have. Still, I can’t believe they pay me to do this. —Commercial pilot, Charlotte, North Carolina

    Finally, some airline lingo:

    Blue juice: The water in the lavatory toilet. “There’s no blue juice in the lav.”
    Crotch watch: The required check to make sure all passengers have their seat belts fastened. Also: “groin scan.”
    Crumb crunchers: Kids. “We’ve got a lot of crumb crunchers on this flight.”
    Deadheading: When an airline employee flies as a passenger for company business.
    Gate lice: The people who gather around the gate right before boarding so they can be first on the plane. “Oh, the gate lice are thick today.”
    George: Autopilot. “I’ll let George take over.”
    Landing lips: Female passengers put on their “landing lips” when they use their lipstick just before landing.
    Pax: Passengers.
    Spinners: Passengers who get on late and don’t have a seat assignment, so they spin around looking for a seat.
    Two-for-once special: The plane touches down on landing, bounces up, then touches down again.
    Working the village: Working in coach.

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    Your Comments

    • Keith

      Turbulence HAS caused countless accidents, which usually involves the wings falling off, followed by a screaming death plunge into a cornfield. Not in any way likely unless you fly through a TS, but never say never.

    • Bleddyn

      Ok you said 13 things the pilots won’t tell us, then they tell us. Nothing off about this whole article?

    • contraryjim

      An airline has the right to state the terms of it’s service…I object to airlines blaming government regulations for everything. It would be better to know who is responsible for the stupidest requirements.

    • HALOCHIX

      I HATE FLYING , MY COUSING WAS AN AIRLINE HOSTESS AND SHE USED TO TELL ME STORIES OF HOW THINGS WOULD BE COVERED UP , SO THE FLIGHT WOULDNT BE DELAYED, SHE USED TO TELL ME HOW DOORS WERE IN NEED OF REPAIRS THAT DUCT TAPE WAS USED TO HIDE A FEW OPEN GAPS IN THE WALLS AND OTHER THINGS YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE. I WOULD ASK HER WERE YOU NOT AFRAID, AND SHE SAID IT IF IT WAS HER TIME TO GO, SHE COULDNT STOP IT.. WORK HAD TO CONTINUE AND SHE NEEDED HER CHECK AT THE END OF THE WEEK…IT WAS A COMPANY THAT DOESNT AND HASNT WORKED IN THE AIR FOR YEARS. UMMMM MAYBE THAT IS WHY THEY ARENT..YA THINK!!!!

    • iibw

      Wait a minute. If you hit a sudden updraft, the plane would lurch up, and everything in it would be pulled down.

    • Parker

      updrafts do not throw everything up in a plane, they drive everything down. Downdrafts throw everything up

    • StanB

      The energy from cell phones is not cumulative. 20 cell phone operating is the same as one operating. I have seen no studies that substantiate the claim that the electronics are affected by cell phone usage. I would rather get hit with a kindle that a 3 pound book.

      • jimmbbo

        I agree with your observation, but the issue is that there is no collaborative certification agreement between cellphone manufacturers and the FAA that would allow current cellphone transmitting standards (frequency, bandwidth, power, etc) to be accepted by the FAA, and being a government agency, their answer is that any transmitting device must be OFF in flight.
        One option would be for either the industry or individual manufacturers to work with the FAA to certify phones for airplane use, but I don’t see that happening soon, as cellphone technology evolves too rapidly for the FAA to be able to respond, and it is likely that any certification request would be approved after the NEXT improvement was already in the market.

      • Rascal262

        Mythbusters investigated this. They did conclude that cell phones can cause signal interference by measuring the radiation effects in a controlled environment. However, they then tested to see if it affected 1 specific piece of aviation equipment (a horizon indicator) but there was no noticeable interference. They did warn, however, that different equipment may use and/or be affected by different frequency ranges so that it is possible a cell phone can affect aviation equipment.

    • William R James

      Is traveling with a baby in your lap safe? No.

      It’s extremely dangerous. If there’s any impact or deceleration, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose hold of your kid, and he becomes a projectile. But the government’s logic is that if we made you buy an expensive seat for your baby, you’d just drive, and you’re more likely to be injured driving than flying. —Patrick Smith

      What/where is the source of this “government logic?”

    • William R James

      As far as I know, there has never been an airliner crash while following the noise abatement take-off procedures from John Wayne airport.

      • jimmbbo

        I believe you are correct… the issue from a pilot’s perspective is the reduction of safety margins that result from reducing thrust at low airspeed/high angle of attack flight at close proximity to the ground. As long as everything goes as planned, no problem… If an engine quits, or you experience wake turbulence or windshear, the maneuver can become quite sporty. The odds are that they won’t happen, and has been determined to be an “acceptable risk” for SNA to be a good neighbor.
        We used to call the procedure the “Wealthy One Departure” because the departure path overflew expensive property between SNA and the beach, the occupants of which made enough noise of their own to get the procedure imitated.

        • Kent Whitt

          Well, it was noise abatement procedures on approach, which are not so critical, but a Lear bit it by catching the wake turbulence of a 757 on approach to SNA. Around 1990?

          • jimmbbo

            Unaware of it, but 757 wake turbulence was an unexpected problem that arose after it was placed in service, and the FAA increased the in-trail separation behind the 757 as a result.

    • William R James

      “Most of the time, how you land is a good indicator of a pilot’s skill.”

      Wrong! Consistently making good landings is a indicator, not one smooth landing.

      • John55406

        I had a window seat; coming into Denver airport, the cross wind was so strong the plane (MD80) was approaching the runway and “crabbing” at a 45 degree angle, and probably should have aborted the landing, but Pilot put the plane on the ground anyway(s).
        When the wheels touched the runway the plane spun quickly and violently, and went down the center of the runway as it was supposed to, but a lot of things made a loud crashing noise inside the plane, and people were shaken.
        I am a single engine Pilot and an airplane crash survivor, and THAT was NOT fun.
        And People don’t understand WHY I don’t want to ride Rollercoasters.