40 Questions From An Anxious Flyer - Answered By A Pilot
I met airline pilot Sarah Dunglinson virtually, through an online female travel forum. I asked if she’d answer some of our burning questions about flying and she kindly agreed.
Being an anxious flyer makes air travel challenging and although I’ll still get sweaty palms with the first bump in turbulence, Sarah has reassured me I will live past it.
In this article:
Disclaimer: All views belong to Sarah, and are not those of her employer. All photos and video taken by her were done during a safe stage of flight.
Let's get to know our pilot
Name: Sarah Dunglinson
Pilot for: Ryanair
Based in: Birmingham, UK
When did you want to be a pilot?
For me, being a pilot wasn’t a career I had wanted to do my whole life. I started gliding when I was 14, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I realized I could do my passion as a career and I haven’t looked back since!
How long have you been a pilot?
I was offered my first commercial flying job in April 2018.
What was Your journey to get a Pilot’s License?
I did all my training in the UK, so the route to the flight deck is a little different to that in America. My training started in the spring of 2015 with getting my Private Pilot’s License.
Once that was complete, I had to sit 14 ground school exams which cover a vast range of subjects relating to aviation, each with a pass mark of 75%. This was probably the hardest part of the training for me as most of the subjects are very out of date and you’re having to learn about old flight systems.
Whilst doing the ground school exams, I also had to do hour building to get a minimum of 157 flight hours before starting the next stage, which is the Commercial Pilot License and the Multi Engine Instrument Rating. During this section of training, I learned to fly just using the instruments whilst in cloud. I also learned how to fly an aircraft with two engines and how to deal with engine failures in flight.
My last stage of training, before applying for a jet job, was an MCC/JOC course (multi-crew cooperation and jet orientation). This was the first time I set foot in a proper jet simulator and I learned how to fly as a multi-pilot crew whilst handling many different failures.
After this was finished, I was free to apply for jobs. Once I was offered one, I went onto the type rating to learn the full ins and outs of my aircraft and learned how to fly with many different failures.
What’s your favourite thing about being a pilot?
For me, it’s the fact that every day is different. You’ll never have the same weather as before, you’ll always be flying with different crew and new passengers. You never know if it’ll be a nice, straight-forward flight or if something will come up that will make it slightly trickier than usual!
All About Turbulence
The majority of nervous flyers panic in moments of turbulence.
Let’s break it down and figure out how dangerous it really is.
1. What is turbulence and is it dangerous?
There are different reasons as to why there could be turbulence. Ranging from flying over mountains or through thunderstorms and jet streams.
The main source of turbulence, during the cruise, is clear air turbulence (usually relating to the jet steams). This is when you have beautiful clear skies and still get bounced around. It’s caused by different air masses moving at different speeds.
We, as pilots, will know if we’re going to be experiencing turbulence before we even get to the aeroplane and how ‘severe’ it is going to be.
In terms of “how dangerous” is it - it’s really not! Clear air turbulence can just be annoying and appear bad. If we think it’s going to be a problem, we’ll ask planes ahead, above and below us, for the ‘ride report’ (what the turbulence is doing where they are). With that we can either descend below it, and if we’re not too heavy we can climb above it.
The only time it can be dangerous is if you fly through a cumulonimbus cloud – that’s basically a thunderstorm. This is because the airflow inside these clouds can be very aggressive with lots of different updrafts and down drafts.
If we know there are thunderstorms in the area, we take extra fuel so we can avoid them and fly around them. We don’t want to fly in them any more than you do!
2. Do you ever get nervous during turbulence?
I don’t get nervous when we get turbulence, for me it’s just something we get used to as part of the job. Its basically the same as a ship riding out the waves in bad weather, or a car driving over speed bumps – something that is very natural and not to be alarmed about. Remember if there was a chance the plane would just fall out of the sky due to turbulence, no pilot would do the job.
3. Can you predict turbulence?
At the beginning of the day, we’ll go through all the weather for that route and find out where the jet streams lie and what our filed altitude for the day is. This will give us some idea of what we’ll be expecting.
We can also get a projection from our flight plan about how much turbulence and where we’ll be expecting it. This system can be a bit unreliable though. It can predict really bad turbulence and we’ll have none for the whole flight or vice versa.
4. When do you inform the passengers?
Sometimes we won’t mention the turbulence to our passengers because we know it can scare them. Also, it may occur for a really short period or we weren’t anticipating it ourselves!
However, we’ll make a great effort to change the level we’re flying at to try and reduce the amount of turbulence experienced.
If we know it’s going to be going on for a while, we’ll let the passengers know. It’s all down to what the captain decides at the end of the day and some captains don’t like to keep the passengers updated which I think sucks!
5. Are there certain routes or areas that provide more turbulence than others?
The time I notice slightly more turbulence is when we fly over the Alps or the Pyrenees. This is because mountain ranges can cause what is know as mountain waves, which is just another type of turbulence. But more often than not, we don’t get too affected by it.
6. Are smaller planes prone to more turbulence than larger planes?
I wouldn’t say they’re prone to more turbulence, you just end up feeling it more as they’re much lighter. For example, I flew the other day and our take-off weight was 55 tonnes, whereas other days we’ll have a take-off weight of 68 tonnes. The day when we were light we felt the lumps and bumps (our term for turbulence) a bit more than usual.
7. Where should I sit on the plane to feel the least amount of turbulence?
Definitely over the wings, you’re closer to the centre of gravity and that’s where the aircraft pivots from, so you’ll feel less movement.
In the Event of an Emergency
The news always reports the emergency landings and tragedies of airline travel. But how common are these and what are the best practices for dealing with them?
8. What are the chances of the airline crashing?
Having a commercial airliner crash is a very, very rare thing. The industry safety regulations have improved massively within the last 20-30 years. God forbid if it does happen, there is usually a major investigation as to what caused it, so airlines can learn from the mistakes made and changes can be implemented to avoid it happening again!
9. At what point do you inform the passengers about an emergency?
We usually won’t give passengers the full ins and outs of the emergency, unless it’s obvious and everyone can see it. No one wants to cause a panic if it can be avoided. We need to deal with the situation first.
Once the situation is safely under control and the crew have come up with a plan, we’ll first inform the flight attendants (FAs) so they’re brought up to speed, and then we’ll notify the passengers.
However, if it’s a small problem, like we get a window overheat warning in the flight deck, we wouldn’t inform the passengers as it’s not a big deal and there’s no need to worry anybody.
10. Where am I most likely to survive in the event of a crash?
Sitting over the wings is the best place to survive a crash, you’ll never see a crashed plane that’s broken apart over the wings.
11. Are there likely to be more accidents on budget airlines?
I wouldn’t say so. I work for a budget airline and we have an impeccable safety record. If corners are cut in maintenance and a plane was in an accident, the engineers could lose their jobs and face jail time so it’s not in their interest to do it.
12. Why is the brace position the most effective for emergency landing?
it’s pretty much to protect your head from falling debris. I’ll be honest, I don’t think there’s a 100% perfect brace position but it gives more chance of surviving and getting out if you’re not knocked unconscious.
13. Landing is one of the scariest parts of the flight. What do you do to ensure we land safely?
Before we begin the approach to our destination, we’ll make sure we get the weather on the ground at the airport and calculate the aircraft’s performance. This allows us to see where the aircraft is going to stop on the runway. With this, we choose what braking setting to use to make sure we come to a stop safely and with enough runway left.
When we come in to land, we’re flying at a much, much slower speed than we do in the cruise. And during the last 3,000ft before landing we have a lower rate of descent.
Before landing, we have to be at a specific speed and meet certain conditions to be able to call ourselves ‘stabilized’ on the approach. If either one of the pilots aren’t happy about anything, we’ll carry out a missed approach and try again.
I know the landing can be the scariest bit as you’re not in control of what goes on (sometimes even I feel the same way when the captain does the landing in bad weather) but you just have to trust the process.
We do hundreds and hundreds of landings a year, in all weather conditions. We also go into a simulator twice a year to practice all kinds of worse-case scenarios to make sure we’re fully prepared. We’ll never do anything to put the safety and security of our crew, passengers or aircraft at risk!
14. Do you fly longer distances to be closer to land for emergencies?
Nope! Aircraft have to be certified to be able to fly certain distances on just one engine that will allow them to reach land safely. Even when you’re halfway across the Atlantic with no land in sight, the pilots will already know: what airport they’ll be diverting too, what the distance is and how long to get there with just one engine.
15. What’s the protocol if you have to make an emergency landing?
It all depends on the emergency. You can have a medical emergency in which we need to get on the ground as soon as possible as a passenger might be unwell. It’s usually not a big deal for the pilots – there’s more pressure on the cabin crew to get all their checks done before landing as we’ll be getting down very quick.
If it’s for a mechanical failure, the first thing we do is consult our QRH (the quick reference handbook). This will tell us what sort of configuration we need to land the aircraft in and if we need to land on a longer runway than usual.
Our next step is to brief the cabin crew, and we’ll tell them how much time we have till landing and if we need an SOS demo. That’s basically when they inform you of the brace position and they’ll reshow you the emergency exits and how to get out.
16. Is there a certain type of land that’s better for emergency landings?
In terms of landing, we’ll always find the closest and safest airport to land at – that’s our ideal location. Obviously, if we’re over the ocean and have no choice then we will do a ditching. This can be trickier as you’ve got the waves and it’s a moving surface, so we’ll do our best to avoid that. The only time that would ever occur is if we have a dual engine failure, which is very… very… very… unlikely.
17. Is it safe to stay on the same plane that has a recently fixed mechanical problem?
Mechanical problems are usually for something really minor, like if a light bulb isn’t working. Sometimes we get a random warning light and just need to discuss what it means with engineers.
Usually, in my company at least, if there is something wrong and there’s a spare aircraft we’ll take that one instead. Yes, it can be a major pain for passengers to be offloaded and reloaded but the delay will be shorter! Usually if the delay is a lot longer, it’s because we’re waiting for a spare part.
Whatever mechanical fault we have on the ground will always be fixed before we leave. Trust me, I don’t want to be at 38,000ft dealing with a problem I already encountered on the ground - I just want to be relaxing and eating my lunch!
All the "What if" Scenarios
Hollywood has us panicked about “mother f*****g snakes on the mother f*****g plane”. Let’s get to the bottom of these nightmare, “what if” scenarios.
18. What if…the plane runs out of fuel?
In terms of fuel, you won’t be running out anytime soon! We look at how much fuel we need as standard, look at the weather and add some extra, and then we add a bit extra ‘just in case’! Sometimes we’ll have up to an hour or two extra of fuel on board especially if there’s bad weather en-route.
19. What if…the plane hits a bird?
I’ve hit a fair few birds and also had one go through the engine - all that happened was we had a smell in the flight deck of burnt chicken.
When we land the captain will go have a look at the aircraft and we’ll get engineers to double check there’s no damage. It’s not actually that much of a big issue, unless you’re Sully and fly through a flock of geese.
20. What if…the wheels get stuck for landing?
If the undercarriage doesn’t come down for landing, we’ll get an indication in the flight deck and then we’ll carry out a missed approach and start troubleshooting what the issue is.
There could be a number of reasons as to why it gets stuck, but it’s not a very common occurrence. We do have a way of manually lowering the gear from the flight deck. However, we’ll more than likely get the crew to brief you on the brace position and you’ll be in that position during the landing, only as a precaution.
It might seem really scary if it does happen, but as long as you listen to your flight attendant and do the correct things, you’ll be okay.
21. What if…the door opens or window blows out?
When the aircraft becomes pressurized, it is impossible to open a door in flight due to the pressure exerted on it. It is also very unlikely to have a window blow out. If we’re going to lose pressurization in the aircraft, it’ll usually be due to a small leak somewhere and it’ll happen very slowly.
If during your flight the oxygen masks deploy, always put them on until you get told otherwise by the crew. There isn’t a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere when we’re cruising at 38,000ft, and if you delay putting your mask on you can actually pass out within 5-10 seconds.
In terms of what goes on in the flight deck when this happens, we’ll also have our oxygen masks on. We try and attempt to control the pressurization manually, but if its uncontrollable we’ll put the aircraft into an emergency descent.
Now I’ll be honest, this will probably be terrifying as a passenger, as we’ll basically be putting the aircraft into a very steep descent and we’ll be going down very quickly. But please be assured that this is a normal thing for us to do in this situation, our aim is to get to 10,000ft as soon as possible as this is when everyone can take off their oxygen masks. From there, we’ll divert to the nearest possible airport to land.
Inside the Cabin
Now the emergency questions are done, let’s get into something that affects us regularly - life as a passenger inside the cabin.
22. Why is it always so damn cold on the plane?
You can usually blame the pilots for this. On the aircraft that I fly (a Boeing), the cabin temperature is controlled by the pilots and it’s such an old system it can be a bit temperamental!
We do try our best to keep it as warm as possible, we usually try and keep the temperature coming in at 22 degrees Celsius (that’s around 71 degrees Fahrenheit). At certain points of the flight the temperature feels like it drops. We notice it in the flight deck too and have no idea what causes it, which is why it can suddenly feel colder.
23. Why are the lights turned off for take off and landing?
This is usually more obvious at night time and it’s because in an emergency your eyes are already acclimatized to the darkness.
Imagine if we took off with all the lights on, then we had to abandon the take off for some reason and in the process, we lost the lighting in the cabin. If decided to evacuate, your eyes wouldn’t have had enough time to get used to the darkness (it takes 30 minutes for your eyes to get used to it). For the same reason, we also switch off the lights in the flight deck.
24. My ears hurt and get clogged on descent. What can I do to fix this?
This is the absolute worst! If you’re suffering from a cold, we’ll always recommend if you can avoid flying to do so. This is because when your sinuses get blocked, your ear struggles to equalize the pressure changes.
The best maneuver to clear blocked ears and reduce the pressure is called the Valsalva maneuver. This is when you close your mouth, hold your nose and breathe out. I’ve also heard chewing gum can help relieve the pressure felt in the ears.
25. Why can’t I use my cell phone on the plane?
Simply put, the radio waves produced by a phone that’s being used can cause interference to our radio and navigational systems. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but we’ll always actively encourage you to use aeroplane mode, especially during the take off and landing – just in case.
26. What do I do if the seat belt sign is on and I really have the use the washroom?
Use your attend button and tell your flight attendants. Usually they’ll come have a chat with us to see how much longer we’ll be experiencing turbulence. If you’re desperate then it’s your own decision but any injuries you might incur from going will not be the fault of the the airline, as you’ll be ignoring the seat belt signs.
27. Is the air inside the cabin recycled, could it ever run out?
The air is recycled, which is pretty gross if you think about it. If someone’s got a cold then you’re breathing in their germs. Aeroplane’s are actually surprisingly unhygienic. It’s a very complex system to try and explain, but I can confirm we’ll never run out of air.
28. Are we able to see the cockpit?
Of course! Unfortunately, due to 9/11, we’re unable to let you visit during the flight, but come visit us once we’ve landed and we’ll be more than happy to show you our office and let you take pictures!
Generally just before departure we’ll be really busy setting up the aircraft and briefing for take off but usually we can find a spare 5 minutes or so to explain things to you after the flight.
29. Why are we limited to only carry a certain amount of liquids?
People are very sneaky and liquids can carry explosives. It’s so frustrating for everyone, as even flight crew are restricted the same way passengers are with liquids.
All about Pilots
Aren’t you curious about their life and what goes on in the cockpit?
30. What procedures are in place to prevent inebriated pilots?
We can actually get drug and alcohol tested at anytime. The amount of alcohol we’re allowed in our systems to legally fly a plane is less than that to be able to legally drive a car!
If we think one of the crew are under the influence, we’ll tell them they’re not fit to fly and inform operations. We don’t want to fly with them anymore than you do.
The penalties are basically the same that you’d experience when driving your car. They’d lose their license and wouldn’t get it back and quite often it’s jail time as well.
31. What if you get tired on long, international flights?
For long-haul flights, there are usually two crews - ones that do the take off and landings and ones that monitor while that crew go have a rest.
Sometimes on shorter flights one of the pilots can have what is called ‘controlled rest’ where they’ll rest their eyes in the flight deck whilst the other one flies. It’s always agreed upon so you won’t have both pilots falling asleep at the same time.
32. How much of the flight is auto-pilot vs. manual?
I’d say 90% of the flight is done on autopilot and if the weather is below limits to manually land, the plane can land itself!
33. What happens to the airplane if both pilots get ill or injured in flight?
The risk of both pilots getting ill is very unlikely. Most pilots eat different foods to avoid the situation. If one of the pilots did become incapacitated, the first thing we do is see if we have a positioning pilot that works for the company sat in the back and we’ll get them to come help in the front!
34. Do pilots need 20/20 vision and do they have to get their eyes tested regularly?
Nope, we don’t need 20/20 vision. There are limitations as to how bad our eyesight can get but glasses and contact lenses are allowed when flying.
As we regularly get medicals, our eyesight is checked then. In addition we get regular eye checks.
35. Do pilots enjoy vacation at the destinations they travel to?
It all depends on the airline! Some airlines will have routes where you have a layover, basically spending the night at your destination. You’ll usually get more time at your destination if its been a long flight but even then you’ll only have 24-48 hours before having to fly back.
36. Where are your favourite and least favourite airports to fly in and out of?
I love flying into Alicante, it’s one of my all-time favourite destinations and I get so excited to see it on my roster! The approach is nice and straight forward and I get to enjoy the views. I wouldn’t really say I have a least favourite, each airport has its own challenges and views but sometimes it can get a bit boring flying into the same places regularly.
So, you're a Female Pilot...
The airline pilot occupation is male dominated. But Sarah and other special women are changing that. Let’s find out some of her challenges and advice for aspiring female pilots.
37. What’s your biggest challenge as a female pilot?
For me, I’ve noticed in some countries ground crew don’t take you seriously as a female pilot. I’ve once had an argument with someone. I told them we needed to de-ice and they told me I was wrong but when a male captain told them the exact same thing they didn’t say a word. I get really frustrated!
38. Do you notice passengers treat you differently to male pilots?
Oh man, the sexist comments we can get when passengers realize there’s a female pilot on board. I’ve had passengers thank the captain for a landing that I’ve done and then seem really surprised when they find out I’ve done it.
I’ve also had a group of lads give me the whole ‘should have known it was a female pilot’ when the plane landed itself but didn’t do a very good job at it. I don’t mind the banter but sometimes it just gets a bit repetitive after a while hearing the same things over and over again.
39. Are there any differences in the way that female pilots think when flying?
I don’t think so.
We do the exact same training as our male colleagues and attend the same courses that they do, so there’s nothing different in the way we treat our job.
40. What's your advice to any aspiring female pilot?
Don’t be afraid to just go for it! Sexism within the industry is rapidly reducing, and its becoming a much fairer place to work.
I’ve met many female pilots and I think some of them are better than male pilots! The first thing to do is go to your local flying school and have a taster flight. From there, you can get your Private Pilots License and you’ll meet like-minded people who can give you advice on where to go to train and learn about the things that didn’t work for them.
Travel tips for Anxious Flyers
Sarah and I are frequent flyers and are used to air travel. If you get flight anxiety, here are some tips we’ve learned along the way so you can have a comfortable flight.
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1. Drink lots of water
The humidity on a plane is something like 10%, so by not staying hydrated this can make you feel like you’re getting a cold - purely because you’re dehydrated!
Sitting on a plane thirsty is annoying. Because of that I always travel with my S’well water bottle. It’s insulated so the water stays fresh for hours and it’s slim so it fits nicely into my bag.
All airports have water fountains so you can fill up after security. You’re not only staying hydrated but you’re avoiding single-use plastic and for that, the environment thanks you.
2. Use Priority boarding and Consider Lounges
If you get anxious easily, make use of priority boarding! You’ll get on the aeroplane first so can get comfortable without feeling like you’re holding everyone up.
If you’ve got the budget, some lounges will let you pay to enter. The benefits of a lounge can be significant if you’ve got a long layover.
Good lounges are quiet (or have a quiet space) where you can relax. They serve food and drinks. They often have magazines and nice bathrooms where you can freshen up. Some have showers, spa facilities and sometimes places to clean your clothes. Prices and accessibility depends on your airport so look it up in advance.
3. Grab the right seat
To feel the turbulence less, try sitting over the wings. You’re closer to the centre of gravity there and that’s where the aircraft pivots from, so you’ll feel less movement.
Depending on your travel style different seats are appealing:
The Nervous Flyer - Most people recommend the aisle because it feels less claustrophobic. I used to always chose that seat but one day I was given the window and oddly enough, I preferred it. Perhaps it’s the photographer in me but I get fascinated by the sky and it takes my mind to a calmer place.
The Sleepy Flyer - If you are planning to take some drowsy medication or just want to sleep, then aim for a window. You’ll be able to rest your head and you won’t be disrupted by people in the aisle or your seat mates who need to use the toilet. Also, try to get a seat in the center of the plane, this way you will have less noise from the bathroom and flight attendant areas.
The Tall Flyer - If you’ve got long limbs, aim for an aisle seat. You’ll be able to spread out and get up more to prevent cramping.
4. Bring headphones or ear plugs when flying
Regularly there will be young children and babies on board who cry a lot, so if you’re prepared for that it’ll make your flight more pleasurable.
I never fly without my Bose headphones. In fact, sometimes I don’t even have music playing but I have them on to block out the noise. It’s the only way I can sleep on a plane.
I talk about them in my post: gifts for travel photographers.
5. Dress for the weather
As mentioned above the plane is cold. Even if you’re going between tropical destinations, chances are you’ll be uncomfortably cold on the plane.
Flip flops aren’t a good idea. But if it’s all you have bring a pair of socks with you. I will either keep my jacket with me or wrap myself in a scarf.
6. Thank your pilot
They love and appreciate your support, sometimes it feels like they get forgotten about and shut away in the flight deck.
Plus they did just fly you from point A to B safely.
7. Consider Medication
This one comes with a huge caveat - I am not a doctor and this should be discussed with your doctor before you do anything.
If you’ve got a fear of flying you could consider medication. I personally took a solo international flight a few years ago and I was feeling anxious about it. My doctor prescribed an anxiety medication (Lorazepam) and I took it, slept the entire flight and woke up in London. I remember hitting turbulence and not feeling anxious about it.
I’m very careful with this stuff. I don’t take alcohol with it and would only use it for a long-haul flight since it can make you groggy. I also save it for just after the first meal so I’m not woken up by the flight attendants.
8. Pack These Hand luggage essentials
Natasha & Sarah:
Keep these in an accessible place or a baggy so you can pull them out for the flight and not delay boarding.
a book or Kindle (great for a dark plane, you don’t even need your reading light)
a power bank for your phone
a bottle of water (fill it after security)
snacks (cheaper than onboard food)
hand and face cream (less than 3.4 oz)
lip balm (less than 3.4 oz)
antibacterial gel or wipes (less than 3.4oz. Some people like to wipe down the trays which are known to be germy)
sweater, jacket or scarf (it gets cold on flights)
So there you have it! Hopefully Sarah has been able to put your mind at ease. If you’re feeling like a confident flyer then get inspired with these travel guides and go explore the world!
A big thank you to Sarah who used her personal time to answer all these questions. I hope to meet you one day in person… maybe in the sky.