Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fear of Flying

A great article by Douglas Boyd, Ph.D, Commercial Pilot on what we as pilots can do to help those with a fear of flying. Great ideas, Douglas! Thanks for your contribution!

A Contribution of General Aviation to America: How we as Pilots can
Help Passengers Overcome their Fear of Flying.

General Aviation (GA) is under assault by the public and media and it is vital that we show contributions to our communities. Certainly, there are already wonderful examples of how the GA community serves the public (Angel Flight, Pilots N Paws). But we need more examples of non-self-serving activities to effectively counter a constant anti-GA media barrage. Here is another way we can step up to the plate.

Without a doubt, we all know someone who won't fly or do so with great distress. Fear of flying (reported on by the Wall Street Journal -June 2011) is nothing new cutting across all socio-demographics. Indeed,  articles in the Travel Medicine and Infectious Diseases and Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine journals indicate that  10-40% of the adult population experience anxiety when flying and 2% of the population avoid this mode of transportation altogether. That means that over 6 million folks in the US who won’t fly! This is all despite the fact that airline safety has improved in every decade over the past half century based on NTSB fatality rates.

So what can we do, as pilots, to reach out to these jittery passengers? Anxiety feeds on ignorance and demystifying the flight environment will go a long way to helping these folks overcome their phobia. When you next encounter an aviophobe, enquire as to their concern(s) and then explain why there should be little cause for concern. Here are some of the more common fears of phobic fliers. A biggie, especially in areas prone to high convective activity, is thunderstorms. A soothing response is the requirement for all transport-category flights, as per Part 121 regulations, to have operative weather radar allowing the pilot to circumnavigate the worst of the weather although, of course, this does not guarantee turbulence avoidance.  Often discussion of thunderstorms segues into the topic of turbulence or vice versa. Discuss how wing dihedral increases stability, the concept of "rough air" penetration speeds and perhaps most importantly how wing flex testing has to be undertaken as part of the certification of all aircraft. Another white knuckler is engine failure. A good comeback here is that transport category aircraft are required to fly with a single engine inoperative and this includes departure climbs to meet obstacle clearance.  Even with total engine failure transport category aircraft make excellent glider ratios and the 75 nautical mile glide of a mid-Atlantic, powerless Airbus A300 (Air Transat 236) carrying 306 passengers plus crew to a safe landing in the Azores is worth citing. System redundancy, again required for the airlines, is also worth mentioning: dual, independent hydraulic systems for moving flight control  surfaces (not to mention manual reversion in the event of the failure of the hydraulics); dual navigation systems; triple pitot-static systems to cite a few.

What else can we do to get these folks flying? Psychologists know well that phobics have to be exposed to the fear often incrementally. If you are a proficient GA pilot who flies regularly, consider offering a nail-biting passenger a short flight. Review what goes into preflight planning-weather, NOTAMS, the aircraft. Follow this with one or two circuits around the traffic pattern in VFR, non-turbulent conditions. On a subsequent flight, graduate to a short hop to a nearby airport say around 10 minutes distance. Finally, consider referring these folks to a fear of flying program near them (

Chances are you’ll find that helping these folks a highly rewarding experience and even more importantly showing the community a positive image of general aviation. Who knows-we might even convert a few of these individuals into pilots a bonus considering the ever shrinking pool of pilot starts.

Douglas Boyd Ph.D., an active general aviation pilot holding Commercial/IFR ratings, directs the Houston fear of flying program. The “Clinic” ( includes presentations by an airline and GA pilot, TSA, counseling by psychologists as well as visits to ATC and an aircraft maintenance facility.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rumble in the Jungle (Part 2) - How Airplanes Safely Deal with Thunderstorms

In my last post, I talked about thunderstorms and why they are to be avoided by airplanes at all costs. I think by now, we can all agree that thunderstorms are pretty serious stuff. But, airlines keep a pretty tight schedule and regularly negotiate around some pretty nasty storms. So, how do they do it?

First, remember that the airlines and the FAA have teams of meteorologists working to predict the weather and, if they see some bad thunderstorms building up and the economics justify it, they typically choose more favorable routes of flight to avoid the severe storm potential altogether. What if the economics don't justify it and they can't be avoided? Remember - crashes are really expensive for the airlines. You'll be sitting in the terminal yelling at the gate agent. But, as we all know, on a warm, humid summer day, stuff pops up and planes still fly so, how do they get around it? The answer is: very carefully.

First, every airliner is required to have onboard weather radar. In the nose of the plane, there is a little radar dish that the pilots aim at various points of the sky to measure how much water vapor is in the air. The more water they see, the greater the chance that it is part of a severe storm. The pilots use this radar to calculate which route will keep them away from the storms. They then request that deviation from their assigned route to Air Traffic Control (ATC) and 99 out of 100 times, ATC approves the deviation without question. What happens when ATC doesn't approve the deviation? Well, the pilots do whatever they need to in order to keep your flight safe. Just because a guy sitting comfortably in a radar room tells your pilots they need to fly though a thunderstorm for traffic spacing doesn't mean that the pilots are actually going to do it. After all, they are the "Pilot in Command" and are the final authority on the safe operation of the flight....sorry God, it's right there in the regulations....the pilots are the final authority.

What about low level wind shear (LLWS) and other wind shear? Well, ever since the Delta L-1011 crash that I mentioned in my last post, the FAA mandated that every turbine powered passenger aircraft (basically everything you fly in with a jet engine) must have wind shear detection onboard. Thru a NASA developed technology known as PFM (or Pure Friggin' Magic), a computer analyzes the onboard weather radar to calculate whether or not wind shear exists. When your pilots hear the plane yell "WIND SHEAR! WIND SHEAR!" they get out of Dodge (or Cleveland as the case may be) quickly.

The airplane is not the only way LLWS is detected. Most airports that the airlines fly into have wind shear detection sensors all around the airport. Wind shear, by definition, is when you have wind going in many different directions. So, when those airport sensors start detecting wind going in a bunch of different directions in different locations around the airport, they alert ATC  so they know that wind shear has the potential to exist at the airport when planes are in their most vulnerable condition: low and slow. ATC will in turn notify your pilots and your pilots will react and fly the plane as the conditions dictate.

So, the next time your flight is delayed because a huge thunderstorm is rolling thru the airport, head to the bar, grab drink and lay off the gate agent. Trust me, you'd rather have a Guinness in your hand than a thunderstorm.

Blue Skies,

EDIT: Douglas makes an excellent point in the comments below. ATC has weather radar as well that they use to coordinate deviations with the pilots. In fact, if you hear some storms rolling thru your area, go to and find a local airport feed to listen to. It is amazing to hear the professionalism of both pilots and controllers as they safely navigate planes around storms. Thanks Douglas!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Rumble in the Jungle (Part 1) - Why Thunderstorms are Bad for Airplanes

Most flyers have experienced some sort of weather related delay. Sitting in the airport terminal for hours on end, your schedule is ruined, you complain and yell at the poor gate agent because you're now going to miss a wedding, a funeral, your kid's baseball game or your hot yoga class. All the airlines fault, right? "I'm never flying this airline again!" you say. Well, think that if you want but they have most likely just done you the biggest favor of your life. There are many things that you can blame the airlines for but delays due to severe weather is not one of them. For all the things humans have figured out how to control or circumvent, weather is not one of them. And, of all the little understood weather phenomenons that occur, the thunderstorm is probably one of the least understood. First, I can assure you that, no matter what you think, on your worst flight, unless you had the world's worst pilots, you have probably never flown directly thru a thunderstorm. It doesn't matter what you are flying in -  avoidance is key because, no matter what you are flying in, the laws of physics are not subject to repeal. Now, that's not to say you haven't possibly come close enough to a thunderstorm to get an autograph but, more than likely you haven't gotten "up close and personal" to see the ugliness that exists within. Let's delve into why.

To set the stage, three basic things need to exist for any run of the mill thunderstorm to form: moisture/water, instability in the atmosphere (read low pressure so things can "move around") and some sort of a lifting force (heat from the sun or a cold front moving thru to push things up into the air or some other force that can jam millions of tons of water 30,000+ feet into the air). That right there should give you the idea of the amount of energy contained within a thunderstorm. The best way I've heard it put is that if you compare a thunderstorm to a hydrogen bomb (you know, big mushroom cloud explosion that could evaporate an area the size of Rhode Island...sorry Rhode Islanders) a thunderstorm releases it's energy more slowly than a hydrogen bomb but has lots more energy than a hydrogen bomb. Impressive so far, right?

Let's look at all the nastiness that can occur in a thunderstorm.

First and foremost is turbulence and wind. If you refer to my post on turbulence, you'll see that there is some turbulence labeled as "severe" and "extreme". While these types can, in rare instances, occur outside of thunderstorms, you have a pretty good chance of finding them in a thunderstorm. Why there? Go back to those basic ingredients necessary for a thunderstorm. Instability means well.....instability! Air moving in many different directions unabated. Think that can create turbulence? You bet it can! Next - a lifting force. Some supercell thunderstorms like the ones that occurred last night can exhibit updrafts (air moving upward that develops a thunderstorm) in excess of 160mph! In aviation terms, that's about 12,000 feet per minute (fpm) or well in excess of the climb rates of commercial airliners....and even many fighter jets! Updrafts are bad enough. Now take that updraft and turn it into a downdraft with similar speeds. It doesn't take anything more than simple math to tell you what happens to an airplane capable of climbing at 5,000fpm that is stuck in a 12,000fpm downdraft (or what would be referred to as a "microburst"). The word "splat" comes to mind. Even a more "benign" storm or your run of the mill summer thunderstorm can have 5,000+fpm updrafts and downdrafts. Consider that your average Boeing 737 can climb roughly at a maximum of 6,000fpm lightly loaded at sea level/takeoff (that number goes down quickly as you get heavier and higher) and you can see why you don't mess with mother nature. Now, imagine all of this happening in close proximity to the ground and you get what is called "low level wind shear"(LLWS). There is a famous crash of a Delta Lockheed L-1011 that occurred in 1985 in TX that resulted in the development and subsequent mandating by the FAA of modern LLWS detection systems to ensure similar crashes never occur again. In addition to all of that, the stresses imposed on airplanes by those severe updrafts and downdrafts can greatly exceed the design limits of the airplane and the airplane can, well....break. Oddly enough, because of the power of updrafts and downdrafts, it has, over the years, rained some pretty crazy stuff. Fish and birds have gotten sucked up in an updraft and ultimately rained down and, yes, as the song goes, it has even rained a few men as some unfortunate skydivers have gotten caught up in thunderstorms. Here's one great story you have to read!
Would YOU fly thru this? Didn't think so.
An impressive supercell thunderstorm.

The second reason you don't tangle with thunderstorms is water. Wait, water!? You're probably thinking "you're telling me water can crash a plane!? Great! I'm never flying again!" Well, hold on a second and I'll explain. What happens to water when the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit? It freezes right? Wrong! It sometimes freezes. 32 degrees is the magic number at which ice melts not at which water freezes. So now that we've thrown 5th grade science out the window, how does ice form then? Well, it forms when that below 32 degree water hits something solid that is below 32 degrees as well like airplane wing!  Now, lets join the rest of the world and use Celsius. Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius (32F). Every 1,000 feet up you go, the temperature drops on average by about 2 degrees Celsius. So if you're on the ground on a nice 80 degree F (about 27C) summer day, the "freezing level" is at about 14,000 feet. While all commercial airliners have very robust and very capable ice protection systems, they can easily be overwhelmed by the enormous volume of water found in thunderstorms.  Trust me when I say this - ice does not do nice things to an airplane. Aside from that, what happens when you take that very large volume of water and stick it into one of those updrafts I talked about? Well, at some point the water does start to freeze together and get heavy enough that it starts to fall and you get hail. If you think hail is bad when it leaves little dents on the roof of your car sitting in your driveway, think of what happens when it hits an airplane doing 450 knots (or about 520mph). In extremely powerful thunderstorms, hail can actually shoot thousands of feet out of the TOP of the storm! The final thing I'll say on the water front is that there is so much water that there have been extremely isolated incidents where water in a thunderstorm combined with hail have overcome jet engines and have caused them to flame out. That's a lot of water!

The third but far less important reason you don't tangle with thunderstorms is lightning. Now, many airplanes have encounters with lightning regularly and they don't fall from the sky. In fact, one estimate says that every commercial airliner is hit on average once a year. Airplanes can and regularly do survive lightning strikes. Wires are shielded to protect avionics, fuel tanks are designed to withstand sparks created by lightning and the skin is typically made of aluminum which means it conducts the charge around the outside of the airplane. But, let's face it, there is a lot of energy contained in a bolt of lightning and if you can avoid it, you probably should. Just because the law of averages is stacked very comfortably in favor of airplanes surviving lightning strikes, why throw caution into the wind? And where does lightning come from? Well, all that water caught up in all that wind rubs together which causes the friction that creates the charged particles to form lightning. So, in all reality, you want to stay away from the stuff that creates the lightning even more than you want to stay away from the lightning itself. And, pilots tend to like happy passengers. There's a high "underwear change" factor when you have a plane that gets hit by lightning and, if you think thunder is loud on the ground. Try being 2 feet away from the lightning bolt that the thunder originates from.

By now, you're thinking "I AM NEVER FLYING AGAIN!" and, if you stopped reading at this point you'd probably be right in your thinking! But, planes do safely navigate around thunderstorms all the time. In my next post, I'll talk about how your pilots safely deal with thunderstorms.

Until then.....

Blue Skies,