Ask the pilot

Do airplanes make you fart more? What happened to the dog hair on my suitcase? The pilot lets us in on readers' probing questions.

Published October 26, 2007 10:30AM (EDT)

Some serious aviation stories have been making the rounds this week. The controversy over NASA's pilot survey, for example. And how about the Department of Homeland Security's latest "Secure Flight" proposal, asking that foreign governments hand over a docket of personal data on all airline passengers bound for the United States. That data can include, among other things, a flier's reading preferences and -- I am not making this up -- sexual habits. We'll get to this stuff next week; that last one is so nutty that it will take a few days for my head to stop spinning. Until then, some refreshment.

The early days of this column -- it's now in its sixth year -- followed a pretty standard format. I'd begin with a brief intro, then segue into a series of questions and answers. Hence the title, "Ask the Pilot." The Q&A structure was eventually outgrown, but I still go back to it now and again -- most recently a week ago. I have always used actual, reader-submitted questions, edited for clarity as need be. The first-ever question, I remember, came from Carol Steinfeld, a woman in Boston who once wrote a guide to using human urine as fertilizer. "How the heck do planes fly in the first place?" she wanted to know. "How can something that big and heavy stay aloft?" It was at once a sophomoric and profoundly sensible question. It later became the opening question in my book as well.

As more and more letters came in, I began to get a sense of which things irked, frustrated and in some cases terrified the flying public. Certain subjects I expected to be popular -- questions about the use of cellphones during flight, for instance -- while others caught me by surprise. I continue to be amazed at the number of fliers petrified by turbulence. And I had no idea how many people scoff at the notion that onboard flotation devices are in fact useful and potentially lifesaving accouterments. Until finally I devoted a myth-busting column to the topic, snarky e-mails about "water landings" were rivaled in number only by those asking about the dangers of rough air. And last but not least, I've discovered that people's hatred for the airlines runs far, far deeper than I ever imagined. Heaven knows how many letters I've fielded in total, but the filing cabinet would go something like this.

1. Any and all gripes against airlines, from canceled flights to lost luggage to the poor quality of public address announcements.

2. Comments, complaints and diatribes about airports. This includes everything from critiques of in-terminal restaurants to rants about security.

3. Fear-of-flying concerns, a fair number of which are totally beyond reason and impossible to respond to.

4. Everything else.

Item 3 notwithstanding, I've been impressed with the quality and thoughtfulness of your letters. On the whole, readers have intelligent, provocative and often challenging questions. But as you might expect, I have also received my share of weird, ridiculous, rude and occasionally incomprehensible letters. Having dutifully saved most of these, allow me now to share some of my favorites. The selections below, honest and unretouched, are culled from five-plus years of reader correspondence. I was inspired to do this after recently rediscovering the old Spalding Gray monologue "Terrors of Pleasure" -- specifically, the segment in which Gray plays for his audience an answering machine cassette containing the long, unintentionally hilarious message left by the con man he's trying to buy a house from. My own archive might not be as funny, but I can't resist. Ideally each of these should be followed by a pithy retort from the author, but as you'll see, many are simply too strange, eliciting nothing more than a big, italicized WHAT? In no particular order ...

Q: Say a pilot lives in Detroit, but flies the route Houston to Mexico City. Would it be possible to also fly the route of Detroit to Houston, even though they have different flight numbers?

Q: I know what you think but how many lasers did it taken in theory to project those planes onto the world trade center and not the real things? No bullshit.

Q: I just got back from vacation, and I'm positive that airplanes make me fart more. I fly a lot, and I can definitely say there's a lot more flatulence going on when I'm airborne. Does this have anything to do with pressurization? I've also realized that with so much ambient noise, you can really rip 'em without being heard. Together, these two things lead me to believe that airplane seats are actually designed for farting. Can you confirm or deny this?

Author's note: There is an air pressure factor at play here. But the topic is gross and I really don't feel like explaining it.

Q: I just want to say how much I appreciated the use of the word "bollocks" in your most recent column. It's a much underused word outside of Britain, and I wish that more American writers would employ it. When reading articles on the Internet, I can often see places in their writing where I would consider "bollocks" to be essential. Yet sadly it is missing.

Author's note: In addition to the instance cited above, an archives search reveals that I have used the term "bollocks" three other times since 2002.

Q: I was visiting friends in Santa Fe last year, and by the time I left their house, my black canvas soft-side suitcase was covered in dog hair from their Labrador retriever. I tried brushing it off, but it clung tenaciously. It looked horrible, like I'd been staying in a doghouse. I thought for sure I'd need several sessions with a lint roller when I got home. But, when I picked up my luggage in Baton Rouge, I was astonished to see that not one dog hair remained on my suitcase, not even in the seams! Does passing through the X-ray machines somehow give the dog hair an opposite electric charge, so that it flies off? And if this does happen, where does the dog hair go?

Q: Perhaps you could lend your support to a rhetorical cause I've been waging without success. Why does the press still refer to "fighter jets"? The inference is that some fighters are propeller-powered and others are jet-powered. That might have made sense in Korea; perhaps even Vietnam. But today, all fighters are jets. Calling them "fighter jets" is redundant. It's like the sports pages using "baseball pitcher," just to be sure we didn't think they were writing about pitchers in cricket or some other sport.

Q: When I am flying and we begin our descent, I inevitably dwell on the question: What if an earthquake strikes just as we're landing? Will the movement of the ground destabilize the plane, will the landing gear crumple and send us all to a fiery death? And what about takeoff? If the earth starts to rumble, will the pilots have time to get the plane off the ground?

Author's note: The 1974 disaster film "Earthquake" features a scene in which a 707 touches down just as a major temblor hits Los Angeles. The runway fractures ... and I forget what happens after that.

Q: At night, after a commercial plane takes off and is flying close to housetops, can the lights of the plane shine so bright it looks like just one large, very bright light then the entire light of the plane goes off altogether leaving just the night sky? My question, does this happen with planes at any time? Please reply as soon as possible, thanks.

Q: Which clothing material would be safest in the event of a fuel vapor flash fire in the cabin? As I recall, wearing a wool suit is the best bet. Is this true? I am hoping that suits will become fashionable again for air travel.

Author's note: It's true that wool is somewhat flame resistant, which could save your life if you haven't already sweat to death in the typical undercooled cabin. Polyester is the worst because it can melt onto the skin. That can make crews uneasy, since pilot shirts are almost always made of poly.

Q: I really enjoy your column and read it every week. It seems you have traveled to many parts of the world. Have you traveled to India? I am from Calcutta, and our airport used to be called Dum Dum airport because it was situated in the town of Dum Dum. Thank you.

Q: Is it true that pilots aren't allowed to ingest garlic prior to flying because it slows down response time? Please advise personally.

Author's (nonpersonal) note: That's probably a good idea, if for slightly different reasons. At one of the airlines I used to work for, a pastime during layovers in Miami was for crews to have dinner at a popular Cuban place near the hotel, where the favorite dish was a kind of garlic-saturated chicken. Our takeoff time was about 10 p.m., allowing just enough time for the digested garlic to start oozing from every cell in our bodies. Within minutes the cockpit positively reeked of garlic, and stayed that way for the entire flight.

Q: What's the deal on jettisoned fuel? Are the glaciers in the Alps really covered in fuel jettisoned at high altitude? We once hiked to a Swiss alpine hut and asked for fresh mountain water. They refused to give it to us, saying that the melt water from the glacier was full of airplane fuel.

Author's note: Just when I think I've put the last silly flying myth to rest something like this comes along. Planes do not jettison fuel except during emergencies.

Q: I am fascinated by your suggestion that we have unknowingly evolved our technology from the incredible beauty and drama of nature. One could think it's a sort of hundredth monkey phenomenon transposed through the psyche at large. I'm wondering if you could suggest any books or articles that discuss such things, or if you have written any yourself. I like your writing, by the way, and will be looking for your article on your dehydration/heat exhaustion experience.

Q: I very much like your column, and I would be happy to help out if you happen to need any information regarding German/Austrian neurological issues.

Q: Are you gonna tell me a story and make me feel better? Because you've made me feel like another working-class slob. But hey, I guess you're better than me cause you know what's on the tail of an Aeroflot plane bound for Kiev or some shit. Ugh ... yawn ... your column sucks worse than the turbofan of a Blue Angels F-18. You suck.

Author's note: The above was sent in by a fellow pilot. He later apologized and admitted to being highly intoxicated at the time of writing.

Q: I'm wondering if you have any plans to write a column about large zoo-type animals such as gorillas and crocodiles escaping into the hold.

Q: An adult dove crashed full-speed into our glass patio door; death was instant. Curious, I measured the wing area and weighed the bird while still warm, gathering data for wing-loading. For this dove, it turned out to be .87 square feet per pound. I imagine, however, the body and tail also contribute a bit to lift. Applied to an average 160-pound human, the wings would have to be about 38 feet in span, disregarding weight of the wing itself. I haven't seen any angels in statues or pictures with near this size wing, but Divine Assistance is probably another factor.

Q: What flights are available from Vizag on 14th October? Thanks & Regards.

Q: hi there-1-how much fuel in percent out of full tanks is used takeoff to cruise point 2-if 100 percent power is used how is used during cruise in normal conditions 3-all 4 engines work in cruise in the same power output? thanks a lot.

Q: Flying over the equator, I have the sensation that the plane slows down. Is it just my imagination? And, is it true that over the equator there are more turbolencies?

Q: stuck in colorado we have to fly to east west, but when I go to near states I fly as do others. fuck the airlines.

Q:Imagine you are a dog. What would you go through in a plane's cargo hold during a long trans-pacific flight, and later being handled as baggage upon arrival at Manila airport. What would ease your pain?

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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