Afraid to Fly? | Q&A With a Pilot

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I once had a dapper young man in college take me on a date to the regional airport in Lafayette, Louisiana. I can hear the snickers you guys, but it was one of the coolest dates I've ever been on. It was back when you could actually wander through an airport without a boarding pass. We had drinks at the bar and watched the small planes fly in and out. I still like watching planes fly in and out. Something about flying downright fascinates me. Pilots fascinate me. Being able to see the world from the vantage point they have on most days must be a kick. I wish we were still flying in the days of being able to have a cup of coffee with a Pilot in the cockpit mid-flight.

And something about flying downright scares me too. In my mind the gigantic piece of metal shouldn't really get off the ground, much less hover in the air. I admit it, I get a case of nervous belly when it comes to flying sometimes. I think most of us do. It just may sound weird coming from a Constant Tourist. But it's real, it's the truth. I'm not hiding it. I just wish I knew how to cure it. So, I decided to corner a Pilot. On land. To chat about my irrational fear, as well as the part of flying that fascinates me - the views. Meet Navy Pilot Jack Stewart, who has about 1,900 flights. Ok, so he's pretty qualified to answer my questions. And he has his son sitting there next to him, they're smiling. Flying is sweet and safe.
So Jack, Thank you for agreeing to indulge my curiosities about flying, and .. er, how you keep the plane blue skies up. I travel often, fly often, so you'd think I'd not have a single worry. Truth is, I get anxious.
Lila, pleased to meet you. Your fears of flying are not unusual, although (as I like to remind my beautiful wife Sarah) they are somewhat baseless. But, I'm sure you've heard that all before ("You're more likely to get hit by a car crossing the street than be in a plane crash", etc.) If you haven't, you've heard it here first. It's true.

Oh Jack, I am a smart girl, I swear it. I don't know where this irrational fear comes from. So you're a US Navy pilot, correct? Impressive, and thank you by the way. How long have you been flying?
Yes, I am. It is my pleasure to serve our country. I have been flying since before I could even see over the dash (as a passenger with my dad in his plane), licensed as a Private Pilot since I was 19 years old and winged Naval Aviator since 2001. I had my first simulator flight for the FA-18 Hornet on September 11th, 2011.

That would equate to how many flights? Rough number, just curious.
That's a tough question. I have 2,500 hours, over half of which are in the FA-18. My shortest flight in the Hornet was 20 minutes and my longest was almost 8 hours. But, if I had to guess, I would say somewhere around 1,900 flights.

I'm sure you've flown over some downright interesting stuff. What location stands out in your mind, and what area of the world never gets old for you to fly over?
I have flown combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan; flown over the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, North Arabian Gulf and (of course) the Gulf of Mexico. Flying over water is pretty boring ... unless it's to land on an aircraft carrier. To me, that never gets old! But, in terms of scenery: Flying over northern Afghanistan sticks out in my mind as one of the most scenic. At the foothills of the Himalayas, the mountains there are impressive - even for a guy who grew up under the shadow of Mt Rainier. (I've flown over that too, and it's pretty neat!)

I have as well, flying in and out of Vancouver, British Columbia sometimes you get real low and Mt Rainier is quite impressive. On a clear day, the Pilot will usually announce it so passengers can be sure to pop their shades open for the sight.
Something else I've always wondered about. What do you guys do in the cockpit during long-haul flights? Do you read, rest, talk up your co-pilot? Or are you always 'on' alert? You better say you're always 'on.'
Unfortunately, the jet I fly in the Navy is a 1-seater, so I have to remain alert during the flight. For the most part, flying from Point A to B, as you would on a commercial airline, is pretty routine flying and not all that difficult. The most difficult part of flying happens below 10,000 ft (which is what the FAA calls the "critical phase of flight" and is why electronic devices are not permitted below that altitude). At cruising altitude, however, I have been known to read a magazine article or work on a crossword. Anything to keep from falling asleep ... Funny story about inattentive pilots: I recently returned from a trip to the British Virgin Islands. At the airport in Tortola, I met a family from Louisiana and we got to talking. I told them that I was a Navy pilot and we joked that our flight would be okay if something happened to the pilot. The plane from Tortola to Puerto Rico is a small-engine Cessna that seats about 6 or 7. Because I'm a pilot and interested, I asked the pilot if I could join him up front as the co-pilot. He agreed and we took off over the crystal blue waters of the Carribbean, headed for San Juan. About halfway through the flight, I started noticing out of the corner of my eye that the pilot was trimming his fingernails. (Note to self.) I glanced over the instruments, noted that he had the autopilot set and thought nothing more of it. Until we landed in San Juan. One of the other passengers had spent the entire flight a nervous wreck because our pilot wasn't paying attention. (The girl from Louisiana noticed it too, but she confessed she wasn't worried because I was sitting up there). The truth is, we were perfectly safe the whole time.

Sitting at the end of the runway, waiting to take off, as the plane engines roar - that never gets old for me. What's your favorite part of a flight? Why?
My favorite part of flying has been the same since I was a kid. I used to remember taking off and watching the houses and cars and trees get gradually smaller and thinking how different the world looked from the air. I still get a kick out of that and enjoy trying to spot new landmarks from the air.

So can we talk about turbulence for a minute? It's what gives many folks the most anxiety during a flight. When that seatbelt sign illuminates, the cabin gets quiet. What is turbulence and how do you predict it so you can attempt to avoid it?
Turbulence can be many things. Most often, you would expect to encounter turbulence around thunderstorms or other clouds with a lot of convective activity. But, you can encounter turbulence without clouds, in what we call Clear Air Turbulence. In truth, even though it can feel scary, there's very little danger to the aircraft itself. The reason we are asked to buckle our seat belts is because of the danger of falling over and hitting something INSIDE the airplane. Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do to predict where or when we will encounter turbulence (beyond the convective type), but rest assured that the pilots are talking to each other. If you ever get the chance to listen to an air traffic control frequency, you will often hear controllers or pilots asking "how's the ride?" because they want to know if there is turbulence at that altitude. If you encounter a few bumps on your flight, you can bet that your pilot is already asking for a different altitude to hopefully smooth things out.

Ah hmm. Comforting to hear that Jack. I'll keep that in mind the next time I'm cat-clawing the arm rest next to me. 
Parting words. What bit of advice would you give to worrisome fliers? Something you'd tell your wife if she were afraid to fly?
Well, I try to tell my wife the statistics, but she won't listen! So, I won't tell you those either. What I will suggest is that a good solution to overcoming fear is to understand it and embrace it. Learn the science behind it. Heck, take a flying lesson! I'd be happy to take you for a flight.

Let's go! Seriously, thanks Jack. I do have to agree with you - flight lessons have been in the back of my mind for some time now. I may have to take you up on that! 

I hope you found this interview interesting & informative. I literally could interview 97 pilots, and not get tired of it. If you had the undivided attention of an airline pilot, what would you ask?



  1. I would have asked about turbulence too!!! I'm so glad to know that it holds little danger to the flight. I always FREAK out! Then, and taking off/ landing always make me most nervous... and I know the stats. There's just something unnatural about flying. This is so interesting! Thanks!


    1. I despise turbulence because in my mind, the Pilot is going to lose control of the plane. Glad Jack cleared that up! I think there are instruments that keep the plane in check too. I have another pilot (commercial) on standby to answer further questions for a Round II to this, so let me know if you have any other burning questions & I'll be sure to ask!


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