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The truth about plane flying

There's no doubt some aspects of flying are shrouded in mystery, but never fear, we've got the answers to 10 things you've just got to know about air travel.

1. Does the brace position really work?

There are numerous - and some quite ridiculous - theories about why airlines push the brace position, including that it's only useful for preserving teeth and thus allowing for easier identification.

The  Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) says more than 70 per cent of airline accidents are survivable. But how many lives are saved by using the brace position? Well CASA cited an incident where a plane carrying 16 passengers crashed. While the rest slept or were reading, one passenger woke up and saw the plane was about to hit trees so he adopted the brace position. He was the only survivor. The absence of fatalities when US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River has also been attributed to the position.

The deliberate crash landing of a Boeing 727 into the Mexican desert last year by team of scientists, pilots and safety experts for the documentary The Plane Crash provided more answers. There were three dummies on board: one was seated in the classic brace position with seatbelt fastened, the second had just the seatbelt fastened, and a third had neither. Experts found the first dummy would have survived, the second would have suffered severe head injuries and the third would have died.

Here's a tip: If you need to brace for impact put your hands on your head, your weaker one over the other stronger one. That way, if something falls on you the stronger hand is likely to be OK as it's been protected – and you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when the time comes.

2. Is it true that diet cola is harder to pour in the skies?

It's true, the fizz and the high altitude make diet cola the most difficult drink to pour. Flight attendant and author Heather Poole says: "Of all the drinks we serve, Diet Coke takes the most time to pour - the fizz takes forever to settle at 35,000 feet. In the time it takes me to pour a single cup of Diet Coke, I can serve three passengers a different beverage."

3. Why do window shutters have to be raised and seats upright upon take-off and landing?

Window shutters are required to be open and seats in the upright position so that cabin crew and passengers can easily identify what is happening outside the plane in the event of an issue during take-off and landing e.g. fire, according to a major Australia airline.

Having the shutters up also allows rescuers to see inside the cabin more easily and locate trapped passengers in the event of an emergency, and lets light in.

And you should obey the crew when they tell you to put your seat upright for take-off and landing - it's for your own safety. Brian Manning, a flight attendant for US Mesa Airlines explains: "When the seat is up, it is locked. When the seat is back, it's not locked. In the event of an emergency, an unlocked seat has more force during impact, and the thrusting forward of that seat can cause passenger injury."

Having seats upright also provides more room to escape and is beneficial for fellow passengers – those seated behind reclined or unlocked seats may not be able to brace themselves properly on impact.

4. Is it true that you're more likely to survive a plane crash if you're sitting towards the back?

There's a one in 90 million chance of being killed in a plane crash, according to the US National Transportation Safety Bureau.

And it's good news for the masses: It's safer to sit towards the back of the plane than the front, according to The Plane Crash documentary. When they crashed the plane they found anyone sitting in seat 7A would have been killed - that chair was catapulted 152m from the wreckage in the program.

Anne Evans, a former investigator at the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch, inspected the 727's black-box data recorder after the crash and said: "It's safer to sit at the back of the aircraft where the flight recorder is. The front is more vulnerable because that often sees higher impact forces."

5. Why do they dim the lights during some landings?

Lights are dimmed upon landing so that passengers eyes can adjust to the natural light and in the event of an incident makes identifying sparks or flames easy, according to a major Australian airline.

6. Is alcohol more potent at higher altitudes?

Not true, according to studies. Dr. Bhushan Kapur from the University of Toronto said passengers' blood alcohol level doesn't increase in the air. However, people do tend to drink more in a shorter time frame in the skies, which can leave them more impaired. So where does the misconception come from? The onboard effects of hypoxia – less oxygenated conditions due to the low-pressure environment and high altitude – can cause passengers to experience symptoms similar to intoxication.

7. Can plane air make you sick?

Cabin air is a mix of fresh and recirculated air. Air is sucked in through the jet engines, then into a bleed pipe that enters the cabin unfiltered. A study by CASA that ended last year didn't rule out the possibility that toxicity could occur on flights. According to the study, oils, fluids, fumes and gases could mix with the heated air intended for the air conditioning system due to poor maintenance practices, worn engine oil seals or exhaust fumes from aircraft taxiing or engine start.

While rare, it does happen. In February a British Airways flight made an emergency landing after a pilot because nauseous and incapacitated after smelling toxic oil fumes. The captain and first officer were able to land the plane with the help of oxygen masks. Earlier this year questions were asked over the deaths of two British Airways pilots who died within four days of each other after complaining of being exposed to toxic oil fumes.

Following the incidents the UK Civil Aviation Authority records revealed pilots were putting on oxygen masks at least five times a week to combat suspected "fume events".

There's a name for such cases: Aerotoxic syndrome.

8. How much radiation are passengers exposed to during a flight?

People travelling in aircraft may be exposed to more iodising radiation than they would be exposed to on the ground. That’s because when you're flying between 7000 and 12,000 metres (the typical cruising altitude of a commercial aircraft), the Earth's atmosphere provides less protection from cosmic radiation.

To put this into perspective, during a seven-hour flight from New York to London travellers receive about the same dose of radiation as a chest X-ray; and from New York to Tokyo, two chest X-rays, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration.

9. What are the best ways to beat jetlag?

What you need to do is reset your internal clock. These tips can help:
  1. Try to shift your sleep pattern - go to bed one hour earlier or later depending on which direction you are flying.
  2. If you're going on a really long flight (for instance, from Australia to Europe) take melatonin pills for 2-3 days before the trip. 
  3. Drink ginger tea.
  4. When on the plane go to sleep as soon as possible, don't take sleeping pills on board and avoid alcohol and coffee.
  5. When you arrive stay up until it's bedtime wherever you are, walk around in the sun and if you must nap keep it under an hour. If you flew eastward, take a low dose of melatonin for three nights before bed. If you flew westward, and find yourself waking up early the first morning there, take a low dose of melatonin. More advice on jetlag here.
10. Can your mobile phone cause a plane crash?

The jury's still out on this issue, but airlines are erring on the side of caution. Current regulations give crew the power to ban the use of any device that could threaten the safety of an aircraft. Experts say that electromagnetic waves emitted by mobiles can interfere with a plane's electronics and cause a crash, concerns that were outlined in an investigation by the New York Times.


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