Passenger airplane. Landscape with big white airplane is flying in the sky over the clouds and sea at colorful sunset.

Whether you’re a jet setter or a nervous flyer, if you sit and think about it hard enough, the fact that we’ve created machines that soar thousands of miles into the sky with hundreds of people on board is baffling. Although it’s common to be nervous about flying – flying is one of the safest modes of transportation. Wrapping our heads around flying can actually be a bit of a challenge; however, professor Doug Druryhead of aviation at CQUniversity in Australia, is here to help answer our questions.

1. What are the odds of dying in a plane crash?

“The odds of dying in a plane crash are one in over 200,000, and the odds of dying in a car crash are just over one in 100,” says Drury. In comparison, according to National Security Councilyour odds of dying in 2020 in the US from drowning were 1 in 1,024, and choking on food was 1 in 2,745.

The chances of a crash are highest during takeoff and landing because pilots are closer to the ground and have the least time to react to something potentially going wrong. The worst disaster in history occurred in Tenerife, Spain, in March 1977. Two planes collided while still at the airport, with one beginning to take off and the other turning back on the same runway – resulting in 583 deaths.

According to the European Transport Safety Council approx 90 percent of plane crashes can be survived without passengers dying or at least someone surviving. Drury notes that it’s important to remember that no two plane crashes are alike. Because they are rare, plane crashes are unique to each other and there is no set outcome for any of them.

2. What are the safest seats on the plane?

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“At the end of the day, there really is, and it’s the middle seat and the last row where no one in their right mind would choose if they could,” says Drury. “But statistically, it’s the safest because you’ve got the barrier right behind you, you’ve got people on either side of you adding a bit of a buffer, and the row in front of you is doing the same.”

In most cases, planes crash head-on, which means that being in the front of the plane puts you in more danger. Likewise, the seats in the middle of the plane may look the most shielded, but they are right where the wings of the plane are, which are used to store some of the plane’s fuel and are quite flammable. The fatality rate in the average aisle seat is 44 percent compared to that in the average rear seat, which is 28 percent, according to an investigation by TIME.

3. Is it true that fire spreads very quickly in an airplane? Is this the main danger in a crash?

An in-flight fire was probably the cause the most dangerous something that can happen on an airplane. It can start in the engine, cabin or machinery of the aircraft.

In the past, it was thought that the materials used to make airplanes caught fire easily and produced toxic smoke, Drury said, and that the dangerous black smoke would cause many deaths if inhaled. “That’s why they say if you survive an accident, get down on the floor. Because there’s usually an air pocket that’s not as polluted as standing up on a plane.”

The materials used in airplanes today don’t actually tend to catch fire that quickly, and a lot of the materials are actually flame retardant – but jet fuel, for example, will still burn and produce toxic smoke if ignited. “In an emergency, try to get out as quickly as possible,” says Drury.

4. Why are airplanes white?

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White has traditionally been the color of choice for commercial aircraft because it reflects the sun – preventing the aircraft from heating up quickly. This can use a lot of energy to keep the aircraft cool.

Also, many coats of paint are required to cover an aircraft, adding weight to the aircraft. “That’s why American Airlines stripped all their planes down to the basic metal finish and just put their band on the side with their logo on it,” says Drury. However, there is one iconic exception: Most of the Air New Zealand’s the vehicles are painted black because that is the brand color.

5. Does turning off the phone during a flight matter?

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“It absolutely does,” says Drury. Initially, research showed that passengers’ electronics – such as laptops or mp3 players – could cause some electromagnetic interference with the plane’s navigation systems, and so they were all banned from flights. Then, as technology advanced and aviation authorities began implementing new regulations, shielding aircraft and creating different frequency bands reserved for aircraft personnel, interference ceased to be the bane of pilots’ lives.

As cell phone networks have also improved over the years, interference is once again a growing problem.

“Let’s say aviation uses frequencies from 50 to 100, while personal electronics uses frequencies from one to 49,” says Drury. “Whereas 4G or lower mobile phones were in the spectrum from one to 35, now 5G brings mobile phones to frequency 46. So now we are within four degrees of interference in the aviation frequency range.” Specifically, mobile using 5G may interfere with communications on the ground — such as navigation systems that are critical to safe take-off and landing.

“[One pilot] said, “We have this one airport where this happens to us all the time, and we can tell it’s when someone is holding their phone,” Drury says. As a result, there is ongoing negotiations between mobile providers, airlines and aviation regulators to find a middle ground where everyone can communicate without interference.

6. What’s the deal with chemtrails?

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According to Drury, chemtrails are conspiracy theory. No planes drop dangerous or hypnotic chemicals to control the population of the earth.

When you look up into the sky and see that white trail, what you’re seeing is water vapor coming off the plane. At this altitude, the trail of hot water actually mixes with the cold outside temperatures and turns into small ice patches. That’s why it’s easy to see from the ground.

However, scientists are working on theories to counteract global warming that involve releasing certain materials into Earth’s atmosphere to better reflect sunlight away from the planet, but this is still only theoretical.

7. What happens if a plane is struck by lightning?

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These are almost daily occurrences. “I’ve been struck by lightning three times in my career,” says Drury. According to Finnair website, lightning usually strikes the aircraft from the front. “The plane is designed to throw lightning bolts and protect whoever’s inside,” says Drury. Along the edge of the wings are pieces of wire that separate some of the electricity that the wing absorbs and quickly dissipate it back into the atmosphere.

Read more: Five incredible weather phenomena

8. When and why do airplanes go through turbulence?

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This is technically called clear air turbulenceand this is precisely when there are high-altitude jet streams and wind tunnels that move faster than their surroundings.

“Like freight trains in the sky at altitude,” says Drury.

“This is the real reason flight attendants and pilots need to keep their seat belts on. It’s not because of the risk of a crash, it’s because of the sheer air turbulence,” says Drury. Turbulence will also become more frequent as the climate change and extreme weather events, according to Drury.

9. Is there anything I should not bring when boarding a flight?

According to Drury, there’s nothing you absolutely shouldn’t wear when you’re on a flight, but remember that you want to be comfortable — especially in case of an emergency. You want to be able to move freely and quickly. Plus, any sharp jewelry you wear can hit you or your seat neighbor. “I’m not carrying anything that’s going to fly off and maybe become a projectile,” says Drury.

10. Can planes fly with damage? Like a broken engine?

“Airplanes are designed to fly with one engine. That’s the rule,” says Drury engine loss still rare. “One engine is designed to get you to the airport and land.” In some cases, the plane will need to drop to a lower altitude where there are better conditions for single-engine flight.

11. Do birds really hit planes? Is this a real problem?

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“Bird strikes happen quite often,” says Drury, mostly during landings and takeoffs. The birds either crash into the windshield or are sucked into the engine. They’re called “wilderness strikes” and have destroyed nearly 300 planes and killed more than 300 people worldwide from 1988 to 2021, according to Federal Aviation Administration of the USA

In one of the most iconic aircraft malfunctions in history, also called “Hudson’s Miracle,” in New York in 2009, birds caused damage to both engines. The pilots made an emergency landing, skidding onto the Hudson River. There were no casualties.

There are entire aviation safety programs devoted solely to wildlife management—studying the migration patterns of various bird species for pilots to avoid during flight. “With that understanding, we have a greater awareness around airports of what you might encounter,” says Drury.

12. Why do we have to remove the window blind during landing and take-off?

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“We usually do it in case of an accident, so you can tell right away if there’s a fire and if you can use that side of the plane to escape through the wings or whatever,” says Drury.

The tray table should be locked and the backrest should be in the seated position because these small adjustments make it easier to get in and out of the seating area in an emergency.

13. Do pilots throw our poop into the air?

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No. This is also a myth. Vacuum toilets on airplanes suck up the waste and slide it into large tanks at the bottom of the rear of the plane’s tail – where it is stored for the duration of the flight. Once it lands, a truck connects to the tank, scoops up all the waste and takes it to the local sewage system.

During the flight, however, odors from the sewers are released outside. “This smell is released into the atmosphere, but not the waste. It’s like airplanes pass gas every time someone puts water on,” says Drury.

14. Is it true that your senses of taste and smell are weakened when you are in the air?

Yes, it’s true and airlines keep this in mind when planning their catering. The altitude and the type of air you breathe on a plane—air that’s depressurized and much less humid, sometimes as low as 12 percent—can throw off your senses, suppressing your sense of taste and smell.

That’s why airlines collaborate with chefs who specialize in figuring out how to make food taste better thousands of feet above the ground. “For example, airlines add salt to our food. Salt makes food taste better at altitude,” says Drury. “Some airlines even have wines that are made specifically for drinking at higher altitudes; they work with local vineyards to make them.”

Read more: Supersonic commercial flight may be in our future

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