Ready for Takeoff: Aircraft Facts You Should Know

Even the most adventurous travelers may not have much knowledge about what goes on behind the scenes during a typical flight.



December 26, 2023

DALLAS — Even the most adventurous travelers may not have much knowledge about what goes on behind the scenes during a typical flight. You might be an experienced flyer with reliable techniques for storing your luggage, attempting to upgrade your seat, or getting some rest during the flight.

However, many passengers may not be aware of why airplane tires don't explode upon landing, the risk of engine failure, or the safety of drinking water on board.

Continue reading to discover the answers to the questions you may have about flying at 30,000 feet.

British Airways Airbus A321 La Muñoza
Photo: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

1. After one of Their Engines Fails, Some Planes Can Fly for up to Five Hours

ETOPS (Extended Range Twin Operations) refers to the duration that a twin-engine aircraft can safely fly with one engine inoperative. In 2014, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner obtained 330-minute ETOPS certifications, signifying its ability to fly for over five hours on a single engine before needing to land.

2. In-flight Oxygen Masks Aren't Meant to Last for the Duration of the Journey

According to a report from the Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board, the masks on a Boeing 737 provide approximately 12 minutes of continuous airflow. Fortunately, in most cases, this is sufficient time for the aircraft to locate a safe landing spot

3. Pilots Are Prone to Dozing off on the Job

So, who exactly is in control of your aircraft? Well, it may be no one, at least for the duration of the flight. According to a 2017 study conducted by the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), 43% of the 500 pilots interviewed admitted to falling asleep while flying, and 31% reported waking up from a nap to find their co-pilot also asleep.

two pilots sitting inside plane
Photo by Rafael Cosquiere on

4. Black Boxes Aren't Black

The Flight Data Recorder, commonly known as the black box, is coated in a vibrant orange color. This heat-resistant paint, with its highlighter-orange hue, is applied to the exterior of the boxes to enhance their visibility in case of an accident.

The flight data recorder (FDR) is widely recognized as the primary source of information in the investigation of air accidents. You can read about its fascinating history here, as it has undergone significant advancements since its initial introduction.

5. The Air in an Aircraft Is Much Drier Than the Air on the Ground

While humidity levels in the Mojave Desert in the western United States can reach 50%, the moisture levels experienced on an airplane are significantly lower. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the average humidity level inside an aircraft is less than 20%.

Lufthansa Boeing 747-8I D-ABYT in Retro Livery. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

6. A Boeing 747 Uses Less Gasoline Than Your Car Does

Currently utilized primarily for cargo operations to make room for more fuel-efficient passenger aircraft such as the Airbus A321neo family or the Boeing 737 MAX series, the Boeing 747 consumes approximately 1 gallon of gasoline per second, equating to 5 gallons per mile. When reversed, this translates to 0.2 miles per gallon of gasoline, which is considerably lower than the average car's fuel economy of approximately 25 mpg.

However, when taking into account the number of passengers carried, the efficiency of the Boeing 747 becomes significantly higher. With the ability to transport around 500 individuals, this breakdown indicates that the aircraft achieves 100 miles per gallon per person.

7. The Toilet Is Not the Dirtiest Part of the Plane

We hate to break it to you, but the dirtiest spot on an airplane is the tray table where you eat your meals. According to a study conducted by TravelMath, tray tables were found to have 2,155 colony-forming bacterial units (CFU) per square inch. In comparison, the flushing toilet button had only 265 CFU in the same area.

8. During Safety Checks, Dead Chickens Are Shot into Jets

Indeed, a "chicken gun" is utilized in this incredibly lifelike test. However, before reaching out to PETA to raise concerns about aviation experts, it's important to note that the chickens used in these tests are already deceased.

Airlines have the responsibility to ensure that their windshields can effectively safeguard pilots and passengers in the event of a bird collision, which is a relatively common occurrence.

9. The Riskiest Phases of a Flight Are Takeoff and Landing

When it comes to transportation options, flying is considered the safest method compared to other means. However, based on research conducted by Boeing, it is worth noting that 13% of fatal accidents occur during the takeoff and initial climb phases, which encompass the first three minutes of a flight.

On the other hand, the descent and landing phases, which cover the final eight minutes of the flight, pose significantly higher risks, accounting for 48% of all fatal accidents.

Antonov Airlines UR-82060 Antonov An-225 Mriya. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

10. The World's Heaviest Aircraft Weighed Approximately 600 Tons

Before its destruction during the battle of Hostomel, the Antonov An-225 Mriya boasted an impressive maximum takeoff weight of 591.7 tons. In comparison, the Boeing 747-8F has a lower maximum takeoff weight of 347.091 tons, which is 489,218 pounds less.

11. The Seats in the Back of the Airplane Are the Safest

Based on crash data analyses conducted by Time, it was found that the fatality rate for seats located in the back third of an aircraft during a crash was 32%. The middle section of the plane had the highest fatality rate at 39%, making it the least safe area.

Comparatively, the front section of the plane was slightly safer, with a fatality rate of 38%.

12. During Flights, You Are around 7% of the Distance to Space

While flying on a plane, the sensation of being incredibly high above the ground can be quite remarkable. However, it may surprise you to discover that you are merely 7% of the way to the outermost reaches of space.

Although planes can fly at altitudes higher than their average of 30,000 feet, they refrain from doing so to ensure the well-being and safety of passengers.

Image: Helwing Villamizar/Airways

13. Airplanes Can Trigger Lightning

When an aircraft traverses through clouds, the static generated can promote the formation of lightning. Fortunately, even if a plane is struck, the likelihood of passengers being harmed is extremely low. In the United States, there hasn't been a plane catastrophe caused by lightning since 1967, and enhanced safety measures have made lightning strikes increasingly less hazardous for passengers.

In the event of a lightning strike, the electrical current is evenly distributed throughout the conductive aluminum interior of the plane. By grounding the aircraft's interior electrical systems, the risk of surges that could disrupt its operation is mitigated.

Similar to a Faraday cage or Faraday shield, which is used to block electromagnetic fields, the aircraft you travel on acts as a continuous covering of conductive material, ensuring the safety of passengers.

14. A Boeing 747 Fuel Tank Has a Capacity of 48,445 Gallons

Referring back to our beloved aircraft, the Queen of the Skies, it is worth noting that its fuel capacity is a staggering 17,248 times greater than that of a gas tank in a Dodge Ram pickup truck.

However, it should be clarified that not all of this fuel is consumed during a single flight. In reality, the Boeing 747 has an average fuel consumption rate of five gallons per mile. This means that a journey spanning 3,450 miles from New York to London would only require around one-third of the aircraft's total fuel capacity.

15. Dimming the Aircraft's Lights is More Than a Sleep Helper

Although it may appear to be a simple attempt to encourage passengers to sleep, airlines have a more important reason for dimming the lights on a plane. The purpose behind this practice is to allow passengers' eyes to adjust to the darkness, which is crucial for ensuring their safety during a rapid nighttime evacuation.

16. Plane Doors Cannot Open in the Middle of a Flight

Numerous individuals have made ill-advised attempts to open the exterior door of an airplane during flight, resulting in their subsequent arrest. However, it is important to note that such an endeavor would be futile. This is because the pressure inside the aircraft typically ranges from 4 to 14 PSI, making it highly improbable for anyone to open the door. It is worth mentioning that opening a plane door mid-flight is only feasible when the aircraft is at a lower altitude.

It is crucial to emphasize that attempting to open an airplane door during a flight is illegal and can result in severe consequences, including arrest and being placed on a no-fly list Airlines have strict protocols and safety measures in place to prevent unauthorized access to the aircraft's doors and to ensure the well-being of passenger

Pilots. Photo: Westjet

17. Pilots Who Fly Internationally Must Know Basic English

The language of air travel is English. To prevent communication errors that could have catastrophic consequences, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) introduced additional standards to the Chicago Convention in 2003.

These standards stipulate that all pilots operating on international flights must possess proficiency in what is known as aviation English.

18. It Is a Serious Offense to Point a Laser Pointer at an Airplane

It is imperative to never direct the irritating red dot of a laser pointer toward an aircraft. Engaging in such an act, such as intentionally aiming a laser pointer at a jet or its flight trajectory, can lead to severe consequences.

According to 18 U.S. Code Section 39A, individuals found guilty of this offense may face a prison sentence of up to five years, providing them with an opportunity to contemplate the gravity of their actions.

19. Bathrooms on Airplanes Can Be Opened from the Outside

Although manipulating the latch inside the airplane lavatory to indicate that it is "occupied" may give you a sense of privacy, it is important to note that flight personnel can gain access if necessary.

Below the lavatory sign, there is a switch that allows the flight crew to unlock the door in situations where they have concerns about your safety or the safety of other passengers.

Qantas VH-EBM Airbus A330-200. Photo: Noah Pitkin/Airways

20. There Is One Airline With No Fatal Accidents, Ever

Throughout its nearly century-long history, Qantas (QF) has maintained an impeccable safety record, with no reported fatal accidents involving any of its commercial aircraft.

21. A Boeing 747 Has 140 Miles of Wiring inside Its Guts

Tyco Electronics, a technology company specializing in manufacturing wire connectors for the aviation industry, conducted research revealing that the renowned Boeing 747 aircraft contains approximately 750,000 feet, equivalent to 140 miles, of wire.

The total weight of this extensive wiring system is estimated to be around 3,500 pounds.

22. By Removing One Ingredient from Meals, American Airlines Saved US$40,000

During cost-cutting efforts in the 1980s, American Airlines (AA) identified a single item from passengers' lunches that could be eliminated to achieve significant savings. By simply removing one olive from the salads served on board, the airline managed to save an impressive sum of US$40,000 over a year.

Photo: Lufthansa

23. The Water in Airplanes Is Teeming With Bacteria

Although this information predates the implementation of COVID-19 safety measures on flights, it is advisable to consider bringing bottled water for long-haul flights. The Wall Street Journal reported the presence of pathogens like salmonella, staphylococcus, and insect eggs in airline water.

Additionally, a study conducted by the University of Limerick found 37 distinct bacterial species in airplane water, with long-haul flights exhibiting lower water quality compared to short-haul flights.

24. During a Flight, Pilots and Co-pilots Have Different Meals

According to Travel & Leisure, although it may not be a universal requirement, it is common practice for most pilots and co-pilots to avoid consuming the same meal during flights.

The rationale behind this practice is straightforward: if one of the pilots falls ill due to contaminated food, the other pilot should still be physically able to operate the aircraft and ensure the safety of the flight

25. Your Taste Buds Change During Your Flight

Have you ever wondered why airplane meals often lack appeal? It turns out that you may not be experiencing their full flavor as much as you might expect.

JetBlue (B6) explains that the combination of air pressure and low humidity in the cabin of an aircraft makes it challenging for your taste buds to detect sweet and salty flavors effectively. The encouraging news is that passengers on next-generation aircraft can anticipate experiencing fewer difficulties with this issue.

26. Flight Attendants Have Secret Bedrooms and a Bathroom on Long-haul Flights

When flight attendants work long-haul flights that can extend up to 12 hours, they need time to rest and recover. To accommodate this, airlines have created concealed sleeping areas equipped with seven or eight beds and occasionally even a separate restroom, located above the main cabin.

While in these discreet compartments, flight attendants can also take advantage of the in-flight entertainment (IFE) available to them.

27. The Most Common Cause of Non-fatal Plane Injuries Is Turbulence

There is a crucial rationale behind the importance of adhering to the seat belt sign on airplanes. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), between 1980 and 2008, US air carriers encountered 234 incidents of turbulence, which led to 298 severe injuries and three fatalities.

In two out of the three fatal cases, it was found that the passengers involved were not wearing their seat belts when the seat belt sign was illuminated. While wearing a seat belt is not legally mandated during flights, it is unquestionably a worthwhile endeavor to prioritize your safety by buckling up.

28. Living Near an Airline Flight Path May Cause Heart Problems

Although frequent flyers might assume that residing near an airport would be advantageous, residing directly under a flight path could potentially have adverse effects on lifespan.

A study published in Epidemiology in 2010 revealed that individuals frequently exposed to noise levels exceeding 60 decibels, such as the sound of a passing jet, had a 30% higher likelihood of dying from a heart attack compared to those regularly exposed to noise levels below 45 decibels. Living beneath a flight route amplified this risk by 50% over 15 years.

29. Airplane Tires Are Inflated to about Six Times the PSI of Car Tires

The primary factor that prevents airplane tires from bursting upon landing impact is their construction using thick rubber material.

However, the resilience of these tires is not solely attributed to their thickness. As per a study conducted by Wired, airplane tires are inflated to levels exceeding 200 pounds per square inch (psi), which is approximately six times the pressure found in a regular car tire.

A National Geographic experiment demonstrated that the tires on a Boeing 737 can withstand nearly 900 psi before reaching the point of bursting.

30. It Is Simply Too Chilly to Fly in Some Places

At an altitude of 35,000 feet, the exterior of an airplane can experience temperatures as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit. Surprisingly, even though ground temperatures may be the same, they can lead to a plane coming to a complete stop.

In 2014, at Igarka Airport (IAA) in Russia, when temperatures plummeted to approximately -47 degrees Fahrenheit, the braking system of a Tupelov-134 jet's landing gear froze. This occurrence prompted passengers to take desperate measures, including disembarking from the plane and attempting to physically push the 61,640-pound aircraft.

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