Thursday, June 13, 2024

My Dad’s a Pilot – Here’s What He Taught Me About Plane Travel

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There’s an unreasonably high ratio of pilots in my family. My dad’s retired now, but he was an airline pilot and simulator instructor working around Australia, Asia and the Pacific. Ditto my uncle: he worked in the Middle East and Europe, too. I have first and third cousins who fly aircraft big and small, and then there are all the family friends, too.

I’m the kid who didn’t stick with physics in high school, so I became a journalist instead. Here’s what I’ve learnt over the years from those flying high.

Packing means rolling, not folding

The three things I specifically remember my dad teaching me as a kid were how to ride a bike, how to iron a shirt and how to pack a suitcase. For the latter, he’s a fan of the roll method: roll up pants, tops and undies into sausage shapes and lay them neatly side by side. This saves space and cuts down on wrinkles – and you can see your stuff more easily.

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While we’re on luggage, remember that any checked bags in the hold will be in a depressurised environment – which can make things a little burst-y. Squeeze the air out of any toothpaste or lotion tubes before packing (I also pack my dopp kit in a ziplock bag in case anything oozes). A couple of spare plastic bags are also good for dirty or wet clothes on the way back, so you can get in that last quick swim before a flight.

Also – if you have anything super valuable or crucial to your health, save it for carry-on. As we’ve all been learning, checked bags do go astray. Make sure your daily meds and heirloom jewellery aren’t in any of them.

The consolation of the back row

For the first half of my life, I flew on staff tickets. Which meant on full flights I’d either get upgraded to a really great seat, or take the place no paying passengers want: right up the back next to the loos.

Every time I got jammed there, my dad would half-jokingly remind me it was the safest seat in the house and the poor saps in first class would bite it before I ever would, back in the bogs. Turns out he’s onto something. After a famous Australian training crash in the early days of civil aviation, the only guy who walked away was the one right at the back of the plane. (The next best survivable position is over the wings.)

Since I got so used to sitting there, it’s actually one of my preferred seats now. You’re first in line for meal service, close to the galley if you want to get up for a stretch, and more likely to find an empty row to get comfortable in.

Also on Captain Dad’s flight safety list: keep the seatbelt fastened when you’re in your seat (sudden depressurisation is very rare, but you’ll be glad you strapped in); wiggle toes and joggle legs to keep your circulation going (no one wants deep vein thrombosis); and yawn liberally on take-off and descent to keep your ears from popping.

Turbulence is (mainly) boring

When I was a kid, pre-9/11, I would often ride up-front in the jump seat – inside the cockpit and behind the pilots in a famously uncomfortable chair that’s regularly used by check captains (senior pilots) to assess flight crew performance.

I didn’t love this when I was younger (no in-flight entertainment and best behaviour for over 10 hours), but it left me with a pretty good picture of what goes on at the front of the plane. And that picture is calm, controlled and often boring.

So while turbulence can feel scary – I was once on a flight out of Auckland that shook non-stop for an hour – it’s not a cause for panic. These days, pilots can detect and avoid most pockets of rough air. And if you do hit the odd one, I hope you find it comforting that the flight crew will take what action they can but otherwise dedicate themselves to calmly and methodically not giving a shit.

If I ever do feel a little panic, I like to imagine the pilots up-front talking unconcernedly about cricket scores or Love Island or the best ramen in Narita: all business-as-usual. I can guarantee you that’s generally the view from the front.

Respect your cabin crew

Flight attendants aren’t there to fetch bags of peanuts and make sure your mid-strength beer is topped up. They are safety officers who train hard to be able to evacuate a plane in under 90 seconds if they have to. The meal service is just a side gig to keeping everyone secure and alive.

So: respect the cabin crew. Do what they say. And yes – pay attention during the safety briefing. (Studies show passengers who watch every time are more likely to operate their seat buckle correctly in an emergency and cover their damn nose if air bags drop from the ceiling.)

Another reason to take flight attendants seriously? They pack handcuffs and zip ties in case they need to restrain unruly passengers. They’re first aid experts with access to onboard defibrillators and the skill to save lives.

Also, it’s against the law to ignore them. I’m not saying they will arrest anyone standing up to grab overhead luggage as soon as the plane lands – only that they should.

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