Real or rubbish-these are the best aviation myths

By Luzanne Keyter

1. I would like to book as seat in row 13 please.

To accommodate superstitious sufferers of the phobia of the number 13, Triskaidekaphobia, most airlines around the world omit the number 13 row from their seating. There is no formal record why this is done, but for most people avoiding black cats this is a welcoming fact.

Poor number 13 has been considered an unlucky number since the end of the Mayan calendar's 13th Buktun that indicated the end of the world in 2012. At the Last Supper where Jesus Christ had his last meal, the table was also surrounded by 13 guests. It is believed that Judas, the betrayer, was the 13th member and thus gave the number its bad name.

Lufthansa is so considerate that they do not only not have a row 13, but also no row 17 as it is regarded as an unlucky number by superstitious Italian and Brazilian passengers. To the dismay of many superstitious people you can still find yourself in a seat in row 13 on Alaska Airlines and a few other airlines around the world.

Airlines still use Gate 13 at airports and flight numbers with 13 in it is common, all used by people suffering from Triskaidekaphobia without problem. I still doubt it that these gates and flights will be very busy on Friday the 13thÖ

2. Will I disappear if I fly through the Bermuda Triangle?

No. Well maybe. Myth and legend will tell you that over a thousand planes and ships have gone missing within this magical triangle between Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Florida, but according to official documents only 12 planes and less than 10 ships were 'lost' in the triangle between 1800 and 1965.

On 5 December 1945 five TBF Avengers went missing with 14 crewmembers and they were never seen again. A Martin Mariner flying boat was sent out on a search and rescue mission after the 5 Avengers but also went missing on the very same day. Many wrecks and debris have been found, but never that of the 5 Avengers and the Mariner.

Hundreds of aeroplanes and ships cross the triangle every day without incident, despite the myth. It is most likely that the disappearances can be explained by natural disasters like the powerful hurricanes the area is known for. Having said that, many still believe that an electronic fog floats around within the triangle. It supposedly engulfs ships and aircraft, carrying them to another universe or zone in space.

So maybe the 2 900 km detour you would have to take around the triangle is worth it after all.

3. Can you really bring down a Boeing by not switching your phone to flight mode?

After seatbelts have been put on and overhead storage lockers locked, most people happily oblige to the request of airhostesses for mobile devices to be switched to flight mode, not wanting to bring down a 747 with an iPhone. But is there any truth to the myth that interference from mobile devices can flutter the plane's navigational systems and cause a fatal crash?

There is no recorded instance in which a mobile device's electromagnetic fields interfered with the performance of a commercial aeroplane, never mind cause it to crash or even be a contributing factor in an accident. There have been instances where pilots reported suspected interference from electronic devices, but other than breaking the concentrations of pilots, it had zero effect on the performance or safety of the aircraft.

The use of mobile devices is also prohibited during take off and landing, even when on flight mode. Many believe this is only to keep passengers from getting distracted and not paying attention to safety briefings. The fear of laptops and iPads becoming life threatening flying missiles during turbulence or emergency landings is also a reality.

However, very little is known about what would happen in an Airbus full of people left their phones on. So best to listen to the crew, stick to the rules and switch to flight mode.

4. Will a plane crash if it is struck by lightning?

Every single commercial plane will be struck by lightning at least once a year. Yes ladies and gentleman, your fears have been confirmed. Constructed mostly of highly conductible aluminium metal, aircraft flying through clouds capable of forming lightning will be a target. On 27 April 2016, three commercial aeroplanes where hit by lightning during their approach for the runway at Heathrow in the UK within an hour.

On 8 December 1963 a Pan American World Airways Boeing 707 was struck by lighting, causing the fuel-air mixture in a reserve fuel tank to ignite. It caused an explosion and loss of control over the aircraft which finally crashed, killing all 81 passengers and crew on board. To this day is it the worst lighting strike death toll as recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Luckily for us, the last aeroplane crash caused by lightning was in 1967 when a strike caused another catastrophic fuel tank explosion. Since then airlines have been forced to make changes to the design and technology of airliners to withstand the effects of a lightning strike. Smaller private aeroplanes are also a smaller target for lighting due to their smaller size and most right minded pilots try to avoid bad weather.

5. Will you get drunk faster during a flight?

Myth has it that a few drinks way up high will make you much drunker than the same amount of alcohol would back down on the ground. Less oxygen and higher altitudes apparently make it harder for your body to metabolise alcohol and thus you'll have a higher concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream. This is false.

Your body does in fact not absorb more alcohol at higher altitudes whilst flying than it does on land, so you cannot become drunker in the air than you would at your local bar from the same amount of alcohol.

That said, studies have shown that people drink a lot more on flights than they normally would on land, and combined with the effects of fatigue from travelling, sleeping pills and dehydration, passengers soon feel drunker than they expected and suffer from worse hangovers - probably where the myth comes from.

6. Can you get stuck on an aeroplane toilet if you flush it sitting down?

Photo © KLM

A while ago a woman had to sit on the toilet all the way from Scandinavia to the USA after flushing the toilet whilst sitting down. The high-pressure vacuum flush caused such a high amount of suction that the poor old woman got sealed onto the toilet. She was only released after landing when ground technicians could release the pressure and break the seal on her bum.

In a special episode first aired in 2003, MythBusters hosts Jamie and Adam put the myth to the test and replicated the circumstances of the Scandinavian woman. They were unable to get a perfect seal on the toilet seat of a modern airplane and that the toilet only has a 3 pound per square inch suction power, small enough for a human to overcome.

Even though bums getting stuck on aeroplane toilets have happened more than once in the past, it is a very unlikely situation as your bum needs to form a perfect seal on the toilet seat. The little gap in seat in front between your legs should stop a perfect seal, but it is still recommended to get up from the seat before giving the toilet a flush.

7. Boeings dump human waste whilst in flight.

In 2015 a teenage girl's sweet 16 got ruined after it rained down poo on her party. Yes, that's right. Apparently a passing aeroplane had dumped its human waist from high above, making it rain down on Levittown, Pennsylvania. The same thing happened to a New York couple who were spattered with human waste from an aeroplane flying overhead.

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration it is not only not allowed to dump waist tanks but that it is also "physically impossible for a pilot to dump a tank while in flight." But waste problems and lavatory leaks are a reality and are reported quite often.

When sewage material leaks mid-flight, it escapes the aircraft and forms frozen blocks of ice on the aircraft, coloured blue by a liquid disinfectant that's added to the human waist to help deodorise it and speed up the break down process. Known as Blue Ice, these blue chunks of ice regularly breaks off aircraft mid-flight and falls back to the ground, sometimes hitting buildings, cars and apparently parties.

8. Where is the safest seat on a commercial aircraft?

Photo © wikipedia

According to an article published by Life in 2015 based on a study done about aircrafts accidents between 1980 and 2015, they found that sitting in the back third of a large commercial aeroplane will be your safest bet to surviving a crash. Seats at the back had a 32% fatality rate, seats in the front of the plane a 38% fatality rate and lastly, the most dangerous part, the middle third of the aircraft had a 39% fatality rate.

Sitting next to an exit is many frequent flyers' favourite spot. It usually has more legroom and is also considered by many to be the safest seats onboard. During a fire, being next to an exit will help you escape faster, but should the door fly off during flight, you will be the first one sucked out. Thus, the type of accident will have a massive influence on passengers' chance of survival and it is hard to say where the safest seat will be.

It is also mentioned that sitting in the very unpopular middle seat had the highest rate of survival, but is that very small chance of surviving an unlikely crash worth the pain and tears of sitting between two overweight strangers for 10+ hours? I don't think so.

9. Can you open a door of an aeroplane during a flight and will it cause everyone to be sucked out?

If a door of a large pressurised aircraft should open during flight at high altitude, rapid decompression would take place and yes, anything not strapped down or fastened by a seatbelt close to the opening would be sucked out due to the sudden chance in pressure.

In 1989, nine passengers were sucked out of a United Airlines aircraft after a large area of the cabin was torn open due to rapid decompression after a cargo door opened mid flight.

If ever you should be in such a situation and are lucky enough to survive the initial shock from sudden decompression, the lack of oxygen will eventually cause you and, more alarmingly, the pilots and crew to pass out. Air will be sucked out of your lungs and hypothermia and frostbite will quickly start to set in as the cabin temperature drops to match that of the outside temperature.

The good news is that it is physically impossible for a human being to open a cabin door. The high pressure from inside the cabin seals the door to the fuselage, and that is also why emergency exits most often open to the inside of the cabin.


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