With over 40 years of flying behind him, there aren’t many as experienced and knowledgeable in aviation as our Captain Nigel Webster! I recently asked him some of the most popular questions we have been receiving about flying…enjoy his answers!
What’s your most memorable flight?
There are far too many to choose from! If forced to pick one, I think it would have to be my longest flight, on our Airbus A330 from Manchester direct to Sumatra in Indonesia: 14 hours 18 minutes half way around the world!
What made you want to move into commercial flying?
I grew up in, around, and with aircraft in the Middle East, and have always wanted to fly, to carry on seeing the world and even to be paid to do so. I went straight into commercial aviation from school, and four decades and 22,200 flying hours later I have loved every minute!
How did it feel to fly a commercial aircraft for the first time?
I was in an elderly piston-engined aircraft, a DH Dove, with just one pilot: me! The joy of being airborne is tempered by your responsibility for putting everyone and everything back on the ground again afterwards, preferably smoothly. The value of the years of intense training soon becomes clear though, and confidence rapidly grows with experience.
Have you ever been afraid while flying a plane?
When I started flying the Dove back in the 1970s I had a couple of incidents that did frighten me – a fire in flight being the worst. My friend Dave Sparrow took this picture of our Doves in 1976 (above).
Modern jets are a world apart from those days, far more reliable and powerful, capable of coping even with multiple failures without compromising safety.
What advice would you give to people who are scared of flying?
It is understandable that turbulence, sudden noise, and unfamiliar movements and sensations can be unsettling in the cabin. Try to bear in mind that we often fly about ten flights a week and would not put ourselves – and therefore you – at any risk. Most of the uncomfortable parts of flying are very short in duration (though it might feel longer). Modern aircraft are very strong and capable, but if we suspect that conditions might be too much for us or the aircraft then we would not fly in them. The most dangerous part about flying is definitely the drive to the airport!
What would happen if a window broke – would we get sucked out?
Cabin windows are built to easily withstand the pressurisation load on them. (Supersonic fighter jets have bubble canopies of much the same material – and they are bullet-proof!) They are not really subject to impact damage from birds etc., and are inspected before flight. They often have a secondary screen which absorbs scratches. Flight deck windows are under more load, but they have two very thick layers, either of which can maintain cabin pressure. In the unlikely event of a multiple failure the cabin pressure would equalise with the outside in a matter of seconds, and anyone right beside the window would feel a pull – everyone else would feel a breeze. Top tip: if you keep your seatbelt loosely fastened at all times you will be completely unaffected by this and most other equally unlikely events – although your coffee will probably be spilled.
pic: First Officer Ashish Raval
Can doors be opened mid-flight?
Cabin pressure means that the doors cannot be opened mid flight – but please do not try this because you will be prosecuted, and you could also damage the door.
What happens if an engine stops working?
On old aircraft like the Dove it could be a problem, as there was little surplus power and the engines were quite unreliable. Modern public transport jets on the other hand (like the Airbus and the Boeing) are designed to be able to suffer a complete loss of power on one engine at the most critical point, and then either stop on the remaining runway (if they are taking off), or continue the take-off on one engine, climb to a safe height, and either divert to a different airport or return to the original airport to land safely on the remaining engine. Twin-engined jets therefore have plenty of spare power, even on one engine, by design. If an engine were to fail in the cruise then there is more than enough power to continue flight on one engine. (Depending on the reason why it stopped, it might also be possible to restart the engine in flight.) The reliability of modern jet engines means that most of today’s pilots will only ever experience an engine failure during simulator training – but we practise it every six months in the simulator anyway!
Is it safer to fly during the day? How do you see where you’re going during night time?
All our flying is conducted under Instrument Flight Rules, meaning that we are flying solely on information from our instruments, navigation equipment, radios and radar, and Air Traffic Control. It follows from this that it makes no difference whether it’s day or night, because we do not need to see outside until on the (lighted) runway. In practice the airways are busier by day, so we generally have fewer delays at night. Being able to see the runway by day, or its lights by night, can make for a more expeditious approach.
Is there a safer seat on the plane?
Not really – all are equally safe. There is a best seat – mine, up front on the flight deck, but it’s already taken!
What happens in a plane gets hit by lightning?
We avoid thunderstorms, but if we are struck then modern aircraft are designed to withstand it. The lightning strike is conducted away from critical areas and discharged overboard. We might hear a brief noise on our radios, and some of our instruments could be affected (although I have never experienced it, despite several lightning strikes). On its next landing the aircraft will need to be thoroughly checked by the engineers before being released for further flying.
picture: Senior First Officer Tim Hearn