We Asked A Pilot All The Questions You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Flying

Michael flies the airline’s biggest planes across the world daily. It’s time for you to take his airborne advice, and fly the extra mile.

Kieran Legg |

Meet Michael Blanchard, a senior captain with South African Airways, Michael flies the airline’s biggest planes across the world daily. He’s a globetrotter who has made the news for going beyond the call of duty; now it’s time for you to take his airborne advice, and fly the extra mile.

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I want to learn how to fly. How do I know if I’m a Top (or a Flop) Gun?

Approach a flight school, and chat with a senior instructor. He or she will give you great advice, and often throw in an introductory “flight” at minimal cost. Getting to know someone in the industry is also a great idea. Every single pilot owes his or her career to senior pilots who helped them in one way or another.

Is there any way to stop my ears from blocking up when I’m flying?

Chewing gum doesn’t work for me. You’re not alone – even pilots struggle with this. Why? It depends on your own physiological response; and you may be suffering from a cold or allergies, which just increase the chance of everything getting backed up. If gum doesn’t work, try progressively releasing pressure.

But you don’t want to wait until it’s too late, and then pinch your nose and let out one huge blow (you’ll risk damaging your ears). Just swallow or pinch your nose and breathe out lightly, to alleviate the pressure on your ear drums. Also, stay hydrated, and cut back on the G&Ts. Alcohol changes the viscosity of fluid in the balance mechanisms of the ear, causing side-effects such as dizziness and increasing swelling in the membranes.

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I have an intense fear of flying. How can I get over it?

The problem for many people is that they don’t understand just how safe flying actually is. Yes, there’s turbulence, air-sickness, and your body is subjected to abnormal sensations. But hopping onto a commercial airliner is safer than it’s ever been. Not only are there videos and books addressing the fear of flying, but many local companies offer proven courses to help you overcome your phobia.

These courses will often put you into a simulator, explain the technical aspects of flying an aircraft, and explore the different types of weather and how they affect a plane when it’s up in the sky. Once you know what’s making the noises and what’s causing the weird sensations, much of this fear can be overcome.

What causes turbulence? And how do you stay so calm?

Turbulence is most often caused by the weather, whether it’s a thunderstorm or a shift in temperature. That said, sometimes you don’t need rolling clouds or morphing climes; clear-air turbulence – the result of interactions between air streams and different velocities and temperatures – often leads to an incredibly bumpy ride. Your aircraft is designed to weather the storm; but even so, extreme turbulence can cause minor damage to the structure. But the real risk here is not being strapped in.

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Do pilots need to keep fit?

Hanging onto our pilot’s licence hinges on annual medical tests. That’s because fitness helps battle fatigue on long-haul flights, and means we’re better able to handle stress. Personally, exercising also helps combat the negative impact of sitting for up to 16 hours on longer trips.

How do you stay alert during long-haul flights?

Each pilot has his or her own method. For me, a 20-minute power nap does the trick (though this is strictly regulated, and only one pilot can do it at a given time, while the other remains in control). Relying on caffeine is often counterproductive, because it leads to dehydration, which makes you feel more tired. I drink plenty of water, and get as much shut-eye between flights as possible.

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Healthy Itinerary

Don’t let germs derail your dream holiday. Here’s how to shield yourself against the dreaded “aeroplane cold”:

1. Seat with a view

A study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases looked at a flight that was forced to emergency land after a terrifying outbreak of vomiting and diarrhoea. Researchers discovered that people sitting in aisle seats were far more likely to contract norovirus than those sitting elsewhere. Our advice: check in as soon as possible and snag a window seat.

2. Wipe out

Tray tables, bathroom handles and handrails are most likely to be contaminated by viruses and bacteria because they’re touched often, says C-Health infectious disease expert Michelle Barron. Your move: pack antiseptic wipes in your hand luggage, and wipe down the surfaces in front of you – especially the ones you’re going to eat off.

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3. Drink up

When you’re flying, remember to keep your hydration levels up. “Having good hydration makes your mucosal membranes (the inside of your nose and mouth) less likely to dry,” says Barron. Aim to drink around 250ml (or one plastic cup) of water per hour. Pro tip: minimise your alcohol intake too.

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