Kelly McSweeney

Jan 14th 2020

Common Airplane Myths, Debunked by Science


When you’re up in the sky in a big metal machine, it’s easy to imagine all the things that could go wrong, but science can bust common airplane myths. More than a century after the Wright Brothers invented a flying machine, aviation technology is more sophisticated than you might realize. Even aviation experts aren’t immune to fears about flying, but a few solid airplane facts can help alleviate those fears.

Chris Leeper, Civil Aviation program manager at Northrop Grumman, suggested, “For folks who suffer a fear of flying, myself included, just remember this statistic: The odds of you being involved in an accident while flying are one in 11,000,000, whereas the odds of you being involved in an accident while driving are one in 200!”

Here are a few common airplane myths, debunked.

Does the Aurora Borealis Affect Flights?

The natural light show of auroras, such as the northern and southern lights, happens when Earth’s magnetic field is disturbed by energetic particles from the sun. According to NASA, when the particles in solar winds or coronal mass ejections reach Earth, they can trigger reactions in the upper atmosphere where oxygen and nitrogen molecules release photons of light. So, could this disturbance mess with a plane’s sensitive electronics?

Steve Murphy, program manager within the Navigation and Positioning Systems business unit, explains that even though the amount of energy involved can be large, auroras do not pose a threat to an airplane’s electronic (avionics) and navigation systems, which are protected from electromagnetic interference (EMI).

He said, “An aurora can cause static on communication systems, but does not affect navigation and GPS systems aboard a plane. Commercial flights often fly near auroras, near the poles, without problems.”

Regardless of auroras, avionics are already protected from EMI that could be caused by the plane’s own components. Engineers use various methods to protect avionics from interference. An example is shielding, which involves “surrounding electronics and cables with conductive or magnetic materials to guard against incoming or outgoing emissions of electromagnetic frequencies,” according to Tech Target.

What If You Don’t Switch Your Phone to Airplane Mode?

In the early days of cell phones, there was concern that their mobile frequencies could cause problems for avionics and ground communications networks. This worry has remained one of today’s prevalent flight myths. Aviation technology has improved since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) first banned in-flight phone calls in 1991, but U.S. airlines still require passengers to switch their personal devices to airplane mode. According to Ars Technica, the FCC has considered lifting the ban, but even though modern cell phones are technically safe to use on planes, there are no plans to allow in-flight cell phone calls.

Murphy explained that the transmissions from cell phones are unlikely to cause problems with the navigation system, the GPS receivers or other avionics aboard the plane, because — just like with the aurora scenario — the components are already built with EMI protections.

“There is some thought that phones transmitting on a plane could affect cell towers on the ground,” he said. “It may be that the airlines are trying to cut down of the chatter and noise that would occur if everyone on the plane was talking on their phone. Some groups are trying to get the airlines to change the rules to allow cell calls during flight.”

If passengers take their phones off airplane mode (therefore enabling the transmitter), it won’t make the plane crash, but it could annoy the pilots and air traffic controllers.

“This annoyance is due to the potential noise you may be inducing into the radio transmissions,” Leeper said. “If you’ve ever had your phone near an audio system, you may have heard the ‘ticking’ sound that is created due to the parasitic demodulation.”

This noise could make it into the radio transmissions between the pilots and air traffic controllers. If that’s the case, then it seems a bit strange that passengers are still allowed to use personal electronic devices to watch videos and send email. It turns out there is a good reason why passengers are allowed to use Wi-Fi, but not to make phone calls.

According to Leeper, “The phone’s radio emissions are much stronger (~8W) versus the Wi-Fi signal (~100mW).”

Is Flying Through Lightning Dangerous?

One of the scariest airplane facts is that lightning strikes are a daily occurrence on commercial planes worldwide, according to Time. The good news is that planes are designed to withstand the inevitable storm. In addition to standard EMI protection, a plane’s electrical components and fuel tanks are also grounded to prevent electrical arcs. Furthermore, the body of the plane is effectively a container that blocks electromagnetic fields (a Faraday cage).

When lightning hits a plane, it might cause some minor structural damage. But a commercial plane hasn’t crashed in the United States as a result of a lightning strike since 1967, according to Scientific American. Modern commercial aircraft designs have incorporated many precautions that put safety first.

“The key safety measure is designing the aircraft body to allow for energy dissipation and proper grounding. We want to prevent the formation of electric arcs, which could ignite vapors in the fuel tanks or knock out sensitive flight management systems,” Leeper explained. “Airframes have incorporated metal strips connecting all the structural features of the airframe, which work to create a Faraday cage and block electric charge from passing through the airframe.”

Now that these three common airplane myths have been debunked, feel free to book that trip you’ve been wanting to go on.