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Do planes really fly themselves? Is turbulence dangerous? Can you (or your intestines) get sucked into an airplane toilet? These are the important questions we all ask ourselves as your plane leaves the tarmac (which, by the way, isn't called the tarmac). Let's get into it.

Planes are a marvel of modern technology, but when you're on one, they can often feel like terrifying metal deathtraps. Let's break down the most common myths and misconceptions about flying.

Join host Justin Dodd in an endless pursuit of the truth. If you have your own topic who's misconceptions you'd like to see debunked leave it in the comments!


Mental Floss is the home for all things curious. Subscribe here for new Mental Floss videos every Wednesday at 3pm (and don't forget the bell!):

As anyone who’s watched a movie set on an airplane knows, a bad guy firing a gun inside the cabin means certain disaster.

Just one bullet hole can depressurize the aircraft, causing it to plummet uncontrollably into the nearest mountain. What follows is a desperate fight for survival and perhaps even some cannibalism.

I mean, even if there’s airplane food left, would you even wanna... *badum tsh* anyway. But does that really make sense? Can one tiny hole in an airplane cabin really bring the whole thing down?

Not really. If someone actually fired a weapon in flight, the bullet would likely pierce the aluminum siding of the plane, but the air leak would be so minor that the aircraft’s pressurization system would easily be able to compensate for it. It is possible to shoot out a window, creating a much larger and potentially passenger-sucking problem.

It’s also not outside the realm of possibility to hit the fuel tank, which could maybe, possibly, if a lot went wrong, cause an explosion. But for the most part, fatal bullet holes in planes are a misconception created by Hollywood. And it’s far from the only mistaken idea we have about aircraft.

I’m your host, Justin Dodd. Fasten your seat belts, store your tray table in the upright and locked position, and join me as we get into some of the most popular myths about flying in this high-altitude edition of Misconceptions. While I understand most people aren’t necessarily concerned with a shootout breaking out on a plane, safety in air travel has always been a popular subject.

After all, when you stop to think about it, the idea of a multi-ton aircraft somehow surging into the clouds and maintaining altitude at or above 30,000 feet can be a little hard to grasp. Which brings us to our first misconception. The Misconception: We Understand How Flying Actually Works Believe it or not, there’s no one simple explanation for how planes stay aloft.

Scientists disagree on the principles behind the aerodynamic force known as lift. Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli had a go of it in 1738, well not really because planes were almost 200 years in the future, but anyway, the Bernoulli school asserts that air traveling across the top of a curved wing is faster than air traveling along the bottom, resulting in lower pressure and therefore lift. But Bernoulli’s theorem doesn’t explain why that higher velocity on top of the wing lowers pressure.

It also doesn’t explain how people can fly upside-down, where the curved portion is at the bottom. Newton’s third law of motion can also be applied, since it means an airplane stays up by pushing air down, but according to NASA (except in cases like Space Shuttle reentry with very high velocity and very low air densities), the predictions are, quote, “totally inaccurate”. Both theories were repurposed for flight much later.

Scientists have only incomplete theories of lift and are still searching for a comprehensive answer. The Misconception: Turbulence Is Cause for Concern When we travel in cars, we expect a smooth ride on carefully-maintained highways. But if there’s a bump in the road or we’re jostled, we start to worry about our car, our drink, or our pets maybe.

In the air and with turbulence, spilling our coffee is no longer the worst possible outcome. A few bumps and we might think we’ve run into a violent storm that will result in our last meal being a bag of peanuts. As scary as turbulence might be, it’s totally normal.

So normal, in fact, that pilots often know about it in advance, are trained to handle it, and are operating planes that are designed to withstand a tremendous amount of stress. There are a few different causes of turbulence, ranging from mountains to weather conditions to differences in wind speed. But even though the plane might feel like it’s plummeting or just diving like Snoopy pretending to fight the Red Baron, it’s hardly moving—maybe 10 to 40 feet max, which is less than the height of a Boeing 737.

And it’s almost impossible for normal turbulence to cause a crash. So long as you obey the fasten seat belt sign, it’s also very unlikely to even cause any injuries. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, only four passengers and five crew members were seriously injured as a result of turbulence in 2018.

With 778 million people traveling domestically that year, the odds are definitely in your favor. Turbulence in the earlier days of commercial aviation was a different story. Because planes weren’t as well-constructed, rough air currents could be fatal.

In 1966, a British Overseas Airways captain veered off-course near Tokyo so his passengers could look at Mount Fuji. How nice. The 140-mile-per-hour winds near the mountain tore the tail fin apart, sending the plane down.

But that was clear air turbulence, which is when two different air masses interact with each other even in clear skies. That kind of turbulence can’t be detected in advance by weather radar and might pose slightly more risk. But you’re still safe.

Feeling like you’re on the inside of a cocktail shaker is still perfectly normal. If you find yourself upside-down, however, then panic is definitely recommended. But at least you can go down arguing about Bernoulli’s theorem.

Because, I mean, it just doesn’t make sense if you’re inverted. Bernoulli. Come on, man.

Think about it. The Misconception: The Plane Flies Itself It’s true that today’s modern airplanes are marvels of design and engineering, making flying one of the safest forms of travel. In fact, the odds of perishing while flying are just 1 in 4.7 million.

But it’s not accurate to say that these aluminum beasts are doing all the work while pilots nap or play cards in the cockpit. Also I’m not saying pilots never do these things, but it would be due to them being terrible pilots, I guess not because they have nothing else to do. The media has a habit of promoting the autopilot capabilities of newer airplanes, and many systems have become automated, with elements like navigation, altitude, speed, and engine power all able to be programmed to stick to preset operations.

Think of it as airplane cruise control. But it’s still the job of the pilot to taxi, take off, land, and tell the plane how best to perform. One example offered by the popular website compared it to advances in medicine.

While a physician might have more tools at their disposal, they still need to be around to treat patients. An airplane might have an automatic setting for climbing or descending, but it might also have seven different options for that automated task. Pilots need to know how best to use these systems.

Autopilot still needs a pilot. Planes are automated in the sense pilots might not have to physically have their hands on the controls at all times, but we’re not going to have an empty cockpit anytime soon. Which brings us to another mistaken belief—that the second pair of hands, namely a co-pilot, is somehow a sidekick.

Co-pilots are pilots. They have the same qualifications as the pilot. They just might be a rung or two down the seniority ladder.

But they still might wind up flying the plane. So pilots are there for plenty of good reasons. Just don’t tell them they did a good job landing on the tarmac.

Though it’s remained a popular term in describing airport runways, no airports actually use tarmac, or tarmacadam, a surface material patented in 1902 that consists of crushed rock mixed with cement and sealed with tar. Tarmac could never hold up to today’s modern aircraft. When you board a plane, you’re going to where the plane is parked on the apron.

From there, you hit the taxiway and then the runway. Never the tarmac. Never.

The Misconception: Airplane Toilets Are Very Dangerous It never seems like a great idea to use an airplane bathroom. They’re small, they’re uncomfortable, and the toilets seem to suck away waste with the force of a Dyson. This has led some people to believe that flushing while sitting could vacuum up your intestines like a person slurping up spaghetti at a restaurant.

That’s the grossest metaphor I could have chosen I’m so sorry. If you think airplane toilets are deadly, you’re wrong. But if you think they’re as safe as the toilet in your house, you’re also wrong.

You know what, let’s just get into the specifics. The fear of an involuntary organ donation might have stemmed in part from a news story that made the rounds in 2002 and was even picked up by reputable outlets like the BBC and Reuters. The story described a woman stuck on an airplane toilet after flushing and having to be physically removed from it after landing.

It turns out the story was fictitious, possibly making the rounds as part of crew training before someone picked it up and believed it was real. Airplane toilets rely on pneumatic vacuum suction, with the flush button activating a valve that creates an opening that pulls all of the bowl’s contents to a storage tank on the aircraft. Because the tank is typically positioned far away from passengers, it needs powerful suction to make the journey.

But there’s no evidence your rear end can make a perfect seal with the toilet, resulting in the vacuum taking your intestines for a ride. That just can’t…what's up? Wait what?

What medical journal? Okay. So let’s revise this misconception to say it’s almost impossible to have your butt devoured by an airplane toilet.

In 1994, physicians Stephen Meldon and Stephen Hargarten reported in the Journal of Travel Medicine the case of a 37-year-old woman who suffered a, quote, “significant perineal injury” after seating herself on a plane commode. She found herself stuck to the toilet and needed help from flight attendants to get off. She was taken to a hospital after landing, where doctors treated her for a 3 centimeter vaginal labial laceration.

Okay. Is it possible for an airplane toilet to cause genital laceration? If you want to get technical about it, yeah, sure.

However, it’s important to note that this woman inexplicably decided to raise the toilet seat and sit directly on top of the bowl, which may have contributed to the injury. Vacuum toilets are really very safe and…what? Which medical journal now?

All right. So apparently in 1986, a 70-year-old woman on a cruise ship had part of her intestines sucked out by a vacuum toilet. This is according to a letter submitted by a physician named J.

Brendan Wynne of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Wynne was actually a passenger on the cruise ship that was docked near Vancouver, British Columbia, when a doctor was summoned. He and his wife, who was a nurse, arrived in the woman’s cabin to find several feet of her intestine sticking out, the result of the ship’s violent plumbing system.

Blech. That was hard to get all those words out. But listen—she got medical attention and she was fine.

It’s basically almost virtually unheard of for anyone to be injured by a vacuum toilet. But if you can hold it in, maybe just do that. The Misconception: Oxygen is on standby for emergencies.

OK let's admit it, we’ve all ignored the demonstrations from the flight attendant on every flight we've ever been on. In the event of an emergency, blah, blah, oxygen mask fall down, blah blah, hope you know how to swim. In theory, those little plastic cups appear from the overhead compartment in the event the plane is depressurized and passengers need supplemental oxygen to avoid passing out from hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen.

That’s because at 30,000 feet each breath of air doesn’t have enough oxygen in it for humans to survive. So instead airplanes pressurize the cabin to around 5000 to 8000 feet, which is why it’s bad if there’s a loss of pressure. Sometimes those masks do deliver oxygen from pressurized tanks, but others put out a kind of bespoke, custom oxygen.

The masks release chemicals like barium peroxide, sodium chlorate, and potassium chlorate. While those might sound like ingredients for your bathroom cleaner, barium peroxide is found in fireworks and sodium chlorate is a weed killer. So, worse than a bathroom cleaner.

But, there’s absolutely nothing to be worried about from the masks. When burned, they actually produce breathable oxygen that will keep passengers from getting loopy. It can last for about 10 to 20 minutes, enough time for the pilot to figure out a solution for whatever has gone wrong.

Usually, that means descending to an altitude comfortable for people. And those little bags attached to the masks? They’re not supposed to inflate.

So don’t worry about that. So what’s wrong with regular oxygen? It’s a safety issue.

If canisters of oxygen were stored on board the aircraft, they’d add to the weight of the plane and could present a fire hazard. The chemical substitute is less hazardous, though it’s also flammable. That’s why it won’t deploy if there’s a fire on board the plane.

And if there’s a fire on board the plane, you’ve got bigger problems that a mask isn’t going to fix. While we’re on the subject of airplane safety procedures, there are a couple of other misconceptions to address. You know how the lights dim during take-off and landing?

That’s not done just to conserve power. They want passengers to have their eyes acclimated to the dark, especially if it’s at night. Grim.

But it makes sense, as take-offs and landings are considered the most potentially dangerous elements of flying, with final approach and landings making up roughly half of all fatal accidents. Why? It’s harder for pilots to react to problems at lower altitudes.

There’s often not enough time when you’re close to the ground. Also, you’re told to keep your seat in the upright position not solely for your safety, but for the safety of the person behind you. In the event they need to stabilize themselves, they need a straight surface, not your reclining body, to brace themselves against.

And if they do wind up getting violently tossed around, it’s better for them to smack their head on the back of your seat, not you. Keeping the seats upright also makes it easier to get off the plane in a hurry. The good news?

You never have to worry about someone freaking out and opening one of the emergency exits during the flight. Because air pressure is higher inside the cabin than outside, it would require a feat of incredible physical strength to pull the door inward. At roughly 6 pounds per square inch of differential pressure on a door hundreds of square inches in size, you’d need to be able to move about a thousand pounds.

Not happening. Unless The Journal of the American Medical Association wants to chime in. Do they?

No? Good. The Misconception: The TSA Is Law Enforcement They do have uniforms, they do have authority, and they can and will seize your bottled water, but Transportation Security Administration officers are not actually law enforcement, and they technically can’t arrest you for disobeying their orders.

TSA officers are government workers or private contractors that have a responsibility to ensure the safety of passengers and take steps during screening to minimize potential threats. They can’t arrest you. All they can do is call actual police, who then could arrest you.

You can also be prevented from boarding your flight for not complying with the TSA officer’s instructions. As for those confiscated items—they don’t keep them. Contraband might wind up with third-party contractors, which supply individual states with inventory that can be resold.

So if you have something that means a lot to you that got seized, you can check sites like or a surplus center near the airport and hope you find it. You’ll have to pay for it again, but it’s better than nothing. That’s our show for today.

If you have any suggestions for a future installment of Misconceptions, leave it in the comments. And remember, if the plane starts to shake, the lights are off, and you’re breathing in weed killer, don’t panic. At least the toilet didn’t suck your intestines out.

Ah why did I even bring that up, now I'm thinking about it. Blech. Thanks for watching.