An airplane seatbelt chime If you're like many people, that noise strikes fear into your heart, it signals that your flight might get dangerous, even deadly.
Well, passengers aren't the only ones who fear the plane's seatbelt sign. It may come as a shock that pilots do as well. For them, the simple act of turning on the sign is so fraught with peril that veteran aviators devised a tiny but critical step before engaging it. What could that process be? I'll tell you in just a moment. Welcome aboard, passengers. This is Superstitions, a Spotify original from podcasts. My name is Alastair Murden. I'll be your pilot today.
Please fasten your seat belts and place your tray tables in an upright, locked position. We're about to depart to a strange land where our darkest, most primitive fears are soothed not by logic, but by peculiar beliefs, rituals and trinkets. So sit back, relax and enjoy our non-stop service to the realm of superstitions.
Today, we are exploring a secret practice that few people know about behind that locked and guarded cockpit door on passenger flights, pilots take part in an arcane ritual, one that involves the seatbelt button before engaging that little glowing switch. They rub it ever so slightly. Commercial aviators say it's their way of warning the plane, communicating with it. The things are going to get hairy. It's also an opportunity to ask the plane to protect them through impending danger.
Over the years, the button has become a lucky charm to pilots, but only as long as they rub it. But what happens if someone forgets? In today's story, a hot shot new pilot learns a valuable lesson, never disrespects the button. Or the airplane, you can find episodes of superstitions and all other originals from podcast for free on Spotify. Coming up, we'll begin the tale of a nightmare at 38000 feet. Captain Sandy Burkhart exited North Star Airline's corporate office at Denver International Airport.
She felt a twinge of sadness, but she couldn't think about that now. She had a plane to fly. She set off across the terminal, striding with precision. Her pilot's uniform was crisp and her Carry-On trailed briskly behind her like it was connected to her body. She passed Gates a four, a five, a seven and then a eight where her plane waited. It looked poised and noble, like a thoroughbred horse ready to race. Sandy admired it.
After a moment, she slipped out a maintenance door down to the tarmac. Sandy strolled around the plane, sidestepping a flurry of maintenance workers. She checked its tires and wings, her checks complete. She paused under the front of the fuselage. When no one was looking, she kissed her palm and reached up to touch the jet. For a moment, she imagined that she could feel it, breathing its heart beating beneath the cold aluminium hide. She whispered to it, Take care of us, old friend.
You and I have seen a lot together, she added with an almost imperceptible hesitation. We've got many more trips ahead of us. A moment later, a thin tendril of lightning flashed on the horizon. Thunder rumbled in the distance. One of the maintenance workers yelled over the engine noise. Storm coming in. Sandy nodded. She had seen the weather reports. If they departed on time, she should be able to fly high enough over the storm to miss any lightning.
At the very worst, they might hit some turbulent air pockets. When Sandy finished her inspection, she climbed a set of stairs into the cabin. She greeted the cheerful flight attendants and traded small talk about the weather. After a minute, though, Sandy excused herself and ducked into the cockpit. There, Sandy felt at home. The cockpit and its hundreds of buttons and dials was the one place in the world that she was at ease. It was just her and the plane.
She slipped into her seat and went to work, readying the aircraft for the trip.
A few minutes later, Sandy heard a commotion behind her in the cockpit doorway was her new co-pilot, Derek Lowell.
He was a handsome young man with perfectly tussled hair. His uniform shirt looked like it hadn't been ironed. He greeted his pilot ambos. Boss, you must be Sandy. Sandy offered a taut smile. Captain Burckhardt Derek stood a little straighter, of course. Captain Sandy offered an olive branch. I read your jacket. Navy pilot. Right. Thank you for your service. Eight years jump ship for the money. These signing bonuses are amazing. Let's just say the airline made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
He waited for her to laugh at his godfather impression. Sandy didn't even crack a smile. I've been here 16 years and four months. Never got a signing bonus from his expression is seen.
Derek realized he was digging himself further into a hole. Sorry. Didn't mean anything by it. Sandy waved it off. It's OK. Not your fault. So this is your first time flying a passenger jet? Derek shrugged. I've logged a lot of simulator hours most of my time as being an Uncle Sam's finest fifteens of sixteen's even got some sea time on the new F-35. Sandy tried to hide her M.V. though she never wanted to be in the military, any pilots would jump at the chance to fly over a thousand miles per hour.
She told him to get settled. They had a long flight to Albany ahead and needed to get wheels up before the storm got any closer. Derek settled into the co-pilot seat and they prepared for takeoff.
A short time later, they took off into the charcoal clouds when they reached cruising altitude. Sandy engaged the autopilot. Derek kicked back in his seat and turned to her 16 years with the airline. Why are you stuck on this route? You can have your pick. Paris, Stockholm, Tokyo. Sandy looked over at Derek.
She normally avoided idle chit chat, especially with a smug kid like him. But she could see the earnestness of his question. Denver to Albany isn't glamorous, but I like it. I have family in both places and I've been with this plane on and off for ten years. It's like an old friend. She patted the flight controls fondly. Derek smirked. Less competition for him. Well, God bless you. Someone's got to do it. I put in for Denver to Stockholm.
I mean, have you seen those Swedish girls? Sandy was thankful that the cockpit radio cut him off North Star three five four. This is Denver. Air traffic control reports of turbulence ahead proceed to 38000 feet. Sandy activated her mike North Star three five four. Copy, thirty eight thousand. She turned to Derek. Go ahead and engage the seatbelt light ologist altitude. Roger that.
Derek was already on the move.
He pushed the rectangular button on the overhead panel until it glowed like a ruby. Sandy caught this move out of the corner of her eye and nearly choked.
What did you just do? Derek looked back, confused. What do you mean? I pushed the button, like you said, Sandy, finish the altitude divestment and faced him fully. Yeah, I saw that. But you didn't. Do you know Derek blinked, didn't want Sandy hesitated for a moment what she was about to say sounded silly in her head, but it was deadly serious. She had learned it from a long line of pilots before her.
You didn't rub it at her copilot's blank expression. Sandy sighed. The kid wasn't disobedient, just clueless. She needed to educate him. Before you pressed the seatbelt button, you have to alert the aircraft. Derek was still skeptical. His this like a pool on the school rooftop kind of thing. You know, trick the new guy. Sandy shook her head. You didn't do this in the Navy? Derek shrugged. Fighter jets don't have seatbelt lights.
Sandy turns back to the controls, grumbling about how, of course, the airline gave her a co-pilot who doesn't know the seatbelt button rule. But the young man wouldn't let it go. Whatever. I survived surface to air missiles over Kandahar. Nothing's going to happen to us over Nebraska. Just engage and re-engage and that will just confuse the passengers, Sandy explained. It's fine. Just don't do it again. After that, the cockpit was silent. Neither one spoke for over a minute, which seemed like an eternity.
They waited expectantly for alarms, buzzers and flashing lights. It was tense and quiet, only the hum of the plane until an alert echoed in the cockpit.
Both pilots nearly jumped out of their seats. Derek yelled, What's that? Sandy relaxed slightly the cabin intercom, she pressed the button and spoke with one of the flight attendants. We're fine up here. Let's get buttoned up. Got reports of bumps ahead. A few minutes later, the plane began to tremble. It felt like they were riding over a rutted dirt road. Soon, though, that road seemed to disappear altogether. The jet dove 100 feet and then rocketed back up again.
Sandy flicked off the autopilot and controlled the plane manually as it bumped and shook. After a while, the turbulence stopped. Sandy reactivated the autopilot. Derrick pushed back in his seat with a smug look on his face. See, nothing happened. So much for your superstition. Sandy shook her head. It's not a superstition. It's a sign of respect for the plane. This time, they sat in silence for longer after several minutes, Derek broke the stalemate.
He had a story to clear the air. He told Sandy about the time he had flown over Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The turbulence had been so bad he puked into his oxygen mask. And that wasn't the worst part. The Jets environmental control system stopped working. It became so cold in the cockpit, the puke froze high above enemy territory. The ice started to obstruct radio comms. Sandy found herself enraptured by the young man's story. In spite of herself, Derek told her the worst part of the frozen vomit wasn't losing the radio.
It actually started to close off his air supply. He started to black out as a final resort. He held his breath while he chips the frozen vomit out of the rubber mask. When Derek finally landed, the cockpit was covered in tiny chips of bile and food particles. It took the ground crew two months to clean it. As Derek finished the story, they were both doubled over in laughter. Sandy had tears in her eyes. Two months to clean the plane, Derek nodded.
It was stuck inside all the gauges.
The pilots and copilots was still laughing when all of a sudden another noise echoed through the cockpit.
Sandy and Derek snap to attention and scan the instrument panel. Sandy was the first to pinpoint the source stall alarm. Derek checked out the windshield, but we're level. Sandy examined all the gauges. Several were flashing error messages. She surmised quickly that turbulence must have knocked a sensor loose. That's when the plane suddenly pitched into a nose first dive on a one way trip to a cornfield in Nebraska. Coming up, Sandy and her co-pilot tried to save a doomed plane.
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Captain Sandy Burkhart and her co-pilot, Derek LOEL, wrestled with the controls of their diving aircraft, they were plummeting at a 60 degree angle, which felt like freefall. They could hear the passengers and flight attendants screaming beyond the cockpit door. But Sandy couldn't worry about that now. All that mattered was getting the plane leveled out. She tried to keep her voice steady as she spoke into her headset. Mayday, mayday. This is North Star three by four.
We are declaring an emergency. She yelled to Derek over the deafening sound. Autopilot thinks we're in a stall. Derek yanked his shoulder straps to keep himself from flying out of his seat. What the hell do we do? Sandy fought to keep one hand on the bouncing yoke. Her other hand tried to manually adjust thrust and flaps. Nothing was responding. You got to reboot the software, copy Derek, search the cluttered dashboard. His eyesight blurred as the plane vibrated uncontrollably.
Copy Sandy Brace to take control on my mark three to one.
Derek strained against the G forces to reach switches on the center console. Autopilot reset. Sandy pulled harder on the yoke, but the jet didn't respond out the windshield. Derek saw them punch into the clouds. They were engulfed in milky darkness. Derek felt his equilibrium disappear. His body fought to find which way was up or down. What do we do now? Cap Sandy's heart race, too. She fought against instinct to panic.
Shut down the master power. Full reset, Derek. Breathing, gulps. Fighting for air. Turn off the plane.
Sandy frantically checked and rechecked the gauges, a sensor stuck, we got a reset, you can do it. It's the same as the F-35, same basic rules. Even in the dark cockpit, Sandy could see the blood drain from Derek's cheeks. She asked him what was the matter. And after what felt like countless seconds, he spoke. His mouth sounded mealy and dry. I, I have to tell you something. Sandy closed her eyes for a nanosecond to ease the vertigo, not the time I need you on that panel.
Derek looked out the windshield with a thousand yard stare.
I never flew the F-35. He confessed that he flew nine the Navy's cargo and package carriers, Sandy nearly fell out of her seat for another reason, the mail plane. All Derek could offer was a flat sorry. Sandy realized the issue. The panels on sea nines were completely different than their jets, Derek explained. I never lied in my application just around people. No one gives a damn about the mail plane. Sandy wanted to punch him, but she couldn't reach at the moment.
I'll report you to the FAA if we survive this. Even as she said it, Sandy got chills from that one word if. Sandy squinted against the vibrations to see the altimeter, it now read 21000 feet and falling. She did the calculation in her head they'd smash into the ground in less than five minutes. But suddenly she had an idea, switch seats with me. He looked at her right now. Sandy unbuckled her shoulder straps, do it now.
Derek released his belt and jumped up from the copilot's chair. Sandy Pretzel herself under the instrument array where the main fuse panel was located. She unscrewed it while Derek squinted to read from a binder of protocols. Look for a green fuse labelled nine. Sandy tried to concentrate. It was like looking for one Lego piece in a box of hundreds while riding a roller coaster. Got it. Derek tried to focus his eye on one of the caution lights. Once we pull the fuse, it will take 60 seconds to cycle back on.
The whole plane will be off Sandy side. We're going to die if we don't. She carefully remove the fuse. The cockpit went black. The only light is the glow of the moon outside and the twinkling lights below. Sandy and Derek watched the seconds tick by on the clock. A minute past the plane didn't turn back on. Derek was the first to speak Sandy. Sandy dove back under the instruments she wasn't about to give up. Now Derek really started to panic.
You were right. But damn seatbelt button. How did I not know to rub it? Shouldn't that be like rule number one on the flight sim? I screwed us. Sandy wasn't listening. She was methodically testing each fuse one at a time. She whispered to the plane, Come on, baby, you can do this. Don't let me down. But the plane remained dark, nosediving toward Earth. After Sandy had checked the fuses, she swung back up into the seat, Derrick was looking out the window, tears glistening in his eyes.
I'm sorry I lied to you.
I really did fly over Kandahar. And the Pew thing really happened just in a different plane.
It's fine. Sandy acquiesced. I actually need to say something, too. She swallowed hard. I wasn't honest with you either. This was my last flight on this route. Derek looked at her in confusion, Sandy continued not transferring to Paris or Stockholm like you want. I took voluntary early retirement to corporate earlier today. They're buying out old timers like me probably to cover your signing bonus. I didn't want to admit it to you or the plane, Derek, absorb this.
They shared a lack of understanding and maybe even respect below. The lights of Omaha, Nebraska, weren't just tiny specks anymore. Sandy and Derek could make out clusters of buildings in the distance and they were racing toward them at over 300 miles per hour. Suddenly, the instruments and dials in the cockpit cycled on. They twinkled like a Christmas tree. Derek almost worked with joy. Oh my God, it reset. Sandy slapped the dashboard enthusiastically. Yes, that's my baby.
Both pilots trained against the flight controls. After a moment, the nose began to come up. The effort to pull the yoke became less and less. Instead of the ground ahead, they could see the horizon again. Sandy spoke into her. Mike Omahaw regional. This is North Star three five four requesting emergency landing. The plane touched down on a runway flanked by waiting fire trucks, ambulances and rescue vehicles. Red, blue and yellow lights bathed the whole scene in an otherworldly Technicolor glow.
When the jet finally came to rest at the end of the runway, the passengers and flight attendants evacuated down slides. Sandy and Derek were the last people on the plane. Derek turned to her. I may have only been a mail guy, but I've known some tough fighter pilots. You're right up there with them. Sandy thanked him. She told him to go on ahead. She wanted a minute alone when he was gone.
Sandy admired the quiet hum of the cockpit. It wasn't just the nerve center of the plane. It was also the heart. She owed her life to it in more ways than one. A thought occurred to her. She thought to herself, Maybe I can postpone retirement a little longer.
This old girl has plenty of flights left in her. She placed her finger on a single flashing button on the console, the seatbelt light. She gave it a lingering chorus and then she disappeared out the passageway to the runway. The practice of rubbing the seatbelt button is an obscure superstition, even those of us who are steeped in the traditions of rabbit's feet and three on a match were surprised by this unique ritual. It's not a ritual we hear about frequently, if ever, and it's for good reason.
Pilots, especially commercial airline pilots, want to project an image of perfect safety and reliability. It's not luck or mysterious forces that are keeping your aluminium canister 30000 feet in the air. It's science. It's weight, lift, thrust and drag. It's perfectly functioning mechanical parts. It's pilot's skill training and experience. Airlines certainly don't want you to know that even with all of those intricate systems in place, pilots still rub a tiny button for luck. At the heart of this practice is humans.
Complicated age old relationship with flight. Let's face it, biologically speaking, we were never meant to soar through the air. But ever since our ancestors watched birds take to the skies, we have dreamed of flying.
Hand in hand with those aspirations has been a deep seated, instinctual fear of falling and dying.
One of the first recorded examples of our collective anxiety about flight was the Greek tale of Icarus. The story chronicles Icarus, his desire to fly on wings of feathers and wax. But his father warned him, fly too close to the sun and the wax will melt. As we know, Icarus threw caution to the wind and inadvertently himself as well. In perhaps the first fictional in-flight catastrophe, his feathers fell off and he plummeted into the sea.
The ancient story illustrated that even thousands of years before the airplane was invented, humans were already reaching for the proverbial vomit bag. And it wasn't a good omen for human flight. Even as airplanes developed, air travel didn't become much safer during World War One, the chance of death or injury for pilots in their crews was close to 70 percent. In World War Two, some aviation crews still lost nearly half of their servicemen. With the fear of imminent death, early pilots quickly became a superstitious lot.
Your survival was against the odds. Now, at the time, planes were still not equipped with seatbelt lights. Some didn't even have seatbelts. But pilots made use of myriad other charms and rituals.
One famous example was Amelia Earhart during her groundbreaking flights of the 1930s.
She wore a lucky bracelet made of elephant hair and kept her safe for hundreds of journeys.
But she mysteriously left it behind on her tragic foray over the Pacific Ocean.
Even Chuck Yeager, one of the most decorated Air Force pilots and the first human to break the sound barrier, had a good luck charm. He stenciled his wife's name on the side of most of his aircraft, glamorous Glennis.
It may be surprising to think that these brave aviators trusted superstitions to keep their planes in the air, but it actually makes sense.
A veteran pilot and flight instructor, Rob Machado, described his own reliance on Lucky Charms. I suppose you've done all that you can possibly do to ensure the safety of your flight, but still feel anxious that your engine may fail during flight. Your anxiety isn't always an asset in these circumstances, especially if it produces a form of tunnel vision that restricts your situational awareness. You also said the trusted ritual, magic thinking or Lucky Charms can put us at ease.
We become less anxious as a result. It's hard to deny that this produces better piloting performance. In many situations. Machado's point is quite elegant. On commercial aircraft, captains might have thousands of procedures to think about fuel levels, altitude, wing trim, not to mention hundreds of passengers in their care. The last thing a pilot wants to creep into her mind is any anxiety about crashing. In essence, the seatbelt button not only turns on a light in the cabin, it also turns off a pilot's fear.
By rubbing the button, a pilot surrenders her anxiety to the plane and becomes a steady hand on the wheel. So the passenger, the next time you're on an airplane cruising at 30000 feet and you hear that iconic seatbelt tone, will your pilots remember to rub that little glowing button?
Thanks for listening to superstitions. We will be back Wednesday with a new episode, you can find more episodes of Superstitions and all other Spotify originals from podcast for free on Spotify. Until next time, be wary of the things you cannot explain. Superstitions as a Spotify original from podcast. It is executive produced by Max Cuddler Sound Design by Russell Nash with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Erin Larson. This episode of Superstitions was written by Adam DeSilva with writing assistants by Andrew Kelaher, fact checking by Bennett Logan and research by Brian Peatross in Alistaire Murder.
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Remember, you can binge all 12 episodes starting on Tuesday, January 19th. Listen free and exclusively on Spotify.