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Ask the Captain: Rapid descents are not dangerous

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© Mario Tama, Getty Images
People take photos as a Delta Air Lines plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport on July 12, 2018.

By John Cox, USA TODAY

Question: I’m not scared of crashing. I’m scared of an emergency and needing to take a “nosedive.” How often does that happen?             

– Melissa

Answer: Airplanes do not “take a nosedive.” There are conditions, such as a loss of cabin pressurization, when a rapid descent is required. This is a controlled maneuver pilots practice in the flight simulator. It is not a dangerous maneuver. The need for a very rapid descent is rare. There is nothing to be scared about; the airplane is fully under control. In 2017, airlines flew 4.5 billion passengers on 45 million flights without a single accident in a commercial jet.

Q: What is the procedure for a diversion due to a medical emergency? On a recent trip from Houston to Orlando, there was a medical emergency on our flight, and we were very close to New Orleans. Once the decision was made to divert, we immediately started (what seemed like) the quickest descent I have ever experienced. Does air traffic hold incoming planes to allow diversions to land sooner? We also taxied very quickly and the jetway was brought out immediately to bring emergency personnel on board. Do you think it was truly faster than a traditional landing or just felt that way? 

– Erin B., Galveston, Texas

A: A medical emergency is handled by air traffic control as a priority.

Similar to your flight, I had a medical emergency on a flight from Philadelphia to Tampa. A passenger had a major medical problem when we were nearly overhead Greensboro, North Carolina. After advising ATC and receiving a descent clearance, we began a very rapid descent, landing about 12 minutes later. It was much faster than a normal approach and landing. Professional pilots and controllers are trained for such circumstances, but it is very challenging.

Pilots do all we can to help a passenger with a medical emergency, including using all of our skill to get on the ground to paramedics as quickly and safely as possible.

Q: Many years ago on a commercial four-engine flight, the pilot made a rapid descent because of weather. He then came on the speakers and said that in case we were wondering what all the loud noise was, he had reversed the thrust on two of the engines to slow down quickly so he could dive through a clear spot between the clouds and make a rapid descent. I have been told later that such a move was impossible and that a pilot would never do that. I was there. I heard the noise and I heard what he said. Did he do it or not?

– Bobby, Boling, Texas

A: It is possible. The DC-8 was approved to reverse the inboard engines (No. 2 and No. 3) in-flight. If you were in a DC-8 then yes, he could have done it. I do not know of another airliner certified to reverse in-flight.

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