Airbus A380 Captain Rob De Martino. Photo: Nick Morrish

Ba people • December 2015

The Gurus

British Airways’ Captain Rob de Martino answers your questions, including what happens when you’re in a holding pattern, and how to stop your ears from popping

What’s happening when the plane is in a holding pattern?
At Heathrow there are four main holding patterns, consisting of a racetrack around each of the beacons, which is flown in the direction drawn on our charts. We fly at a specific speed, and always for one minute along the straight portion of the racetrack. During this time, we’re all talking to a radar controller watching us on the scanner.

At this point, every aircraft is aligned over the beacon in the same direction, but separated by 1,000 vertical feet. We’re all stacked up, which is why it’s called a ‘stack’. When a landing place becomes available, the bottom aircraft is taken out of the stack by air traffic control. All the aircraft then move down 1,000 feet in the stack, until it’s their turn to land. 

Why do the engines sound louder when taking off near mountains?
This could be due to the need for the aircraft to climb as rapidly as possible to get above the high ground without having to circle to climb. In this case, the pilots may climb with a higher thrust setting, which would make the engines sound noisier.

Any tips on how to stop your ears popping during take-off and landing?
You can’t stop the popping sensation, but if you move your mouth muscles when the aircraft is climbing or descending, it can make it less uncomfortable. This is because the tube between your inner ear and throat is being opened more frequently, easing the large build-up of pressure (which is what causes the pop). Try chewing gum or stretching your jaw as if yawning.

Any advice for a nervous flyer?
It can help to tell the crew about your anxiety, so they’re alert to any distress you may feel. They may even be able to explain unusual noises or bumps. Avoid using alcohol to self-medicate, as this can have a negative effect on your nerves. Focus on your breathing and use a distraction tool, like a good book or film. Finally, remind yourself that it’s still one of the safest modes of travel, and the pilots are prepared for every eventuality.

Click here to ask Rob a question

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This article has been tagged BA, Travel Tips