Confessions of a Pilot

Go inside the cockpit for the surprising truth about what we really should be afraid of.
6:59 | 05/03/13

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Transcript for Confessions of a Pilot
tonight, the faa is investigating that latest se this week of packed planes about to take off, one plane clipping the wing of another. It had us wondering, what's going on in the cockpit at that moment and what's going on at 35,000 feet up in the air. We're at the mercy of the pilots. So, we sent our martha raddatz to find out the plain truth, and the scary thing isn't the things you are afraid of, but what you should be afraid of. Reporter: This horrific video of a 747 cargo plane crashing in afghanistan three days ago has gone vie value. It's a horrible video. It's a terrible thing to watch. Reporter: Former marine corps fighter pilot and trained mishap investigator steve ganyard says even disasterke this are no reason to develop a fear of flying. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF 747s That are flying safely every day. And it shouldn't be cause for concern. Reporter: We talked to three current or retired pilots who gave up the skinny on what pilots really think of the passengers fears. The worries that aren't really problems. And the hidden dangers that don't get much attention. First up? Pilots behaving badly. Last year, a well-publicized case of a pilot who began ranting mid-flight and had to be restrained by passengers had a lot of people worried about the mental stability of flight crews. And denzel washington's oscar-nominated role as a coke-snorting, alcoholic pilot in the movie "flight" redefined the term "flying high." But current pilot patrick smith author of "cockpit confidential" says that portrayal is a slanderous fib. That's so prer post trous that it's almost -- it's too ridiculous to entertain, really. Reporter: But we heard something different from former commuter airline pilot chr wiken, who left the industry in 2008. He confessed that he witnessed pilots violating the faa's eight-hour preflight drinking ban. You're going out with your crew, having dinner and maybe having a couple of beers or something and sure, it's very easy to push that boundary of that eight hours. Reporter: There have been scattered indianapolis dents. A pilot was arrested after failing a breathalyzer test. Reporter: But they are rare. On average, 12 per year. The real problem, according to many pilots, is not mentally ill or wasted pilots, but the tired skies. Forget the glamour of the aviation's golden age, depicted in "catch me if you can." Are you a real life pilot? I sure am, little lady. Reporter: Many pilots confess that the humbling reality is low wages, brutal hours and even scrounging for a place to sleep, in so-called crash pads, like this one shot by abc news in 2011, or even worse, spending the night in airline crew lounges. You're getting less and less restful sleep. You feel not quite sharp enough to do, sometimes even the simplest tasks. Much less fly an airplane safely. Reporter: Pilot fatigue was contributing factor in the crash of a colgan air jet in buffalo in 2010. While safety officials have issued new rules to combat the problem, the constant grind of a hectic flying schedule remains a big concern. The reality of being a pilot today is more or less just a bus driver in the sky, just a glorified bus driver. Reporter: Another pilot confession? Involves the hazards of electronic devices in the air. Should you really be scared for your life if alec baldwin is secretly playing words with friends across the aisle. Do you turn your blackberry off? I'm really bad. When I get caught by the stewardesses continuing to text prior to take-off. Reporter: Colonel steve began yard thinks it's probably not true that your cell phone will interfere with the pilot's ability to fly the plane. This is one of these things that I think the faa will be looking at. The wings are not going to come off if your cell phone is on. Reporter: On the other hand, began yard is troubled about overreliance on the electronics the pilots are using. It will fly all the way to the destination, land, stop the airplane and the next thing you need to do is taxi into the gate. Reporter: That dependence on automation contributed to a major disaster over the atlantic ocean on a dark and stormy night in 2009. The ill-fated flight of air france 447. 3 1/2 hours after takeoff, the plane's automatic pilot system suddenly shut down. As demonstrated to our elizabeth vargas in this flight simulator. There's a warning. The aircraft is now in my control. I have to fly it manually. Reporter: It should have been a routine situation. But when the pilot took over the controls, he mistakenly put the plane into a fatal stall, sending it into the ocean. All 228 souls aboard were lost. The machine failed them. Any pilot who was trained 20, 25 years ago would have been able to get out of that, because they would have known what they were siege and teeing and they would have known what to do. Reporter: Hollywood films like "castaway," which predicted tom hanks' plane in a storm, makes the public terrified of flying in bad weather. But began yard says ill. People who have been killed by turbulence have bounced off the creeling. Reporter: What about lightning? It's okay. The lightning hits the airplane and it's grounded, it goes off back into the air. Reporter: A far greater danger, say our pie loments is what's happening on the ground. Those planes that clipped each other this week at newark airport? We have some serious tail damage. His tail is totaled. Reporter: Is a growing concern. A couple of years ago at jfk, a regional jet was spun around like a top. And in this shocking video, a russian plane overshooting the runway and crashes into a highway. Four people lost their lives. Safety officials are pushing to get airports to adopt this special braking system, a bed of concrete-like blocks at the end of a runway. It's like driving through deep, sticky snow. Reporter: It stopped this jet in charles on the, west virginia, from going off the runway and over the side of a mountain. Nobody wants that airplane to land safely more than pilot. Reporter: So, sit back, relax and enjoy your flight. These are folks who are very, very professional. They feel a real sense of extraordinary responsibility for the airplane and for the passengers that fly on them.

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