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As a passenger with a keen interest in aviation, I'd like to think I'd be eagle-eyed enough to spot a problem that the pilots mightn't be able to see, from where they're sitting (for example, an engine sputtering or ice on the wings).

What things can we look out for, sat in the cabin, that might ultimately save a plane?

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Honestly, as a passenger, you're not really qualified to look for problems. If you're a pilot qualified and with experience in that type then you might see something.

I've had passengers tell my flight attendants that they saw flames coming out of a seam in the engine cowling. It was actually a section of orange rubbery material that was sticking out and flapping in the breeze.

Ice on the wings depends on the airplane too, you're often going to see some ice on the leading edges in icing conditions, and it's normal. To know what's not normal, you have to have experience with that specific type.

There is actually one thing you could probably look for. There are no airplanes that I know of that can safely take off with ice on the top of the wings (behind the leading edges). That would be a legitimate thing to scream about; however, a pilot that would take off in such a case probably shouldn't be a pilot.

You can certainly ask questions about things you see, but don't phrase it such that you think you found a problem.

Window shades are requested to be open for take off and landing by some operators to allow the flight attendants to quickly assess the situation outside when directing an evacuation. It has nothing to do with allowing passengers to look for problems. Not all airlines have this policy either, it's somewhat uncommon, the first thing I do when I sit down at a window in the back is close the window, and it's rare that I'm asked to open it.

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    $\begingroup$ What was orange rubbery material doing flapping about under the engine cowling? $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Jan 25 '14 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ If i recall correctly, it was some excess insulating material that had worked loose and stuck out (less than half an inch). Didn't affect anything. $\endgroup$ – Ralgha Jan 28 '14 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ The Ryanair B738 and American B763 at Barcelona on Apr 14th 2011, both aircraft departed despite ground collision and passenger complaints accident is interesting in this regard. Some passengers noticed noticed the collision and informed the cabin crew, but because first officer was looking and didn't see it, the flight was commenced anyway. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Mar 19 '14 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that you'd have to have experience with the specific type in order to notice something wrong... or even that you'd have to be a pilot. Certainly, both would make your input more useful, but I don't think they're necessary and I think the answers below demonstrate that pretty well. I do seem to recall hearing an interview with a private pilot who noticed wing icing on a commercial flight once. They were interviewing him because he was one of the people still alive after the plane crashed just beyond the end of the runway due to said icing that the crew ignored. $\endgroup$ – reirab Sep 23 '14 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ I think the flight may have been Continental 1713, but I'm not completely sure. $\endgroup$ – reirab Sep 23 '14 at 14:26
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This headline made the news this week: Passenger Snaps Photo of Fuel Pouring Out of a Dreamliner's Wing:

The passenger, Ann Kristin Balto from Tromsø, noticed the highly disconcerting leak as the plane was taxiing to the runway—before it actually took off. After alerting the stewardess, the flight was immediately cancelled.

So fuel leaks are one thing you could look out for!

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, liquid pouring out of the wing, especially on a dry day, is not normal. $\endgroup$ – KeithS May 27 '15 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ Would the pilot not have noticed this? $\endgroup$ – Firee Aug 18 '15 at 7:15
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Interestingly, the reason why many airlines require window blinds to be raised for take-off and landing is specifically due to the extra visibility it affords passengers and cabin crew in spotting any particular problems for which the pilot and flight crew may not have very good visibility.

Skeptics: Why do we open the window shades during landing and take-off?

Crew and passengers can easily see any external damage, fire or smoke indicating a problem and perhaps bringing it to the attention of flight crew quicker.


There were also reports that it was a passenger who noticed a engine cowling door having been left open after maintenance on a recent British Airways incident flight:


However, although the pilot and flight crew may not be able to see these things directly, you should rest assured that their instrumentation should bring to their attention any engine problems. An engine malfunction or fire would almost certainly become apparent to the flight crew by virtue of warning indications, and loss of power.

That being said, if you ever have cause for concern as a passenger you should bring it to the attention of cabin crew. They will, one would hope, have the skill & experience to know whether to bring it to the attention of the flight crew!

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    $\begingroup$ That is not why window shades are sometimes opened for takeoff or landing. It's solely for evacuation purposes, to allow the flight attendants to see outside. $\endgroup$ – Ralgha Dec 19 '13 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Ralgha - If you can point me to the US/EU rules on that it would be a great addition to my answer over on skeptics ;) Answers on skeptics are a bit different to most se sites in that we need way more references to be judged a good answer. $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Dec 19 '13 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ There aren't any US regulations covering it, it's only airline policy, and you're not going to get to see any of those unless it's publicly available. I don't know about the EU, I've only ridden on one EU airline and I don't remember if they required windows open. $\endgroup$ – Ralgha Dec 19 '13 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Jamiec Note that this was only one in a list of reasons that some airlines have a policy of having the window shades open for takeoff and landing. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Jan 17 '14 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Lnafziger - If you know any more I would be interested to know and update my answer on skeptics (linked above). $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Jan 20 '14 at 9:20
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Rogue wing panels flying off and puncturing hoses is the latest thing to make headlines...

Definitely tell the cabin crew if you see anything like that ;)

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    $\begingroup$ Credible source says "was enroute nearing top of descent". The version you link to most likely exaggerates with the take-off. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Mar 19 '14 at 21:17
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There are definitely some standard warning signs you can look for:

  1. Any colored fluid or oil-like substance dripping from the wing.
  2. Any sign of buckling or irregular bends in the skin of the aircraft or popped rivets
  3. Fire, smoke or the smell of something burning
  4. Loose or missing panels or farings
  5. Presence of a red streamer or anything that says "REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT"
  6. When a door is closed and secure for flight it should have an orange strip diagonally across the window; if the strip is hanging straight down, something has gone wrong.
  7. Any member of the flight crew that appears drunk, woozy or disoriented
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  • $\begingroup$ 1: A previous airliner I flew always dribbled some oil after shutting down, it was normal. Any airplane that's been deiced earlier will probably be dripping some reddish or greenish fluid from various places. Fuel can be seen sometimes dripping while fueling. 3: Overheating packs smell like burning, but isn't a big problem. 4: Many airplanes have hydraulic doors or panels that sag. 5: Some airplanes require gear pins (with flags) to be installed for push-back. 6: Not all airplanes use this method. 2 and 7 are the only ones that are possibilities. $\endgroup$ – Ralgha May 25 '15 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ So if i spot a missing rivet, near the door or something, would that be a cause for an alarm? $\endgroup$ – Firee Aug 18 '15 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Firee Normally the concern would be a "popped" rivet. If metal gets bent the rivets will pop out and protrude. So if you saw several rivets in a row on the fuselage popped out, that would an item of concern. A single missing rivet would not be a concern. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Aug 18 '15 at 12:19
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This will not work in a large commercial airplane but if you are flying a smaller airplane (think Cessna), especially in a crowded airspace, I try to make it into the passenger briefing that if they spot any traffic coming our way, I probably know about it, but they should feel free to call it, including direction and relative height. It never hurts to have the extra pairs of eyes, and passengers seems to enjoy the extra responsibility bestowed upon them.

Beyond that, chances are the pilot is aware of any situation long before the passengers.

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Here is some personal experience, though not as spectacular as the other pictures shown here.

enter image description here

It was on a flight from Chicago to Paris CDG, when I noticed somewhere near Spain that there's a loose plate on top of this stabilizer / rear part of pylon of the A340. Being at home, I saw that it was already there at takeoff, as you can see on my picture.

The quite interesting part is that after touchdown, when all air brakes were activated, the plate started to flutter extremely due to the turbulent air flow. At a certain speed, the lift of the air flow was so low, that the plate sunk down into its designated position, and it was as if there has never been something wrong.

I told the cabin crew and got an audience with the pilot. It was difficult to explain the problem to him, as it was not visible any more. He also doubted that I may have seen the flaps...

However... I think this was no serious problem for the aircraft itself, but parts falling off an aircraft on the runway can be a bad thing. Especially at Paris Charles de Gaulle, our destination, they had some very disastrous experience with it.

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Cracks in fuselage while boarding. There was flight where a passenger noticed a crack and was too shy to tell cabin crew. The fuselage peeled in flight and at least one person died.

The flight was Aloha 243, a Boeing 737 flying from Hilo to Honolulu that diverted to Kahului, Maui after a very large portion of the top-forward fuselage ripped off due to rapid decompression resulting from metal fatigue cracks. According to the end of Section 1.1 of the NTSB Report (page 5, 2nd paragraph):

After the accident, a passenger stated that as she was boarding the airplane through the jet bridge at Hilo, she observed a longitudinal fuselage crack. The crack was in the upper row of rivets along the S-10L lap joint, about halfway between the cabin door and the edge of the jet bridge hood. She made no mention of the observation to the airline ground personnel or the flight crew.

There was 1 death (a flight attendant who was sucked out of the aircraft) and 65 injuries.

From Section 1.1 of the NTSB Report (page 2, last paragraph):

When the decompression occurred, all the passengers were seated and the seat belt sign was illuminated. The No. 1 flight attendant reportedly was standing at seat row 5. According to passenger observations, the flight attendant was immediately swept out of the cabin through a hole in the left side of the fuselage. The No. 2 flight attendant, standing by row 15/16, was thrown to the floor and sustained minor bruises. She was subsequently able to crawl up and down the aisle to render assistance and calm the passengers. The No. 3 flight attendant, standing at row 2, was struck in the head by debris and thrown to the floor. She suffered serious injuries including a concussion and severe head lacerations.


The remnants of N73711 (the aircraft operating Aloha 243):
Aloha 243
Image Source: Wikipedia

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    $\begingroup$ any references? told in this way looks like an urban legend. $\endgroup$ – Federico May 25 '15 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Federico Unfortunately, it's not an urban legend. It was Aloha 243. I've updated the answer with information about the flight, picture, and NTSB reference for a passenger noticing cracks before flight. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 18 '15 at 5:23
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab thanks for taking the time to do it. I knew about Aloha 243, as you might notice I wrote told in this way looks like. $\endgroup$ – Federico Aug 18 '15 at 6:09
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Spanair Flight 5022 crashed during takeoff because flaps were not deployed and the systems involved in warning the pilots about this event, failed. I'm not an expert and I don't know the chances of this event to happen, but if you are about to take off and see no flaps deployed, then that might be a reason for warning the crew.

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    $\begingroup$ Only if you happen to know the type pretty well. Some aircraft (including the one I mostly fly) don't use flaps for takeoff under normal conditions. Most aircraft can takeoff without flaps, it just uses more runway. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 18 '15 at 14:33

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