# Were propeller airplanes significantly more "scary" to fly in compared to modern jet ones?

I've flown exactly once in my life. It was in 2004, with a commercial jet. Not a "jumbo", but a normal-sized jet plane in common use for cheap flights in that year. (Well, twice if you consider the trip back home as well, with a similar or identical plane.)

I found the experience quite scary. especially as it was going up and up, seemingly turning off the engines every now and then. The plane was "creaking" in a scary manner and it felt like the entire "main body" of the aircraft would snap in half at any moment, or that it would go too steeply upward and thus "turn around" and fall down on the ground or the sea.

Still, I wasn't hysterical and making a scene or anything. It just felt really scary in my stomach, perhaps understandably so since I had not grown up flying like most people seem to have. I was 18 when this experience happened.

I've many times watched old movies and documentaries and read about old airplanes, the "classic" kind which used propellers instead of the jet engines. I also assume that there must be multiple very different "generations" of jet-based airplanes as well, each one becoming more and more "comfortable" and "less scary" to travel in. Is this a correct assumption?

My question is: did old airplanes, for example ones in commercial use in the 1970s or 1950s, shake and creak more than modern ones, which would make them feel "scarier" to somebody like myself? I have this idea, which may or may not be accurate, that a jet engine is more "even" and that it perhaps has more "strength" to go through stormy weather and whatnot in a less "jerky" manner.

But on the other hand, older airplanes seemed to have way more room, less people and way better service, and not built with cost-cutting due to "ultra-cheap" tickets (I still find them expensive for my wallet), so maybe the overall experience was still more comfortable in those days?

I'm wondering about both the technical facts as well as the general perceived experience.

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– Farhan
Jun 19 '21 at 20:10

Old propeller airliners were much more prone to "bumpy" ride than modern jets, for one major reason: they flew lower.

When I was in my early teens (almost fifty years ago), I flew several times aboard a Beechcraft 99, a low-wing, twin turboprop feeder aircraft with (IIRC) 14 or 18 seats. Unpressurized, and most if not all seats have a pretty good forward view out the aircrew's windshield, as well as to the side over the (IIRC) right wing.

This aircraft had a cruise speed of somewhere around 200 kt, and was unpressurized, so flew below 12,000 feet (3500 m). On a sunny day, there would be a bump every time the aircraft passed through a thermal column; if there was weather, every gust was palpable. During takeoff and especially landing, the wing outboard of the engine flexed visibly, and the noise from the propellers was enough to make conversation difficult (not to mention anyone you might talk to was seated either ahead of you or behind).

I didn't find this scary, because I was already an aviation enthusiast; I found it fascinating and exciting.

But now, consider that the Beechcraft 99 was a significant step up from a slightly larger aircraft of a few decades earlier, the DC-3. It had more power, quieter engines, and flew faster (not to mention smelled better -- at least to me, jet fuel kerosene is much more pleasant than leaded gasoline). It climbed faster and had more reserve in case of a go-around or engine-out, as well. Yet, the DC-3 was, when introduced, one of the highest performing transport aircraft in the world.

Every generation of aircraft has been an evolutionary improvement over the previous -- because that's why it replaced the one before. Even the smallest jet airliners of today are much larger, more robust, faster, and because they fly higher, smoother. The wings still flex -- as has every wing ever built since the Wright brothers got an engine -- and when you're low and slow, you'll feel bumps from turbulence and thermals, but you'll feel them less than you would have fifty years ago.

• Isn't another reason that small planes are more susceptible to turbulence, and commercial planes of the pre-jet era were typically smaller? So the motor type is a red herring: A B747-sized propeller plane flying at 30,000 ft would fly as smoothly (but I think their ceiling is lower, so they cannot avoid weather systems by climbing higher like a jet). Jun 16 '21 at 7:02
• @Peter-ReinstateMonica The ability to pressurize large propeller planes so they could fly higher came at the very end of their reign -- the Super Constellation was pressurized and could cruise high enough to be effectively turbulence free (and had similar passenger load to a first-gen 707) -- but by the time they fixed the fatigue problem, the 707 was in the market and DC-8 was nearly ready to sell. As I said, it's mostly about altitude (and to a lesser extent wing loading, relative to turbulence -- higher loading makes the airplane respond less to a bump). Jun 16 '21 at 13:50
• Last paragraph is true for other vehicles as well. Ever try driving a car from the 1950's or earlier? By modern standards it's a pretty harrowing experience. Weak brakes, sluggish (non-power) steering, hardly any shocks, no seatbelt, airbags, or any other safety equipment, you'll feel every bump in the road, and be constantly afraid you're going to lose control of the vehicle. Technology improvements make lots of things less scary... Jun 16 '21 at 16:28
• @jamesqf There's always a trace of fuel odor in the engine exhaust, and tiny planes like the Beech 99 were boarded directly from the tarmac, with engines idling in most cases, so you'd get a little of that smell. Jun 16 '21 at 18:22
• @Darrel Hoffman: With any decent car, you are going to get a good bit of road feel. Some of us don't regard "handles like a waterbed" as an improvement :-) But I guess it's subjective: I had quite a lot of fun in some '50s cars. and didn't regard them as scary at all, just as I don't think my '60s Cherokee is scary. Jun 17 '21 at 5:36

Yes, if you were riding on a DC-7 or Lockheed Constellation, the planes that the first passenger jets replaced, you would be crawling up the walls if you found a modern jet frightening.

Lots of noise and vibration from 4 Wright R-3350 radial engines, that belch great clouds of oil smoke when they start (to me, all the noise and smoke is a symphony, but not to most people I'm sure).

It's noisiest near the front where the propellers are, so the 1st class section was usually at the quieter back of the cabin instead of the front. In-flight engine shutdowns were relatively common with the complex turbo-compound version of the R-3350.

Vibration transmitted into the cabin from the engines will make the interior panels rattle and buzz (still a problem on turboprops today actually).

Service ceilings are in the area of 25000 feet, so you have to go through or around weather, not over it, so you may be in turbulence and icing during the cruise phase, not just during the brief departure/climb and descent/approach.

This movie, shown in theatres to promote air travel and hosted by Arthur Godfrey (an early 50s kind of Oprah Winfrey type tv host) captures what it was like pretty well.

Of course, unless you were upper middle class or higher, you would be going by train or ship anyway, pre jet age. Air fares were too expensive for regular people.

• Ah, the wonderful Constellation. Experiencing in-flight engine shut-downs so often it was lovingly referred to by its pilots as "the best three engine airplane in the skies". Jun 18 '21 at 19:37

To enlarge upon John K's answer:

At night, the exhaust stacks (visible through the windows!) on the DC-7C glowed red-hot and the exhaust gas itself glowed blue and pink as it flowed back along the engine nacelle, flickering all the way to the trailing edge of the wing. This scared the heck out of me in 1960 while flying from LAX to Copenhagen via Winnipeg and Soendre Stromfjord.

In the daytime, the propeller de-icing systems would throw ice particles off the blades. Since the restrooms were positioned in the plane of the propellers (to minimize loss of life if a blade came loose and got thrown through the fuselage) and the restrooms had a little window in them, those ice particles would strike the window and produce little puffs of ice crystals that you could see.

If the props were even slightly out of sync, ripples of vibrations would rhythmically sweep through the passenger cabin and a cup of water placed on the fold-down tray table in front of you would "walk" by itself to the edge of the table under the influence of the vibrations and fall to the floor.

All these things made flying around the world in a piston-engined prop plane a lot scarier than the same flight in a jet.

And to top it off: because you flew lower and slower, the plane was constantly heaving and bucking up and down. After 23 hours of this, I suffered from severe mal-de-debarquement syndrome and for the following 10 years, every time I got into a confined space like a clothes closet the floor would start bucking and heaving and I would get nauseated!

A decently modern turboprop is comparable to a modern jet powered plane. Not much difference in the passenger experience, apart from the noisier engines.

However, a small propellor powered plane like a Cessna is a totally different beast. I have only flown on those a few times and they are like being on a bicycle in the air. A jet powered commercial airliner feels like a large luxury sedan in comparison.

Everything on those tiny planes is rattling & shaking. Safety precautions are minimal at best. I would imagine older smaller prop powered planes would be similar.

• The first time I flew on a small plane was in a co-worker's Mooney. A screw dropped into my lap during the flight. That wasn't very comforting. Jun 17 '21 at 0:37
• Great subjective description of the experience, but “Safety precautions are minimal at best.” isn’t so accurate — any plane produced by an established manufacturer in the last 50 years has plenty of well-designed and regulated safety features and oversight. Jun 17 '21 at 9:56
• @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine A very large percentage of light single GA aircraft flying today were designed more than 50 years ago. :) The 150, 172, 182, and PA-28 were all designed in the 1950s, for example. Granted, I'd still agree that "safety precautions are minimal at best" to be inaccurate, though it would definitely seem that way when comparing them to the \$100M-\$400M passenger jets most people are accustomed to flying in. Jun 18 '21 at 21:01

As a teen I flew commuter flights in the mid 70's on propeller aircraft. These were turboprop twins that seated a handful of people, although I don't recall the exact count, and I never knew the make and model. I didn't find them scary, and my sister never seemed afraid.

They were annoying, however. They were very loud. The props were never synchronized exactly, so you had to listen to the beat frequencies generated by the heterodyning of the props. I hate that.

I don't recall them being bumpier than the jets we also flew on when we were young, but it's possible that it was bumpier and just didn't bother us.

There was some compensation for the annoyance. The pilots never closed the curtain behind them, so you always had a great view of approach and landing. That was especially fun at night with all the runway and approach lighting.

Although this site usually discards questions dealing with subjective matters, I'm glad to see this question has "survived" the peer review. My two cents:

Thing with "ye olde aircraft" is, that at their golden age they were the standard experience. Flying was supposed to be bumpy and noisy, and those flying frequently probably thought nothing of it. Throw a person from today back a few decades, and if not scared, they would be disappointed at least. The older planes would rattle and creak more, but so did other things in the daily lives of the people back then: cars, trains, ships, lawnmowers, buildings.

All in all, flying being scary has actually very little to do with what one flies on or with. Fear of flying as a psychological phenomenon is not rational. That's why it's referred to as flight phobia in scientific literature: a phobia is by definition an extreme or irrational fear of something, many definitions add a "disorder" to the description. I was unable to find quickly any studies about evolution of how people experience flying, but I would postulate that for a majority of people, it has not changed much over time.

It is worth mentioning that flying was more dangerous back then, statistics are very clear about this. From the seventies the fatalities in air travel have plummeted 12 fold from 6.35 to 0.51 fatal accidents / million flights (Wikipedia). So those embarking on a flight 50 years ago took a considerably larger risk than those taking a flight today.

More and more people can afford travel by air these days, that is a major factor when considering whether flying is more scary or not when comparing experiences over time. Planes are different, but so are the passengers as a group. Back in the days those flying were probably more adventurous, and flying carried a "high social stature". Might have been uncomfortable, but the bragging rights made up for it.

P.S. I personally never experienced older propeller aircraft (80's, so a bit outside the scope of this question) as any more scarier than the modern jets. As a kid, I flew several times on a regional propeller aircraft about the size of EMB 120 mentioned in a previous answer. I never found the ride to be scary, even though it was bumpier and noisier than what I now get to experience on contemporary and bigger jets. For me, it was exiting. A couple of years ago I was on a regional flight aboard an ATR-72, and the weather was bad. I mean really bad. Approach to home field was a real roller coaster ride with sharp bumps, long dips and high(ish) G soars. No doubt the cockpit was sprinkled with sweat after that. But was it scary? For me no, quite enjoyed it actually, as I trusted the plane and all the people involved in running the operation.

Unless something has gone seriously wrong, planes are only “scary” to those who don’t know what “normal” feels and sounds like.

I’ve flown in everything from jumbo jets to light GA trainers, and they all make numerous motions and sounds that will be completely unfamiliar to someone who’s never flown before. Our brains are wired at a deep level to be scared of the unknown, because running away from unknown dangers is a better long-term survival strategy than trusting them not to kill you. But you can’t run away on a plane, which just magnifies that fear.

As you fly more, you learn that despite these feelings and sounds, you arrive safely at your destination, so they become “known” and less scary. Your brain will even start anticipating them and take comfort in them because it means that things are going okay, and then it will start tuning them out. Eventually you will even start to wonder if something is wrong if you don’t experience those (formerly “scary”) motions or sounds when expected.

My high school band flew to a couple of national competitions, and many of the students had never flown before. They were paired with those of us who had, and I remember my seatmates waking me from my naps several times during each flight, panicked because they were certain we were going to die, and I had to reassure them that everything was fine before I could go back to sleep. Most were better on the second flight, and then a year or two later they’d be reassuring younger students themselves.

In the early 90s I had to fly on what I think was an Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia turboprop . As you can see, it's not a terribly large aircraft.

We were heading to Nashville and there was a major front moving in. It bounced that plane around worse than any flight I have ever been on. My poor and beleaguered mother was now terribly motion sick and the Brasilia had rather noisy landing gear, so when they deployed for landing, she grabbed my arm and begged me to tell her it was the landing gear. The pilot had already announced we were landing so I assured her it was. We landed without incident in the rain.

I never had anything similar in the ATR-72 aircraft that became common afterward. They were slightly larger, but I also suspect the airlines didn't fly them as readily into adverse conditions like that.

By contrast, the worst flight I ever had on a jet was on a 757. There was near-constant rippling of the wings, but nothing compared to that Nashville flight. The plane would "bounce" some, and I had serious vertigo the next day, but nothing serious.

I flew a lot of regional flights between the UK and Ireland in the 1990s, this was before Ryanair became what they are now, and the aircraft were often Short Brothers 360, which is a 36-seat twin prop. They were nicknamed 'The Vomit Comet' and for good reason.

• Twin turboprops, so very noisy.
• Unpressurised cabin, so uncomfortable ear equalisation problems for some people. Also this means a low ceiling meaning it could be difficult to go above bad weather.
• Small, so tossed around very easily. As a passenger in one of these an approach into Knock Airport on the west coast of Ireland in the teeth of a North Atlantic winter storm is a very different proposition than it would be in even one of the smaller jets.
• Hello Alan, Shorts Brothers are the world's oldest Aircraft manufacturer. Jun 18 '21 at 16:08