Q&A With the Pilot


Eons ago, in 2002, a column called Ask the Pilot, hosted by yours truly, started running in the online magazine Salon, in which I fielded reader-submitted questions about air travel. (United Airlines later stole my name and began running a stripped-down version of the same thing in its inflight magazine.) It’s a good idea, I think, to touch back now and then on the format that got this venerable enterprise started. It’s Ask the Pilot classic, if you will.

Q: On a flight from London to New York, I noticed that our 747 was flying almost parallel with, and very close to, a Lufthansa plane. It remained next to us for at least a couple of hours as we crossed the Atlantic. We were close enough that I could clearly see the blue and gold tail emblem and the Lufthansa name on the fuselage. I assume our pilots were aware of it, and vice versa?

What you describe is common when flying between Europe and North America. The east-west routes across the North Atlantic consist of a series of one-way parallel “tracks,” as we call them, made up of sequential points of latitude and longitude. Flights along the same track are sequenced by time, one behind the other. Or, they are stacked vertically, with a minimum of 1,000 feet between each plane. The tracks are 60 miles apart, however, so you were likely on the same track as the Lufthansa jet, a thousand feet higher or lower, and slightly offset horizontally. Offsetting horizontally reduces collision hazards, unlikely as they are, and helps avoid wake turbulence. Standard offsets are 1 mile or 2 miles (pilot’s choice) to the right. A plane one or two miles away horizontally and only a thousand feet lower or higher will basically appear parallel to you.  

The tracks go west-to-east in the evening, when the vast majority of planes depart North America for Europe, and east-to-west in the mornings and afternoons, when most flights are headed the other way. Those going against the flow — a morning flight from New York to London, for example — will be assigned a “random route,” clear of the organized tracks. Each track is assigned a letter designation. The locations of the tracks are different every day, varying with weather and winds aloft. Track “A” on Tuesday might consist of a totally different string of latitude/longitude fixes than Wednesday’s track “A.”

Separate from ATC communications, there’s an open radio frequency (VHF 123.45) used on the track system that allows crews to talk to each other. While this is useful for passing on information about turbulence and whatnot, a lot of the conversation is casual. The likes of “What’s up? Where are you guys headed?” is heard all the time. It’s quite possible that your crew and the Lufthansa crew were chatting at some point.

Typical North Atlantic Track (NAT) structure.

Typical North Atlantic Track (NAT) structure.

Q: The captain said we’d be following a more direct route than originally planned. Then, as we began our descent, he indicated that the landing gear would be lowered earlier than usual in order to use up excess fuel.  I fly all the time but I’d never experienced this before.

This kind of thing happens very rarely. It sounds as though your shortcut left the plane with so much fuel that it would have been above its maximum landing weight for the runway (perhaps, because of wind or weather-related reasons, the only available runway was a short one?). The increase in drag produced by the landing gear would result in considerably more fuel burn, helping get the plane within limits. It’s a wasteful, loud, and frankly unprofessional technique, but it works. One time I was flying from South America to New York. Because of a pressurization malfunction we had to divert to Puerto Rico. We were above landing weight, however, and the dispatchers recommended that instead of landing heavy, which would entail a time-consuming inspection, that we should descend to a lower altitude and deploy the gear for the last half-hour or so of flight.

Some planes — mainly the bigger ones — have fuel jettison capabilities, but that’s more for emergency returns, medical or mechanical diverts, and that sort of thing. Planes never jettison fuel in normal operations.

Q: I recently flew on a new 737-900, in seat 13A. I was surprised to find there was no window in this row, although there was ample space for one. Why?

You see this on a lot of planes. Usually it’s because there’s some sort of internal component — ducting, framing, or some structural thing — that doesn’t allow space for a window. Some turboprops are missing a window directly adjacent to the propeller blades, and you’ll find a strip of reinforced plating there instead. This is to prevent damage when, during certain conditions, the blades shed off chunks off ice.

Q: How come there are no direct flights from Europe to Hawaii? The distance is somewhere around 6,000 nautical miles from the bigger Western European capitals, but that’s well within the reach of long-haul aircraft.

I can’t imagine such a route would be profitable. It has two critical factors working against it. First, it’s a very long distance. Second, it’s a leisure destination with little premium-fare traffic, meaning that yields would be low. Cheap tickets, limited first or business class traffic, and long distances: that’s a terrible economies-of-scale combo that will only work if you can consistently fill a jumbo jet to the gills. And even that’s no guarantee of turning a profit. And how many Europeans are interested in vacationing in Hawaii in the first place? There are many closer sun-and-sea options: Turkey and the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean resort islands, Thailand, etc. Heck, there wasn’t even a Hawaii to New York nonstop until just a couple of years ago when Hawaiian Airlines came in to give it a try (the route continues, though I’ve been told it only makes money in the winter high season). Most people headed to Hawaii will connect through one of the bigger West Coast cities.

Q: I love watching airplanes in the night sky, but what do all the different lights mean? You’ve got green lights, red lights, white lights; steady lights and flashing lights. What does it all mean?

Wow, you’re really going to make me do this? If you insist. Mind you there are variations, but here’s a generic rundown:

Navigation lights (wingtips and tail): Colored lights that show a plane’s orientation: red on the left, green on the right, white in the back.  Always turned on.

Anti-collision lights (on the wingtips and sometimes the upper or lower fuselage as well): Very bright, white flashing lights that basically mean “look out, here we are!” Used night and day. Turned on just prior to the takeoff roll; turned off again just after landing.

Rotating beacon (upper or lower fuselage): A red flashing light used any time aircraft is moving. Turned on just prior to taxiing or towing; turned off again after engine shut-down. Means, “stay clear!”

Landing lights (most commonly wing-mounted and/or mounted on the nose gear strut): Very bright, white, forward facing beams. Used during takeoff, approach and landing.  Always off for taxi and cruise flight.

Taxi lights (normally on nose gear strut): White, forward facing beams. Assist with ground visibility during taxi. Usually left on for takeoff and landing as well.

Runway turnoff lights (if installed, wing-mounted): Bright white lights aimed slightly askew, to aid in high-speed turns when exiting the runway.

Logo lights (if installed): Spotlights mounted in the top of the horizontal stabilizer and aimed at the tail. Shows off your carrier’s ugly logo and helps pilots and ground controllers identify traffic.  On for taxi, takeoff and landing; optional during cruise.


EMAIL YOUR QUESTIONS TO patricksmith@askthepilot.com

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Portions of this post appeared previously in the magazine Salon.

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28 Responses to “Q&A With the Pilot”
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  1. Kathrine Grant says:

    I recently landed at Canberra during a heavy storm. As we landed something happened so quickly that I had no time to wonder what it was. It felt as if the plane leaned heavily towards the side of the runway (taking me with it), and back very quickly. I fly quite frequently and this has never happened before. I’d be very pleased if you had an explanation for me. Thank you.

  2. Art Knight says:

    This is probably not the correct place to pose this question, but here I go anyway. I was watching “City In The Sky” and it featured Atlanta’s Jackson-Hartsfield airport. Both Atlanta and Frankfurt utilize an “end-around” taxi-way. It runs behind the end of the runways. The aircraft lands and can immediately roll to the terminal which makes for a much more efficient and safer airport. They don’t have to wait like school-children waiting for the crossing guard to cross the runway. It seems like such a simple idea. Why doesn’t every airport do this?

  3. Camilo Robayo says:

    Hi! Very intresting website, congrats!
    My question is:

    I was flying from San Andres island to Bogota, colombia at night. I was in a front row, it raind most of the way; ¿why did the pilot constantly turn on and off the engine lights? Thank you!

    • Patrick says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “engine light,” but likely they were looking for any ice accumulation, and/or to check to see if there was precipitation. If it’s raining or snowing, a quick flash of the lights (usually it’s one of the landing lights) will show it pretty clearly — the reflections from the millions of droplets.

  4. Art Knight says:

    Some say the etymology of “posh” is an acronym. The privileged class preferred their cabin windows to always face the sun in the south. When traveling from England to America and back again, they wanted to be “Port Out, Starboard Home.” P.O.S.H.


  5. PRIYAM says:

    Hi Patrick, you are fabulous, Now i m 98% free of my fear of flying, I hv kept 2% for that small bottle of white i really enjoy consuming at airport lobby. Thanks again. If i ever get an oppertunity i will definitely treat you with a nice spicy hot beef curry and Sula White Wine.Keep flying.

  6. Clark says:


    I’ve been at altitude a few times, in clouds, when the pilot has turned on the landing lights (or some kind of spotlight aimed forward) for a period of time; you can see it from the cabin. What are they up to – checking out the clouds ahead for thunderstorms? It seems to have happened when there is some turbulence.

    Secondly, you refer to the landing-gear-drag method as a way of burning off fuel as “wasteful,” but if you are over the landing weight, you’re going to have to burn it off or dump it anyway, right? I don’t see the difference when it comes to fuel management; you either have to get rid of it or you don’t.

    Thanks for all the great answers, by the way – these Q&A articles are excellent (as are your essays, even if you fawn over Husker Du a bit too much!) 🙂

  7. Maria says:

    I recently flew NYC-ATL with Delta. I was surprised that the top part of the overhead bins was put together to the aircraft using duct tape. Yes, duct tape. It was a horrible, bumpy flight (more than usually in this route) and I was afraid -don’t laugh- of the airplane coming apart. I like flying “big” airlines because I know they do more mechanical check ups so I reminded myself that “they” wouldn’t let the plane fly if it was dangerous. But duct tape? Come on!

    • Art Knight says:

      It could have been worse. They might have used non-stick blue painter’s tape. At least you were not wearing leggings, as that would have brought it all to a halt!

  8. Jay says:

    I would like to know the difference between going for CPL and MULTI engine rating……im really not getting it though i searched alot for it

  9. Mary Lou says:

    What causes the vapor trails that I usually see all over the sky from planes? Some are short and dissipate quickly. Others are very long and stay inn the sky for a long time. Some people describe these as chem trails. If so, wouldn’t they affect the people below?

  10. Jeffrey Piestrak says:

    Thanks Patrick, I really enjoy the old style format. It’s good to learn the answers to questions you didn’t know you had.

  11. I cannot imagine any airlines which would be willing to maintain a direct flight from Europe to Hawaii – exactly for the reasons you´ve described. Almost no Europeans are flying to spend their vacation in Hawaii. It´s just too far.

  12. Dave says:

    “flew on a new 737-900, in seat 13A…there was no window in this row…Why?”

    air conditioning ducting running from distribution ducts up to the outlet duct running down the center of the ceiling…

  13. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    “At what speed or altitude is the landing gear extended?”

    I don’t want to complain here, but you didn’t answer the question. You indicated “typically around four or five miles from touchdown.” That is neither a speed, nor an indication of altitude. I don’t have any idea how fast a plane typically is flying when four or five miles from touchdown, nor at what altitude it might be. Something along the lines of “about 35 miles per hour, but sometimes faster to more rapidly slow the plane” or “at about 2,000 feet” would answer the question.

    I apologize if I sound crabby, but I just finished four days of depositions and people never just answer the dang question. “What were you wearing that night?” “I remember the night was hot. I think it was Tuesday, just at the start of the heat wave, so I don’t think I had my sweater. I’d left my tennis shoes at work, so i don’t have them to put on. I was headed to a rather down scale restaurant, so I know I didn’t have a tie.” I now know what the witness WASN’T wearing, but still don’t have a clue about what they were wearing, the actual question asked. Seriously, there are times…

    Again, my apologies.

    • Patrick says:

      Okay Stephen, fair enough. What I was trying to do was use a value — miles — that helps people visualize where in space the plane is, relative to the runway. If I say “at somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 feet,” or “at around 180 knots,” how many passengers know what THAT looks like? But I see your point. I’ll add something in.

  14. Daniel Ullman says:

    I have heard that the rotating beacons are also specific to civilian aircraft — the idea being that military aircraft can easily identify a commercial aircraft in the event of it getting off course. This does not always work.

  15. Greg says:

    Do airlines maintain the aircraft according to FAA mandates only or do they have their own maintenance programs that exceed FAA minimum requirements? Having flown on a major carrier in the last year that 1. Lost #4 engine on take-off, later on the same type aircraft on the same day had a landing gear fire. 2.A month later two of the same type aircraft had mechanical delays on successive days. I know this airline is phasing out the 747 but come on!
    I am beginning to wonder if airlines do only the minimum necessary maintenance. Especially in the USA where the passenger gets no compensation compared to EU passengers who miss a flight due to mechanical issues.
    Thank you

  16. Rod says:

    “Offsetting horizontally reduces collision hazards, unlikely as they are, and helps avoid wake turbulence. Standard offsets are 1 mile or 2 miles (pilot’s choice) to the right.”

    So if you find yourself below and behind another aircraft, you might want to do this to avoid wake turbulence. And if your cruise speed is faster (because I’ve often seen Plane A overtake Plane B), once you’re well ahead of the aircraft now behind and to your left, you would go back on track?

    Do control centres for the North Atlantic take wake turbulence into account in their work, the way tower controllers do?

  17. Pillai says:

    I am begging you to do an AMA in Reddit. You and we will have a lot of fun.

  18. dave says:

    Thank you for the ‘light breakdown’ i probably could have looked it up, but I’ve often wondered as i see approaching planes at night

  19. Patrick,

    A couple of quick comments on the non-stop Europe-Hawaii Q&A – Many airlines don’t make money or just break even due to the reasons you mentioned, but they are a great plus as a prime destination for a frequent traveler program. (the FF seats also dilute yield)

    There were non-stops New York-Hawaii in the past but discontinued for reasons discussed – United had a DC8-62 in 1975 and I also flew on TWA on a 747 JFK-HNL around 1978.

    • Jeff says:

      Also, Continental was flying direct from EWR to HNL at least a couple years, if not more, before Hawaiian’s current JFK-HNL which started only a few years ago(?). As far as i know (i havent paid attention since we switched to far more enjoyable hawaiian for our trips to the east coast) they still fly it as United. I think it’s UA15.

      • Martin says:

        Yes, Newark-Honolulu would have been the longest US domestic route until the flight from JFK added a few miles. I was on this flight about 3 years ago – strange to be getting domestic service for an international distance.

        As a European resident, I can say that Hawaii is very much not on our radar screen as a vacation hotspot. Depending on the time of year, it is an 11 or 12 hour time difference, which slams your body completely backwards, plus way too much time in the air. The extra distance also means a lot more expensive airfare. We can go on a one week beach vacation in Turkey that includes everything from airfare to booze, for less than the cost of a flight to Hawaii, arriving at the hotel a few hours after leaving home, and barely changing the clock. Hawaii is lovely, but not lovely enough to overcome the hassles of getting there.

      • Jeff,

        I flew EWR-HNL a few years back, and EWR is normally considered a flight from the New York market (its actually closer to manhattan than JFK) I thought EWR-ANC might be a longer domestic flight but its not – UA flys a non-stop 1747

  20. Speed says:

    Don’t forget the ice lights.