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.

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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