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.

Expect more of these Q&As in the coming months, if for no other reason than I enjoy putting them together. They’re geeky, but they’re fun. And I’ll probably never run out of fodder. It’s the nature of the business, I suppose: commercial flying is vastly misunderstood, and one of those things that everybody has a question about. That’s good for business, but it’s frustrating as well, because much of what the public presumes about commercial flying is based on bad information. If there’s a Golden Rule to this gig, it’s this: never, ever, underestimate the traveling public’s disdain for the airlines and its willingness to believe almost every false rumor, exaggerated story and conspiracy theory. I receive many emails beginning with the words “Is it true that…” and inevitably it’s my duty to politely informing the reader that the answer is no.

Q: Is it true that jetliners have windshield wipers?


I mean, yes. This might strike you as quaint, but most airliners are indeed equipped with wipers. They’re used on the ground, and during takeoff takeoffs and landings if precipitation is heavy. They are effective at keeping the windscreen clear, but tend to be very noisy. Often there’s a speed restrictions (around 200 knots, give or take), above which they should not be turned on. Some planes use a system that instead blows engine bleed air across the glass. Cockpit windows are also electrically heated to prevent ice and frost accretion. The individual panels use separate circuits and heating elements so that a failure will affect only one section. Heating also increases flexibility, providing extra protection against bird strikes.

The glass is unbelievably strong — bank-teller thick and bolstered by high-strength frames. Somewhere on YouTube is a video of maintenance workers attempting — and failing — to shatter a discarded cockpit windscreen with a sledgehammer.

If that all sounds expensive, it is. Swapping out a single cockpit pane can run tens of thousands of dollars.

Q: I was on a flight from Prague to Madrid, and about halfway through, the captain announced that we needed to make an emergency landing in Marseilles because of a crack in the cockpit windshield. A short while later we were told that because we’d descended to a suitable altitude, there was no longer a need for an emergency landing, and we could proceed to Madrid as planned. I would think that if there was a crack in the windshield you would want the plane on the ground as soon as possible.

Strong as they are, aircraft windscreens occasionally do crack. In all but the rarest cases, however, cracking will not cause a shattering or rupture of the window. How to deal with the crack depends on its size, the location, and how many layers of the glass are affected (there are multiple layers). The checklist might call for a speed reduction, and/or depressurizing in order to reduce stress on the glass. Or it might call for nothing at all. Depressurizing requires a descent to no higher than 10,000 feet. Once at the appropriate height and speed, and so long as fuel allows, it may be possible to continue flying without further trouble.

This is the kind of thing that the flight crew would coordinate with maintenance personnel. Ultimately it’s the captain’s decision, but dealing with malfunctions is often a team effort between the flight crew and staff on the ground, with whom we communicate via datalink or radio.

Q: We were sitting at the gate, preparing to board a flight to San Francisco. The plane was a 757. I was amazed when I looked out and suddenly saw one of the pilots with his arm hanging out the cockpit window!

Another peculiarity of cockpit windows is that some of them can be opened when the plane is on the ground. It’s normally the side windows — never those in the front — that have this capability, and only on some aircraft. The 757s and 767s that I fly are two of those aircraft. It gets hot in the cockpit with all of the lights on and electrical equipment humming, and I often crank a window open for fresh air.

The apparatus that does the latching and sliding is strictly mechanical, and also allows the window to be used as an emergency exit. It’s a long way down, so an escape rope is usually tucked into an adjacent sidewall or ceiling panel. (When commandos stormed a hijacked Air France flight in Algeria in 1995, first officer Jean-Paul Borderie fractured an elbow and thigh after leaping 16 feet to the ground from the cockpit of an Airbus A300.) The window fits into the frame much like a plug, and similar to how an aircraft’s doors cannot be opened during flight, neither can its windows, so long as the plane remains pressurized.

While all that glass makes for a splendid view and the chance for some fresh air, it also has a downside. Namely, noise. Going nose first into 600 miles-an-hour of onrushing air produces an exceptional racket. Ambient cockpit noise levels average about 75 decibels. Over the course of a multi-hour flight, that induces fatigue. Over the course of a career, it induces hearing loss. Engineers have tinkered with active noise reduction technology and better insulation, but the easiest way of dealing with the problem is either with a noise reducing headset or, more routinely, a pair of foam earplugs.

Airbus A380 with open cockpit window.   Photo by the author.

Airbus A380 with open cockpit window.    Photo by the author.

Q: It has always puzzled me why airliners deploy their landing gear so long before landing, yet tuck it away almost immediately after lifting off. Dropping the wheels so soon must cause a lot of extra drag and fuel burn.

Sometimes that drag is helpful. Dropping the gear can be a useful tool when air traffic control sets you up too high or needs you down in a hurry. This causes a racket, however, and isn’t the most graceful way of descending or decelerating.

Normally we deploy the landing gear at somewhere around 2,000 feet on final approach. Mainly it’s just to be certain that everything is steady and stable at a reasonably early point. Lowering the gear has a significant aerodynamic impact — mainly in the adding of wind resistance, i.e. drag — thus requiring power and pitch adjustments to maintain speed, altitude, or rate of descent. It’s best to have that out of the way early on to help establish what pilots call a “stabilized approach.” Deploying the gear close-in to the runway could cause a sudden shift in airspeed and attitude exactly when it’s critical not to have a sudden shift in airspeed and attitude.

On takeoff, however, this works to a plane’s advantage. Remember, the moments just after liftoff are the most critical moments of any flight. The plane is making the transition from ground to air, and margins are relatively thin. The more help it can get — such as eliminating the drag caused by dangling struts, tires and doors — the better. On approach, by contrast, flight is well established and the margins much fatter.

All planes have maximum speeds for deployment and retraction. Airstream stress is more of an issue for the doors than for the gear assembly itself. For this reason, some of the doors will open as the gear comes down, then close up again.

Q: Whenever I have a window seat, I watch for the deployment of the wing flaps, especially during takeoffs. There have been crashes because pilots “forgot” to extend the flaps. Can you explain the process involved with the flaps?

Flaps help a wing generate lift at low speeds. Commercial aircraft will take off with the flaps extended to some intermediate position. The specific position, calculated prior to departure, depends on weight and runway length. On planes that are so equipped, leading-edge slats will also be deployed. These droop down from the forward part of the wing, and provide the same function as flaps. Flaps and slats work in concert, and are extended or retracted using the same control lever. In other words, moving the lever to a certain position will adjust both surfaces.

(On the 767 that I fly, setting the flap lever to position 1 drops the slats to the so-called midrange position while the flaps remain up. Moving the lever further, to the 5 position, which is the one most commonly used for takeoff, the slats remain in the midrange setting but the flaps extend slightly. On landing, setting the flaps to positions 15 through 30 moves the slats all the way down, while the flaps extend even further.)

Flap position is verified, re-verified, and verified again prior to takeoff. At my carrier, our checklists include no fewer than three challenge-and-response calls before reaching the runway. On top of that, commercial planes are equipped with a warning sensor that sounds an alarm if the flaps are not deployed at the moment thrust is advanced for takeoff. When using the checklists, we verify not only the flap handle position, but the indicator gauge also, to make sure the flaps’ actual position agrees with the commanded position. If or some strange reason they don’t agree, and for some strange reason we missed this, a separate warning system is triggered.

So, how it is that planes have crashed on takeoff because flaps weren’t properly set? I can think of three cases when this did indeed happened. In all three it was due to a combination of unusual circumstances: The pilots were rushed and neglected to verify position, and, for reasons that investigators could not decipher, there was a simultaneous failure of the warning system. Nowadays, however, improved checklist discipline makes a repeat of this type of accident extraordinarily unlikely.

Flaps and slats are very important during landing as well, but there’s more wiggle room here. Should they fail to deploy, either partially or at all, we can adjust by using a faster approach speed. This, in turn, affects landing distance, braking, and so on, sometimes to the point where a plane will need to divert to a longer runway. “No-flap landings” are a common simulator exercise.


EMAIL YOUR QUESTIONS TO patricksmith@askthepilot.com

Related Stories:


Portions of this post appeared previously in the magazine Salon.

Comments (18)

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

Related Stories:


Portions of this post appeared previously in the magazine Salon.

Comments (28)