Ask the pilot

Do pilots sweat bullets during wind-whipped landings? And why are those darn windows so small?

By Patrick Smith

Published June 28, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Sifting through the responses to last week's "Ask the Pilot" feature, I noticed an occasional tone of resentment and suspicion. One reader, a bit more openly annoyed than most, asked of the author, "Is he a shill for the corporate bullshit airlines?" But pointing out the selfish antics of the airlines and lamenting the general indignities of flying brings us back to the purpose of the article in the first place.

I get the feeling that if I had written a piece about the play of light in the 17th century paintings of Vermeer, or the architectural work of Sinan in the mosques of Istanbul, nobody would have gotten so hot and bothered. But the idea was to show some beauty where you don't expect it. Indignities aside, there are, at least for now, still many jewels, both aesthetic and existential, to be found in the world of flying. To counter them with yet more horror stories from Row 45 proves what I was saying in the first place -- that many people are too distracted and spoiled to get it. Sure, flying sucks, but if you can't value the idea of zipping to Hong Kong in 12 hours in a million-pound machine, then there's a problem. The article was not extolling the virtues of 18-inch seats or the culinary subtlety of half-ounce bags of snack mix. It was a cautionary for the passengers who snap their shades closed over the Grand Canyon and read the paper during the takeoff roll.

Airplanes helped me appreciate the world. They turned me on to geography, travel and culture. By studying the route maps of the "corporate bullshit airlines" as a young kid, I was inspired, later in life, to travel to places like Peru and Botswana and India, trying to get a sense of the world. It was a direct connection, and my intention was to remind people of that potential.

I also was chided by a couple of readers for a less-than-scientific explanation of what indeed keeps a vehicle full of fuel, passengers, and cargo aloft. In my hands-out-the-car-window scenario, I misleadingly suggested that wind striking the bottom of the wing is what kept it flying. A more correct explanation would describe how a varying flow of air both above and below the wing, due to its curvature, allows for a situation of higher pressure from beneath. The resulting upward push is what we call "lift."

How much turbulence can a typical 20-year-old passenger jet take before something really important breaks? And what actually goes on in the flight deck during a crazy wind-whipped landing? Do the pilots sweat bullets?

A typical airframe -- even an old one -- can take a remarkable amount of punishment. In talking to nervous passengers, I have found that turbulence seems to be the most frequently brought-up topic. Yet pilots, as a matter of routine, would not consider it a "safety issue." People often will say, "Wow, what a bumpy flight that was," yet a pilot may have little or no recollection of it being bumpy at all! There's is nothing like a good jolt of turbulence to remind a passenger he or she is aloft and at the mercy of the workings of an aircraft. But turbulence is not going to break off a wing or otherwise knock an airplane from the sky. Planes are built with rough air in mind, and what may feel like a serious airborne pothole to you is probably nothing to the airframe. That said, really strong turbulence (it is graded from "light" to "extreme") has damaged airplanes and injured passengers in the past. And keep in mind that rough air and so-called "wake turbulence" are very different things.

What you experience during your wind-whipped arrival is probably nothing too exciting on the flight deck. Just as you don't suddenly grab the wheel in a white-knuckle panic when your car drives over a gravel road, pilots don't sweat during in-flight bumpiness. Airplanes are inherently stable, wanting to return to their original spot in space when disturbed by a jolt of turbulence. Thus, the crew is not wrestling with the beast as much as simply riding it out. The crew or the autopilot may be flying a particular approach, but either way there's usually not much tension up front. A crosswind landing is a matter of routine -- a little extra input on the controls to allow for the "sideways" touchdown that is, in fact, the properly coordinated technique. And a firm touchdown is not necessarily a bad landing.

I try to avoid flying on those puddlejumper commuter planes. How unsafe are they compared to large jets?

Pilots bristle at the term puddlejumper much the way an environmental scientist would take offense to the term "tree-hugger." Generally, the regional jets and turboprops most of you hate to fly on are at least as sophisticated as most large jets. To attempt to correlate size and safety is, in this case, to delve into statistical minutiae.

What is a turboprop?

Virtually all modern, propeller-driven commercial airliners are turboprops. A turboprop engine is, at heart, a jet. But in this case, to provide better efficiency for lower-altitude and shorter-distance flying, the compressors and turbines drive a propeller rather than generate thrust directly, or via the large fan you see on a pure jet. There are no pistons in a turboprop engine.

When a flight is delayed due to weather or mechanical problems, who makes the decisions whether to delay, cancel, etc.?

This is an excellent question, and close to the heart of much of the friction between the airlines and their customers. Weather or traffic delays usually come directly from Air Traffic Control (which is to say the FAA). During delays, things are coordinated from the airline's dispatch department. Teams of trained and licensed dispatchers, who work in a huge room that looks like NASA control, handle the nitty-gritty of these situations. Via radio, phone or computer, they are in constant contact with the flight crew, even while aloft, conferring to coordinate weather delays, monitor the progress of maintenance, etc.

The interplay between dispatch, the crew and the agents at the counters is where things often become messy. Remember than an airline is often handling the logistics of hundreds of flights at any one time, resulting in the need for some daunting choreography. If airlines seem reluctant to dispense information during delays, it's usually just a case of simply not knowing the details of if, when and how. Passing on the complexities of a situation is often going to confuse people more than placate them.

What happens when lightning hits an airplane? (Or maybe I don't want to know the answer.)

Usually, a strike will not result in any catastrophic trouble. Planes are hit by lightning more frequently than you might think, but are designed with this in mind. The energy does not travel through the cabin, electrocuting the passengers; it is discharged overboard, partly through discharge wicks along the trailing edges of the wings and tail. There have been rare instances where damage has occurred, commonly to the plane's electrical systems. In 1963 lightning caused the crash of a Pan Am 707, after which various protective measures were mandated.

What would happen in a situation where entire crew was incapacitated? Are there any situations where this has happened?

"Is there a pilot onboard?" As far as I know, however, this has never occurred, except maybe in the movie "Airport '75." I doubt it would be possible for a non-pilot to land an airliner. Perhaps if the person were somehow able to establish communications, and were talked into setting up the aircraft for an auto-land situation. But the odds are against a happy ending.

If a large commercial jet loses engine power, can it glide to a landing, or is it pretty much all over?

All commercial airplanes -- jets and turboprops alike -- are certified to fly, and even climb after takeoff, following an engine failure. But if all the engines were to somehow stop working? Yes, the airplane can certainly glide to a landing. In fact the glide performance of a large jet is no worse than the glide performance of, say, a small Cessna. It needs to perform this maneuver at a higher speed, but the ratio of altitude lost to distance covered is roughly the same. And while it may surprise you, it's not the least bit uncommon for jets to descend at what a pilot would call "idle thrust." That is, the engines are run back to a zero-power condition. They are still operating, but in a way that basically produces no power. A glide, no different than your scenario above.

How is a cabin pressurized? Why is it pressurized? Does this have anything to do with the size and shape of the windows?

Without pressurization, there would not be enough oxygen for passengers to breathe. As you go higher, the amount of oxygen in the air decreases. Pressurizing the cabin re-creates the conditions on the ground (or close to it, as normal cabin pressure aboard a plane is actually a little higher than sea level). Otherwise, imagine having to sit there with one of those plastic masks strapped to your head. Also, a pressurized cabin allows for a gradual equalization as you climb and descend, making it more gentle on the ears. Pressurization is maintained via air from compressors in the engines. It is regulated through various valves in the fuselage.

The small size of the cabin windows is due to the necessity to withstand the forces of a pressurized cabin. This is why, for example, the windows of Concorde, which operates at a very high cabin pressure, are so tiny. The roundness allows for an even dispersal of the energy.

The giant double-decker one, scheduled to be flying in 2006: Is it a revolution in air travel waiting to happen? Will it restore some glamour of the jet set with options such as a bar and a gym?

Many readers were curious about the new "super jumbo," the Airbus A380, which will take its place as perhaps the ugliest widebody airliner ever built. It seems Airbus gave no real attention to aesthetics. The plane is bulbous and ungainly, without any of the elegance of the 747. And no, it's not a revolution waiting to happen. When the 747 made its debut in 1969, it was more than twice the size of the largest existing airplane, and brought with it a whole new concept of flying -- the widebody, long-range jumbo jet. The A380 will only be about a third bigger than the 747, and for the most part will rely on existing airport infrastructure and facilities. And bars (some with pianos), lounges and the like are not a new idea -- they were found on upper decks of many early 747s.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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