Ask the pilot

Can an airliner get a speeding ticket? And, isn't it a bad thing when an engine bursts into flame?

By Patrick Smith

Published September 13, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Readers have come forward with some amusing, if cynical, comments regarding the preflight safety briefing offered by the cabin crew. The style of these briefings has always been a pet peeve of mine -- their importance betrayed by turning a few minutes of important information into several minutes of profligate banality. The speech has become, at this point, pure camp -- legal fine print turned into (bad) performance art and honed to ludicrous perfection.

Some background: In America, those of us involved in the day-to-day operations of commercial flying work under the jurisdiction of a vast web of rules known as the Federal Aviation Regulations, or FARs. Commercial aviation has grown tremendously both in size and complexity, which naturally has increased the size and scope of applicable regulation. However, while size and scope are one thing, decipherability and practicality are something else.

The FARs are an enormous, frequently unintelligible volume. Their fatty babble shows off aviation's flair for the arcane, and there is no more glaring example of prolix rigmarole than the dreaded safety briefing. Any frequent traveler will tell you that the best sleeping pill for an anxious flyer is the rote recitation covering seat belts, life vests and oxygen masks -- so weighed down with extraneous language that it's completely without impact.

The briefing card outlining the requirements for seating in exit rows has set a new standard. Those requirements were controversial for some time. The result: an interminable, bafflingly verbose card packed with enough technobabble to set anyone's head spinning. Exit-row passengers are asked to review this card before takeoff.

On one recent flight passengers were subjected to the phrase "at this time" repeated on thirteen occasions. "At this time we ask that you please return your seat backs to their full and upright positions." Why not, "Please straighten your seat backs." Meanwhile almost every airline includes the following: "Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying any lavatory smoke detector." Aren't tampering with, disabling, and destroying essentially the same things? How can you destroy something without having tampered with it?

With a pair of shears and common sense, a typical briefing can be trimmed to about half its length with no sacrifice of information. The result is a cleaner oration that people will actually listen to. As part of a college paper on air safety, I once turned a typical 6-minute briefing into 2.5 concise, polite minutes of useful instruction.

I'm impressed by the sheer complexity of an airliner's cockpit. There are hundreds of controls and displays. Private planes don't have nearly so many. Is there a key subset that you primarily use?

The seemingly Byzantine array of instrumentation does contain a subset (or a few subsets) used more frequently than others. The cockpit has many controls that are rarely, if ever, touched (unless they're in the simulator, where the greasy smudge of many a nervous pilot's finger can be found on switches and buttons not routinely needed).

The contrast in the cockpits of large and small airplanes exists for the reason you'd expect: The capabilities of airliners -- including small jets and turboprops -- are immensely more formidable than those of, say, a two-seat Cessna. Much of what you see controls the workings of what pilots refer to collectively as "the systems." That's shoptalk for the electrical, hydraulic, air conditioning, pressurization, and fuel systems, among several others. Then there are navigational computers and displays, as well as controls and displays for the engines. Not to mention the instruments pertaining to flight itself -- altimeters, airspeed indicators, and so forth, which are much more elaborate than those aboard light planes. And much of this exists in duplicate or triplicate.

There's a general similarity among airplane models, but a pilot of one jet would not be expected to hop into another and understand its operation. Separate certification is required for a transition from one type to another, and a typical training course takes weeks.

When a plane lands, how does it come to a stop so quickly? It sounds like the engines rev up immediately after touchdown. Are the engines somehow reversing?

On most jets the engines indeed reverse, and that is exactly why you hear the "rev" just after meeting the pavement. The thrust is redirected by the deployment of deflectors. It's not a true reverse but more of an acutely angled, semi-forward vector like the effect of blowing into your cupped hand. If you're seated with a view of the engines, you can usually see this deployment quite clearly. Once in this condition, the engine's power is increased.

Turboprop engines can reverse as well. Most people aren't aware of it, but propeller blades are able to change angle, and they will twist to a setting that forces air forward rather than backward. Thus you'll hear a turboprop increasing its power after touchdown as well. (No, neither jets nor turboprops will reverse during flight.)

It's the brakes, however, that do most of the stopping. They are helped by the reverse thrust, drag from the flaps, and the deployment of spoilers. Spoilers are multipurpose panels that rise above the wing, in this case killing the wing's lift and effectively pressing the airplane onto its landing gear, whereupon the brakes can assume the work.

OK, your column on the deadliest crashes involved airlines that I mostly recognized. But in my backpacking days I remember my Lonely Planet guidebooks warning me away from some Asian and most African carriers. Is this justified?

Even the lesser-known foreign carriers are usually safe, and it's often splitting hairs to compare this or that carrier or geographic region. The airlines of some Third World nations are surprisingly dependable. One example is LAB, Bolivia's national airlines and one of the world's oldest, which flies in some of the hemisphere's most treacherous terrain but hasn't suffered a crash in decades.

Any of the major Asian carriers, from Singapore to Thai to Garuda, etc., have perfectly acceptable, occasionally exemplary, safety records. But you'll find exceptions when you get into the second-tier airlines in places like Cambodia or Myanmar (Burma). The state-run airline of Myanmar has a terrible reputation. When I flew from Yangon to Mandalay in that country recently, I chose one of the new independent carriers. Even so, I probably wouldn't refuse a trip on the government company if my itinerary required it.

Africa has a slew of sub-Saharan airlines I'd be wary of, but as with Asia the larger and more established names, like South African Airways, Royal Air Maroc, EgyptAir or Kenya Airways, are nothing to sweat. Frankly I'd be more comfortable traveling to parts of Africa -- or anywhere else -- with a local carrier that knows the territory and the various quirks of flying there.

A friend of mine was aboard a plane when a tongue of flame came spurting from an engine during takeoff. The passengers began shouting and a flight attendant radioed the cockpit. The plane lifted off, then dropped back to the ground and came to a stop. I shudder to think what might have happened had they continued. Doesn't a plane need all of its engines running full bore for takeoff?

This question so nicely illustrates some rather blatant PEF, or Passenger Embellishment Factor, the phenomenon that accompanies so many (usually second- or third-hand) accounts of discontinued takeoffs, aborted landings, assumed near-misses and the like. Though not a witness to the "tongue of flame" and the follow-up actions of this crew, I have my hunches:

If the pilots discontinued this particular departure, they did so because they became aware of some kind of engine anomaly during the acceleration. However, this would have taken place before liftoff. Flight attendants will not "radio" the cockpit (actually there's a phone) while the plane is screaming down the runway, and no pilot would answer such a call as a jet is nearing takeoff speed. I cannot believe the plane became airborne and then touched down again. Although it has happened, no pilot is trained this way. Decelerating and stopping at that point is often much more dangerous than continuing the flight, even with an emergency.

Despite the impressive roar of the engines and spine-straightening acceleration, airplanes rarely take off at "full bore." They instead use a predetermined thrust setting, typically some degree below the maximum output of the engines, based on various conditions. The exact amount of thrust is usually fine-tuned by a computer. Regardless, all airliners are certified to depart and climb after suffering an engine failure at the most critical point in the takeoff roll.

When a flight departs late, why can't the pilots simply pour on the coals to make up lost time? It's not like the air police are going to give you a speeding ticket, right?

Well, no, but it's a lot more complicated than that. Airplanes usually cruise fairly close to their maximum speed, measured as Mach number (the percentage of the speed of sound, which itself varies). However, flights normally follow one another along routings that aren't unlike highways in the sky, needing to be sequenced and spaced apart.

It is easier to make up lost time over long, straight routings, such as those across a continent or an ocean, than along crowded corridors with lots of twists and turns, but even then the savings is usually slight; there's not a whole lot of difference between, say, .84 Mach and .86 Mach. Also, "pouring on the coals" will affect fuel burn, which is sometimes preplanned under fairly tight constraints.

While flying at lower altitudes, by the way, pilots do have to observe various speed limits.

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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