Ask the pilot

More fun with the poetry of airliner names. And, what to do about those narrow seats for wide people?


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Patrick Smith
November 6, 2002 7:30PM (UTC)

Thanks to John Wegg and Roger Thiedeman of Airways magazine for pointing out that the "Hindu temple" cabin windows of Air India are actually Mogul arches. Strangely, an episode of "The Simpsons" once portrayed an Air India jet, and to my shock they had correctly drawn the little Taj Mahalian designs around each oval portal.

All airliners from around the world wear registrations, normally marked in numbers or letters on the rear fuselage, but some, like the Emperor Ashoka of last week's column, also wear names. The tradition of naming airplanes is more ingrained at some carriers than others. Certain airlines make a point of naming their entire fleet, while some choose only select airplanes and others skip the practice altogether. A few years back, United began calling some of its jets after various employees and even frequent flyers (imagine not getting an upgrade on the very plane with your name on its nose). If a plane has been christened in honor of something, somewhere, or somebody, look for titles on the forward fuselage, usually just below the cockpit.

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Turkish Airlines names its spotless Boeings and Airbuses after Anatolian cities. You can ride aboard the Konya, the Antalya or the Isparta. Flying Virgin Atlantic, which styles itself a bit more whimsically, you might find yourself en route to London on the Maiden Toulouse, Lady Penelope, or maybe the Tubular Belle. Austrian charter carrier Lauda Air remembers artists and musicians with, among many others, the Gustav Klimt, the Bob Marley and a 767 named Freddie Mercury.

Occasionally -- usually during shakeups or employee buyouts -- a plane is singled out to fly the line as a sort of management liaison, painted up like a motivational billboard. What these schemes lack in imagination is made up for with gaudy mismatched colors and drivelly sentiment. Workers are encouraged to shed an allegiant tear while slinging suitcases into the Soaring Spirit or buffing the fairings on the Wings of Pride.

You can ride the St. Patrick to Dublin on Aer Lingus, no surprise there, or take your chances aboard a Syrianair 747 called Arab Solidarity. (We assume the Iranian government's 727, Palestine, will not be touching down at Tel Aviv anytime soon.) Freighters too carry names, even if there's nobody around to notice but pilots and forklift drivers. Every FedEx jet, for example, wears a single first name, male or female. So if you're a Natalie or an Olivia, or a Clayton or a Daniel, you've been immortalized by a namesake purple cargo plane.

South African Airways, like Turkish and several others, concentrates on cities. Flying to Johannesburg on one of its 747s, I didn't realize I was aboard the Durban until coming across a wooden plaque that told me so, near the staircase to the upper deck, emblazoned with a crest and scroll. If done right, the gesture gives an elegant, cruise-ship sort of feeling to a jetliner.

For many years I've hoped for a chance to ride on KLM's Audrey Hepburn, a McDonnell Douglas MD-11. The Dutch flag carrier's themes vary from model to model: It names its MD-11s after famous women (others include the Florence Nightingale, Maria Montessori, Marie Curie), its 737s after birds (Swift, Crane, Avocet), 767s after bridges (Brooklyn, Golden Gate, and Rialto are each represented), and 747s for rivers or cities (City of Karachi, City of Jakarta, The Ganges). You might recall it was the Rhine that plowed into Pan Am's Clipper Victor at Tenerife in 1977.

Pan Am was perhaps the most renowned company when it came to titles, all aircraft sporting a "Clipper" designation, a carryover from the airline's grandiose earlier years when its flying boats pioneered new routes across the oceans. There were nautical references (Sea Serpent, Mermaid, Gem of the Ocean), including a particular fascination with waves (Crest of the Wave, Dashing Wave, Wild Wave). There were nods to Greek and Roman mythology (Jupiter, Mercury, Argonaut), and the inevitable heaping of faux inspirational piffle (Empress of the Skies, Glory of the Skies, Freedom). Most enjoyable, though, are the mystifyingly esoteric ones. Looking back at some of the choices, one wonders whether Juan Trippe and his boys weren't downing too much scotch in the boardrooms of their Park Avenue skyscraper: Water Witch? Neptune's Car? Nonpareil? Young Brander? And you've got to give an airline credit for daring to paint "Clipper Wild Duck" on the side of a Lockheed L-1011.

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When Pan Am 103 was blown up over Scotland in 1988, debris, carried by the upper-level winds, was spread over an 88-mile trail covering more than 800 square miles. But the largest section -- a heap of wing and fuselage, would drop on the Sherwood Crescent area of Lockerbie, destroying 20 houses and plowing a crater 150 feet long and as deep as a three-story building (the concussion was so strong that Richter devices in the U.K. recorded a 1.6 magnitude tremor). The only part to remain somewhat intact was the forward fuselage, from the nose to roughly the first set of cabin doors. It was crushed when it landed, on its side, but it still looked like a piece of an airplane, which is more than you could say for the rest of it.

This piece, as it happened, would become something of a news icon for weeks to come. It was, well, photogenic, in a disaster story kind of way. There it was on the front of every newspaper and on the cover of Time and Newsweek. There was detritus and debris everywhere, wires and scraps of metal, all surrounding this impossibly still-dignified chunk of a Boeing 747, as dead as a doornail. There was the blue stripe, the paint barely scratched. And there, just above the oval cabin windows, in frilly blue lettering, the words could clearly be seen: Clipper Maid of the Seas.

Why are airplane seats designed for thin people instead of your average overweight person? And do you believe things could be done to increase comfort while still allowing for the cattle herd in economy class?

The tone here is somewhat rhetorical, and it's no surprise to anyone that the airlines attempt to accommodate as many people as possible while retaining a modicum of comfort. I have much less of a problem with the width of the seats than other ergonomic deficiencies.

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Seat widths in economy class have not changed, really, since the advent of jets. For example, a typical Boeing narrow-body, from the 707 through the 757, has always had six seats across split by an aisle, while the 747, with a few early exceptions, has always featured ten abreast split by two aisles. While the population has become notoriously wider, it's crazy to expect the airlines to remove a seat from each row to better suit our collectively increasing girth.

Which isn't to say there aren't sensible and relatively inexpensive upgrades that would go a long way toward making a long flight more bearable. Four things, in addition to some obviously needed legroom, that would immensely increase the comfort level of a coach seat are:

1. Retractable footrests. Air France and various foreign airlines have them, even in coach, attached to the seat in front of you. The chance to periodically elevate your legs is quite helpful.

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2. A headrest that keeps your head and neck in place. Adjustable headrests are becoming very common, but they do not extend fully enough to provide ample support.

3. A seat back padded or sculpted for better lumbar support. (I use a pillow.)

4. Wider and/or more ergonomically shaped armrests.

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Cruising along, it always seems that the front of the plane is slightly higher than the back. Is this real or are my kinesthetic senses acting up?

Let's go back to my original discussion of flight, in which you stick your hand outside the car window and "fly" it along like a wing.

The higher an airplane flies, the thinner the air it rides upon, and so it takes a greater angle to maintain lift. (Aerodynamics 101 introduces something called "angle of attack," which is akin to the bite a wing takes at the air.) So yes, up at cruise altitude the air is very thin, and the plane tends to ride a couple of degrees nose-high. Your kinesthetics are doing just fine.

Same thing happens when slowing down. Again, out the car window, you need a bigger angle as you decelerate. This time, though, wings are fitted with flaps, slots, and slats that help make up the difference. During cruise flight -- that is, at higher speeds -- these devices are impractical because of their added drag.

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You've mentioned logbooks. Are these actual, hard-copy records of flight, and wouldn't they be easy to forge? And what constitutes a "flight hour," exactly?

The logbook is basically a do-it-yourself document, and nowadays many people keep computerized records either exclusively or in addition to the classic format. Airlines keep their own careful records of flight time, so it's not so easy to embellish your totals. In the minor leagues, though, a baker's dozen is not unheard of.

The clock begins to run the instant the parking brake is released, and stops upon block-in at the destination. If a pilot isn't equipped with one of those fancy watches we talked about a few weeks ago, he needn't stress, as the airplane's computers keep track of things and relay the information to HQ for purposes of maintenance, payroll and so forth.

Flight hours are further categorized and broken down all sorts of ways -- by aircraft type, engine type, night/day time, instrument-only time, etc. Often these parsings are close-enough estimates rather than actual stopwatched times. Landings and instrument approaches are tallied as well. A single flight can take up a dozen different columns in a logbook.

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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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