Ask the pilot

How do jumbo jets fit into shrimp-size airports? And just what is the state of the pilot's love life?

By Patrick Smith
Published July 18, 2003 6:21PM (EDT)

"Dear Patrick,

Your columns are getting more embarrassing with each additional tale of your pathetic love life. Get some hair plugs and get laid, if that's what it takes to shift your focus. You're drunk with self-pity over the state of your (nonexistent) sex life. Women aren't attracted to desperation, generally speaking, although I'm sure you're getting flooded with the equivalent of online jailhouse proposals from those chicks who groove on basket cases."

Well, no jailhouse proposals yet, but there's still time (I hope).

I knew it was a bad idea to confess my crush on Justine Shapiro, travel show host, air crash survivor and -- I'd almost forgotten her most impressive-sounding credential -- documentary filmmaker. (How do you think her career path stacks up against that of a certain erstwhile pilot turned hack columnist writing for lunch money? No wonder she hasn't written. Oh, but there I go again ...)

Not that I'm the only one smitten. I've been introduced to the murky workings of stalker etiquette, having received no fewer than five letters from men claiming exclusive rights on Justine's affections. One guy challenged me to a duel. "Just don't tell my wife," he says.

Anyway, try to get a laugh and look what happens. Though what's really odd is that I don't recall sneaking details of my nonexistent (the letter writer's interpretation) sex life into my columns. Self-pity, hair plugs? Has my subconscious sprung some leak that I'm yet to detect? If so, please continue with your psychoanalysis because clearly I need it.

As for hair plugs, one look at my bank account shows us that's out of the question.

The writer finishes off his obnoxious note by enclosing links to articles from the Washington Post, which, I'm informed, are to demonstrate how even the "the driest reportage on the aviation industry is better than claptrap you are now passing off as journalism."

Journalism? Now where did that come from? He (she?) is completely missing the point. I was hoping to establish some crossover appeal, remember, with my poems and travel stories and assorted whimsical meanderings (like this one). If all you want are stats, figures, and buttoned-down opinions about the airlines, try Aviation Week.

You know how sometimes a network executive will say, "Look, we know the quality of our news sucks, but this is about entertainment." Well ... wait, that's the wrong analogy. But you know what I mean.

Though at this point, I'll admit, what realm of creativity I'm crossing into is nebulous at best, and there's a chance I've imagined the whole thing. For all I know the editors are meeting at this very moment and asking for a show of hands: "Do we pull the cord on this basket case or give him another week?"

Don't let them kill me just yet. I haven't even finished our discussion about barf bags:

"I just read your most recent column where you expressed a belief that Asians barf less. I spent six months traveling across Indonesia by bus. Indonesians may barf less in volume, but can hold their own with the people of any nation in barf frequency. Barfing is considered a standard part of even a short trip, and is expected of every passenger. On nicer buses the money-taker walks up and down the aisle with little baggies, chanting 'plastik? plastik?' I very much enjoy your column. And yes, the Globe Trekker show makes me reach for plastik too."

See that? No grief about Justine or hair plugs. In fact, last week's column stimulated so many barf-oriented letters that an all-time Ask the Pilot e-mail record was shattered. Did you know there's even an online barf bag museum?

"I've noticed that many domestic airlines have the generic, all-white bags, perhaps to keep people from taking them as collectibles, and therefore saving the airline at least $100 a year."

I think it's time for this column to grow even more eccentric, not less. Until I decide for certain, though, we should probably get back to airplanes.

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I live near a small-town airport, and one day a 767 diverted here after a maintenance problem. How could such a large plane land at such a small airport?

Before getting into this, I should preface by reminding people that just as major terminals can have unusually short runways, out-of-the-way airports can have surprisingly long ones. Don't be amazed if ever you see a 747 at Toledo or Columbus. Both of these airports feature runways over 10,000 feet. Space constraints and use by the military, among other things, can play into an airport's runway prowess.

While many runways are categorically too short to accommodate a large plane, there is no standard distance required by any aircraft to take off or land. It is always different. Once the airplane's weight is known, charts or databases are consulted to deduce how many feet it needs. The variables include wind, surface conditions, off-field obstructions, and potential emergency maneuvers. If a given runway is thus too short, the crew can either choose another one or reduce payload.

As most people know or assume, smaller airports with smaller runways are generally served by smaller planes, but this is more a function of practicality and logistics than size, strictly speaking. While it's doubtful you'll ever see a 747 at Washington National or La Guardia, where the lengthiest runway is a measly 7,000 feet, that's not to imply one couldn't land there. Rather, its payload, particularly its carriage of fuel, would be so restricted by, to phrase it one way, the proximity of Flushing Bay, as to render it economically unfeasible. No use in scheduling a huge airplane that is put to better advantage on longer routes.

Yet sometimes, if it helps fill a gap in an airline's timetable or augments capacity between certain cities, they'll do exactly that. You'll find 767s operating out of La Guardia all the time. Could one of them take off for Europe, or even Los Angeles, with its tanks full? No. (In any case no transcon or overseas flights are allowed at La Guardia, but that's an unrelated fact.)

Apart from all this, a big misconception is that the largest airplanes by nature require the longest runways. Not always true. The 747 was more than twice the tonnage of the plane it superceded, the 707, yet its takeoff and landing rolls were about the same. It's all in the wing, remember, and large planes with large wings create large quantities of lift. Airbus' leviathan A380 is being designed to have a landing speed no different from the A320 (about 145 knots), which is less than a quarter of its size, and under most conditions will require less runway than a 747.

Traveling from New York to Chicago, I was surprised to find myself aboard a Boeing 747. Why would such a huge, long-range plane be deployed on such a short route?

One night at the airport in Luxor, Egypt, I boarded a four-engine Airbus A340, a widebody jet with a 7,500 mile range, capable of staying aloft for more than 16 hours. Where was I going? Cairo, about an hour away.

This isn't a whole lot different from the above -- it's about logistics and schedule more than mechanical capabilities of the machine. Why would EgyptAir relegate its most long-legged plane to a nothing flight up the Nile? Why does Delta deploy long-range Boeing 777s and MD-11s between Orlando and Atlanta? For any number of reasons, but probably because the short time required for these trips dovetails nicely with the "normal" assignments of the aircraft. A few spare hours between intercontinental arrivals/departure, plus their large capacities, allows these planes to pull some valuable double-duty on a very busy domestic segment.

Similarly, it might be a continuation of service. A flight might go New York-Madrid-Barcelona without a change of planes, the last leg only a quick hop. Swissair used to run 747s between Boston and Philadelphia as part of continuing service to Zurich. And don't forget freight. Airlines derive large amounts of money not only from the passenger cabin, but from the pallets and containers beneath it. An aircraft might be best for a route specifically because its belly space is most advantageous, even if ticket sales aren't filling the seats.

Conversely, All Nippon and Japan Airlines fly certain 747s exclusively on short-hop domestic runs, though not because of cargo. Those are the choicest planes into which JAL can wedge an industry-leading, if that's the right word, 563 people on some of the world's most densely packed routes. Q

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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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