Plane Answers: Kent’s 3 favorite and 3 most dreaded runways.

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Deb asks:

Are there any favorite/hated runways by pilots? Pictures and videos of the one in St. Maarten made me wonder.

I’m sure every pilot has a few favorite or hated runways, and I’m no exception. Here are my top and bottom three:

My three favorite:

LGA – New York’s LaGuardia

With its reputation for delays and cancellations, LGA might not be on the top of most passengers’ lists. But it’s often the challenging runways that are the most enjoyable for pilots. While LaGuardia‘s runway 13/31 is short at just 7,003 feet, and it has water on both ends of the runway, the expressway visual takes you over the former Shea stadium and it requires some planning to make the sharp turn and perfectly line up on runway 31. But the most beautiful approach I’ve ever flown is the ‘River Visual’ up the Hudson to runway 13. Sailing past Manhattan at night, with the buildings seemingly at eye level, and then making a right turn over Central Park to line up with the runway, is certainly a rush.

SXM – St. Maarten

You mention St. Maarten, and I’d actually have to list it as one of my favorites. Coincidently, it’s also 7,003 feet long. But the fun part about St. Maarten are the spectators that gather at the end of the runway to witness the landing airplanes fly over at less than 50 feet above the ground. It’s probably the closest spectators can get to a landing aircraft without being on board. And who knows, maybe someone like Matt Hintsa will snap a picture like this of your landing:

SAN – San Diego

Finally, I must admit to a fondness for yet another short runway. San Diego‘s Lindbergh field offers a scenic arrival, and the approach crosses rather close to a parking garage located near the field. Since there’s no ILS, you have to be right on the glidepath during the approach. If you’re precise, the radar altimeter in the cockpit will read 190 feet as you pass over the garage, making for the perfect approach to runway 27.

Three worst:

NME – Nightmute, Alaska

Ahh, Nightmute. At 1,600 feet long, you’re probably not going to find anything larger than a Twin Otter flying there. Most of the landings I remember in Nightmute were in a strong crosswind during the winter on a packed, snow-covered runway that resembled a frozen lake. Reading the airport notes from this place might give you a better picture.


I’m sure glad those days are behind me.

CCS – Caracas, Venezuela

Runway 10 at Caracas, Venezuela. It curves down, dropping 88 feet from the beginning of the runway to the end. Even if you do get a smooth touchdown, the runway is so rough that no one would realize it.

MIA – Miami, Florida

And finally, there’s Miami‘s runway 30. Nothing challenging here, it’s long, it’s wide, it’s even smooth. But I never seem to get a nice landing there. So I’m adding it to the list. Take that, runway 3-0!

I’d be curious to hear other pilots’ favorite and least favorite runways. Leave a comment and let us know!

Roger asks:

My friends & I live near an approaching flight path, and regularly get into discussions about planes and their landing or approach speeds. Do larger jets have a slower approach speed, or does it just appear that way? Do smaller ones have a higher approach speed, or does it just seem that way, or are they all flying at the same speed?

An answer to this will sort out several arguments.

I think I can help you win the argument either way.

Below are some final approach speeds for various airliners. I figured them based on the maximum landing weight for each aircraft type using the ‘normal’ flap setting, which may not be the maximum flaps.

From fastest to slowest:

747-400: 157 (174 m.p.h.)
737-800: 148 (170 m.p.h.)
767-300: 142 (163 m.p.h.)
A320: 142 (163 m.p.h)
EMB-145: 139 (160 m.p.h.)
777-200: 138 (159 m.p.h.)
MD-80: 136 (156 m.p.h.)
A300: 135 (155 m.p.h.)
A319: 132 (152 m.p.h.)
757: 132 (152 m.p.h.)

On a calm day, we’ll add five knots to the speeds above. If it’s gusty, we can add up to 20 knots to the approach speed.

Interestingly, while the 747 is the fastest, it definitely looks like the slowest on approach due to its size. At 232 feet long, it’s over 100 feet longer than the stretched 737-800.

While studying auto accidents involving railroad crossings, the NTSB attributed the problems to the Leibowitz hypothesis, which states that the speed of larger objects, like trains, is underestimated by observers owing to a normal deficiency of visual processing.

But if that doesn’t help you win your argument, you could use this counter example:

Take the EMB-145, a 50-seat regional jet, and compare it to the surprisingly slow speed of the 757. In this example, the RJ actually does fly faster on approach, and since it’s much smaller than the 757, it really looks like it’s late for a date.

So I think you’re covered either way. Good luck!

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers.