Plane Answers: Tapping into ATC communications, tracking aircraft and a 60 second takeoff rule?

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!

Ronald asks:

Is there a site where you can listen to aircraft during approach and take off, and what is the site that the news media uses to show air traffic over the US?

Hi Ron,

Take a listen to the live audio feeds that provides. Many of the controllers at New York’s JFK airport enjoy a large following because of this great service.

For real-time depictions of traffic, is an amazing site that lets you view all the flights currently over the U.S. and Canada by city, airline, aircraft type or “N” number. Combine this with LiveATC and you’ve got a great view of what’s involved in getting around the country from a pilot or a controllers perspective.

If you’d like to listen to Air Traffic Control on your next flight, read on:
Tim asks:

On two recent flights on United, one of which was delayed in LGA for 3 hours due to weather, the pilot turned on the ATC station on one of the radio stations so we can listen. Two of the best flights of my life. I was up all night (was LGA-SFO) listening to ATC talk to our pilots as well as all the other pilots. What are the rules with this?

This is a unique service offered by United and their pilots on ‘channel nine’ of their inflight audio. I’m not aware of any other domestic carrier that offers this feature to passengers. You may not always hear it on every United flight either, because it’s entirely up to the pilots whether or not they turn it on. A visit to the cockpit to ask if there would be any way they could turn on the channel 9 audio for you might be helpful.

If you do enjoy this service, then please don’t critique the pilots on their radio work while you’re getting off the airplane. You wouldn’t want to encourage them to turn off the audio, now, would you? Give them a big thanks and let’s hope the feature spreads to other carriers. I know I wish we offered this at my airline.

Tim adds a second question:

What do the lights on the end of the wing indicate? I see red, green and others.

Those are navigation lights, just as you’ll see on a boat. Left is red, right is green and the tail light is white. They don’t flash, and they’re mainly to tell if an airplane is coming toward you or going away. The airplane also has white strobe lights, usually on the wing-tips and a red ‘anti-collision’ light on the top and bottom of the fuselage.

For landing, we have landing lights that illuminate the runway, turn-off lights for lighting up a taxiway during a turn as well as a taxi light, which is usually on the nosewheel strut and is used for taxiing of course.

Geoff asks:

I have heard that if a plane (irrespective of whether it is a small plane or a large one) does NOT takeoff within 60 seconds of starting it’s takeoff run it will NOT takeoff at all.

Well, Geoff, now you have me timing all of the takeoffs I’ve made this past week. Most have been in the 35 to 40 second range in the 757, which is an overpowered airplane. But this video of an Illyushun 76 shows just how long a takeoff roll can last. And another video taken from the passenger seat of an Airbus A340 might give you an idea of how it feels to be on such a long (54 second) takeoff run.

But I’ve never heard of a time limit for takeoff. I do remember that when flying a three-engined 727 on a two-engine ferry flight (without passengers), there was a requirement to reach 100 knots in the first 30 seconds or the takeoff would have to be discontinued.

And Geoff follows up:

I also have a question about the different flight levels that ATC gives out for an IFR flight. When ATC initially gives a plane its flight level it seems to be anywhere from a low altitude to a somewhat higher altitude. Are they made because that is the point where ATC will change to another station or are they given to allow for a more efficient use of gravity to speed up or slow down a plane? They often seem like arbitrary numbers however I’m sure there is a reason for them.

You’re close, Geoff. ATC does have different sectors, such as the low altitude center which extends to FL230 (23,000 feet). So pilots are often cleared initially to FL230, but they usually won’t have to level off at that altitude, since ATC will hand them off to a high altitude center controller who can clear the flight to a higher flight level in their area.

Leveling off before reaching the optimum cruise altitude costs fuel, so controllers try their best to give ‘unrestricted’ climbs if they can, traffic permitting.

Once the airplane is at its most efficient altitude, it will stay there until it burns off enough fuel to step up to the next most efficient altitude. These flight levels are usually even-numbered altitudes when traveling west, such as FL320, 340, 360 or odd when flying east. But ATC may assign a different altitude than planned, and it can be at a ‘wrong way’ altitude for a time if traffic warrants.

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