UK Passenger Jet Barely Misses UFO

passenger jet They were on their final approach to Scotland’s Glasgow airport when an unidentified object passed within 300 feet of the Airbus A320 passenger jet. “Er yeah we just had something pass underneath us quite close [1255:30] and nothing on TCAS have you got anything on in our area” said the pilot to Glasgow tower, reports the BBC.

The TCAS’ of which the pilot mentions is the A320’s Traffic Collision Avoidance System, which communicates with other aircraft, several times per second, alerting two aircraft that are dangerously close to each other. The system was silent as the A320 was preparing to land, in clear conditions, at an altitude of about 4,000 feet. It was then that the pilot and non-flying pilot saw an object about 300 feet (100 meters) ahead.

Described as “blue and yellow or silver in color with a small frontal area, but ‘bigger than a balloon,’ the object moved quickly and came so close to the A320 that the pilot filed a near-miss report with authorities.Glasgow air traffic control said that while there were no other objects in the area of the A320 at the time, they did have an “unidentified track history” 1.3 nautical miles east of the A320’s position 28 seconds earlier.

Not likely another aircraft, glider, hang-glider, para-motor, para-glider, hot-air balloon or helicopter – all of which would have shown up on radar. The object is still unidentified.

Here is animation of the event, as it unfolded:

[Photo credit – Flickr user by sebsphotos]

American Airlines makes largest purchase in airline history

There was deep speculation in the airline nerdery about whether American Airlines was going to be making a purchase at the Paris Air Show, and though the event came and went without a spark of activity, a palpable sense of excitement has been humming ever since. After all, with one of the oldest fleets on the planet, there was no doubt that American needs to freshen up — it was just a matter of when.

American Airlines broke that tension that week in a big way by announcing the order of a whopping 460 new medium and narrow body aircraft, the largest order in aviation history.

Perhaps more surprising was the way in which the order was split. For the first time, American begin flying equipment from European manufacturer Airbus, causing several in the community to question the “American” value of American Airlines. But the bottom line is the bottom line in this economy, and the official Flyertalk entity of @AmericanAir probably put it best:

“..as we are operating in a global economy, this investment makes the most sense for our airline and is in the best interest of our employees and customers. We are very proud of our heritage and home in the U.S.”

If you want to learn more you can check out the official release over at American’s news page. Otherwise, AP did a great job of wrapping up the events in the below video.


Virgin America lets loose in Cancún

Virgin America Cancun Launch

Virgin America just can’t sit still these days. In the past two months, they’ve launched service to Dallas/Forth Worth (and added frequency from both LAX & SFO), placed an impressive order for 60 new A320’s (to be delivered starting in 2013), said adiós to Toronto for the time being, and launched service to two cities in Mexico; Los Cabos and now, Cancún.

Everything about Cancún seems like a good fit for the airline. It’s sunny. It’s flashy. It’s exotic. It attracts a young crowd and has high seasonal traffic with a significant need for competitive nonstop options from the West Coast.

But Cancún is a destination that has a way of polarizing travelers. For most Americans born after 1975, it’s notoriously synonymous with Spring Break, loud nightclubs, and excessive resorts as far as the eye can see. For some vacationers, these are the only reasons to go. For others, they are the reason to never even consider going. Yes, the beaches may be spectacular and the attractions plentiful, but the rush to develop and commercialize both has left most of the city devoid of a single trace of ‘authentic’ Mexican culture – a fact that managed to earn Cancún the top spot on Gadling’s list of places not to go in 2011.

With that in mind, allow me to be the mediator here and tell you exactly why you should go (or at least fly to) Cancún in 2011…

Simply put, Cancún is an affordable, accessible, and a safe gateway to the larger Yucatán peninsula. Yes, it may be an overdeveloped tourist mecca with little soul or culture in the eyes of true travelers. But the vivid blue waters, white sand beaches, and Mayan ruins of the outlying areas offer an entirely different world that’s only six hours away.

Before taking Virgin America’s inaugural flight from LAX to CUN, the farthest I’d ventured in Mexico was Puerta Vallarta. I didn’t really have high expectations for the Mexican Riviera, since my association of it was a blur of generic beach scenes from a decade-old MTV Spring Break broadcast. Which is ironic in hindsight, considering that our flight was the backdrop for an episode of VH1’s Top 20 Countdown; complete with an in-flight performance by the Goo Goo Dolls.

The 5 hour flight itself was great. The margaritas were festive and the atmosphere was as playful as all Virgin America’s inaugural launches are. The only hitch that passengers will encounter in the ‘complete’ Virgin America experience is the lack of in-flight WiFi after crossing the US-Mexico border – an issue that Gogo and Aircell will hopefully address with coverage expansion in the coming years.

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Upon our arrival, our Virgin-worthy accommodation was the gorgeous and brand-new Live Aqua. If you’re accustomed to hotels with two white Rolls Royce Phantoms parked outside, chic interiors filled with hip ambient music, extensive spa services and an array of tasteful eateries, then this is the place you’ll want to stay. It is plausible that you could forgo leaving the hotel grounds and be perfectly content with relaxing by the beach for your entire trip. And for the price of an all-inclusive stay, that’s exactly what I would do.

But, it turns out there are actually things to do around Cancún besides lounging and clubbing. Escape the herds of tourists and head south to quieter beaches at Playa del Carmen, where you can hop across to Cozumel and explore Mayan ruins. Or venture west and check out the ‘authentic’ colonial town of Tizimín on your way to catch a boat to the tiny but charming Holbox Island (and swim with whale sharks in the summer).

If you’re short on time but looking for adventure, then look up one of Cancún’s best day trips; Selvatica’s zip-line & ATV jungle excursion. In the span of a half day, you can fly through the trees on seven different zip lines, drive your own ATV, and swing from ropes into a beautiful blue cenote (Spanish for giant swimming hole).

I can understand why people dislike Cancún. It’d be very easy to come expecting authentic Mexican charm and leave never wanting to lay eyes on another beer-toting American again. But keep your time in the developed area of Cancún short, and you won’t be dissapointed.

Needless to say, my only regret is that I didn’t have more time to explore the outlying areas of Cancún. For a sub-$500 flight that’s just under 5 hours from LAX, or roughly 6 hours from SFO, it’s an easy trip that I certainly plan on making again. Especially if Virgin America can keep their fares low, which they usually do for recently launched destinations. Better yet, enter to win one of three VIP trips that the airline is giving away right here.

If you have your own crazy stories or suggestions about why or why not to go to Cancun this year, leave them in the comments section below!

Plane Answers: Airplane specific questions

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!

I get a lot of question about the specific details or features of airplanes. I thought I’d round up a few for today’s Plane Answers.

Kevin asks:

I fly on A319 and A320s a lot. As we are on landing approach I hear three shrill tones or whistles from the cockpit. Sometimes it is close to the runway sometimes not. What is it?

Hi Kevin,

I checked with my friend Chris, who’s an A320 pilot who has a good answer for what’s causing the noise.

He’s most likely hearing the autopilot disconnect siren. It has a two-tone chime that repeats three times. It’s loud enough to easily be heard in first class and sometimes the first couple of rows in coach. A lot of pilots will allow the AP to trim up the aircraft after all the configuration changes before disconnecting the autopilot. That is why he hears it at about 1000-1500 feet on visual days.

The other possibility is the flight attendant call tone. It wouldn’t happen close to the runway, but it’s so loud that it blocks all other noises–including master caution warnings. They’re trying to get Airbus to turn it down a bit.

I’ve often heard the altitude callouts on the MD-80 from first class. “50, 40, 30, 20, 10.” It seems if passengers can hear it in the cabin, then maybe it’s just a little too loud. Unfortunately, we don’t have any control over the volume. Thanks Chris for the A320 insight.


Keith asked a question that took a little more research:

I often fly on SAAB 340s from my home airport to a hub. Unlike a lot of folks I love flying on the 340. I enjoy being able to “feel” the plane flying. Before 9/11 the cockpit “door” was just a curtain, which was often left open by the pilots. If you sat up front you could see most of the instrument panel. I’m familiar with most cockpit instruments but this one has me stumped:

On the bottom right of the “captains” panel is a little device that looks like a toy. It’s a round sphere filled with liquid and another sphere with black and white wedges. Sometimes it spins wildly and other times it just moves lazily. I’ve never seen a pilot pay it any attention. Just what is this thing?

I talked to my friend Frank, a former Saab pilot who told me that he’s pretty sure the Saab didn’t have such a device, but he remembered that the Beech 1900 did in fact have exactly what you’re talking about.

Here’s a fuzzy picture he dug up for me:

The little ‘pinwheel’ at the bottom-right of the instrument panel is a device that’s used to manually ‘sync’ the propellors. When the propellors spin at different RPM’s you’ll hear a wow-wow-wow sound. It’s caused by a harmonic vibration and it’s rather annoying to the passengers and pilots.

It even happens on jets, too. You’ll notice it when sitting between the rear mounted engines on an MD-80 in the aft row of seats, or even a Boeing if you’re paying attention.

But some turboprops have a feature that the jets don’t: a prop sync.

As the wheel spins, it’s up to the pilots to increase or decrease one propellor’s RPM to slow the spinning pinwheel down as much as possible. This is only necessary when the auto-sync system, or Propellor Synchrophaser as it’s officially called on the Beech, is inoperative.

Ivan asks two questions:

Long time reader first time questioner, and you said the questions have been dryin up, and in so doin’, you’ve opened a pandoras box :-). Anyway, here goes:

On the right side of tail cones on Boeing’s 757s, there is a little tab, like a strake or vortex generator (don’t see why you’d need one back there), that looks like a mini-elevator. What is its purpose?

Most people probably don’t realize that the 757 and other twin-engine Boeings really have three jet engines on board. Two propel the airplane and one is a small jet turbine, identical to what’s used in a turboprop airplane such as the Jetstream 31. On the ground, it’s sole purpose is to provide electricity through a generator as well as air-conditioning for the cabin. Inflight, it’s used as a third source of electricity in case one engine fails.

The aft most portion of the fuselage on most Boeings is where the APU exhausts. Since there’s a small amount of fuel that leaks from the APU when it’s shut down, the APU has a fuel drain shroud that is designed to keep the drained APU fuel away from the exhaust. So here is a picture of the ‘fin’ on the right side of the aft fuselage that you saw:

Ivan continues:

And finally, one last question dealing with engines. At the aft end of a 757 nacelle, there appear to be two different cowling designs. Is there a difference as far as performance in the open end versus tapered versions. Look at AA’s 757 engines as opposed to say, Delta’s.

What you’re seeing is simply a different type of engine. AA bought Rolls Royce RB 211 engines for its 757 and other airlines, like TWA, United and Delta bought the Pratt & Whitney PW 2037 engines. If you’re curious, the Rolls-Royce has more thrust.

You can see the side by side difference below when looking at a former TWA 757 in AA colors and the Rolls Royce version on the right:

Because of the engine differences that require extra spare parts and training, AA has sold all of the former TWA airplanes, with most of them going to Delta.

Ben asked:

Kent – I was at the Atlanta airport today and I saw this crazy tug. It looked like the nose gear of the Delta jet was sitting ON the back of the TUG. Am I imagining things? I linked to a picture, sorry I couldn’t get closer to get a better shot. If you look closely under the tug, you can see that there is no plane tire touching the ground.

Yes, Ben. You’re right. That’s a high-speed tug designed to pull or push airplanes back without the nosewheel touching the ground. We occasionally see these tugs. The first clue that you’re going to be pushed back by one is when you feel yourself being jacked up a bit as if someone was trying to steal your wheels with you inside. (A rather rare event in an airliner.)

These tugs are commonly seen in France. It’s rather amazing just how fast they can pull a 747 around the airport. Perhaps someday we’ll be pulled to the end of th
e runway to save on the amount of fuel burned. It’s something that’s been proposed before and it sure makes sense to me.

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

Plane Answers: Do challenging airports require special training for pilots?

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!

Mike asks an interesting question:

Hi Kent, I know you’ve probably seen the video going around on YouTube of the 757 landing at Tegucigalpa, and also a great video of the landing from the cockpit. I was wondering if landing at a challenging airport like that involves any special requirements. Is the Captain the only one allowed to make that landing for example?

Great question, Mike. Especially in light of the recent accident of a TACA A320 that overran the end of the runway killing five of the 135 people on board. As a result of this accident, the Tegucigalpa airport is restricted to aircraft with 42 seats or fewer. For the next two months, San Pedro Sula will pick up the slack until the Soto Cano Air Base is ready for commercial traffic.

Prior to this accident, our airline required a few things for pilots going into TGU. First, we use computer based training aids, complete with the local ATC audio along with a detailed layout of the potential hazards and the technique needed to safely fly the approach and landing.

Next, the captain had to go fly there with a check airman (instructor) who would sit in the right seat for the checkout. The captain was required to make a landing on runway 02. If the other runway was in use, the check airman would come back to TGU with the captain on another trip.

Also, the captain was required to fly into TGU within the past 180 days. If the pilot hadn’t landed there in within 180 days, a check airman would again be required before they could fly there again.

Co-pilots must have observed one takeoff and landing there from the jumpseat before flying a trip to TGU. And yes, Captains are required to make all landings into TGU. The only such airport we operate into with that requirement. Both pilots must have at least 75 hours of flight time in the particular type of airplane as well.

We have seven cities in Central and South America that require special qualifications. Other airports may require varying levels of training and qualifications, but none are as extreme as the Tegucigalpa, Honduras example.

It’s easy to see why these requirements exist. Those two videos show just how challenging the TGU approach to runway 02 can be. The runway is 6132 feet (1869 m) and the airport sits at an elevation of 3300 feet, which makes the approach speed a bit faster. To give you an idea, the Laguardia airport is 7000 feet long with a field elevation of 22 feet. So Tegucigalpa was likely the most challenging in our system.

Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to fly there. And now it looks like most large jets will be prevented from landing there, so I doubt I’ll ever get the chance.

Finally, as a side note, the person on the ground who took the video of the landing emailed me a link to it just a few days after he uploaded it. I looked up the pilots and sent them the link as well. Later that month the captain and co-pilot met this cameraman, a flying enthusiast who’s now training to be a pilot, for dinner. He also provided the pictures above and below for this post. Thanks for the photos and the video, Enriques!

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 Friday’s Plane Answers feature.