Plane Answers: Pilot asks, “Is there anyone on board with internet access?”

It just might surprise you to know that when sitting on the ground, waiting out a line of thunderstorms, we don’t have access to depictions of real-time weather updates. We can fire up the radar and look ahead for 40 or so miles, but there’s just no way to know if a re-route offered by ATC is going to keep us out of the weather or create more problems further into our flight.

Cessna 172s have real-time weather capability with a $50 subscription to XM Radio’s WX Satellite Weather, but so far, no domestic U.S. airline has incorporated that technology in their airplanes. We checked out Virgin America’s cockpit a few months back and found that even they don’t have this capability built in yet, though they did at least have GoGo inflight wi-fi which could potentially help.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when passengers aboard a Continental Airlines flight were asked if they had a laptop with internet access while on the ground waiting for weather to pass.

In an apparently savvy move, the captain borrowed Evan Gotlib’s wi-fi card equipped Macbook Tuesday evening to try to come up with a routing out of Newark that would get around ATC flow-control restrictions.

Evan writes on his blog:

There were two or three different lines of storms in the west and south that were affecting all Newark outbound air traffic. There is no mechanism on a 737-500 to look at weather. The radar they have only works in flight, and even then it can’t show what’s happening outside of about 50 miles. We were 50th-yes 50th-in line for takeoff and the captain said that at that point air traffic control really does not care anymore. Their number one priority is international flights, then they get to domestic. So he wanted to see if he could figure out a new route around the storms that he could propose to air traffic control. Neat.

So they used my laptop to go to this site: The best part was that neither of them knew how to drive a Mac, let alone Safari, so I surfed for them. It was cool to listen to them talk about different flight plans. This went on for a few minutes and then they got on with air traffic control and someone found a new route. I’m not sure if it was us or air traffic control, but I’d like to think it was us.

I was really hoping for a pair of wings or an honorary junior captain’s badge or something but all I got was an extra cookie from the flight attendant. That was pretty cool.

Oh, one more thing. I’ll never be able to help when the “is there a doctor on board” announcement comes over the PA system. But when the “is there someone with wi-fi who knows how to use the internet on board” announcement is made, I’m there.

Nice job on the captain’s part for thinking outside the box. Of course, a few of us have discovered the power of an iPhone in this situation, but whether it’s a connected laptop or an iPhone, nothing beats the coverage and situational awareness that XM’s service provides. It needs to be built-in and accessible by every pilot, in every airplane that an airline flies to be effective.

I’m hoping airlines will recognize the benefits of connecting cockpits to a reliable weather source. But we could even take it further. Imagine inflight sensors that could transmit more accurate and detailed turbulence levels from aircraft all over the country that could be displayed on our map and updated in real-time. Oh, but I dream.

Until then, if you hear us ask to borrow your wi-fi connected Mac while number 50 in line on the ground, don’t all rush to the cockpit at once.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: “Chit-chat” did NOT doom Colgan flight 3407

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!

Allow me to invoke some commentary in lieu of today’s usual Plane Answers post.

So much has been written about the Colgan Dash 8 accident in Buffalo, NY. As I’ve written before in a “Pilots are either Heroes or Villains” post, I am a reluctant commenter during accident investigations. But the NTSB has released a tremendous amount of information already and I feel the need to shed some light on what the Colgan pilots may have been dealing with before the tragic accident.

We’ve heard that the captain reacted incorrectly by pulling up instead of pushing forward, that he didn’t have much experience in the Dash 8 Q400, that he and the first officer were discussing non-essential topics during the sterile period and that the captain had flunked a number of checkrides while learning to fly. We also heard about their long commute before work and the lack of sleep each pilot had before the trip.

But how much did these facts play a part in the accident? We’ll never know exactly what each pilot was thinking, but when you combine the transcripts with the NTSB recreation, a picture emerges that’s a little more complicated than what’s being reported.

According to the transcripts, the flight from Newark was completely normal until the start of the approach. Checklists were accomplished, altimeters were set, approach briefings were done. There was a fair amount of conversation, but this was mainly while above 10,000 feet. There may have been discussions with their company about where the aircraft would park after landing, but it’s hard for me to determine if this was before or after they flew below 10,000 feet.

The press latched on to the ‘chit-chat’ these pilots were having before the accident. The cockpit voice recorder was installed years ago as a safety device, but it’s sadly being used to satisfy the morbid curiosity of the public. Do we really need to hear the conversations that took place on the ground in Newark before this flight?

Much of that talking while approaching Buffalo revolved around icing and their prior experience in ice. In the last four minutes before the captain asked for the gear to be put down, there was only a single, three-sentence statement made by the captain in response to the co-pilot’s concern with her lack of icing experience.

The Approach

After that, nothing was said for the next two minutes, until the chain of events that would cause this accident would begin.
“Gear down.” The captain called.

The co-pilot responded by lowering the gear and pushing two knobs called condition levers forward. Just two seconds later, the approach controller told her to contact the tower. The co-pilot immediately looked down to change to the tower frequency, while acknowledging the controller. After she had spun some dials to enter the tower frequency in the VHF control panel, she looked at the gear handle to call out that it had extended completely-that it was now down and locked.

Two seconds later, the captain called for the flaps to be lowered to 15 degrees. Before even having a chance to look up and check on the flight’s progress she needed to move the flap handle from 5 to 15 degrees.

In the 22 seconds that it took for the co-pilot to put the gear down, push the condition levers forward, change the frequency, verify the landing gear position and select flaps 15, the airplane had slowed from 180 knots to 133 knots and the stall warning system activated.

She was relying on the captain to fly the airplane or, in this case, monitor the autopilot, while she performed her non-flying pilot duties. Every pilot has been in this situation before, where rapid-fire actions can take the non-flying pilot’s attention away. But usually being out of the loop for twenty seconds isn’t enough to cause a problem. Up to this point, she had done everything right.

Now let’s think about what the captain may have been dealing with:

He was in level flight at 2,300 feet with the flaps set to five degrees. He may have been tired, and so he likely felt like letting the autopilot take care of intercepting the final approach course. The autopilot was holding the altitude and heading and since the Dash 8 Q400 doesn’t have any autothrottles, he was manually setting the power to the proper setting to maintain a speed of about 180 knots.

At one point, the speed picked up to 186 knots. He pulled the power back slightly to let it settle at 180 knots which took about 6 seconds.

A few seconds later he called for the gear to come down. The co-pilot brought the gear down and pushed the condition levers forward. The condition levers essentially control the pitch of the propellors. Pushing them forward drives the prop blades to a finer pitch, resulting in a higher prop RPM, but also more drag. These levers are procedurally moved forward so maximum thrust is available in the case of a missed approach. So putting the gear down and the condition levers are two actions that will result in a significant amount of drag.

But somehow, the captain was distracted. He had just pulled the power back prior to calling for the gear to come down. He didn’t touch the throttles for the next 27 seconds, which means there was no way he had glanced at his airspeed for that half-minute. He could have been checking to see if there was any more ice accumulating or glancing at his approach plate.

The point is, he had become distracted and the co-pilot was out of the loop while she accomplished her required duties. The motion of the gear coming down and the condition levers coming forward meant that there was little time to react with the throttles.

This wasn’t the first time a pilot failed to notice a loss of airspeed while on approach. In fact, less than two weeks later another accident occurred while flying an approach on autopilot. Turkish flight 1951 which crashed short of the runway in Amsterdam was equipped with an autothrottle system, but it had failed at 1950 feet, when it reduced the power to idle slowly without the crew noticing.

In an age when the flying public seeks comfort by thinking airplanes just land themselves, it appears that a reliance on automation may have led to two separate accidents in the month of February alone. Autopilot use is generally encouraged by many airlines as a way to reduce a pilot’s workload.

But I’m certain that if the autopilot had been off in either accident, the pilots would have found it difficult to maintain altitude as the airplane slowed, which would have made it immediately obvious that more power was needed.

In both of these cases the autopilot masked this, making it easier to become distracted.

The Stall

When the stick shaker activated on Colgan flight 3407, the autopilot turned off automatically. Somehow the captain let the nose of the airplane reach nearly 30 degrees, and even though he correctly responded with full power, it wasn’t going to prevent the continued loss of airspeed as long as he had the nose pointed up between 20 and 30 degrees.

The co-pilot had been thinking about ice for the last half of the trip because of the build-up she had seen earlier, and this might have been going through her mind as she heard the stick shaker activate at the exact moment she was moving the flap handle from 5 degrees to 15. She very well may have associated her flap selection with the stick shaker, and if a movement in the flight controls results in something going wrong, I could see most pilots tempted to move the flap handle back where it was before the problem began (in this case, back up).

This is exactly what she did, which made the recovery much more difficult for the captain, since an extra 20 or 25 knots would be needed to fly at the reduced flap settings. Bringing the flaps up is also a recovery technique in high-wing turboprops that encounter enough ice to stall the tail. So this may be further proof that she was convinced tail-icing was their problem.

The captain may have also thought tail icing was his problem and the reason the nose wanted to drop, completely misreading what the ‘stick pusher’ was trying to tell him. Reports have indicated that the captain had watched the NASA video on tailplane icing recoveries during training just a few months earlier. This is a video which will definitely leave a lasting impression on any pilot.

Considering the lack of sleep both pilots had, it’s easy to come up with a scenario where a misdiagnosis of the problem–deciding between a tailplane stall or traditional stall–led to the accident.

The Aftermath

Non-essential chatter wasn’t a factor in this accident since the pilots had been quiet for more than two minutes prior to the airplane slowing. The NTSB will likely look at the training these pilots had received and how fatigue may have played a role in the accident.

It’s been verified that a lack of sleep can be equivalent to drinking while on the job, so the NTSB will likely factor this into their final report. And perhaps some attention will be given to the audible alerts pilots receive with specific attention given to how accurately they’re interpreted and how long the reaction time is with various warnings.

The airplane manufacturers may determine that a warning prior to the stick shaker is warranted. A “caution, too slow!” warning may be all that’s needed.

But first, training and procedures need to be considered to avoid this scenario. A great deal of time is spent during recurrent training on FAA mandated scenarios and emergencies that become repetitive. A program that introduces an even wider range of failures and scenarios in the simulator might be a better way to prepare pilots.

The NTSB will also likely criticize the turnover that has resulted from commuter airlines that see themselves as a stepping stone to the majors. An airline that decides $16,000 a year is an acceptable salary for a pilot might have to rethink their strategy as the flying public recognizes the need to continue to attract the best pilots possible.

This accident could become a catalyst for a number of changes that have been needed for a while. Proper crew rest, adequate training, and upgraded safety warnings could be around the corner. Let’s hope so.

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. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: Fuel dumping and free travel for airline employees

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!

Arjav asks:

Hi Kent,

Recently I was flying on a Emirates flight from JFK to DXB and I looked out the window and saw this pipe that looks almost like a muffler. Then on my 2nd half of the trip I saw it again on another aircraft. I have never seen this on any plane before. Both planes were made by Airbus: A380 and A330.

So is this only found on Airbus planes or is something only found on Emirates aircraft and what is it for?

Congratulations on your A380 flight. I’d love to have experienced that.

What you saw on both airplanes is, for the most part, unique to widebody Airbus and Boeing airplanes. At the end of one of the flap track fairings on the wing is a fuel dump nozzle. In the event of an emergency, we can elect to dump fuel at a very fast rate, which allows us to climb better if we had an engine failure or to land at less than our maximum landing weight should the emergency require an immediate return.

This fuel dumping has been in the news lately, in fact. An Asiana Airlines flight had to dump fuel from an altitude of 3,000 feet over Puget Sound. The Washington Department of Ecology was rumored to be considering a fine against Asiana, but just a few days later said that it didn’t make sense to second-guess the pilot’s actions in an emergency.

Fifteen years ago I had to dump fuel in a 727 after an engine failure immediately after takeoff in Indianapolis. The climb rate of the fully loaded cargo jet with one engine inoperative wasn’t impressive and the procedure called for dumping fuel immediately. We were so busy with the emergency checklists that little consideration was given to the environmental impacts when we had to dump fuel.

The dumped fuel tends to evaporate on the way down to the ground, but it’s certainly worth giving the emergency situation and the location some thought before automatically pressing the dump valves.

Jackie asks:

Since I started traveling more frequently, I have been eager to rack up miles and elite status with airlines. I have always wanted to know the perks of airline workers, especially pilots and flights attendants. Do you plus family get to fly for free? Is it in economy or business/first class?
AIrline employees can travel for a reduced rate, sometimes even free domestically on their own airline. The catch is that these free or reduced rate flights are on a standby basis, subject to the occasional bumping from oversold flights. First class flights domestically and coach flights internationally aren’t free at my airline, and occasionally a full fare domestic ticket can be a more attractive option.

Employees are sometimes offered ‘buddy passes’ to share with friends and extended family, but those often come at a cost equivalent of a discounted ticket and are also subject to space availability.

Since you’re on a quest to rack up airline miles, I have to suggest the website as the ultimate place to learn from the experts who discuss ‘mileage runs’ and other techniques to rack up miles.

If mileage runs are too much hassle, you can always find an airline employee to marry. “Marry me, fly free!” is how I convinced my wife to take the plunge.

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. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Gadling gets an exclusive look at Virgin America’s cockpit technology

While there have been many reports and videos highlighting the inflight entertainment provided by Virgin America, Gadling thought it would be interesting to find out what kind of technology was available to the pilots and flight attendants at Virgin America.

Take a look as pilots Gabe and Eddie and flight attendant Rebecca give Gadling a look at some of the gadgets available to them on board their A319.

Plane Answers – A pilot’s experience before flying solo, a passenger pointing out a mechanical problem and wake turbulence bumps

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!

Esteban from Spain asks:

When learning to drive a car, for most people a few minutes of training are enough to drive, although they don’t know the circulation rules. Do you think that it is possible to take off, turn, and land in a small cessna with few hours of training without obeying the navigation rules?

Hi Esteban,

Soloing is the moment every student pilot dreams of. That moment when your instructor hops out of the airplane and tells you to take it around the ‘patch’ three times.

Can it be done in just a few hours? Absolutely. But you’d have to find an instructor willing to put his certificate on the line at that point. The ‘typical’ range is anywhere from 6 to 25 hours, but that’s also dependent on the airport you’re flying from and the type of airplane.

Densely populated areas have more requirements for ATC communication and airspace regulations, so your instructor will want you to be familiar with those regulations before letting you go.

For a more anecdotal look at the typical times before soloing, take a look at this thread written by flight instructors and pilots about the subject on

Cassandra asks:

I just flew down to FL from Hartford last Thursday on Delta and had a window seat on the wing. Just before we began our descent, I had glanced down on the wing and noticed 3 round tanks(?) that were screwed down right by the emergency door. What caught my eye was the fact that 2 of them seemed to be leaking what I thought was water or some sort of clear liquid. It was 2 smaller tanks near the front of the wing and a larger one just behind them. The two smaller ones were the ones that were leaking and all coming from under the screws. It was enough they were trailing down towards and past the next tank.

What are these and though it might have been nothing, should I have said something to the crew after the flight? Of course it was dry by the time we arrived at the gate.
Hi Cassandra,

It’s common to see slight stains around some of the screws on the wing, especially on the bottom of the wing near the fuel pumps. I’m sure what you saw wasn’t critical, but I’d encourage you to let the pilots know as you deplane. If you were really concerned about something, bring it to the attention of the flight attendant. They’ll pass it along to the pilots who can then decide if it’s a serious enough problem.

I always follow up on the comment with maintenance, which is often at the gate shortly after we arrive anyway. It’s just a good idea to take even the smallest comment seriously. Many of them can be easily explained away, but it’s always prudent for us to look at anything that’s a concern to a passenger just to be sure.

John asks:

Hi Kent,

Recently, while on a flight from the east coast to the west, we were enjoying a smooth ride. Then, without warning, we hit a pocket of extreme turbulence. What made this differenct was that it was less than 2 seconds, and had the “feel” of an impact.

My questions are:
1) Is this a normal thing, and
2) Does it pose any danger to the flight.


Hi John,

The way you’ve described it, I’m pretty certain your airplane flew through the wake turbulence of another jet. This doesn’t happen often at all, but when the airplane is in just the right position relative to crossing traffic, it can be startling. It happens so briefly that we don’t usually see any injuries, but it will sure make you tighten your belt while sitting.

You can rest assured that the airplane is designed to handle the wake structurally and it generally doesn’t present any danger to the flight.

That said, ATC goes to great lengths to provide enough separation between aircraft during arrivals and departures. It’s during this time that wake turbulence can present a greater problem for airplanes, since the wake is generally larger when jets fly slower, with the gear and flaps down, than while in cruise flight. If the airplane weighs over 250,000 pounds (usually anything larger than a Boeing 757), then the pilots will call themselves a ‘heavy’ which reminds controllers that extra separation is needed behind those aircraft.

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. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.