Plane Answers: Takeoff and landing concerns

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!

We’ve had some great questions lately and I’m finally getting around to answering a couple of them this week. If yours hasn’t been answered, I probably have it in the que for later.

Fallyn begins:

I somehow found your site yesterday and have not gotten any work done since. I myself do not like to fly. Terrified all the way till landing. I’m sure you meet a lot of people on here that are the same way as me. I do fly though and a lot compared to most people.

I was sitting next to a nice flight attendant and he told me (because I hate take off) that autopilot takes off. This calms my nerves but now after reading [your Plane Answers feature about autopilots] I am fearful again.

To me the autopilot would know if there was a problem because computers know when there are problems but how can a human know there’s an issue with something they can not see.

Really it’s just take off that bothers me, as soon as I see the flight attendants moving around and the seat belt sign off I begin to relax. So I guess my question is how do you know it is safe to take off and that everything is in working order. I love traveling, it’s what I live for.

Oh yeah I love your blog, it’s awesome. I have read many many blogs and I have never emailed or commented on someone’s before.


Thanks for the nice comments, Fallyn.
There’s no airliner in the world that is currently certified for autopilot takeoffs. Part of the reason for this is because, in addition to the mechanical problems that can occur on takeoff, there are also external conditions to be aware of.

I could detail everything that could go wrong that a computer wouldn’t know about, but that might make you even more anxious about takeoffs. Let’s just say that computers wouldn’t be good at seeing a Moose on the runway.

You might be happy to learn that we practice some of the worst-case takeoff scenarios constantly in the simulator when we do our recurrent training. One of the most critical, an engine failure just as we’re lifting off, is accomplished at least five or six times during the training and check ride.

The airplane has a center screen in the middle of the cockpit called the Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS). Any problems that are considered important during a takeoff are illuminated here, and if the issue is significant enough, the alert is accompanied by a bell or some other tone to get the pilot’s attention.

So successfully handling an emergency during takeoff relies on a combination of the computer’s diagnostic abilities and the pilot’s judgement.

Interestingly, just 29% of all airline accidents occur on the takeoff or climb-out phase of flight.

Next time you fly, ask to visit the cockpit during boarding and take a look around. I’m sure the pilots would be happy to show you the layout of the instruments and I suspect you’ll be less anxious as you become more familiar with what’s going on upfront.

Mary asks:

We fly Southwest Airlines exclusively.

My question: why do 737’s landings become kamikaze-like missions? Why the need to come in so fast and then throw the brakes on leaving the passengers wondering if the pilot has mastered take-offs but not landings?

We recently flew into Midway, IL and used every bit of runway available. We came in typically really fast and hot, then the usual throwing on of the brakes, everyone gets pinned to their seat as the plane grumbles, pops, snaps and shakes like crazy until the plane has slowed sufficiently to avoid entering a freeway, corn field or the rear end of the 737 that landed just ahead.

This paticular landing was much harsher and everyone was aware that we used every bit of tarmac. Any chance these planes will become less violent at landing? I do feel as though we’ve landed on an aircraft carrier and gotten caught by the cables on deck.

Very observant, Mary. The 737 actually has the fastest approach speed of any of the modern Boeing airliners. Combine that with the relatively short runway length at Midway and it’s no wonder it felt like an aircraft carrier.

At the maximum landing weight, a 737-800 will touch down around 153 knots, versus 137 knots for a 757-200.

The landing gear also feels a bit stiffer on the 737, making it slightly more challenging to get a smooth touchdown versus other Boeings. Either way, a smooth landing isn’t a high priority on any runway less than 7000 feet. It’s important to land early on the runway so the weight can be placed on the wheels for more effective braking.

Reverse thrust is also used, although even with all that noise and vibration, it only shortens the rollout by a few hundred feet.

Pilots may elect to use automatic braking to slow the airplane on these shorter runways. Autobrakes have settings from 1 to 4 or 5. Maximum is usually reserved for very wet or icy runways. When used on a dry runway, these higher settings can stop the airplane in less than 3000 feet.

You’ll never have to worry about running into the airplane that lands ahead of you, since the runway needs to be clear before we’re issued a landing clearance.

So the next time you land at Midway, just think of it as an “E-Ticket” ride at Disneyland for no extra charge.

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.