Cockpit Chronicles: Avoiding bird strikes

On the season finale of the TV show 30 Rock, Alex Baldwin says to a pilot, played by Matt Damon:

“You’re a pilot, huh. I should pick your brain. I’m developing a daytime talk show with Sully Sullenberger.”

“Yeah, I met that guy. He’s not that great.” Matt Damon, the pilot, says.

“You know what a great pilot would have done? Not hit the birds. That’s what I do every day, not hit the birds. Where’s my ticket to the Grammy’s?”

For U.S. readers, Hulu has a free clip of the exchange.

After I wiped the tears from my eyes from laughing so hard, I realized Captain Damon had a point. In fact, avoiding birds has been a big part of my job for the past two months.

While so much attention is focused on the migratory birds in New York and even Boston, the pterodactyl sized birds of Caracas, Venezuela and Panama City, Panama were appearing far too often. I began to notice a trend. On nearly every arrival and on most departures I flew during the two months of flying down there from Boston and through Miami, we had seen these large turkey vultures and, in Panama City we even had pelicans cross our flight path.

Not Hitting the Birds

Every pilot has had, or at least will see, a few bird strikes in their career. Typically they involve small birds that merely splatter on the windshield or radome without leaving much of a mark. I do feel sympathy for the little creatures with which we share the sky. They were certainly here first, and I’m sure an airliner approaching at five times their own speed has to come as a surprise and significant annoyance to them. There’s just no avoiding these smaller birds.

Small Bird Strike in Barbados

But when it comes to the larger birds, what I jokingly refer to as pterodactyls, we can occasionally see them as much as ten seconds prior to impact. When they’re no longer moving left or right, or up or down across our screen, and instead start out as a little dot on the windshield that rapidly grows in size, you know you’re on track for a possible impact.

We were determined to have a smooth, event-free arrival into Panama City on this trip after the controller confusion fiasco I talked about last week. And it should have been; the weather was looking good, the more senior weekday controllers were sharp and there wasn’t a bump in the air. Surely this would be an uneventful flight.
As is common, to change things up a bit, it was my turn to fly the leg from Miami to Panama City, Panama. Once again, the weather was advertised as 2000 feet scattered and 10 kilometers, exactly the same weather we had on the last trip. During the next five trips to PTY, the reported weather never changed, but the actual weather certainly did.

This time, ATC vectored us out a bit further, and perhaps because they were more senior controllers working the weekday shift, their English seemed much better.

While at a flap setting of 25 and just as I was ready to call for the final flap setting of 30 degrees, Dave said, “There’s a bird.”

I had been looking down at my speed and altitude, to ensure I was fully configured by the 1,000 foot requirement. (See the previous Cockpit Chronicles about FOQA.)

I looked up to see another pterodactyl directly in our flight path. It was flying at first, and then it must have noticed the massive jet bearing down on it, since it began to almost freeze in the air and flail its wings in a very cartoon-like fashion.

I instinctively pulled back on the yoke, not abruptly but with some urgency and managed to clear the spasmodic turkey vulture by just a few feet. We got the last of the flaps out at 1,100 feet and landed without incident.

I wondered if the flight attendants and passengers felt the adjustment to our flight path.

“Did you notice anything on final?” I asked one of our South American based flight attendants.

“Yes!” She said. “What was that?”

So much for no one noticing. Apparently she had been collecting last minute cups and glasses and was actually standing in the aisle at 1,000 feet, a fact that scared me a bit, since it’s usually safe to assume the flight attendants have completed their duties by that point.

Once again at the debrief dinner with Dave, we discussed the approach. He thought it may have been better to continue on the path and hope the bird could maneuver out of the way.

“Worst cast scenario, you hit him. But the impact at 150 knots is much less than at 250.” He speculated.

Dave had a point. We’ve all seen pictures of some nasty bird strikes in the past, but most of the significant ones were while the airplane was climbing and had already accelerated to 250 knots, our speed limit below 10,000 feet.

We had some close calls on takeoff the following week, and so we decided to take Dave’s theory on speed and put it to use.

The “European Climb”

When climbing out of any European airport, we’re required to maintain a slower speed, approximately 20 knots faster than the speed at which we lifted off the ground until 3,000 feet above the airport elevation. We’re still using the same power setting-exchanging the extra speed for a quicker climb.

Since most birds fly below 3,000 feet, why not limit our speed while operating around these areas prone to large numbers of pterodactyls? We could reduce the impact forces since high school physics taught me (or was it drivers education?) that twice the speed results in four times the damage.

The next day, we had a plan. We would fly the European-style climb, which would get us up and away from the ground quicker, and also limit our speed to just 160 knots. A quick crunching of numbers told us that this would be 58% of the energy that we’d have at 250 knots.

On came the weather radar as well, since there has been speculation that birds can actually hear or sense the radar on an airplane and that it may help prevent bird strikes. It couldn’t hurt, I figured.

Sure enough, while climbing through 2,200 feet, we encountered two of the turkey vultures we had seen the day before. This time they passed 20 feet above us and to the right.

I continued to use the European climb technique when flying from Caracas, Venezuela and San Pedro Sula, Honduras over the next few months. It’s a technique that seems to make sense and I hope it’s adopted at airports with significant bird populations.

Much attention has been given to the rounding up of geese in the New York area to limit the exposure to birds. I suspect this is a rather futile measure, but I understand the need to do something to reduce the exposure. The steeper angled, slower speed climb that Dave came up with just might be one way to accomplish that goal.


Just as I was finishing this post, I saw the story reported two days earlier that a garbage dump had been approved for construction just 2,206 feet from the approach end of runway 31 in LaGuardia. And where there’s garbage, there are birds, generally. But Harry Szarpanski, deputy commissioner at New York City’s Sanitation Department, explains in the report that the new design will prevent any smells and trash from escaping the facility. We’ll see.

Even at the slower speeds that airplanes operate close to the airport, birds can still cause problems, as seen in this riveting video by Simon Lowe of a bird strike and subsequent engine fire on a Boeing 757 taking off at the Manchester airport in England.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.

Rainbow Room loses pot of gold

New York’s Rainbow Room is about to close its Rainbow Grill restaurant. Perched atop 30 Rockefeller Center, the restaurant has accumulated a reputation for dazzling views and putting you on top of the world in as close to the literal sense as possible. This week, the restaurant suffered its own fall … a 65-storey fall, to be exact.

The Rainbow Grill, which serves pricey Italian-style food, will shut down on January 12, 2009. The bar, banquet facilities and weekend dinner-dancing will live on, however. The twin culprits are the general economic decline and a dispute with its landlord, the “pirates” at Tishman Speyer.

Of course, everyone in Manhattan is entitled to a second act, and the Rainbow Room may come back. The Cipriani family, which owns the landmark restaurant, calls the decision temporary.

[Via MSNBC and Gawker]

How to get tickets to Late Night with Conan O’Brien

So, you want to get tickets to see Conan O’Brien before he ups and moves to Los Angeles to take over Jay Leno? Better hurry — by this time next year, the Late Show in New York will be a thing of the past (unless you really like Jimmy Fallon or something).

But, as you’ll soon find out, scoring said tickets can be tricky. Don’t fret, though — Gadling is here to guide you through the process.


Tickets to see a live taping of Conan O’Brien are, no doubt, some of the hardest to score in all of New York City. But don’t let this dissuade you; with the right amount of planning, persistence, and spring in your step, you won’t have a problem. First, the gritty details: Tickets are free, and can only be secured over the phone by calling (212) 664-3056 — no websites or fax machines allowed. You can request a maximum of four tickets, and everyone in your party must be over 16-years old. Finally, you can only requests tickets once every six months.

The first step in the process is figuring out exactly when you’ll be in the Big Apple. If you’re a local, you can skip this part for obvious reasons — but if you’re visiting, don’t bother trying to get tickets before you have your trip planned and know the exact dates in which you’re available.

Once you know when you’ll be in the city, then you can move on to the next step. Tickets are (sometimes) released on a daily basis, typically about a month to three before taping. I say “sometimes” because there’s no obvious schedule for if and when they’ll be releasing tickets. For instance, the recent writer’s strike threw the ticket system way out-of-whack, and even though I had been calling every day since February, I wasn’t able to get tickets for the May 23 taping until early May. But other reports online claim tickets are released as far in advance as three and four months. There really is no rhyme or reason as to when tickets for particular days get released by NBC; some days you will call and they won’t be releasing any, other days they will releasing for a single day only, and to make it even more confusing, sometimes they release a week or two at a time. So to be safe, plan on calling every day, Monday through Friday, for at least three months before the date you want to attend. Make it a part of your morning ritual: wake up, brush your teeth, pet your cat, make coffee, call the ticket offices, take a shower, go to work. It only takes about 10 seconds to dial, realize they aren’t releasing tickets for your time frame, and hang-up. This is the single most important part of the process, so don’t get lazy!

Once the ticket line is actually open and booking for your particular date, you’ll be given the option of connecting with an operator who will get your information. Be prepared to give them your full name, home address, phone number, email address, and number of tickets requested. They will give you all the pertinent details, including the date and time of taping, when to show up, and a confirmation number (which you should, of course, write down). Then you’ll receive an email (above) with all the details outlined, along with instructions on what to do on the day of the taping. Print this email and don’t lose it, because you’ll need it later!


Congratulations! You were diligent in the ticket-getting process — you called everyday without fail — and now you’ve got your tickets secured with a confirmation email to prove it. You’re ready to attend your first taping! Now what?

Shows typically tape at 5:30 PM EST, and your confirmation email most likely says you should show up no later than 4:15. However, if you want to get a good seat, show up much earlier than this. This is because you don’t simply flash your email and walk into the studio — there’s a strange, convoluted process you must go through before the taping begins. First, you exchange your confirmation email for a ticket and wristband. Make sure your entire party is present, each with their own photo ID, and head towards 30 Rockefeller Plaza [see map]. The best entrance to use is directly behind the giant, gold statue of Prometheus (when facing the front of it — see this photo) sunken below the main walkway. Once inside, head directly up the stairs to the left and on to the mezzanine level. There may be a sign saying the stairs are for “tenants only,” but you can ignore this and head up regardless — any place off limits to tourists will be blocked by multiple security guards. (If you feel uncomfortable or lost, ask one of the friendly guards at the front desk where to go for Conan.) Once upstairs, keep your eyes peeled for a sign with Conan’s giant, cartoon head — there should be a few NBC employees hanging out in the area with clipboards. Present your confirmation email and photo ID, and they’ll give you and the rest of your group a wristband and ticket and tell you to show up downstairs at exactly 4:15.

Not my arm

If you look on your wristband and/or ticket, you’ll notice that you have either a hand-written letter or number somewhere on it. This is your place in line. I’m not 100% positive about this, but I’m pretty sure (and it makes logical sense) that the sooner you arrive to pick up your wristband and ticket, the better seats you get. The seats aren’t assigned, per se, but the order in which you check-in and receive your wristband is. The first 26 groups to get their wristband are given a letter. For example, since the group I was with was the 4th to arrive, we were given the letter “D.” After each letter of the alphabet is taken, they switch to numbers. So if you want to sit up close, make sure you arrive early enough to get a letter. This is because when it’s time to enter the studio, they split the groups up into two (letters and numbers) and line you up in alphabetical order if you have a letter, obviously, and in numerical order if you have a number.

The letter and number system is also designed to keep people from bum-rushing the studio to get good seats. Once you have your ticket and wristband, you already have what determines your position in the line to enter the studio. Therefore, you don’t need to wait around 30 Rock any longer — you can take your wristband and ticket and go to lunch, and not worry about showing up any earlier than the time you’ve been told. In fact, if you do show up earlier, they’ll tell you to “go walk around for X more minutes,” until it’s time.

For reference, the show I attended started at 4:30 — an hour earlier — so we were required to be there no later than 3:15. We showed up about 2:00 and got a “D” wristband and ticket, which means only three other groups arrived earlier than we did. Then we walked around for an hour, and went back to the stairs leading up to the mezzanine level. Don’t worry about figuring out where this is at — the folks giving out wristbands will tell you exactly when and where you need to be. Plus, there will be about 150 other people waiting around too; you can’t miss it!


Like I mentioned earlier, when you show up at the requested time, the ushers will split you into two groups: letters and numbers. Then you each head up a set of stairs and queue in alphabetical or numerical order. Once in line, the ushers explain two very important rules:

  • No cameras allowed. If you have one in your bag or purse, that’s OK, but you can’t take it out of your bag once upstairs. If a security guard even sees a camera, they will confiscate it, so don’t even try. Apparently, “the inside of the studio is copyrighted” — exact words from the gentlemen explaining the rules — and it’s illegal to snap shots of anything once in the studio.
  • Cell phones must be turned completely off. Not on sleep mode, not on silent or vibrate — OFF. The signal sometimes interferes with the wireless microphones, so they must be completely powered down. If you’re an on-call doctor, or can’t live without your cell phone for a few hours, you might want to reconsider going to a taping, because they were very serious about this rule.

After nodding your head and pretending to listen, you’re off to the studio; They take the letter groups first. You walk back down the stairs, through a couple of hallways, and into an airport-like security line. They have a metal detector to walk through, so you need to take anything metal out of your pockets and place them on the tables as you walk through. Ladies, your purses will be opened up and looked into. If you’ve got a sweater on, you must take it off — even if it’s tied around your waste. The line goes quick, though, and before you know it your ushered into an elevator with roughly 15 other people and heading upstairs. When you arrive on the studio floor, a few interns will be waiting to welcome you with a free Conan O’Brien “Audience Member” t-shirt — XL of course — and then you’re off to find a seat.

That’s me on the left!

Seating is open for the most part, but there is an usher who will point you in the general direction of where he wants you to go. There are some obvious places to sit if you really want to see yourself on television. In general, the closer to the front, the better chance you have. But you don’t need to be in the front row — we were in row 4 and you could see us well enough that even my parents caught a few glimpses of us from the comfort of their couch. (No offense, Mom and Dad!)

To better illustrate where you should try to sit if you want to be on TV, here’s a rather poor blueprint of the theater I made from memory. (Keep in mind: it’s not to scale!)

The red squares (which don’t represent individual seats, of course) are the best areas to sit, while the gray areas represent mostly-safe areas if you don’t want to show up on-screen. If you’re looking to interact with Conan, or even the guests for that taping, the best place to sit is in the first five-or-so rows on either side of the aisle. You’re less likely to be on camera in the first two rows near the band, but the band gets featured occasionally and there’s a good chance you’ll show up during those times.


Once the entire audience has entered the studio and found a seat, the entertainment begins. There are flat-screen TV monitors sprinkled throughout the audience, and they quickly come to life with a 10 minute reel of Conan highlights over the years. This proves to be a great way to get the audience warmed up and laughing, and even if you’ve never seen an episode of the show before, you’ll be laughing. It’s a great way to prepare everyone for what they’re about to experience.

After the highlight reel ends, the warm-up comedian, Brian McCann, comes out and starts the show. If you’re a fan of Conan, you’ll recognize him from many of the post-monologue skits. Brian works the crowd for another 10 minutes or so, interacting with audience, cracking jokes, and answering questions. He’s a pretty funny guy.

This is where things can vary. After Brian’s introduction, he tells the audience that Conan wants to come out and talk before the show begins. Based on other reviews online, I’m not convinced this happens every time, but it seems to be somewhat regular. But for our show, Brian introduces Conan, who files through the double doors on the right (near “not to scale” on my map above) and up into the audience to shake hands before grabbing the mic and talking for a while. He gets the audience laughing, of course, and talks about the upcoming show before introducing the band. Max Weinberg was still out on tour, unfortunately, but backup drummer James Wormworth was there to take the brunt of jokes from Conan.

The rest, however, shall remain a mystery — what fun would it be if I gave it all away? Just know that after Conan exits the stage, the real fun begins. So sit back, relax, and reflect on all the hard work you put in to get there while you wait for the show to start.

A few more things to consider:

  • Go to the bathroom first, as there’s nowhere to go once you’re standing in line waiting to enter.
  • You can’t bring food or drinks in the studio.
  • Plan on the taping lasting roughly two-and-a-half to three hours, from the time you’re waiting in line to enter, until you’re done.
  • Feel free to interact with the show from the audience (they encourage it), but too much interaction means you’ll have a scary looking security guard staring at you for a majority of the show to make sure you don’t cause any problems.
  • Have fun!