Plane Answers: Step climbs, ferry flights and US Airways milking the publicity

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!

Sam asks:

I just “discovered” your Q&A’s section and I wanted to thank you for all the useful information. I had a question I wanted to ask you as well.

Often at at the end of a flight I hear the engines surge and feel mildly pressed into my seat, similar to the sensation of the sudden acceleration of takeoff. Why do the planes accelerate at this time and if they can be flying faster safely, why not do so the entire flight?

P.S. How often can I bother you with questions?

Hi Sam,

Fire away with the questions. I’ll try to answer them here if they’re relevant. We can never have too many!

What you may have experienced was a step-climb. As the airplane burns off fuel, it’s more efficient to fly at a higher altitude. So as the flight progresses pilots may elect to climb, often 2,000 feet at a time, to a higher altitude.

These “step climbs” could happen throughout the flight, with the exception of transatlantic flights which have to wait until they’re across the Atlantic before they can request a climb since ATC can’t see these airplanes via radar.

But there is one other possible explanation.
Since the British Airways 777 accident at London last year, 777 operators with the Rolls-Royce engines have to advance the throttles to maximum thrust for ten seconds before initiating the descent if the fuel temperature is below -10C.

We don’t fly at the maximum cruise power for the duration of the flight, since the added fuel burn would far exceed the benefits of arriving at our destination five minutes earlier.

Very perceptive and keep the questions coming, Sam.

James comments:

I was told by a very reliable source (older brother of a United pilot) that United hired a public relations firm to promote “Sully” and crew. They are determined to get as much mileage from this event as possible.

I think you meant to say that US Airways was trying to get the most publicity from this event as possible. And while that may be true, it hasn’t prevented ‘Sully’ from pointing out that US Airways had used bankruptcy as a “fishing expedition to get what they could not get in normal times,” and noted that his pay had been cut 40 percent in recent years and his pension had been terminated and replaced with a promise “worth pennies on the dollar.”

Certainly he’s avoided the influence of company spokespersons and he’s felt free enough to speak his mind.

I’m currently reading the book It’s not news, it’s Fark, which outlines how companies and organizations try to influence the direction of the news. But it seems in this case, the media demand for interviews has been significant enough that a publicity campaign by the airline wouldn’t be necessary.

Thomas asks:

Hi Kent-

I love reading both of your columns! I miss reading Cockpit Chronicles.

I don’t know if you can answer this question for me or not, but how do plane manufacturers transport new smaller planes (ex: A320, B737) overseas to buyers? Are these planes able to fly across the ocean without any passengers on board?

When I was 15, my sister and I overheard my dad turn down an offer to fly a 737 from Seattle to London. We forced him to call back and take the trip which gave us an opportunity to ride in the cockpit with him, since it was considered a ferry flight. Not to mention the fact that it gave us the opportunity to see London.

Up to that point, we had never been able to ride in the cockpit, of course.

We flew from Seattle with our fuel tanks topped off, to Goose Bay, Canada. We then proceeded all the way to South Hampton, England. Had we been limited in range further, we would have stopped in Gander, Newfoundland, and perhaps Reykjavik, Iceland before flying on to our destination.

This is also how smaller, single-engine Cessnas are flown to and from Europe, but they often carry auxiliary fuel tanks inside the cabin.

I’m very sympathetic to these ferry pilots flying the smaller airplanes. It can’t be a relaxing flight to be down low, in an airplane with just one engine, while trying to avoid icing conditions. Those pilots earn every penny they get.

Todays Boeing and Airbus narrow-body airplanes can travel more than 2,500 nautical miles, so there are more options for them.

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.