Plane Answers: Airliners passing closely (with video) and how are tailwinds figured inflight?

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!

Tim asks:


Recently we (my wife and I) were going from PVD to TPA and while gazing out the window on a bright sunny day, we were amazed to notice a large amount (8-10) planes passing by us heading north. These planes “seemed” very close to our plane as I could clearly make out all of the markings on each one. Is this normal practice for the airlines?

Hi Tim,

I had a similar experience recently. Since I normally fly internationally, we don’t see quite as much traffic as you can pass on a domestic flight.

While flying from Dallas to Boston the other day, I decided to take some video during cruise of the numerous aircraft that we flew over or under. It makes for some nice scenes. At one point, we even pass under a pair of B-52’s.

You’re right in noticing that this seems to be more common. Since January 20th, 2005, the FAA has allowed aircraft to be flown at altitudes in 1,000 foot increments. Prior to that, flights above 18,000 feet were separated by 2,000 feet.

You might think this wouldn’t be as safe, but in fact, the opposite is true. Since opening up twice the amount of flight levels available to airplanes, the airspace is effectively doubled, giving controllers more room to operate flights around weather and to provide more direct flights.
Callum asks:

First off, thank you so much for taking the time to answer all these questions. I only recently found the list and I enjoyed reading your answers immensely.

My question is how does the in flight system that displays speed, location, heading etc. know what the tailwind speed is?

I imagine it’s easy to calculate your forward velocity through the air with some kind of windmill like device on the front of the aircraft. If this velocity is comprised of forward motion created by engine thrust and wind speed (positive or negative) how do the plane’s systems calculate each component?

(I bet I’m over thinking it and you’ll have a really simple, obvious answer :) )


Hi Callum,

You’re close. Almost all airplanes have a pitot tube that senses the airplane’s airspeed. Airliners also have GPS and/or ‘laser ring’ gyros that spin fast enough to sense any movement of the airplane. When the airspeed and heading is compared to the GPS or gyros, the relative wind speed can be displayed. We can see this on our map display at a glance, which is handy in the last few hundred feet before landing to get a preview of the crosswind we’ll likely have at touchdown.

I managed to take a quick picture of the highest winds I’ve run across at altitude, which was during a smooth ride, despite the fuzzy picture:

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

Life Nomadic: The Art of Getting Mugged

After a safe return from Haiti, universally advertised as too dangerous to visit, my opinion on danger was stronger than ever. Everyone blows danger way out of proportion, and if you walk around confidently without being flashy, no one is going to rob you.

Here in Santo Domingo I eat at the same restaurant, Ananda, every night. It’s an amazing vegetarian restaurant that bears a startling resemblance to my favorite restaurant in Austin, Texas (Casa de Luz). It’s an eleven minute walk away through the main roads, or a ten minute walk with a shortcut.

The shortcut goes through the scariest little alley I’ve ever seen. The buildings on it are crumbling, it’s covered with trash, there are no streetlights, and just to make it a little more spooky, one side of it borders an overcrowded cemetery. Worse, the alley is a series of three sharp angles that make it hidden from nearby streets.

I liked walking through the alley. It made me feel tough, and I was proud to not have the same irrational fears that everyone else seems to have.

As it turned out, those fears weren’t quite so irrational. After the eight hour bus ride from Haiti I was starving, so I started walking towards the restaurant. At this point I’d gone through the alley so much that I didn’t even think about it. Two twenty-something-year-olds were walking towards me. I moved a bit to the right to pass them, but one went to one side of me and the other went on the other side.”Hola,” I said cheerfully.

Just as it started to register in my brain that something might be fishy about them surrounding me, they were on me. Their hands grabbed my shirt, they pushed me back against a wall, and started pulling the rings off of my fingers.

My logical mind kicked in. If I just spoke to them in Spanish they’d see that I’m not a typical gringo tourist.

“Espera! Que paso?”

They couldn’t have cared less, of course. They kept tugging at my rings and sliding their hands into my pockets. I didn’t have my wallet on me, but I did have a wad of cash. They took my passport, both rings, and the keys to my hotel. I glanced down at my expensive GPS watch which one of them was trying to take off, and realized that the longer I stood there, the more stuff they were going to take.

Cash and watch still attached, I started to run away. I figured they’d chase me, but as I looked back I saw them running the other way.

I felt calm during the actual incident, but afterwards I was rattled. I walked around the block a couple times, trying to process what had just happened. I didn’t care so much about what had been taken, but my worldview had just been shattered. I was naively optimistic enough to think that no one would mess with me because I was a nice friendly person who cared about the cultures I was visiting. It hadn’t occurred to me that wannabe thugs with probable drug habits don’t really care about any of that.

When I got home I went on the internet, determined to learn how to fight. I would buy a knife every time I landed, and learn knife fighting. If someone tried to rob me again, they would get stabbed.

Luckily, my first search yielded this site, which describes exactly why my plan was a terrible idea that might end up with me getting killed. Every post on the site links to twenty others, which meant that the following couple hours of my life were dedicated to learning everything I could about personal defense.

Here are the important things I learned, with links to No Nonsense Self Defense, in terms of avoiding getting mugged while traveling:

  • Low level criminals, like muggers, are not logical. Trying to use logic to dissuade them will never work.
  • Criminals are professionally violent. Training to fight them without the same real world experience they have, will lead to you getting hurt.
  • Mugging is a low level crime, which means that it is mostly perpetrated by younger people (18-25) with drug problems.
  • Crimes happen in “fringe areas“, places between isolated areas and highly populated areas. Isolated areas don’t have enough victims, heavily populated areas have too many witnesses.
  • To escape a bad situation, make sure you run towards a heavily populated area. Running “away” is likely to lead you into a less populated area.
  • Criminals are selfish and are obsessed with their status. Challenging them (“You wouldn’t shoot me”), is a good way to make them violent.

What I realized, more than anything, was that I was asking for it. Sure, no one ever has the right to rob me, but I entered an area that I knew was dangerous, and I did it habitually. My original idea that the world is safer than people say is probably correct, as long as I do my part to avoid danger.

Undiscovered New York: Strolling “Brownstone Brooklyn”

Welcome back to Undiscovered New York. It’s often said that New York is a city made for walking. Between one of the world’s largest subway systems and an increasingly pedestrian-friendly city government, walking is typically the easiest (and most enjoyable) way to get around town.

In fact, walking isn’t just a practical way to get around. One of the great pleasures for any New Yorker is the leisurely stroll of his/her chosen neighborhood of residence. Within any given block you’re likely to encounter the sights, sounds and smells that give New York its particular personality – the bright green awnings of the neighborhood bodega, the thwack of rubber against concrete at the local handball court, or the gently wafting scent of fresh-baked loaves of bread.

Although just about all of the city of New York is a great place for walking, it’s only in Brooklyn that walking reaches its purest form. Don’t get us wrong, Manhattan’s got plenty of accessible pavement, and Queens and the Bronx are sidewalk friendly too. But there’s just something about Brooklyn and its stately rows of elegant old Brownstone houses, placid parks and tiny storefronts that has particular appeal.

This week at Undiscovered New York, we’re taking you on a leisurely tour of one of Brooklyn’s most famous old Brownstone neighborhoods: Brooklyn Heights. And we’re doing it the way Brooklyn was meant to be seen – by foot. Interested in walking one of New York’s most beautiful old neighborhoods? Curious to see where authors like Tom Wolfe and rocker Bob Dylan once lived? How about an interesting look inside Middle Eastern culture in New York City? Let’s take a stroll through “Brownstone Brooklyn…”
A Walk Through Brooklyn Heights
As the settlement of New York began to grow rapidly in the early 1800’s, a new “commuter town” appeared along the banks of the East River opposite downtown New York. This new neighborhood, now known as Brooklyn Heights, became home to street after street of grandiose mansions, tall, shady trees and stately Brownstones. If you’ve heard of the beauty of Manhattan’s West Village, imagine an area just as beautiful – except minus all the gawking tourists.

Brooklyn Heights is one of the easiest, most beautiful and interesting spots to kick off your Brooklyn walking tour. Take a stroll along beautiful Pierrepont Street, stopping at the ornate building that houses the Brooklyn Historical Society. In addition to being a beautiful building, the site is filled with exhibits on the Borough’s history.

Just a block south is the commercial strip of Montague Street, lined with cafes and restaurants. Rock legend Bob Dylan claimed to have lived along this historic strip in his song Tangled Up in Blue. Then make your way south along Hicks Street, pausing to admire the majestic 19th Century facades. Book-lovers might also want to check out 5 Montague Terrace, once home to novelist Thomas Wolfe in the 1930’s.

Down Atlantic Avenue
Just south of Brooklyn Heights is Atlantic Avenue, one of Brooklyn’s most prominent East-West thoroughfares. A walk along this interesting and rapidly changing strip of Brooklyn will take you through the heart of some of the Borough’s more interesting businesses and landmarks. Between Clinton and Court Streets lies a strip of Middle Eastern restaurants, groceries and bakeries. Neighborhood favorite Sahadi’s stocks a wide variety of dry fruits and nuts as well as Middle Eastern specialty food products. Stop into nearby Damascus Bakery for a piece of Baklava or some of their famous pita bread.

Just a little further east, near the corner of Atlantic and Hoyt, you begin to enter one of Brooklyn’s more famous antique districts. The area’s biggest hub for antique and vintage furniture of all kinds is Horseman Antiques. Covering over three floors, Horseman stocks everything from vintage sofas to stained glass. For something a bit more modern, keep going just down the street to artez’n, a quirky shop specializing in locally produced artwork and gifts.

Good Deed Travel: House building in Mexico vs drug cartels

As the news stories about the drug cartels in Mexico have increased, I’ve been struck by the contrast between the violence I’ve heard about in cities like Tijuana and what I experienced one year ago–just an hour over the Mexican border past the outskirts of that city and its urban sprawl.

High up a craggy hill, up winding, steep roads, where shacks of pieced together boards and metals served as ramshackle houses, I was hopefully helping to make the life of one family better. The other 160 people I was with–ranging in ages from fourteen to early sixties, were also building houses nearby. For a week we worked in groups to build twelve simple, two-room adobe structures with concrete floors and solid, leak-proof roofs.


Last year, I wrote a post about what prompted me to do such a trip. This is a follow-up.

Although I didn’t go to Mexico this year, the trip did happen. A little over two weeks ago, more Mexican families were handed the keys to their new front doors. Afterward, the bus loads of do-gooders, mostly adolescents, waited to go through customs to cross back into the U.S. for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger in San Diego, a hot shower and a night at a hotel.

If their trip was at all like ours, the stories they told each other as they waited were not about drug trafficking, but about the families they got to know and what they accomplished in five days. They will have mentioned the pleasure they found from mixing cement, measuring and cutting boards, pounding nails, and laying out the roofing. More importantly, they will have talked about the connections they made with the Mexican families. What will have struck them the most is how the families were so generous, kind and, in general, happy.

These are the stories I heard last year. From what the people who go on this trip every year have told me, these stories are typical. I think it would be great if these stories ended up on the news once in awhile.

One of the criticisms that I have heard about the recent news stories about Mexico is that there is so much focus on drug trafficking and the brutality of the cartels that people are getting a lopsided, and not totally accurate view of the country.

It’s not that I think that by building one humble house at a time, people can change the world, but it’s a different version of the world. Mexico is also filled with people who are focused on having a quiet, decent life where their kids are safe.

Still, as we were driving from where we were based to the border, the closer we got to Tijuana, the more graffiti I noticed. The simple, calm beauty of the countryside gradually shifted to what I perceived as anger, particularly since most of the graffiti was on the outside walls that surrounded housing developments of the people who worked in factories.

The contrast between the scattered clusters of houses where we had spent our time, and these walls was striking. I was happy that we passed on through.

A year later, the images of Maria, her grandsons and her son who live in the house I helped to build are much stronger than that graffiti.

Galley Gossip: Passenger of the month: Adam Schaffer

Name: Adam Schaffer

Occupation: Media and publishing executive. I am in the magazine business, but had the honor of being on the editorial advisory board of Inside Flyer magazine a few years back

Which is exactly why I picked you as my passenger of the month. Tell me something interesting you learned while working for Inside Flyer: Airline club memberships are huge. Not only is the lounge access terrific, but the agents there can often “get things done” that agents elsewhere in the airport cannot such as upgrades, special sitting, moving flights, etc.

Recently I wrote a post, The passenger didn’t ask for much, about a demanding passenger on board the very same flight you were on. A Gadling reader commented by saying, “I fly all the time and I’ve never seen anything like that ever happen on a flight!” If I hadn’t told you what was happening would you have known what was going on nine rows behind you? I had no idea the incident was as prolonged as it turned out to be. I have a good sense and can tell when “something is up” somewhere on the airplane, but you and the crew handled that situation very well.

Thank you! So how many miles have you flow this year? 20,728 thru march 31st.

Last flight? JFk-LAX

That was my flight, the crazy flight! Check it or carry on? Carry on! I once went to Moscow and St. Petersberg for eight days with a carry on!

It can be done, because I went to Italy for 10 days (Venice, Rome & Positano) with only a rollaboard and a tote bag. Window or aisle seat? Aisle. I do not like to be confined.

Something to drink? Water. I fainted on a flight to Spain on my honeymoon due to dehydration. The next thing I know I am laying in the aisle and the flight attendants are shaking me awake and asking if I’m okay. Apparently I fained and fell against my wife on the way down. My wife tried to wake me and I didn’t move! So she ran to the forward galley yelling, “I haven’t been married 24 hours and I think my husband is dead!”

Wow – I hope you buy a really big bottle of water before each and every flight, especially when you’re traveling on my flight! What type if luggage do you carry? Sturdy and inexpensive. I had a nice Tumi bag I had to check once…and it was ruined. The baggage handling system will eat your luggage!

Sorry to hear that. Any packing tips or tricks? Mix and match. Take as little as possible.

Best shoes to wear through security? Crocs are great, but then your feet get all grimey, so I suggest socks. The TSA does need to find a way to make the whole shoe thing better.

I agree. Any airport routines? I always check to see if the inbound flight is on time and where it is coming from. Sadly airlines will hedge their bets on announcing delays. Then I buy a lot of water.

You sound like a flight attendant – checking the inbound flight for delays! Smart. Best airline experience? Recently I flew on American Airlines from New Delhi, India to Chicago. 15 hours and 40 minutes en route. The new AA business class cabins on the 777 are really nice and the service was amazing. Many meal opportunities and options (and great Indian food) and a terrific choice of on demand entertainment. I was dreading the flight and was actually a bit bummed when it was over.

Nicest airport? Shanghai Pudong, best damn gift shops anywhere.

Favorite airport restaurant? One world lounge in Hong Kong. Get the “Dan Dan Noodles”

That’s all my husband talked about when he came back from Hong Kong, how amazing the lounge was and how great those Dan Dan noodles were. Hotel away from home? Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas

Too funny! I’m pretty lucky on the $1 slots over there. Favorite in-flight announcement? “In preparation for landing..”

Book last read on a flight? We are like that only, understanding the logic of consumer India, by Rama Bijapurkar

Now finish the following sentences…

I can’t fly without my…Ipod and noise canceling headsets

On my last flight…I actually watched a movie and didn’t work. Saw “Yes Man” with Jim Carey

This passenger I sat next to…Got me my current job! (Be friendly to those around you)

I had this one flight…Where the flight attendant actually threw my food at me! (And, for the record, I was just sitting quietly) It was an Atlanta to LA flight, so you can guess the carrier.

If I could be anywhere in the world, I’d…Be in Fiji and nowhere else.

When it comes to traveling I wish…A supersonic plane was in the pipeline somewhere. Would love to do LA to Hong Kong in five hours.

Why do flight attendants…Put up with crap from passengers? I know it’s a customer service thing, but some folks need a good bop on the head!

Next flight: Lax – JFK God willing in business class.

Photos courtesy of (water) Moussefromsacto, (dan dan noodles) Avlxyz, (Fiji) Muzzman