Plane Answers: Sudden acceleration on landing and lining up on final approach

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!

Darren from Engadget asks:

Hey Kent!

Just got back from a LIR -> ATL -> RDU trip, and I thought of a question. When the plane (we were on a 737) is just seconds from touching down on the runway, it feels & sounds like the plane suddenly accelerates. For a few minutes leading to landing, it feels like we’re slowing down, and right before the rubber hits the road, there’s like a small burst in speed, followed by touch down and then massive wind as I assume the engines are thrown in reverse to stop us.

So, what’s that acceleration just before touch down for? Or am I dreaming? Thanks!

Hi Darren,

Nope, I’m sure you experienced this.

Occasionally if a pilot is a bit slow (say 2 or 3 knots below your ‘target speed’) they can add a small boost of power in the flare to cushion the inevitable thump of a landing. But it’s really not a very good technique to use regularly.

And some pilots don’t just use it when they’re a tad slow, but they use it as a substitute for a finessed flare on every landing.

It can lead to a very ‘flat’ and fast landing. Touching down like this eats up a lot of runway unnecessarily and puts more wear on the brakes and tires.

You’ll hear in this takeoff and landing video the instructor repeat “flare and squeeze” to the captain as he’s about 30 feet over the runway. He’s telling him to start his flare, or round out the glide path angle to allow for a smoother touchdown and to “squeeze” or pull the power back to idle before touching down.

And you’re right, the noise you’re hearing after landing comes from the reverse thrust mechanism which is simply a set of ‘blocking doors’ that divert the thrust out the sides of the cowl and forward, angled away from the engines.
Ainsley asks:

How important is a reference point in lining up for landing?

Hi Ainsley,

If the weather is clear, we are often able to make up our own final approach to landing in, for example, the Caribbean. At densely populated areas and in the weather (flying on instruments) we fly an approach that usually has a straight-in segment of about 10 miles. We’re almost never turned in any closer than 3 miles out.

As you can see from the video linked in Darren’s question above, while on the final approach it’s easy to tell if you’re lined up correctly with the runway.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, we line up for one runway (10) and in the last 300 feet make a turn to another runway (8) for landing. It’s a ‘charted’ visual approach procedure that’s rather fun.

The approach is similar to the ending of this video I took while flying in a small Diamond DA-20 airplane:

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.

Galley Gossip: Passenger gets caught with pants down

Dear Heather,

Is it standard procedure for a flight attendant to force open a toilet occupied by a passenger if the plane is about to land? Under what circumstances has the flight attendant a right to do this?


Caught with My Pants Down

Dear Caught with My Pants Down,

I’m so sorry to hear you were caught with your pants down. I’m also sorry that a flight attendant had to see you that way. I’m sure it was embarrassing for both of you. On my flight from New York to Dallas last week I caught two passengers in the same position, but that’s just because they forgot to lock the door, not because I forced the thing open. So please, people, I beg you, do not forget to switch that little sign from vacant to occupied. That way we won’t have to avoid eye contact for the rest of the flight.

As for forcing a locked door open, it does not happen often. In fact I’ve only had to do it twice in my career and I’ve been flying for fourteen years. Once, not too long ago, I did it when I heard a young child yelling, “help, help, help!” because she couldn’t figure out how to unlock the lavatory door and another time when, seconds before departure, the passenger who had locked himself inside ignored our pleas to return to his seat.

“Sir, you need to come out! We can not depart until you take your seat!” my coworker cried, banging her fists on the accordion door. No answer. Just silence. Complete silence.

I gave it a try – knock, knock, knock! “Sir, are you okay in there?” Still no response.

“We’re coming in,” my coworker yelled, and two seconds later the door was pushed open. Startled, the man with the needle stuck in his arm jumped, causing it to pop out and blood to spurt all over the floor. The airplane was immediately taken out of service.


Because your question is lacking in details, I can not answer as thoroughly as I’d like to. What I want to know is just how close to landing were you? Was it an International flight? Which airport were you flying into? Just how long did you stay in the bathroom? Were you unable to use it prior to landing? Or had you used it so often throughout the flight you may have raised a few eyebrows? Did you take anything into the bathroom with you, say a paper bag or something that might look suspicious? Were you sick? Did you answer the flight attendant when he or she knocked on the door and asked you to return to your seat? During the flight had you been rude or caused a problem in flight? Had the flight attendants already done their final compliance check and were ready to strap themselves into their jump seats while you were in the toilet? Your answers do make a difference.

While yes, you should have been in your seat, as per FAA regulations, regardless of what was going on during your flight, the flight attendants may not have pried the door open so quickly. They may have given you a few more seconds to pull your pants back up.

You did mention that the airplane was about to land, which leads me to believe the seat belt sign was on. Flight attendants are required to advise passengers to keep their seat belts fastened at all times, even when the seat belt sign is not on, and customers must comply with seat belt regulations at all times. Recently Scott Carmichael wrote about a passenger who was paralyzed from the neck down when she used the toilet on a Continental flight and the airplane hit turbulence. It happens. And it can happen even when the seat belt sign is not on. On the Continental flight the sudden drop threw the woman against the ceiling, fracturing her neck. For the record, the seat belt sign had been illuminated.

On descent flight attendants must be strapped into their jumpseats. With you locked in the bathroom you are not only a danger to them (if you were to fall on top of them), but to the passengers you must pass in order to get back to your seat, and the passenger who now must unbuckle their seat belt and stand up to let you back into your row. If something were to happen to you, or anyone seated around you, the flight attendants would not be able to help. The flight attendants job, at this stage in flight, is to man the emergency doors. Not take care of you.

No one wants to be caught with their pants down, I know that, and I am sorry that it had to happen to you. But flight attendants have a job to do and when the seat belt sign is on you should be in your seat with your belt fastened about you. Not in the lav. Especially on descent or when there’s turbulence!

To read more about turbulence in flight and why it’s important to keep your seat belt fastened at all times, check out my Galley Gossip post A question about turbulence and being scared at work.

Hope your next flight is a better one.

Heather Poole


If you have a question email me at

Photo courtesy of (lavatory) Daquella Manera, (Continental Airlines) Phinalanji

Galley Gossip: A question (and a poll) about breastfeeding on the airplane

Dear Heather,

Is it okay to breastfeed on the airplane–specifically take-off and landing. Do the flight attendants allow it? Do you need to cover up?

Maggie R.

Dear Maggie,

Of course it’s okay to breastfeed on the airplane! And if you are going to do it, take off and landing is the best time to do it. A constant swallowing motion will help ease those little ears in a pressurized cabin when a pacifier just won’t cut it.

While flight attendants do allow breastfeeding, there are always a few bad apples in the bunch who may throw a hissy fit if you are showing too much skin – or any skin at all. Therefore I suggest you cover up with a blanket you’ve brought from home. Don’t depend on the airline to provide you a blanket, since most airlines do not carry blankets anymore and some even charge for blankets. Not to mention the filth and bacteria that probably live on those synthetic blankets. Or just use whatever you want to keep those prying eyes off your chest. Trust me, you are not imagining those glares, and even worse, those who stare.

“A man can not not look at a breast. If I see a breast I have to look at it. It could be an eighty year-old woman, but if there’s a nipple involved I’m looking. I’m sorry, I can’t help it, a breast is a breast,” said the husband a man who prefers to remain anonymous.

Unfortunately (or would that be fortunately?) not everyone feels the same as the man above, especially when the breast in question belongs to a woman caring for a child. Sure it’s socially acceptable to come onboard scantily dressed (and whine about the airlines not having blankets) and flaunt it down the aisle, but to use that same breast to feed a hungry baby is still a tad bit controversial for some reason. STILL.

Your question, Maggie, reminds me of an incident I experienced aboard a flight from New York to Los Angeles just a few months ago…

I was sitting on the jumpseat chatting with a passenger, when another passenger came to the back of the airplane carrying an infant in her arm and holding hands with a little girl who looked to be about two or three. The young mother stood in front of the lavatory door squinting.

“It’s vacant,” I told her.

She blushed. “I need to breastfeed, so it may take awhile. Just knock if someone needs to use the bathroom and I’ll come out.”

I gave her a look, the are-you-crazy-look, because as a mother of a two year-old I know it’s not easy sharing that tiny space just to change a diaper, let alone sharing it with a toddler and an infant who needs to be fed. Seriously, no one should be stuck in that germ infested port-o-potty for any length of time, particularly a newborn!

“You don’t want to do it at your seat?” I asked the mother of two very quiet children, and when I asked this question I could feel the eyes of the other flight attendants glaring at me. I looked at them, smiled, and then looked back at the passenger. “Because you can do it at your seat. If you want. But if you don’t want to that’s fine also.”

“Well…there’s a little boy sitting beside me and…I don’t know…I’ll just go in here.”

“It’s up to you,” I said, and like that the lavatory door shut and the vacant sign changed to occupied.

I know a lot of people who are uncomfortable with the idea of a breastfeeding mother sitting next to them, or even near them, on the airplane. It’s normal to feel that way. But it’s also normal to breastfeed a baby! Even on the airplane.

“Yeah well I once had this woman on my flight pull down the top of her sundress and breastfeed a child that was big enough to sit in the seat. Right out in the open. She wasn’t hiding a thing. The kid looked to be about five or six years old!” my mother said when I told her about what I was writing.

Thankfully most mothers who breastfeed are usually very good about doing what needs to be done without anyone knowing it’s even happening. Sure there are a few mothers out there who are not discreet, who do not care to be discreet, mothers who make even me uncomfortable, especially when I have to reach over the boob to place a drink on the tray table, but the majority of mothers I come into contact with feel a little weird about breastfeeding on an airplane, just as weird as you do about seeing a baby being breastfed on the airplane. But a mom’s gotta do what a mom’s gotta do! Better a breastfed baby than a crying baby I say. So unless the kid is big enough to….well…you know, JUST BIG, as in real big, give the mom a break! It’s not easy traveling with a baby.


Photo of mother and child courtesy of Bertabetti

Plane Answers: Kent’s 3 favorite and 3 most dreaded runways.

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!

Deb asks:

Are there any favorite/hated runways by pilots? Pictures and videos of the one in St. Maarten made me wonder.

I’m sure every pilot has a few favorite or hated runways, and I’m no exception. Here are my top and bottom three:

My three favorite:

LGA – New York’s LaGuardia

With its reputation for delays and cancellations, LGA might not be on the top of most passengers’ lists. But it’s often the challenging runways that are the most enjoyable for pilots. While LaGuardia‘s runway 13/31 is short at just 7,003 feet, and it has water on both ends of the runway, the expressway visual takes you over the former Shea stadium and it requires some planning to make the sharp turn and perfectly line up on runway 31. But the most beautiful approach I’ve ever flown is the ‘River Visual’ up the Hudson to runway 13. Sailing past Manhattan at night, with the buildings seemingly at eye level, and then making a right turn over Central Park to line up with the runway, is certainly a rush.

SXM – St. Maarten

You mention St. Maarten, and I’d actually have to list it as one of my favorites. Coincidently, it’s also 7,003 feet long. But the fun part about St. Maarten are the spectators that gather at the end of the runway to witness the landing airplanes fly over at less than 50 feet above the ground. It’s probably the closest spectators can get to a landing aircraft without being on board. And who knows, maybe someone like Matt Hintsa will snap a picture like this of your landing:

SAN – San Diego

Finally, I must admit to a fondness for yet another short runway. San Diego‘s Lindbergh field offers a scenic arrival, and the approach crosses rather close to a parking garage located near the field. Since there’s no ILS, you have to be right on the glidepath during the approach. If you’re precise, the radar altimeter in the cockpit will read 190 feet as you pass over the garage, making for the perfect approach to runway 27.

Three worst:

NME – Nightmute, Alaska

Ahh, Nightmute. At 1,600 feet long, you’re probably not going to find anything larger than a Twin Otter flying there. Most of the landings I remember in Nightmute were in a strong crosswind during the winter on a packed, snow-covered runway that resembled a frozen lake. Reading the airport notes from this place might give you a better picture.


I’m sure glad those days are behind me.

CCS – Caracas, Venezuela

Runway 10 at Caracas, Venezuela. It curves down, dropping 88 feet from the beginning of the runway to the end. Even if you do get a smooth touchdown, the runway is so rough that no one would realize it.

MIA – Miami, Florida

And finally, there’s Miami‘s runway 30. Nothing challenging here, it’s long, it’s wide, it’s even smooth. But I never seem to get a nice landing there. So I’m adding it to the list. Take that, runway 3-0!

I’d be curious to hear other pilots’ favorite and least favorite runways. Leave a comment and let us know!

Roger asks:

My friends & I live near an approaching flight path, and regularly get into discussions about planes and their landing or approach speeds. Do larger jets have a slower approach speed, or does it just appear that way? Do smaller ones have a higher approach speed, or does it just seem that way, or are they all flying at the same speed?

An answer to this will sort out several arguments.

I think I can help you win the argument either way.

Below are some final approach speeds for various airliners. I figured them based on the maximum landing weight for each aircraft type using the ‘normal’ flap setting, which may not be the maximum flaps.

From fastest to slowest:

747-400: 157 (174 m.p.h.)
737-800: 148 (170 m.p.h.)
767-300: 142 (163 m.p.h.)
A320: 142 (163 m.p.h)
EMB-145: 139 (160 m.p.h.)
777-200: 138 (159 m.p.h.)
MD-80: 136 (156 m.p.h.)
A300: 135 (155 m.p.h.)
A319: 132 (152 m.p.h.)
757: 132 (152 m.p.h.)

On a calm day, we’ll add five knots to the speeds above. If it’s gusty, we can add up to 20 knots to the approach speed.

Interestingly, while the 747 is the fastest, it definitely looks like the slowest on approach due to its size. At 232 feet long, it’s over 100 feet longer than the stretched 737-800.

While studying auto accidents involving railroad crossings, the NTSB attributed the problems to the Leibowitz hypothesis, which states that the speed of larger objects, like trains, is underestimated by observers owing to a normal deficiency of visual processing.

But if that doesn’t help you win your argument, you could use this counter example:

Take the EMB-145, a 50-seat regional jet, and compare it to the surprisingly slow speed of the 757. In this example, the RJ actually does fly faster on approach, and since it’s much smaller than the 757, it really looks like it’s late for a date.

So I think you’re covered either way. Good luck!

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.

Plane Answers: More takeoff and landing fears

A number of questions came in this week relating to takeoffs and landings, and a few issues that passengers worry about. So, we’ll continue on last week’s Takeoff and Landing theme.

Eric asks this timely question:

I would like to know what purpose the wing flaps play in take off and in landing?

With the recent Spanair accident in Madrid, some reporters focused on whether or not the MD-80’s flaps and slats were extended for takeoff.

These devices, moveable panels on the back and front of the wings respectively, are used only for takeoff and landing.

A jet’s wing is designed to be at it’s most efficient while at altitude and at it’s design cruise speed. This same wing isn’t capable of flying slow enough to takeoff or land on a conventional runway.

So flaps were designed for most airplanes to increase the lift a wing can carry at these slower speeds. When the flaps are extended, the wing is essentially converted from a high-speed wing to a slow-speed wing, depending on the flap setting used.

Flaps are gradually extended based on the speed of the airplane, with the first set of flaps on an airliner usually extended when the airplane is slower than 250 knots.

For takeoff, the optimum flap setting is based mostly on the runway length. Using just the right flap setting improves efficiency and performance once the airplane is in the air. Airlines have a system for calculating that flap setting either manually in the cockpit, or through a computer print out sent via ACARS.

On the MD-80, the leading edge slats are extended and the trailing edge flaps are ‘dialed in’ to the required setting.

Taking off without any flaps extended isn’t possible for most airliners without an exceedingly long runway, maximum power set and some very careful handling by the pilot. This is why there are multiple checks prior to take off to ensure the flaps are properly set.

There’s also a loud warning horn that sounds if the throttles are advanced with the flaps not in the proper configuration for take off. Checklists, however, will likely prevent the need for the horn.

The last accident where flaps weren’t set for takeoff was a Northwest flight 255 departing from Detroit in 1987, and this might be why there has been some initial focus on the flaps as a possible cause behind last week’s Spanair crash.

It’ll be interesting to hear what happened to the Spanair flight, so we can learn from the accident. The media is rarely held accountable for the mistakes made when speculating as to a reason for an accident.

I wouldn’t hesitate to fly on an MD-80. In fact, it’s listed as the second safest airplane flying.

Dave brings up a takeoff related question:

I’m curious, if you have a severe engine problem after liftoff that you can’t recover from or go around, what is the procedure for finding a place to put down. I understand if there is a nice plowed field ahead that’s great, but what if you are in a congested area?

All airliners are required to demonstrate that they can safely operate after an engine failure at liftoff.

I suppose it’s conceivable that a dual-engine failure could happen (on a twin-engine aircraft), so in that case, the only possibility would be to land straight ahead, doing everything you can to avoid any congested areas.

Finally, Sandra asks a three-part question:

I am what I describe as a nervous flyer… I am curious to know why does the prep for landing alway feels so, well ominous?

Lights dimmed, and unless this is just my imagination…there is just something so dooming…

Some airlines require the lights to be dimmed to improve a flight attendant’s ability to see outside when on the ground. Part of their job is to assess the situation on the ground if an engine fire or other such problem were to occur and an evacuation became necessary.

Interestingly, not all airlines have that procedure.

Also, the last time I flew southwest, on final approach, the wings seemed to be dipping from left to right, right to left.

And then I flew the same airline again, and that landing was so smooth–I actually had to look out of the window to see that we were on the ground.

Ahh, yes. You’ve noticed the differences in pilot technique. Some pilots do get into what we call ‘pilot-induced oscillations,’ which are a bit annoying. You’ve had experiences with a bus driver or cab driver who wasn’t very smooth before, I’m sure. Well, you’ve just found the pilot equivalent of that driver.

What amount is attributable to the skill of the pilot, and how good a pilot is, with respect to landings??

Landings are a bit like golf. (Although I don’t play, I just had to take a swing at that analogy-no pun)

You can really feel like you have the landings perfected in a particular airplane, and then, sure enough, you can’t get a good one for weeks at a time. It’s kind of rare though to have an earth shatteringly hard landing after you’ve been flying a particular airplane for more than 6 months.

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.