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.

Plane Answers: When do pilots use the autopilot?

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!

Justin asks:

My question concerns the autopilot. During the course of a flight how often is it used? Are there times where it can not be used because of heavy turbulence and other weather phenomenon?

Great question, Justin.

First, I should describe the autopilot system in a jet. It’s essentially a device that a pilot will program to climb, descend or hold an altitude while following a specified route of flight. The system also includes autothrottles, which maintain the speed of the airplane in cruise and adjust the power automatically for climbs and descents.
The autopilot in an airliner is really analogous to the cruise control feature in your car. Just as you wouldn’t use your cruise control when leaving your driveway, we never use the autopilot for takeoff. In fact, there’s a limitation on the 757 and 767 that doesn’t allow the autopilot to be used below 1000 feet, after takeoff. Above that and it’s the flying pilot’s option if they’d like to use it.

I usually prefer to ‘hand-fly’ the airplane to about 18,000 feet before turning on the autopilot. We generally don’t hand-fly after leveling as it becomes rather tedious after a while. And one sudden push of the yoke would cause the passengers to float toward the ceiling. Some airlines charge for this weightless experience, but our passengers tend to prefer a straight and level ride.

Some pilots will bring the autopilot on right after takeoff, and again, that’s their option. When I first started flying commercially, we tooled around in a commuter airplane that didn’t have an autopilot, so I sometimes crave a little stick and rudder time.

But there are times when the other pilot is busy making the PA or talking on the radio and you need to take a closer look at the weather radar up ahead or you’re trying to decide what the best cruise altitude will be. In these cases, the moment you start getting busy, it’s a good idea to get the autopilot on to reduce the workload for you and the non-flying pilot.

Some airplanes (I’m looking at you, 737-800) have a tendency to hunt or oscillate during climbs and especially descents. The airplane will go from 500 feet per minute down to 2500 feet per minute and back again before eventually stabilizing. This makes for a rather uncomfortable ride in the back and it’s probably why many 737 pilots prefer to hand-fly most of the climbs and descents.

The autopilot can handle a significant amount of turbulence. There’s no requirement to turn it off during the bumps, but if you feel it’s not doing an effective job at holding an altitude or airspeed, then you’re encouraged to ‘click it off’ using a thumb activated button on the control yoke and fly the airplane yourself.

There are times when the weather is below a certain level of visibility where airplanes must be flown using the autopilot. If the visibility is less than 1800 feet (550 meters) and the airport has the capability, we will still be able to land using the autopilot. In fact, the 757, 767 and the 777 can be flown down to a visibility of 300 feet (75 meters) with touchdown occurring without actually seeing the runway.

When we print out the current weather and it reports a low enough visibility to require an autoland you can just about read the disappointment on the flying pilot’s face. Hand-flying the landing is the icing on the cake for pilots, and to fly all the way across the country only to be denied a landing takes some of the fun out of coming to work.

These autolandings (known as Cat III approaches in pilot-speak) also require more setup to fly, and a significant amount of monitoring to be sure the airplane is tracking correctly. We don’t have to fly them very often–I think I only had two autolandings last year.

Have you ever been curious about what goes on at the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use your question for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.

Crazy cross-wind landing caught on video

If you’ve ever been on your final approach during landing and noticed the plane shifting around laterally, you’ve experienced cross-winds. Usually this phenomenon is mitigated by proper runway placement, which is why you’ll usually see runways going in different directions at larger airports. But if the winds shift or if the airport only has one runway, pilots will occasionally be forced to land in a heavy crosswind.

Kent can tell you more, but to cut to the chase, wind blowing on the side of the airplane during landing is not an ideal environment. It makes it really difficult to land. Check out this video of an A320 landing in heavy cross-winds in Hamburg. Scary huh?

Should pilots have to compete for your business?

You’ve always dreamt of flying out to a remote lodge in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, but you’re a bit concerned about the pilots. Are they really good enough to get you into that 1000-foot strip? Wouldn’t it be nice to know just how these aviators rank?

Well, the May Day Fly-In and Airshow in Valdez, Alaska has a bush pilot competition that ranks pilots and their planes in their ability to takeoff and land in the shortest possible distances. These airplanes are highly modified to handle the tightest gravel bars Alaska has to offer. And their pilots know how to get the most out of them.

If you’re looking for some experienced pilots to take you to a great lodge, you can’t go too wrong with the Claus family. Dad, Paul, accomplished the shortest takeoff at 19 feet, and his 18-year old son Jay scored a 39-foot takeoff, which was good for 4th place in his class. The Claus family own and operate the Ultima Thule Lodge.

Here’s 18 year old Jay’s 39 foot takeoff:

I think I’m ready to go visit the Claus family and see just WHERE they’re taking this airplane!

Join Kent at Cockpit Chronicles which takes you along on each of his trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.