Plane Answers: Wing inspection lights and a recent severe turbulence encounter

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!

Alex asks:

Hi Kent,

I recently flew on a 737 and returned on a different airline on an MD- 80. Both flights were only about 40 minutes long and the wing lights remained on for the duration of each flight. I thought those lights were usually turned off once the plane has reached a certain altitude and/or a certain distance from the departure airport. I don’t remember the wing lights staying on during previous flights. Is it left to pilot’s discretion for these lights or is there an FAA regulation covering when to leave them on?

Hi Alex. It’s up to each airline to set procedures regarding when the wing inspection lights are used illuminate the leading edges of the wings and to provide an extra level of collision avoidance.

At my company, we use the wing lights from takeoff until 18,000 feet, and then again descending below 18,000 feet until turning off the runway after landing. That said, they they may be left off at the pilot’s discretion.

Ron asks:

Hey Kent!

I know you’ve mentioned turbulence several times, but I have a turbulence question. I fly a decent amount, over 100K miles a year, and being a huge aviation geek, turbulence doesn’t bother me, in fact sometimes I like it.

Today in the angry skies over Texas on a flight from Houston to Boston, I experienced turbulence I didn’t like!
As we waited in line to takeoff, I noticed ATC was spacing planes really far apart, and in my experience, that’s never really a good sign. We took off, and minutes later the turbulence started, it felt a lot like being on space mountain, but it didn’t end. The plane would bank from one side to the other, while bobbing up and down. Anything that was not bolted down was flying around. My question is, does this kind of turbulence phase pilots and when, if ever, does it become too much for you?

You’re right Ron, I’ve had a lot of turbulence questions, but it’s a question worth revisiting from time to time.

Most pilots will start looking for a smoother altitude by asking ATC, other airplanes or their dispatch soon after the seatbelt sign goes on. Sometimes, like when flying over the Rockies, it’s apparent that there just aren’t any smooth altitudes available.

As soon as it becomes uncomfortable or annoying to passengers, you can be assured that it’s not much fun for the pilots either. I swear the ride gets worse the moment we get our meal or if we’re writing something in the logbook.

It takes a significant amount, far more than most any of us have experienced, to cause structural damage to an aircraft. That said, if I were in the turbulence you describe, I would be concerned for the safety of passengers and flight attendants that aren’t sitting with their seat belts fastened.

Our options at that point would be to change altitude, change course, or even to turn around and go back.

But of all the things to worry about on a flight, turbulence shouldn’t really be one of your top ten concerns.

I hope your next flight is much smoother.

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