Plane Answers – A pilot’s experience before flying solo, a passenger pointing out a mechanical problem and wake turbulence bumps

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!

Esteban from Spain asks:

When learning to drive a car, for most people a few minutes of training are enough to drive, although they don’t know the circulation rules. Do you think that it is possible to take off, turn, and land in a small cessna with few hours of training without obeying the navigation rules?

Hi Esteban,

Soloing is the moment every student pilot dreams of. That moment when your instructor hops out of the airplane and tells you to take it around the ‘patch’ three times.

Can it be done in just a few hours? Absolutely. But you’d have to find an instructor willing to put his certificate on the line at that point. The ‘typical’ range is anywhere from 6 to 25 hours, but that’s also dependent on the airport you’re flying from and the type of airplane.

Densely populated areas have more requirements for ATC communication and airspace regulations, so your instructor will want you to be familiar with those regulations before letting you go.

For a more anecdotal look at the typical times before soloing, take a look at this thread written by flight instructors and pilots about the subject on

Cassandra asks:

I just flew down to FL from Hartford last Thursday on Delta and had a window seat on the wing. Just before we began our descent, I had glanced down on the wing and noticed 3 round tanks(?) that were screwed down right by the emergency door. What caught my eye was the fact that 2 of them seemed to be leaking what I thought was water or some sort of clear liquid. It was 2 smaller tanks near the front of the wing and a larger one just behind them. The two smaller ones were the ones that were leaking and all coming from under the screws. It was enough they were trailing down towards and past the next tank.

What are these and though it might have been nothing, should I have said something to the crew after the flight? Of course it was dry by the time we arrived at the gate.
Hi Cassandra,

It’s common to see slight stains around some of the screws on the wing, especially on the bottom of the wing near the fuel pumps. I’m sure what you saw wasn’t critical, but I’d encourage you to let the pilots know as you deplane. If you were really concerned about something, bring it to the attention of the flight attendant. They’ll pass it along to the pilots who can then decide if it’s a serious enough problem.

I always follow up on the comment with maintenance, which is often at the gate shortly after we arrive anyway. It’s just a good idea to take even the smallest comment seriously. Many of them can be easily explained away, but it’s always prudent for us to look at anything that’s a concern to a passenger just to be sure.

John asks:

Hi Kent,

Recently, while on a flight from the east coast to the west, we were enjoying a smooth ride. Then, without warning, we hit a pocket of extreme turbulence. What made this differenct was that it was less than 2 seconds, and had the “feel” of an impact.

My questions are:
1) Is this a normal thing, and
2) Does it pose any danger to the flight.


Hi John,

The way you’ve described it, I’m pretty certain your airplane flew through the wake turbulence of another jet. This doesn’t happen often at all, but when the airplane is in just the right position relative to crossing traffic, it can be startling. It happens so briefly that we don’t usually see any injuries, but it will sure make you tighten your belt while sitting.

You can rest assured that the airplane is designed to handle the wake structurally and it generally doesn’t present any danger to the flight.

That said, ATC goes to great lengths to provide enough separation between aircraft during arrivals and departures. It’s during this time that wake turbulence can present a greater problem for airplanes, since the wake is generally larger when jets fly slower, with the gear and flaps down, than while in cruise flight. If the airplane weighs over 250,000 pounds (usually anything larger than a Boeing 757), then the pilots will call themselves a ‘heavy’ which reminds controllers that extra separation is needed behind those aircraft.

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.

Cockpit Chronicles: Paris – Chez (grand) Papa

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.

“We’ve had a minor explosion back here,” one of the flight attendants, Susan, told us during our preflight.

“There’s orange juice all over 2H and J.”

Selfishly, we all perked up. Those were our crew rest seats. The thought of sitting in a wet seat gave a new urgency to the co-pilot’s voice when calling maintenance to get the cover and cushion replaced.

I was the relief pilot again for this flight. My schedule for June is exclusively for FB trips to Paris, but occasionally I’m able to trade over to the co-pilot seat if it opens up during the month, which leaves my relief pilot position open to someone who’s on reserve or another pilot who’s able to trade into it.
There’s no difference in pay between the relief pilot and the co-pilot positions, but most pilots prefer to fly if they have the chance.

We departed Boston at around 7 p.m., and just ten minutes later I left the cockpit for my crew rest seat, hoping it wasn’t still soaked from the orange juice. Maintenance did replace the cushion and cover of the seat bottom, but the window seat was especially wet on the seat back. So I opted to sit in the aisle seat, where I put a comforter blanket behind my back.

If I’m not tired, I usually try to catch up on a few posts. There’s nothing like flying along in an airplane to put you in the right frame of mind to write about, well, flying in an airplane.

After my two hours were up, I went to the cockpit and the captain went back to our rest seat. Moments later we started to get into a small amount of light ‘chop.’ (Pilot-speak for those little, rhythmic bumps).

Typically it’s up to the captain to turn the seatbelt sign on at this point, but when he’s gone, the other co-pilot and I look at each other with the ‘you think these bumps are going to last?’ look.

“Ding.” I turned the sign on.

Sure enough, it smoothed out almost immediately. I’m starting to wonder if the sign has magical powers.

The flight attendants are required to make a PA, telling the passengers that the captain (who’s now sleeping in row 2…) has turned on the seatbelt sign. If we turn it off two minutes later, we’re sure to hit some bumps requiring the sign again. So we elect to leave it on for a few minutes longer to be sure.

I’m sure my grandpa, an early bush pilot in Alaska, wouldn’t have been annoyed by this minor dilemma. He was more concerned with far more significant issues as he flew passengers year-round in Alaska during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.

Ice forming on the fuel vent? Is the radiator leaking again? Does that snow look too deep to land on with these wheels? And most importantly, where can I land if this engine quits?

But we’d be given a challenge of our own from ATC. Shanwick called up using the airplane’s SELCAL system. Controllers have the ability to ring us using a special code on our airplane that sends an alert via HF radio. They usually only call when they need to clarify a position report or to give us a new routing. This time they needed us to slow enough so as to arrive at the next waypoint at or after 0621z.

ATC keeps the airplanes flying at the same altitude and on the same track spaced at least 10 minutes apart which is around 75 miles. So we were likely gaining on someone ahead. I slowed the airplane back to .76 MACH, and the computer figured out our new arrival time at the fix: 0622z.

Perfect. Challenge solved.

We sat back to marvel at the United 777 passing 1000 feet above us on the right, just as the sun was breaking through the horizon in front of us. Contrails were everywhere; most of them drawing a path in the sky that marked where we’d soon be making a right turn.

One of the airplanes 20 miles ahead was 2000 feet above us. The wake of airplanes can cause some bumps, even this far back, since it descends at about 500 feet per minute.

Depending on the winds, you’ll often get these bumps when 12 miles behind an airplane that’s 1000 feet above. Double that number for an airplane that’s 2000 feet above.

To avoid these annoying bumps, we’re allowed to ‘offset’ the airplane either 1NM or 2NM’s to the right. We put in a mile and slid over to the side, avoiding the bumps that were easy to see from the contrails.

Yet another problem solved. Grandpa would be proud.

Truthfully, there are so many other issues that make flying complicated today. I suppose my grandpa might be overwhelmed with many of the legalities, the procedures and the aircraft systems. After one look, he might even prefer to go back to his Tri-Motor Ford. I wouldn’t blame him. But I’m sure glad I don’t have to scrape ice from the wings of the airplane in the morning anymore.

We often chat in the cockpit at altitude about families, previous trips or activities outside work. But a very popular topic of conversation lately has been the state of the industry.

Just like most of the airlines, we’ve announced a reduction of around 10% in our flying for the fall schedule. This has a trickle down effect among the pilot group. Some captains will be bumped to a smaller airplane, or even back to co-pilot, which results in co-pilots either becoming more junior on their same airplane or bumped back to a domestic 737 or maybe even furloughed.

I was furloughed from 1993 to 1996, so I hope to never have to see that again. But we still have pilots on furlough from our 2001 reduction. Some of those were recently called back and I would hate to see them furloughed again. The only thing worse than getting furloughed is getting furloughed twice.

My dad always encouraged my brother and I to think about having a back-up plan in case the flying thing didn’t work out.

“It’s just such an unstable career,” he said in 1983.

How right he was. But I always knew it was the only job for me. Especially after studying accounting and management in college.

We landed in Paris and after the last passenger deplaned, we went down to the bus parked just in front of the nose of the 767. This isn’t usually the case, but in Paris we’re fortunate to jump on the crew bus right at the airplane that takes the twelve of us into the city.

The ride can best be described as excruciating. On the weekdays it’s stop and go, with jolts and surges lasting an hour and forty-five minutes typically. Some people try to sleep, others talk or listen to an iPod. I’ve actually managed to sleep a bit on these rides, but it’s not very easy to get comfortable.

Again we waited a few minutes in the lobby for our room keys. This is always a good time to co-ordinate the days activities. I had mentioned that I wanted to check out the Catacombs of Paris, which is near our hotel. Both pilots were interested, so we planned to meet up at 3 o’clock after a good sleep.

The Catacombs are a series of skull and bone filled tunnels that traverse everywhere under the streets of Paris. Apparently they were running short on land and the only solution was to relocate the grave sites into these tunnels. Obviously, this occurred long before Drew Barrymoore showed us in Poltergeist what a bad idea this was.

I was exci
ted to go down to the Catacombs, since I had read some of your comments suggesting a visit. I studied up, I knew to bring a flashlight, to dress appropriately and I even downloaded a couple of maps.

But there was one thing that I didn’t read up on; they close at 4 p.m.

We arrived a few minutes before 4 and stood in line, hoping they would let those already in line down below. Just as the line moved to the entrance, they cut us off. We’d have to come back another time. At least while waiting in line, I discovered one of the most beautiful statues in Paris:

Wifi available! Yep, this meant I could check my email on the iPhone while standing in line. I have an account with Boingo, a roaming service that allows you to bypass a lot of the fees charged at hotels and airports. Unfortunately, some of the locations are premium, which means you’ll pay about $10 an hour to use them. It turns out the parks in Paris are all in the premium category, but the hotel where we stay isn’t. Apparently, if I elected to go from the $22 a month plan to the $39 plan, there wouldn’t be any premium fees.

Since it was early still, we all split up. Jim the co-pilot worked out, Phil the captain borrowed another captain’s bike that’s parked nearby and went for a ride. One of our captains brought a bike over from the states piece by piece and built up a ten speed bike that no one would ever consider stealing. Of course that was his plan all along. He’s very generous in sharing the bike’s combination lock with the other crew members.

Of course, I’m so far behind blogging these trips, I needed to get some work done back at the hotel. We had previously arranged to meet with one of our flight attendants and two other captains from Miami and New York for dinner a few hours later.

Back at the hotel, I ran into Frenchy, one of my favorite flight attendants who’s now flying out of Miami. He’s recommended some great restaurants for the crew in the past and I wanted to pick his brain again for suggestions for our dinner tonight. He told me about a restaurant located on the grounds of a park near our hotel.

“What kind of price are we talking about?” I asked him, knowing that he generally had good taste in dining (i.e. expensive).

“Twenty to forty Euro.” He said.

Perfect, I thought. I had done a bit of ‘fine dining’ for the last two trips and it’d be nice to eat on a terrace near a park without having to take out a second mortgage on the house.

The six of us met up at the hotel and I told them of my new discovery. Everyone thought this sounded like as good a place as any, so we walked about 20 minutes to the Montsouris park.

As we approached the restaurant, Susan said, “It’s like Tavern on the Green!”

“Yeah, but without the price to go along with it.” I confidently remarked.

At 7 p.m. the place was empty, since most Parisians dine rather late. We managed to get a table without having reservations, but when we sat down and took a look at the menu, the table got a bit quiet.

The prix fix menu price was €52.

“I can’t do this.” One of the pilots said.

Since that worked out to $85 not including any drinks, and both Susan and I had spent a fair amount on dinner during the Les Papilles birthday celebration for Stephanie a few trips earlier, we decided it might be best to go somewhere else.

Jim and Phil wanted to try Chez Papa, a nearby restaurant that’s becoming popular with crews. I was happy to go along in an effort to save some money. I’m starting to realize that I need to alternate between a nice dinner and something more reasonable if I’m going to fly this trip exclusively this summer.

Susan and the two other pilots wanted to trek into the Latin quarter to find something more in between, price-wise, which I completely understood.

Chez Papa turned out to be a great choice. The choices were a bit random, with lots of Duck and Lamb offered in a variety of stews, but I opted for a potato omelette. And for a nice change of pace, this dinner ran at just €11 with a drink.

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The flight home was completely uneventful. I tried to snap a shot of Paris from the air. Unfortunately, we were climbing through 11,000 feet, so the view isn’t the best.

Phil and Jim starting to descend for the arrival into Boston.

With two Paris trips down and one to go in my 9-day in a row marathon, I still felt pretty good.

Little did I know, the next trip would prove to be a bit more troublesome…

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston. For the months of May through July, he’ll focus on Paris almost exclusively. If you have any good suggestions for Parisian activities, feel free to leave your tips in the comments.