Jethead Goes to School
Canada’s future is certainly bright, judging by the students in Miss Giulia’s sixth grade class at St. Monica Catholic School in Ottawa. What an articulate and considerate group they are, and they were gracious enough to share with me some questions about airline flying after studying the basics of flight earlier in the school year.
What do kids wonder about when it comes to flight? What did they discover in Miss Giulia’s classroom that sparked further questions about flight?
I asked–and they answered. Here’s a selection of their questions and my answers, with my heartfelt thanks to Miss Giulia and the entire class for generously sharing their time and ideas. In fact, they asked so many good questions that in order to answer them all, I’ll make “JetHead Goes to School” a series reappearing now and again with new questions and their answers.
1. Frank: “What’s it like flying near thunderstorms?”
That’s a good question. If you stay upwind of the storms, usually there’s no effect, although lightning has been known to reach ten miles from a cell to another cloud—or an aircraft. Hail, too, can blow out of the top and travel for miles. So it’s best to keep a healthy distance.
Sometimes you have to pick your way through the storms, finding gaps. Usually we do that with radar to be sure we stay clear. Here’s what a radar picture of storms looks like:
Green areas are rain, yellow indicates heavy rain, red means dangerously dense rain, and purple means turbulence. The pink line is our projected flight path, which I would alter to the right based on the radar picture. Here’s where the radar is located on an airplane–it’s always in the nose cone, facing forward:
The rules are, we need to stay at least ten miles from any thunderstorm. Radar helps us do that, especially at night when the storms are difficult to see. Here’s a picture I took as we flew by a storm pretty close:
It was actually taken late at night, but the lightning lit the sky as if it was daytime. Here’s a video of some storms in flight I made into a promo for my band (that’s my lead guitar, actually):
Definitely a good idea to steer clear of thunderstorms, don’t you think?
2. Anna R.: “Why is it so important to take ice and snow off the wings?”
The airfoil has to be clean and smooth to produce lift. Ice or snow or even frost disrupts the airflow on the wing and reduces the lift produced by the wing.
Here you can see snow and ice that’s accumulated on a wing root (the place where the wing joins the fuselage). All of that is considered contamination and must be removed to allow smooth airflow.
Any contaminant ruins the smooth flow over the wing. In flight, the leading edge of the wing—that’s the forward edge—is heated internally with air ducted from the engines that is at about 500 degrees. No snow or ice can accumulate there. You probably never noticed, but we also have to check the jet engine intakes for snow and ice. Chunks of ice can break off and get sucked into the engine, damaging the components that are spinning at 30,000 RPM or more.
On the ground before a flight, trucks with de-icing fluid and crews in booms blast the ice and snow off the aircraft and apply a coat of “anti-icing fluid,” a chemical mix that inhibits ice formation on the wings. Here’s a picture out one of my side windows of the de-ice crew in Montreal getting ready to spray de-ice fluid on my jet this morning in Montreal.
We usually de-ice near the take-off runway because the de-icing fluid loses its effectiveness over time. We have charts that are based on the type of precipitation falling at the time that shows us how long the de-ice fluid will protect the wings, so we make a good effort to be ready for take-off right away after de-icing.
Want to see more cool pictures of the effects of a snowstorm on aircraft? I’ve added a short video montage to the bottom of this page, after the last question and answer. Enjoy!
3. Brayden: “Have you ever had a flat tire and had to fix it? How long does it take to change a tire?”
Never a flat tire on an airplane, but we have had to have tires changed. Aircraft tires on a big jet are much thicker and heavier than those on your car. Car tires are usually inflated to 30-35 pounds of pressure per square inch, but our aircraft tires are inflated to 200 pounds of pressure.
We check the landing gear and tires before every flight and if there’s a worn out spot or maybe a nick from the hard use our tires get (remember, the jet weighs 60 to 80 tons and touches down at 150 miles per hour or so), the ground crew changes the tire. They jack up the plane smoothly and only a little bit so you wouldn’t even notice from the passenger cabin, then they swap tires for a new one. Then we’re on our way!
4. Alberto: How many female pilots are there in American Airlines?
Not sure, but I’d guess around 200 out of a total of 8,000 American Airlines pilots are female. My experience flying with them has been very positive. My guess is that since airline flying is a male dominated field by sheer number alone, they’ve really had to prove themselves all along the way. So I’d say they are as a group actually better than most male pilots who never had to “prove themselves” in the same way. Many, too, are like me, former military pilots, so we have the exact same experience and background. Here’s a picture of my friend and colleague Cindy who is an excellent pilot.
As with any major endeavor, the pilot career field is difficult to get into and stay successful in year after year. There are constant checks and exams we have to pass, not to mention twice a year physical exams. But also like any major endeavor, anyone, male or female, can succeed if they set their mind to it and do the work required.
5. Nicolas: “How did your experience with the Air Force help you as an airline pilot?”
My Air Force training was an immense help to me for many reasons. First, it’s the best training in the world, and the cost is something no one could afford on their own—estimated at $1.7 million per pilot. I got to fly the best equipment, newest technology and from the very start, flew worldwide throughout Europe, Asia and the Pacific. That kind of experience you can only get through the military.
Since most (although not all) airline pilots are ex-military pilots, we share a common denominator in our flying training, as well as the culture of safety, training and flying. Now when I step onto the flight deck and meet a First Officer for the first time, if he’s ex-military, I immediately know we’re of the same background and philosophy. That makes flying as a crewmember much easier. So, the experience and training that comes with being an Air Force pilot is a major asset as an airline pilot. Nonetheless, I have to add that some of the best pilots I know, pilots who are my favorite to fly with, are pilots who have a purely civilian flying background.
That’s all the space we have for this week, but check back regularly for more Q&A that will become an ongoing series, “JetHead Goes to School.” Again my sincere thanks to the children of St. Monica’s school and their most conscientious and caring teacher, Miss Giulia.
And here’s the video of the great blizzard of 2011 that certainly slowed down flight operations at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Enjoy!