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777 Is Not Big Enough May 18, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in travel.

A Boeing 777 is a big plane. Apparently, however, it is not big enough. I’d swear going over Canada we were actually a paper airplane. Or the pilots were entertaining themselves.

There is a great Farside cartoon (which I can’t find) – it shows two pilots in a jet and one saying to the other “Let’s do that again! Announce more rough air ahead”. Brilliant – it was about how I felt during this flight!

Ever since 9/11 turbulence has been a fascination of mine. Before 9/11 I never cared about it. I was in a plane on 9/11, on the way back from China. It was a smooth ride. But something about that whole experience…

How many people listen to Channel 9 when it gets rough? Available on United, it enables you to listen in on radio communications. When flying through heavy turbulence the first thing you learn is that… no, it isn’t heavy. “Light Chop”, as defined the by pilots, is the stuff that makes the plane go bumpity-bumpity-bump. You, the non-flight attendant, can still walk, but you might hold onto something as you do it. At the upper end of the light scale the pilot turns on the seat belt sign. Then comes moderate.

I think that is worst I’ve ever bin through. I’d hate to know what the other two feel like (“heavy” and “extreme”). At the low end of moderate you could walk if you first violated the seatbelt sign (who doesn’t!?) and really held onto things tightly. Flight attendants even start holding onto things here – and at the upper end they have to sit as well. Now the plane is making decidedly un-plane like noises (thump! Groan! Creeeeek!). Listening in on Channel 9 I heard another pilot describe +- 20% pitch, gusts across the plane that caused “significant sheer”. In the understated language of jet pilots, significant is well, probably significant (the flight controller responded with “Wow!”). Another guy said something like “we are being tossed all over the place – like salad!” No one, of course, had any fear in their voices. We were decidedly below a plane’s breaking point

Uncharacteristically, however, our plane wasn’t changing altitudes to find smoother air. This is what caused me to listen into Channel 9 in the first place. Every other plane was hunting around, trying all sorts of different altitudes – looking for a bit of smooth air. That is what I’m used to. It sounds like way down at 29,000 feet it was smooth. We were up at 37,000 and it was decidedly unsmooth!

Every time the flight controller would ask how the air was up here, our pilot would always say light chop with intermittent moderate chop. This is exactly what everyone else was saying, and what every other plane was going up and down trying to figure out how to avoid. But not our guy. He just powered through it. The result: I didn’t sleep a wink until we were well over the Atlantic and things smoothed out.

That was another thing. As long as we were over North America all conversations were between the flight controller and the pilot. As soon as we left Canadian airspace, there was a “switch to frequency xxxx, end radar coverage”. After getting a backup frequency, the pilot switched over, announced himself (as they always do when they change). And then the pilots talk to each other “Hey – anyone know who won the Preakness?” 🙂 The other thing is it sounded like the planes, once they start the “crossing” can’t change altitudes. They are allocated a slot before they start, which is cleared in some central clearing house, and then they have to stick with it for the whole flight.



1. Lisa Smith - May 18, 2009

I do not envy all the flying you have to do. I can never get it out of my head that I am lumbering through the sky in a fallible mechanical structure, thousands of feet above the surface… so turbulence makes it that much worse. I didn’t know about Channel 9, but I always look at those little screens that show altitude, speed, etc.. I find myself playing a psychology game, wondering if the pilots are really as relaxed as they sound, or if they are using that wonderful “understated language” to neutralize appearances.

2. gordonwatts - May 22, 2009

ha. I guess when panic is really called for they have to use that understated language so they don’t loose control, the rest of the time… meh!

I’ve got friends who are flight attendents (10 years living in Chicago, headquarters of United, you can’t avoid it). They tell some stories of turbulence that make even my worst look like smooth water. Then they talk in awe about a friend or something that has actually seen something amazing (like been on a plane where people’s feet left the floor). In all cases the planes were fine. 🙂

I met the pilot that landed this plane once on a UA flight. He is considered a hero. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Airlines_flight_232 way worse than anything I ever had to deal with, thank goodness!!

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