16 October 2009

Watch the pilot!

Screenshot from Patrick Smith
Approaching a runway at JFK airport in New York.

Oct. 16, 2009

View the landing of a Boeing 767, from the cockpit. Behold the glory of approach lights at dawn.

Something new this week: videos! This lofts us to a whole new level. For nearly a tenth of a century, Ask the Pilot has virtually defined the vanguard of artistic and technological innovation on the Web, but always it lacked a certain visual flourish. Starting today, thanks to the help of YouTube, a Flip HD camcorder and some duct tape, my usual savvy explanations are enriched by the thrilling accompaniment of choppy, low-resolution video, coming to you live, as it were, from the cockpit.

Would there be a problem with hooking up a nose camera so we could experience the same view as the pilots? It'd be very cool to see the takeoff and landing as the cockpit crew sees it.
A number of airlines already have this, connected to the seat-back screens on their 777 or Airbus series aircraft. I've experienced it myself on at least two carriers -- Air France and Emirates. On Emirates, the system allows you to switch back and forth between a nose view and one that points straight down, showing what the plane is passing over. (The latter resulted in a rather silly controversy in Britain when nude backyard sunbathers worried that overflying passengers were getting a free peep show.) Iberia Airlines is among those offering a backward-facing view -- a somewhat dizzying perspective that lets you see the departure runway slowly falling away.

I am not aware of any U.S. airlines with these features. But who needs them when you've got me. Behold the glory of approach lights at dawn in this two-minute video.

Otherwise, the closest we have anymore is the audio feed on United Airlines, which allows you to eavesdrop on the conversation between pilots and air traffic control. They call it "channel 9" in honor of its position in your armrest dial. It's either fascinating or tediously indecipherable, depending on your level of infatuation with flight.

It is sometimes unavailable, at the crew's discretion, because of the unfriendly letters people send and the litigation they threaten when it's perceived the pilots have made some "mistake." Also, passengers not familiar with the vernacular may misinterpret a transmission and assume nonexistent or exaggerated troubles.

Let's say a controller is spacing a series of aircraft and asks, "United 537, um, do you think you can make it?" This is a query pertaining to whether a plane can hit a specific height or speed at a specific fix. Depending on the controller's intonation, or the pilot's reply -- "No, I don't think so" -- such innocuous exchanges might have a passenger bursting into tears and picturing his wife and children.

In the late 1970s, American Airlines had cameras in the cockpits of its DC-10s that would allow you to watch the crew performing takeoffs and landings. I remember seeing it a few times as a kid. How quaint the idea seems today. The footage was grainy, projected on the old-fashioned bulkhead movie screens. It looked something like this.

Note the fellow with the baseball cap and glasses. Pilots often wear ball caps while flying because it helps with the glare. Others of us wear them because we don't want the camera showing how bald we are.

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