Flying a Plane is All in the Numbers

Airport runway numbers magnetic headingIf Airport X has a runway 30, and Airport Y’s top-numbered runway is 27, logic suggests that Airport A is the larger airport, right? Actually, the number of the runway has nothing to do with the total number of runways at an airport. Instead, it is a navigation aid for pilots, and while the number is painted on concrete, it is not set in stone; runway numbers can change. 

The number is tied to the magnet compass heading a plane follows if it is landing or taking off from that runway. Simply add a zero to the end of the runway designation, and that is the magnetic heading. All runways numbered 27, for example, follow a magnetic heading of 270 degrees — due west. A runway with number 13, on the other hand, leads 130 degrees — a heading of southeast. 

This helps pilots have a uniform way of identifying runways in airports with multiple landing options. It also helps clarify toward which end of a given runway the pilot should aim. Runway 27 goes westward, but depending on flying conditions, it may be necessary to land to the east. That same strip of concrete has another number painted at the other end. In this case that would be 9, indicating air traffic moving due east. 

The numbers are tied to the magnetic heading of the runway, not the true heading. This presents interesting challenges, since earth’s magnetic field is constantly in motion, and the location of its magnetic poles drifts around. 

When the magnetic heading shifts sufficiently in a given area, the FAA will renumber the runways. Oakland, California’s pilots, for example, were long accustomed to landing and departing from runway 27, but in 2016 runway was renumbered to 28, accounting for the drift of the magnetic poles and the compass headings in that area. 

The President with 5 Stars Also Had Wings

President Dwight Eisenhower first president with a pilot license
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

If you are looking for a poster child for “overachiever” you might consider Dwight D. Eisenhower.

This Kansas farm boy rose from modest beginnings to become one of only five Americans to achieve the five-star rank of General of the Army and the only one of those to become President of the United States. (see note below) Continue reading

Speedy Pit Stop

How fast do jets refuel in midair?

Mid-air refueling is impressive by any standard. For two or more aircraft to join together while flying at 300 mph, it requires pilot skill and technological sophistication well beyond average.

Among the many impressive things about this feat is how quickly it happens. Modern refueling tankers deploy fuel at a rate of about 6,000 pounds per minute. An  F/A-18 Hornet, with a fuel capacity of 4,460 lbs., can get topped off in well under a minute.

To put that in context, if you were driving a large pickup with a massive fuel tank of 38 gallons, it would take 1.8 seconds to refuel if your gas station’s pump worked as quickly as an aerial fuel tanker.


Tuning the Helicopters

Helikopter-Streichquartett four helicopters and string quartet
The Dutch Grasshoppers aerobatics team, flying the Alouette helicopters they used in the world premiere of the Helikopter-Streichquartett

Musical instruments can be costly, and any band student who has had to lug a tuba or bell set on a school bus knows they can be unwieldy, too. The Sousaphone or cello is nothing, however, compared to the principal instruments in  Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Helikopter-Streichquartett” — four operational and flying helicopters.

“Helikopter-Streichquartett” (German for “Helicopter String Quartet”) was first performed in 1995. Stockhausen spent several years working on the piece, which went through several iterations, one of which contemplated the use of a large swarm of bees.

The final result was inspired by the composer’s dream of flying above four helicopters. He was able to see into each helicopter and see a member of a string quartet. This dream ultimately gave birth to the 32-minute opus.

In 2001 Angelin Preljocaj choregraphed “Helikopter”, a modern dance set to Stockhausen’s music.


I Tawt I Taw a RNAV (GPS) Approach to Runway 16

Sylvester Tweety Bird Approach Plate Portsmouth

Pilots use agreed-upon geographic locations as reference points for navigation. Many times, these points have no distinct visible features, but they have been designated as points on a map so pilots can line up for landing or perform another maneuver. These locations, known as intersections, are identified with 5-letter names and are published on pilot charts and other navigational aides.

Pilots flying into Portsmouth International at Pease in Portsmouth, New Hampshire should be excused if they chuckle while communicating with air traffic controllers. As a pilot flies the RNAV (GPS) approach to runway 16, the plane flies over the following intersections:





If the plane misses the approach, the next intersection is


Who knew that watching Looney Tunes’ Sylvester and Tweety Bird as a child could count as educational training for future pilots?

Anchors Aweigh for a Singular Honor

Presidential Aircraft Navy One
Air Force One is well known as the aircraft of the President of the United States. Technically, it is any US Air Force aircraft in which the President is a passenger. When the Preaident is aboard an aircraft of another branch of the military, that service’s name is used. Marine One is the current helicopter of choice for the commander-in-chief, but Army One has appeared many times on the White House lawn. 

Only one vessel has ever borne the name Navy One.  A Lockheed S-3 Viking held the coveted call sign Navy One for a very brief time as it flew President George W. Bush to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, California on May 1, 2003. The President, himself a former Navy pilot, was at the controls for a portion of the flight, but the takeoff and landing was conducted by Commander Skip Lussier. 

That S-3 was retired from service and placed on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida on July 17, 2003.

To date, no aircraft has yet to bear the call sign Coast Guard One

When the President flies aboard a civilian aircraft, it becomes Executive One. 

Building Zeppelins Took a Lot of Guts

cow zeppelin
photo credit: Alexander Sovpel. Used by permission.

During much of World War I, sausage consumption was illegal in Germany. The reason was to preserve the supply of cow intestines, which were needed to seal Zeppelins and prevent hydrogen from leaking from the vehicle.

Ultimately, 140 Zeppelins were constructed. Each one required the intestines of 250,000 cows.

The Zeppelins themselves posed minimal military value. As a result of the 35,000,000 cows who gave their lives for the airships, Zeppelins claimed 1,500 human lives through bombing raids from 1915-1917.

Surprisingly, these floating bovine balloons were rather difficult to bring down. Simply shooting a bullet through the vehicle’s skin was insufficient, because the relatively small hole, compared to the massive size of the ship itself, made little difference. It wasn’t until the British designed a combination tracer/exploding bullet capable of tearing open the hydrogen bags and allowing sufficient oxygen to enter that the era of the Zeppelins came to an abrupt — and explosive — end.

The end of the Zeppelins meant a sudden spike in the sausage market. Butchers were happy. Sausage lovers were happy. The cows failed to see much of a difference.