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Home > Flying the Plane > How do pilots make sure they are flying at the right speed?
How do pilots make sure they are flying at the right speed?
Flying - Flying the Plane
Sunday, 04 July 2010 15:29
First off, let me introduce myself.  I am 23 year old American male who absolutely LOVES to fly.  I have been an aviation enthusiast for most of my life, and have seriously considered becoming a commercial airline pilot.  However, I recently have become a nervous flyer.  I used to love the feeling the power of the plane as it took off, and I even thought turbulence was fun (although I hate roller coasters).

Being an aviation enthusiast I also was very interested in airplane crashes; how they happened and all that.  I studied about many crashes, and it always seemed that a series of small problems all converged on the doomed aircraft.

Even after all that, I was still very comfortable flying.  However, after a flight I took last year out of LAX, I was on a small jet (Embraer) and experienced heavy turbulence, I would not go as far as to say "severe" but I was gripping the armrest!

I believe after that experience, and all the knowledge I acquired about airplane crashes, my mind became my own worst enemy.
However, I must say that this site has been EXTREMELY helpful, and you are doing a great service to thousands of people! Thank you.  I was most nervous during take off,  I feared that after we left the ground that airplane would not gain enough speed to stay airborne.  The bumps, jolts, and dips during climb all added to this fear.  But, by explaining that the aircraft decreases power during climb (due to noise abatement) was extremely HELPFUL.  Now I know what to expect, and that it is normal to feel a few dumps as the aircraft gains more lift, or enters a bit of wake turbulence. Also, by explaining turbulence is like a car driving over a bumpy road, and that it is NOT  a safety issue!

So again, thank you, my only fear that I still have surrounds the chance of the aircraft crashing during cruise, experiencing a loss of control.  I guess, the Air France 447 still upsets me.  I have flown both Air France and the A330, and think they are both exceptional.

For one of the largest airlines in the world to experience such a horrific crash is unsettling. Many people believe that the pitots on the aircraft were not giving the aircraft accurate air speed information.  Whereas, if going too fast the aircraft could come apart mid-air, or it can cause a stall making the aircraft fall from the sky.  Both are terrifying outcomes. I watched an investigative report about AF447, and someone had said that airplanes fly higher to be more fuel efficient, but flying at such a height adds more pressure on the aircraft, and that there is a slim window between going too fast, and going too slow.
I guess my question is, how do pilots make sure they are flying at the right speed? If the engines do stall, is there a chance the pilots could restart them? What has taken place since AF447 to ensure this does not happen again.

Also, I am flying on American's new 737-800 next month, I am sure I will be safe on such a new plane, any concerns however?

Again, thanks so much for all your help!

Hi John,
The Boeing 737-800 is a robust and safe plane to fly on. That said, safety of a plane does not just depend purely on the “hardware” of the business but the “software” is equally important. By “software”, I meant the human element. The airline industry has made planes to be very reliable but perfecting the human element in operating the plane would be the last link in making flying safer.
Thus I would generally look at the reputation of a particular airline to gauge the safety of their planes. But then, look at the AF447 accident. Air France is a reputable airline and yet the accident occurred. I cannot have a good answer for that.
Today, all the third generation fly-by-wire airplanes make use of computers to operate the plane efficiently and safely. Most of the times, the plane is flying on autopilot unless there is an emergency that knocks out the automation.
When the automation is on, flying at the right speed is taken care by the autopilot. So there is no issue unless it is the take off speeds for a particular weight. These speeds are extracted from the aircraft performance manuals.
If an engine stalls, given the right conditions, it can be started as there is an “Engine Relight” checklist for it.
The final conclusion for what caused the AF447 crash is still not available although there is suspicion of some kind of icings on the pitot tubes that have been giving erroneous information to the plane. In the interim, planes that have been installed with those similar pitots have all had their speed sensors replaced.
I wish you blue sky and safe flightsalt.
Air France Flight 447 Missing AF447 Rio Brazil


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How do pilots make sure they are flying at the right speed?
Capt Lim,

Thank you so much for taking the time to email me back. I know how busy you must be. You really do provide a great service for people who enjoy or MUST travel.

Although I am not your most fearful traveler, I am a firm believer in knowledge equals power. If people took the time to understand the airline & the manufacturer's dedication to safety, I am sure there would be a lot more confident flyers.

Again, thanks for answering!

John , 04 Jul, 2010
Private Pilot

The necessary speed an aircraft must obtain is based on several factors, but primarily design and weight. Each and every airplane has a stall speed, or, the speed at which the wing will no longer produce lift. Every pilot knows the stall speed of his/her aircraft at any given time. It is on the checklist, it is on the airspeed indicator and it is required to be memorized for every aircraft a pilot flies. Sometimes there is problem with the equipment, the pilot or even the weather, but flying is still very safe. It is just that you hear about almost all airplane accidents worldwide, which can make them seem more common than they are.

As an enthusiast, may I suggest you go to your local airport and take a "discovery flight" with a flight instructor. You will find it very illuminating and he can explain how you can learn to fly as well. Flying is enjoyable and learning to fly is something almost anyone can accomplish. Check out www.learntofly.org or www.aopa.org for more info. I promise you will not regret it.

Happy Flying!
Mark , 06 Jul, 2010
Hi ,

I would further like to enhance your answer. You rightly pointed out that when the automation is on, the computer takes care of the speed and when it is off, its the pilots duty to do this.

If I understand the questioner's original question, its not a question of engine "stalling" (engines flame out, planes or rather the wings stall) and since he/she mentioned AF447, its more of pitot tube malfunctioning.

So the real question is, engines are working, automation is working (i.e. on) but speed sensors fail to provide the correct reading. First thing to happen is autopilot will shut off (and warn you about it) since it can no longer gurantee the true air speed of the plane, which is a basic parameter. Also a lot of related sus-systems will shut off that require the speed. The system will detect this because of strange speed readings and readings coming from (usually 3 different) sensors not matching each other within certain limits.

And the answer to this question is that Pilots must immediately fly the plane manually and gurantee that it is within the safe speed i.e. neither too fast (or it can get damaged) not too slow (or it looses lift and stalls).

So how does the pilot keep a safe speed when the sensors giving the information is not working? well, there are certain procedures given in rulebooks for the aircraft...for example, setting the throttle to about 85% power and the nose angle to about 10% (IIRC) will ensure that you are within approx. 5% of your desired speed. Once you do that, you can figure out what to do next.

In all probability, the engines on AF447 might not have flamed out but it could have lost speed and stalled (because at cruise level, the margin of error is quite small...typically 15 knots on either side of the true speed).

Hope that helps.

Fawad , 17 Jul, 2010
Im scared of flying!!
Hi Im Gauri and Im 12 years old. I know I am a little young to be asking this but I am so scared of flying as I have an Emairates flight to Bangalore, India tomorrow morning. What should I do? My mother says I shouldnt worry but after I saw the horrific crash of the Mangalore flight to India just recently. Please please reply!!!
Gauri , 22 Jul, 2010
Hi Gauri,

I too i am scared of flying but i fly since my job demands, since Capt Lim has rightly said about the Aircraft safety i think it will boost the confedence.Well just to build your confedence for your next flight,First of all you are flying Emirates which is reputed Airliner for its safety records, if you are comparing with Mangalore, you should be more confident that you will be flying in A330-200 or B777 (bigger aircraft) not small it does not mean smaller B737-800 is unsafe it is one of the safest but since being small you may encounter little turbulance.More confedence is that the Runway in Bangalore is not a table top surrounded by valleys like in Mangalore.So runway lengths are longer to land bigger aircraft. Sill to add on no one know what exactly went wrong on landing since the investigation report is not out.Hope you are confedent now since you have already landed in Bangaloresmilies/smiley.gif
vivian , 04 Aug, 2010

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