Heavy Airplanes

Q: I’m a Channel 9 devotee when I fly United Airlines, and among the more mysterious bits of lingo I hear is use of the word “heavy,” suffixing a plane’s flight number. For example, a controller will say, “United 502 heavy, descend to six thousand feet…..”

I’d normally shun from addressing something so arcane, but I get this question more often than you might think. Channel 9, if you’re not familiar, refers to the armrest dial position through which United’s passengers may listen to air-to-ground communications during flight.

The “heavy” distinction is used by air traffic control and pertains to all aircraft with a maximum gross weight in excess of 255,000 pounds. The wingtips of larger planes, you may recall, are known to spin away powerful, potentially hazardous vortices — especially during takeoffs and landings — and separation parameters are more stringent when following behind or below such an aircraft. Air traffic control already knows who is “heavy” and who isn’t, but the radio call serves as a reminder both for controllers and crews. In most countries outside the United States the distinction is not used.

As I’ve opined before, eavesdropping on pilot-controller conversation is either extremely fascinating or tediously indecipherable, depending on the listener’s infatuation with flight. As far as I know, United remains the only party offering this service, though Air France and Emirates are two of several carriers now showing live-feed video from fuselage-mounted cameras. On Emirates 777-300s, using your in-seat selector, you can switch back and forth between two angles — one aimed straight ahead, allowing great shots of the runway during nighttime landings, the other pointed at the ground, giving a spy-cam view of streets and houses.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.