Q: Each night the local UPS hub sends several departures towards Anchorage, from where they make the hop into Asia. Anchorage sits to the north and yet, almost without fail, the vast majority of these planes take off heading south. Is there a reason why a plane would take off in the opposite direction of its destination?
Planes rarely take off in the direction of their destination unless by chance. The runway it uses depends on any number of things — the ceiling and visibility, the direction and speed of the wind, the length of pavement, off-airport obstructions, and whether any noise restrictions apply. The latter is important in your case, since freighters tend to be back-of-the-clock operators.
After liftoff, the published departure routes may take a plane in a circuitous pattern before finally delivering it in the general direction of its destination. For example, here at Boston, a plane bound for California may climb east over the harbor, then swing to the north, up over southern New Hampshire before proceeding westward. Just last evening I caught sight of a Virgin Atlantic jet, flight planned to London, lumbering due west for several miles before executing a lazy arc toward the northeast.
Arriving aircraft will be subject to similar course reversals and spirals before landing.
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.