Slanting Planes

Q: Cruising along, it always seems that the front of the plane is slightly higher than the back. Is this real or are my kinesthetic senses acting up?

Let’s go back to my original discussion of flight, in which you stick your hand outside the car window and “fly” it along like a wing.

The higher an airplane flies, the thinner the air it rides upon, and so it takes a greater angle to maintain lift. (Aerodynamics 101 introduces something called “angle of attack,” which is akin to the bite a wing takes at the air.) So yes, up at cruise altitude the air is very thin, and the plane tends to ride a couple of degrees nose-high. Your kinesthetics are doing just fine.

Same thing happens when slowing down. Again, out the car window, you need a bigger angle as you decelerate. This time, though, wings are fitted with flaps, slots, and slats that help make up the difference. During cruise flight — that is, at higher speeds — these devices are impractical because of their added drag.


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.