My question is inspired by the opening of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. In May, 1999, the City of Austin closed Robert Mueller Municipal Airport and began passenger operations on the site of the former Bergrstrom Air Force Base. To commemorate the opening of the much larger and nicer facility, several Austin dignitaries boarded a Southwest Airlines 737 at Mueller and flew the nine miles (as the car drives) to the new airport.
I have always read that the most dangerous phases of flight are the takeoff and landing. Well, what if a flight is only takeoff and landing? Does such a short flight present any unique challenges to the flight crew? Are there any dangers inherent to this sort of flight that wouldn’t be present in a flight of a more typical distance?
There are a lot of flights from Milwaukee to Chicago. It’s weird, you go up and then down in about 45 minutes (longer than your example, I know). But that’s only about 10 minutes less than it takes to go from Milwaukee to St. Louis, and 15 less than Milwaukee to Minneapolis. Even though the later 2 are further away from Milwaukee than Chicago. I know of no recent crashes between any of those destinations from MKE.
So I’m thinking that time increases altitude and thus decreases time via faster speed. And the less time one is in the air, the less chance of a crash? No?
About 6 weeks ago I flew from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina. The flight was about 45 minutes long, so longer than the one you speak of. However, as we were flying over the Andes, the flight was really only a takeoff and landing since we didn’t level off for more than about 2-3 minutes at most. In fact, the angle of our climb up over the mountains and of our descent was so steep the flight attendants stayed seated and strapped in just like the rest of us for the entire flight. No beverage service and the seat belt sign was on the entire time.
Interestingly, I never really felt in any more danger than on any other flight. There was some turbulence but not anything out of the ordinary.
(I did make a point of noting where the passengers with the best fat to muscle ratio were seated relative to me. Just in case.)
I’d guess part of that is due to runway layout. IIRC, ORD is set up that you pretty much always land traveling east or west, while being almost directly south of MKE. I’m sure one of our resident pilots could give more information, but they’d have to fly a significant distance away from the airport, roughly line up with the runway, then come in on approach. Given how busy ORD is, there might be a holding pattern flown.
Also, that 45 minutes includes taxiing and what-not. I’m pretty sure you’re in the air for maybe 20 minutes.
There is the famous Aloha Airlines Flight 243 tragedy, in which the roof of the airplane came off, killing flight attendant Clarabelle Lansing. Because the airplane was used for short island hops, it accumulated a large number of take-offs and landings compared to the number of actual flight hours. The incident wasn’t due to an accident at take-off or landing, but rather due to failure related to the high number of compression and decompression cycles, and inadequate inspections which failed to detect the problems.
Commercial airline flights are so safe, that making declarations about a particular flight being more or less risky are pretty meaningless. There just aren’t enough incidents under current safety rules to make much generalization. If take-off and landings are the riskiest parts, then doing that lots of times might be riskier—100 flights of 10 miles vs 1 flight of 1000 miles. A chance of 1 in 11 million 1 time or 100 times, doesn’t really matter. By far the most likely outcome of either scenario is that you never get (un)lucky.
I always appreciated flying from Atlanta, GA, to Huntsville, AL, since because of leaving Eastern Time Zone and going in to Central Time Zone, there’s a potential to arrive ~30 minutes before you left!
The problem with short flights is that modern jets are optimized to fly at high altitudes. How high would a Boeing 737 climb in a 9-mile flight.
The shortest flight I ever made on a full-size jet was Indianapolis-Chicago. The flight attendants were trying to collect the trash from passengers in front while still serving the passengers in the back.
Probably didn’t take them materially longer to fly between the two than it would have to just fly to Houston Hobby (~25 mins). I imagine from where Mueller was, they’d have to have taken off northward, turned to the east or west, and flown back to Bergstrom. I don’t think they could actually take off southward and still safely land an airliner without a little bit of aerobatic action.
Until ~2002 or so, Continental used to run regular cross-town flights in Houston between Bush Intercontinental and Hobby (~30 mile drive) and also between IAH and Ellington (~40 mile drive). As I recall, these flights didn’t last more than 15-20 minutes and probably that long because of the extremely busy air traffic they had to navigate around. Certainly no beverage service. It’s just up and down.
At this point Ellington doesn’t serve commercial air traffic anymore (though some want to use it as a potential spaceport) and Continental doesn’t fly out of Hobby anymore.
Short answers: Dangerous? No. Challenging? Can be, yes.
This was not something I ever really dealt with when I was at the airlines. The only short flight I ever had was a turn-back due to an equipment problem. But in the charter world it’s something I see a lot.
In this business we frequently drop off passengers and then fly the plane empty somewhere else to pick up the people for the next trip. Occasionally, this means repositioning the plane to the airport across town. So I’ve had flights that lasted less than 10 minutes, such as Opa-Locka to Miami International. Or Palm Springs to Thermal. I believe my shortest was 6 minutes in the air, 12 minutes block time (parking spot to parking spot).
I find these flights challenging for several reasons:
You have to set up the jet as you would for any flight, which takes time.
The normal pace is obviously much different. Everything is compressed. On a typical flight you have time during cruise and descent to brief the arrival / approach and set up the avionics. On the short repos you had better program everything before you block out. I also make an effort to offload any chores, such as calling the arrival FBO (private passenger terminal). Normally we do that enroute, on a short repo I’ll call on the phone before we start engines.
You go instantly from the takeoff phase to the approach / landing phase. It can sort of give you mental whiplash. Essential to brief everything before taxi because there won’t be time in the air.
Even with a thorough briefing, ATC can change things on you. That means reprogramming avionics and setting up for a different approach or runway than you expected. In that situation we might ask for a hold or delaying vectors to set things up.
The jet I currently fly is very cutting edge with computer screens everywhere. But one of its quirks is that it won’t post landing speeds (Vapp and Vref) to our main screen unless the plane achieves a certain intermediate airspeed. So on top of the quick flight where a lot is happening, if you forget this you’ll end up flying an approach without that information in front of you or available to the automation (mostly affecting the auto-throttle). We’d still know the number, having computed it in the system, and I always write it down. But it’s one more thing that can bite you on a short repo.
I’ve done that. Flown from Paris to London and arrived a few minutes before I left. The ticket was certainly striking.
The shortest I’ve ever done in a widebody was a hope from Washington National - now Reagan National, dammit - to Dulles International. A distance of about 28 miles by road and about 22 by air. It was a strange UP and then immediately DOWN to pick up a few more people. Weird.
Once my brother flew me from Lake Charles (LA) AFB to Lake Charles municipal airport, a distance of 7 miles in a single-engined Cessna. We did a few touche-and-goes and then flew back. The return flight took twice as long because of the prevailing winds meant a go-around after taking off and a second one after landing. No problem.
I find the super short flights are (relatively) easy and the longer flights are easy. What is challenging are the moderately short flights.
On a very short flight, for example a circuit or a flight to an airport that is only a few miles away, you can get all the information you need before you depart and you can brief and set everything up before you depart. The in flight procedures can be abbreviated. For a very short flight we wouldn’t completely retract the flaps and we’d leave a number of systems running that we would normally turn off for the cruise.
On a normal flight as minimum we would take-off, “clean up” (retract gear and flaps), complete the after take-off checklist, 10,000’ checks, level off, get the weather for the destination, brief for the approach, setup speed bugs and navaids for the approach, complete the approach checklist, start a descent, 10,000’ checks, extend flaps and gear, complete the landing checklist, land.
The most challenging flight is one that is just long enough that we still have to do all of those things in flight and in order.
On a very short flight you can get the destination weather, brief the approach, and setup navaids before you depart and you may not even clean up completely. In our company we have a “return to land” checklist that can be used for a circuit and covers the important bits of the after take-off, approach, and landing checklists. The flow for a very short flight looks like this: Take-off, gear up, level off, set speed bugs, re-land checklist, gear down, descend, final flap, land.
You could say the flight is statistically riskier on a per mile basis but a passenger has to take off and land once each flight anyway so absolute risk is not increased.
How do you deal with doing circuits with his set up?
I’ve never done any kind of “pattern work” in a jet, much as I’d like to very much. The closest would be a maintenance test flight, but even on those we usually have to get up to some altitude and speed.
That airspeed quirk is one of several oddities in our plane, some of which make me want to find the engineer responsible and kick him in the nuts. That being said, my experience has been that a lot of modern equipment have strange quirks, usually having to do with how computers from different systems interact.
I think I’ve posted before about my last plane, in which certain display modes couldn’t be accessed unless another screen was in a certain configuration. The two didn’t seem to have much to do with each other, but some sort of cross-talk between them made it necessary. It goes to the fact that any helpful technology still carries its own complications. I think we’re seeing more and more of that in planes and cars these days. Especially cars - I see a different rental car nearly every day in this job, and the lack of standardization and consequences of the technology within is often harder for me than flying the airplane.