The World From Your Airplane Window

A science writer’s guide for the inquisitive air traveler

(Pierre Selim)

Did you know that if you flew across the Atlantic every week for 40 years you would be one thousandth of a second younger than your identical twin? Or that it's impossible to make a perfect cup of tea in mid-air? Learn why from science writer Brian Clegg, who has compiled dozens of airline-related facts in a new book, Inflight Science (Icon Books, 2011).

Clegg, explains, for example, the cryptic markings painted on runways (above). Realistically, you can’t have runways facing in every direction, so airports typically go for the prevailing wind direction. The runways are labeled with a contraction of their compass direction. If the direction of the runway is within the first ten degrees to the east of north, it’s designated 01. The next ten degrees is 02 and so on. As planes may have to approach from either direction, depending on the wind, the two ends of the runway will be labelled with numbers that differ by 18 (because they’re 180 degrees apart).

London Heathrow, for instance, has two parallel east-west runways designated 27 Left and 27 Right, or 09 Right and 09 Left, depending on the direction of approach. They’re 27 if you’re heading west from the London direction, and 09 if you’re heading east.

See the gallery below to learn more about the world from your airplane window. — The Editors

Text adapted by permission of the publisher.

Gate 14


Airport gates are traditionally numbered, with one exception: You'll usually find that gate 13 is missing. Although few people truly suffer from triskaidekaphobia, the number 13 is still often regarded as unlucky, something airlines and airports are enthusiastic to avoid.

Of course, in airports with no Gate 13, some passengers still consider gate 14 unlucky because ‘it’s really gate 13’. To prevent this from happening, Gate 12 in London Heathrow’s Terminal Four is at one end of the building, and Gate 14 is at the other end. As you never see the two gates side by side, it’s not obvious that Gate 13 is missing.


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