What does it mean when a plane is heavy

hey, who are you calling heavy? while all pilots like to treat their planes like the ladies they are, fortunately planes are much more accepting of blunt descriptive language.

what does “heavy” mean?

Aircraft are classified based on their maximum takeoff weights (mtow). A “heavy” aircraft is one whose takeoff weight is greater than 300,000 pounds or 136 tons.

This designation is critical enough that the FAA requires all aircraft to announce the fact with their call sign.

for example, british airways flight 101 (radio sign “speedbird”), a boeing 747, would refer to itself as “speedbird one-zero-one heavy” in all atc communications.

the importance of aircraft call signs

when small planes talk to atc, they usually refer to themselves by type of plane. A Cessna 172 Skyhawk calls itself a “Skyhawk…” followed by its registration number. each type of aircraft has a specific call sign to pass so that air traffic control and other pilots know the approximate size and speed of the calling aircraft. they also know what to look for when they look out the window.

even when not communicating with atc, pilots use their call signs for the same purposes at airfields without towers. when no controller is present, pilots blindly announce their location and intentions on a frequency designated for that airport. The frequency is known as CTAF, or the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency.

Even without the help of a controller, knowing the type of aircraft the pilot is looking for is helpful. if a pilot is waiting to take off in an uncontrolled field and hears the call, “field traffic, learjet four-five alpha on a one-mile finish,” he knows he should wait. It won’t take just a few seconds for a learjet to cover a mile, as the approach speed on these planes is well in excess of 130 knots.

but if they hear the same call from a different aircraft, say “field traffic, skyhawk six-nine on a one mile finish for runway 09”, they know that aircraft will take a long time to get to the runway already that the approach speed of the cessna is probably 65 knots or less. they’ll likely have plenty of time to take off and won’t need to wait.

airplane radio calls

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Traditionally, airlines have used their company names or custom titles as call signs. this helps pilots know which plane is which at busy airports. Airlines tend to serve major airports, where a call sign like “Boeing” or “Airbus” would not be very descriptive.

Also, airlines use your flight numbers instead of your tail number for air traffic control communications. aircraft type and registration numbers are always filed in the flight plan, so if this information is relevant in any way, the controller can quickly look it up.

Using the flight number, airlines can easily make equipment changes if the need arises. From a business standpoint, the flight number indicates everything from the flight passengers need to board to the departure, destination, and times. using that for communications reduces confusion.

Most call signs are pretty obvious and directly related to the company name. some resist because of tradition or knowledge of the company. the best ones just sound great on the radio, like british airways’s “speedbird”, china airlines’ “dynasty” or aer lingus’s “shamrock”.

The point is that other pilots can learn a lot about the other planes in the sky from just one plane’s call sign. Radio communications are all about being as quick and concise as possible, so a little word can mean a lot. as such, aircraft can add descriptive notes that other pilots need to hear.

aircraft weight categories

Airplanes are classified by their maximum takeoff weight. the categories used by the faa are the following.

small aircraft, which have takeoff weights of less than 12,500 pounds. medium-weight aircraft range from 12,501 to 41,000 pounds. large aircraft weighing between 41,000 and 300,000 pounds. heavy planes have a mtow of at least 300,000lbs.

super is reserved for the largest aircraft only. There are only two types of operational “super” aircraft, the Airbus A380 and the largest aircraft of all, the Antonov An-225 cargo plane. both planes have takeoff weights well over 1 million pounds!

some aircraft receive special consideration. By weight alone, the Boeing 757 is not a “heavy” aircraft. but this design produces an abnormal amount of wake turbulence. to maintain a safe separation from other aircraft, b757s must also use the “heavy” indication.

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pilots of “heavy” and “super” aircraft must announce their category at the end of their call sign. this helps atc and reminds everyone that these planes need more space than other categories.

the dangers of wake turbulence

When the wing of an airplane moves through the air, a wake is produced behind it, like the wake of a ship moving on water. and just as some ships produce larger wakes than others due to differences in design and speed, the wake behind aircraft changes during various phases of flight.

wake turbulence refers explicitly to a spiral swirl of air that occurs at the wingtip. As the area of ​​relatively higher air pressure below the wing attempts to equalize with the lower pressure above, near the wingtips, it spirals toward the aircraft.

These spirals trail behind the plane and sink. to the generating aircraft, they are an annoyance only in the induced resistance they represent. to a smaller aircraft flying behind and below the generating aircraft, they present a huge and unseen hazard.

wake turbulence is the result of any lift-producing flying machine. helicopters also generate dangerous wake turbulence. when hovering, wake turbulence surrounds the helicopter. when in forward flight, wake turbulence follows behind the helicopter as it does an airplane.

It should be noted that wake turbulence is not the result of the aircraft’s engine. jets produce a powerful jet stream that is very dangerous to nearby aircraft on the ground. even at low power, a jet blast can bring down a light trainer aircraft. propeller washing of propeller-driven aircraft can also cause damage. but this turbulence is short-lived and stays close to the aircraft, usually much closer than anyone would ever operate from another aircraft in flight.

the danger to the following aircraft lies in the spiraling vortex of the wake turbulence. if an aircraft unknowingly enters the vortex, it will induce a much stronger roll than the aircraft’s flight controls can correct. a smaller aircraft entering the wake turbulence of a larger aircraft is likely to end up flying upside down!

The most dangerous phase of flight for this to happen is obviously during takeoff and landing. when close to the ground, the roll caused by wake turbulence can bring down a small plane and crash it to earth. Understanding wake turbulence and how to avoid it is a critically important part of all pilot training.

an aircraft generates a stronger wake turbulence each time it is operated at higher angles of attack. pilots often learn that the most extreme wake turbulence is behind aircraft that operate heavy, clean, and slow. in this context, “clean” means without extended fins.


You can read more about wake turbulence and its effects in the faa circular wake turbulence advisory.

To see how wake turbulence can affect even the largest aircraft, see what happened aboard a qantas a380 that ended up right behind a sister ship.

minimum separation distances for air traffic control

Air traffic controllers also know the importance of keeping aircraft far enough apart so that wake turbulence does not affect each other. the main way they do it is based on their weight classes.

Below is a table produced by the FAA showing how many miles of separation are required between aircraft of various categories. this is used by radar controllers who must maintain separation. separation can sometimes be reduced if the controller gives a “caution, wake turbulence” advisory to the trailing pilot.

At airports, controller-timed takeoffs and landings are based on elapsed time rather than nautical miles apart. wake turbulence will naturally dissipate over time, and wind can also blow turbulence away from the runway.

If the weather is close, a controller may issue a takeoff or landing clearance with a “caution, wake turbulence” advisory. then it is up to the pilot to identify a route that will result in a safe takeoff and departure or an approach and landing.

the true purpose of the “heavy” and “super” call signs

The larger and heavier an aircraft, the more dangerous its wake turbulence. for this reason, heavy and super category aircraft need to announce their size on the radio for two reasons.

First of all, by doing so, air traffic controllers remember exactly what the plane looks like and how much space they need to give it. remember, controllers are mostly in dark rooms looking at radar screens. all planes look the same on a radar screen.

and finally, making the announcement with each call serves as a warning to other pilots who might be flying in the same area. If a pilot hears a heavy or super plane landing or going off a runway in front of her, she knows to avoid it.

related publications

  • top 15 training planes
  • How many years does a plane last?
  • 10 iconic planes of the 1920s
Content Creator Zaid Butt joined Silsala-e-Azeemia in 2004 as student of spirituality. Mr. Zahid Butt is an IT professional, his expertise include “Web/Graphic Designer, GUI, Visualizer and Web Developer” PH: +92-3217244554

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