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Wherein I rag on Aaron Sorkin, do a little bit of my own research, and brag on my completely awesome friends.

Last night I briefly moaned on Facebook about a small inconsistency that bugged me whilst watching The West Wing Season 4 Episode 18 (“Angel Maintenance”). At the end of the episode, Air Force One’s pilot announces over the intercom that they are cleared to land on “runway three-niner”.

There’s just one problem with that announcement: there’s never any such thing as a runway 39. Runways are numbered based on the compass orientation of the runway’s direction, with the units digit lopped off. For example, a runway running directly East-West would be marked “09” on one end and “27” on the other end.

Runway 22.svg
Runway 22” by Orion 8Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Having thus been minimally annoyed, I followed up by checking Google Earth to determine what runways Andrews Air Force Base (the intended landing site on the show) does have.

Well, it has two of them that run roughly parallel to each other:


And when you zoom in on one end of one of them you can see it’s marked “01 R”:


From this you can quite easily conclude that the other runway ends (with associated names) are “01 L”, “19 R”, and “19 L”.

But that’s not all

Aside: The plot of this episode is that AF1 is heading in from a long flight and they can’t get a green light on the nose gear. So, the president manages crises from the air for a few hours while they turn circles over West Virginia and try to solve the problem.

I continued on Facebook to comment that there were other nits I’d like to pick with the plot.

Another nit that I’m tempted to pick at is that the press attache makes up a story that the reason they’re not landing right away is that there’s a fuel spill on the runway that has to get cleaned up. And a reporter asks “don’t they have another runway?” and she replies that apparently it affected both of them. In point of fact, Andrews AFB has two runways that are parallel, so an incident shouldn’t affect both of them. But given that it was a made-up story, I guess we should expect factual inaccuracies.

I had a couple pilot friends “like” my comments and provide a few snarky remarks about “artistic license”… but then my friend Daniel chimed in.

Daniel is one of those people who’s uniquely qualified to comment on a plot involving a Boeing 747: he’s a 747 pilot. Here’s what he had to say:

Hmm, the runway 39 indicates that the writers and producers made not even a token attempt at any accuracy, as even a rookie pilot would have cringed in a quick scan over the script. Just to highlight how unlikely many aviation scripts are, the B747-200 (which AF1 is, although everyone in the military insists its not, its an E-4, which is also true) only has one green light for the gear. There are ten green lights back on the flight engineer’s panel, and the system is checked for continuity before each landing.

In the event the primary (hydraulic) system does not work, any gear that cannot be lowered hydraulicly can be lowered by gravity (an extremely robust power source). This is accomplished by simply electrically removing the pin that holds the gear up, and, in the case of the nose gear, is actually faster than lowering it hydraulically (the hydraulics just slow down the nose gear when lowering).

If that doesn’t work, and there is no record of the electrical back up failing, the engineer can go down into the forward cargo bay, and use a wrench (permanently attached) to physically remove the pin. If THAT doesn’t work, ten bolts can be removed covering the landing gear, and then the pin can be extracted.

All of which, and the nose gear is not needed for a safe landing. The only use for the nose gear is to reduce the thrust needed to taxi, and facilitate steering. Ironically, there are a large number of real emergencies that can occur on large aircraft. Of course, it might take an hour or two of research to learn that….

Do I have awesome friends or what?

It’s fun when somebody has a topic like this right in their wheelhouse. It reminds me of when I was in high school and my friends’ dad was a submarine captain. Getting his opinions on The Hunt for Red October… hehehe.

Or when I watched an episode of Human Target a few years back and ripped the whole thing apart when their plot revolved around someone reprogramming avionics software while in the air on board an airplane THAT WAS FLYING UPSIDE DOWN THE WHOLE TIME.

OK, maybe I’m not over that one quite yet.

So, yeah, I have pretty awesome friends.


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