Why Do Pilots Say “Heavy”?

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There are different ways of communication between a pilot and air traffic controllers (ATC). One of which is shorthand language.

For example, when an aircraft is on descent and is parallel to the central line of the runway, this procedure is known as the “final approach”.

But while communicating this information to the ATC, the pilot would never use the “final approach”. They would only stick to “final”.

There are other shorthand language examples including “Ramp” and “Heavy”. A ramp is an area alongside the terminal and is an aircraft parking zone.

“Heavy”, on the other hand, refers to a large aircraft with a take-off weight of upwards of 136 tonnes. Because of their size, these aircraft wings create a considerable amount of wake turbulence.

So the word “heavy” is used to indicate to the ATC to maintain enough separation between their aircraft and the following one.

What does “328 heavy” mean?

Heavy” is a commonly used word in airline radio transmissions. It means an aircraft’s maximum take-off weight.

However, aside from this it also refers to an aircraft’s wake turbulence. In other words, “heavy” may also mean the amount of turbulence that an aircraft leaves in its wake.

The bigger the aircraft, the greater the wake turbulence. As a plane takes off or lands, its wings produce rotating air.

This is called wake turbulence. And the more severe the turbulence, the bigger the risk for the next aircraft.

So when identifying the aircraft to the ATC, which in this case is “328”, the pilot will say “328 heavy”. This is to remind ATC to incorporate a considerable distance between flight number 328 and the next aircraft.

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Coming in heavy

“Coming in heavy” indicates that there is a major emergency. For example, a fire on board the aircraft, and the plane has to land before burning off the fuel needed to meet its maximum landing weight specification.

It’s a big deal because such landings can put too much pressure on the fuselage or landing gear, causing damage to them.

An incident was reported almost three years ago when an Airbus 380 flying from Singapore to Sydney had to make an emergency landing due to engine failure four mins into the flight.

With a flight time of eight hours between Singapore and Sydney, the aircraft was only partly loaded with fuel. It landed at the Singapore airport 50 tonnes above its maximum landing weight.

Furthermore, it was 35 knots faster than the normal recommendation. However, a “measured” flutter right before landing minimized the vertical descent speed enough to avert the collapse of the primary landing gear.

So landing an aircraft before its designated time is a serious affair. And if done without much thought, this can invite serious grilling by the chief pilot.

What do pilots say when landing a plane?

To indicate the “final approach” or landing clearance, the Captain will either ask the flight attendants to prepare for landing which also includes asking them to take their seats. Or the Captain might switch on the “No Smoking” sign.

Or, do both. A flight attendant might then follow it up with an announcement.

What does “heavy Mayday” mean?

Derived from a French word, Mayday means “help”. It’s a distress call used by aviators and mariners to signal life-threatening situations.

In aviation, it is repeated thrice before the help seeker provides the necessary information. Mayday calls are sometimes sent by one aircraft on another one’s behalf.

However, “heavy Mayday” is not an official term. Yet, it is often used by pilots to indicate extremely difficult situations, for example, when the plane is on the verge of crashing or suffering any major failure.

The word “heavy” in Mayday” is an unofficial term used only for emphasis.

What does Mayday mean in slang?

In common parlance, Mayday means “come help me” as it originated from the French word Venez m’aidez which means the same.

Although its use as a distress signal in aviation started way back in 1923, Mayday got the official stamp in 1948. Owing to a lot of air traffic between France and England in those days and the international issues over the English Channel, both countries were looking for a reliable distress signal.

S.O.S already existed as an emergency distress call back then. But the sound “S” was difficult to distinguish when heard over the telephone.

This gave rise to its unreliability as an emergency call for action. Since Mayday sounded very similar to M’aidez, the world turned to it instead.

And it came to be recognized as the international distress call signal ever since. In aviation, it is repeated thrice in a row while declaring the initial emergency to eliminate the chances of being mistaken for some phonetically similar word under chaotic situations.

This is also to tell a real Mayday call from a message about a Mayday call.

But did you know Mayday is also a Spring holiday in the Northern Hemisphere, and in some parts of the world, it is a day reserved for the celebration of the working class? The words sound similar but they have different etymology and are also spelled differently.

ATC “heavy” vs “super”

According to the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA, a “heavy” aircraft has a take-off weight of 300,000 pounds or above. Whereas a “super” aircraft has a maximum take-off weight of 1,410,000 pounds or above.

This is a critical designation as the ATC requires all such aircraft to announce their category with the call sign. Because of their weight, these “heavy” or “super” aircraft produce excessive wake turbulence.

So to maintain a safe distance from the other aircraft their pilots need to call out “heavy” or “super” at the end of their call sign. This reminds the ATC that these planes need more space than others like small or large aircraft.

Because sitting in the darkroom when air traffic controllers look at their radar screen, all planes appear to be the same. So knowing the category of an aircraft is essential for them.

Additionally, this announcement also serves as a warning to other pilots flying in the same area. Once they know a “heavy” or “super” aircraft is preceding them, other pilots can maintain the required distance from them.

Is 747 “super” or “heavy”?

The FAA mandates that any aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of 300,000 lbs or more be termed “heavy“. This includes 747 among others.

However, when the colossal A380 was introduced, FAA created a new category for the aircraft to distinguish it from others based on its size.

List of “heavy” aircraft

All wide-body planes fall into the “heavy” category as designated by FAA. Some of these are as follows:

What is the heaviest aircraft?

Although destroyed by the Russians during their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, to this day, Antonov AN-225 Mriya remains the longest and heaviest operational aircraft that was ever built.

Propelled by six turbofan engines, she had a maximum payload weight of 250 tonnes which could be carried both inside or on its back. It also boasted the longest wingspan of any operational aircraft today.

What does “super” mean in aviation?

Only the largest planes are called “super” in aviation. Right now there is only one “super” plane in operation, which is A380.

It has a take-off weight of more than 1 million pounds.

Why do pilots say “blue”?

The pilots say “LOC blue” to keep themselves abreast of the present flight guidance modes as well as the mode transitions.

This is more like an awareness exercise to keep up to date with the flight operational activities that are supposed to follow and that they are in commensuration with the present flight situation.

FAQ relating to why pilots say “heavy”

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What does it mean when the pilot says “heavy”?

The term “heavy” is used during wireless communications between the ATC and the pilot of an aircraft that has been designated a maximum take-off weight of 136 tonnes or more.

Why do pilots say, “Niner”?

In aviation, “niner” means nine. While speaking to the ATC, pilots substitute nine with niner to avoid mistakes during occasional indistinct radio transmissions.

Why do pilots say “blue”?

It could mean a couple of things. For instance, when pilots in an aircraft say “blue”, they could be referring to the color of the altitude on the Primary Flight Display or PFD.

On the other hand, when they call out “blue skies”, they do so to give one another blessing for a safe flight.

Third, the callout “LOC blue” is a reminder pilots give to themselves about the current guidance modes as well to keep themselves in the know of various mode changes. This helps them with upcoming flight activities they need to undertake and also to understand if those are in sync with the current flight situation or not.

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What do “heavy” and “super” mean”?

Aircraft are classified as small, large, heavy, and super in the United States. But out of these, only “heavy” and “super” are frequently used.

A “heavy” aircraft has a maximum take-off weight of 300,000 pounds or more, while a “super” aircraft has a maximum take-off weight of more than 1 million pounds.

The word “heavy” also denotes aircraft with heavy wake turbulence. Some countries need pilots to mention “heavy” in all their radio communications with the ATC.

While others need it only on the first contact that pilots make with the ATC. Pilots need to use the word “heavy” to alert other aircraft preceding them of the wake turbulence caused by wingtip whirlwinds.

Wake turbulence is dangerous, especially during take-off or landing as the impacted aircraft won’t have enough height for recovery. The worst victims are the ones with short wingspans.

In its mildest state, wake turbulence can cause slight shaking of the aircraft’s wings. But in more severe forms, it can result in the affected aircraft losing complete control.

A “super aircraft”, on the other hand, can glide behind all aircraft without any risk of experiencing wake turbulence.

However, to be on the safest side, a distance of two and a half nautical miles is recommended between a “super” aircraft and others.

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