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For all of their miraculous capability, airplanes are limited on the ground. As one spotter keenly noted, when not airborne, planes are just “funny looking, oversized trucks.” Indeed, airplanes aren’t known for their agility on the ground. On most commercial aircraft, the captain controls the ground steering with their left hand through a handle-like mechanism known as a “tiller,” and, once on the runway, will transition to the primary flight controls (rudder pedals, sidestick/yoke). Still, there’s usually one last aspect of a flight that pilots seemingly can’t do themselves.
While relying on a tow truck-like vehicle to push from the gate is beneficial for a number of reasons (from fuel savings, safety and noise abatement) it doesn’t mean that the airplane can’t do it by itself if it had to. In fact, a proper use of engine power can actually do the trick. “Reverse thrust,” which is typically reserved for landings (it’s the loud noise you hear right after touchdown), acts to reduce wear on the brakes as they slow the airplane down. Just as you’d experience on a boat just about to dock, the reverse thrust creates a counter-force, minimizing forward momentum. And, as you’ll see in this video, reverse thrust can actually make it so that airplanes can ‘back up’ all by themselves.
In effect, after a normal (and stunning) landing in the Greek island of Skiathos (JSI), this 757 pilot attempts to turn around towards a taxiway, but goes too far. At around 0:57, the plane stops. After realizing the mistake, the pilot uses reverse thrust to make a 3-point turn, and vacate the runway. Perhaps not the best use of fuel (it’s like applying full throttle), but would’ve otherwise required a tow to move the plane — resulting in delays for this flight and the one lining up for takeoff.
Weird, right? We did a little digging, and found more examples of this maneuver, but this time for a standard push-back. Turns out it was a relatively standard practice up until the 1980s and 90s.
Have you experienced or seen a plane back up by itself? Let us know!
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