What Does "Heavy" Mean in Aviation & Why Do Pilots Have To Say It? - Aero Corner (2023)

Share on FacebookShare on PinterestShare on WhatsApp

Hey, who are you calling heavy? While all pilots like to treat their aircraft like the ladies they are, thankfully planes are much more accepting of bluntly descriptive language.

Table of Contents

  • What Does “Heavy” Mean?
  • The Importance of Aircraft Call Signs
  • Airliner Radio Calls
  • Airplane Weight Categories
  • The Dangers of Wake Turbulence
  • Minimum Separation Distances by Air Traffic Control
  • The Real Purpose of “Heavy” and “Super” Call Signs

What Does “Heavy” Mean?

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

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

For example, British Airways Flight 101 (radio call sign “Speedbird”), a Boeing 747, would refer to themselves as “Speedbird One-Zero-One Heavy” in all ATC communications.

What Does "Heavy" Mean in Aviation & Why Do Pilots Have To Say It? - Aero Corner (1)
(Video) What Is Turbulence? A Pilot Explains How It Happens, Even in Clear Skies | WSJ

The Importance of Aircraft Call Signs

When small aircraft speak with ATC, they generally refer to themselves by aircraft type. A Cessna 172 Skyhawk calls themself “Skyhawk…” followed by their registration number. Each type of aircraft has a specific call sign to go by, so that air traffic control and other pilots know the approximate size and speed of the aircraft calling. They also know what to look for when looking out the window.

Even when not communicating with ATC, pilots use their call signs for the same purposes at non-towered airfields. When no controller is present, pilots self-announce their location and intentions blindly on a designated frequency for that airport. The frequency is known as the CTAF, or the common traffic advisory frequency.

Even without the help of a controller, knowing the type of airplane the pilot is looking for is a big help. If a pilot is waiting to take off at an uncontrolled field, and they hear the call, “Field traffic, Learjet four-five alpha on a one-mile final,” they know they need to hold short. It won’t take but a few seconds for a Learjet to cover one mile, since the approach speed in these aircraft is well over 130 knots.

But if they hear the same call from a different aircraft, for example, “Field Traffic, Skyhawk six-nine on a one-mile final for runway 09,” they know that that aircraft will take quite a while to reach the runway since the Cessna’s approach speed is likely 65 knots or less. They likely have more than enough time to take off and do not need to wait.

Airliner Radio Calls

Traditionally, airlines have used their company names or customized titles as their call sign. This helps pilots know which airplane is which at very busy airports. Airlines tend to operate at major airports, where a call sign like “Boeing” or “Airbus” would not be very descriptive at all.

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

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

Most call signs are pretty obvious and directly related to the companies name. Some are hold outs by tradition or company lore. The coolest ones just sound great on the radio, like British Airways “Speedbird,” China Airlines’ “Dynasty,” or Aer Lingus “Shamrock.”

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

Airplane Weight Categories

Planes are categorized by their maximum takeoff weight. The categories used by the FAA are as follows.

Small aircraft, which have takeoff weights of less than 12,500 pounds. Medium aircraft range in weight from 12,501 to 41,000 pounds. Large aircraft weight between 41,000 to 300,000 pounds. Heavy aircraft have an MTOW of at least 300,000 pounds.

What Does "Heavy" Mean in Aviation & Why Do Pilots Have To Say It? - Aero Corner (2)
(Video) A New Pilot Makes His First Ever Flight With Passengers! | EasyJet: Inside The Cockpit | ITV

Super is reserved only for the largest airplanes. There are only two types of “super” aircraft operating, the Airbus A380 and the largest plane of them all, the Antonov An-225 cargo plane. Both of these planes have takeoff weights well above 1 million pounds!

Some airplanes get 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 are also required to use the “heavy” callout.

What Does "Heavy" Mean in Aviation & Why Do Pilots Have To Say It? - Aero Corner (3)

Pilots of “heavy” and “super” aircraft are required to announce their category at the end of their call sign. This helps ATC and reminds everyone that these airplanes need more space than other categories.

The Dangers of Wake Turbulence

As an airplane’s wing moves through the air, a wake is produced behind it, just like the wake of a boat moving through water. And just like some boats make bigger wakes than others due to design and speed differences, the wake behind airplanes changes during various phases of flight.

Wake turbulence refers explicitly to a spiral swirling of the air that occurs at the wingtip. As the relatively higher air pressure area below the wing attempts to equalize with the lower pressure above, near the wingtips, it takes on a spiral motion towards the aircraft.

What Does "Heavy" Mean in Aviation & Why Do Pilots Have To Say It? - Aero Corner (4)

These spirals trail behind the airplane and sink. For the generating aircraft, they are a nuisance only in the induced drag that they represent. For a smaller aircraft flying behind and below the generating aircraft, they pose an enormous and invisible hazard.

Wake turbulence is the result of any flying machine making lift. Helicopters make dangerous wake turbulence too. When hovering, the wake turbulence surrounds the helo. When in forward flight, the wake turbulence trails behind the helicopter just like it does an airplane.

It should be noted that wake turbulence is not the result of the airplane’s powerplant. Jets produce a powerful jet blast that is very hazardous to nearby aircraft on the ground. Even at low power, jet blast can topple light training aircraft. The prop wash from propeller-driven airplanes can also cause damage. But this turbulence is short-lived and remains close to the aircraft, generally much closer than anyone would ever operate to another plane in flight.

The hazard for the following aircraft lies in the spiral vortex of the wake turbulence. If a plane unknowingly enters the vortex, it will induce a much stronger roll than the airplane’s flight controls can correct. A smaller plane that enters the wake turbulence of a larger aircraft is likely to wind up flying upside down!

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

(Video) HOW was THIS Allowed to HAPPEN?!

A plane generates stronger wake turbulence any time is is operated at higher angles of attack. Pilots often learn that the most extreme wake turbulence is encountered behind airplanes that are operating heavy, clean, and slow. In this context, “clean” means without the flaps being extended.

You can read more about wake turbulence and its effects in the FAA’s Advisory Circular Aircraft Wake Turbulence.

For a look at how wake turbulence can affect even the biggest of planes, check out what happened onboard a Qantas A380 that wound up right behind a sistership.

Minimum Separation Distances by Air Traffic Control

Air traffic controllers also know the importance of keeping airplanes far enough apart that their wake turbulence will not affect each other. The primary way they do this is based on their weight categories.

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

From FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual Chapter 7:

1. Separation is applied to aircraft operating directly behind a super or heavy at the same altitude or less than 1,000 feet below, and to small aircraft operating directly behind a B757 at the same altitude or less than 500 feet below:

  • Heavybehindsuper– 6 miles.
  • Largebehindsuper– 7 miles.
  • Smallbehindsuper– 8 miles.
  • Heavybehindheavy-4 miles.
  • Small/largebehindheavy– 5 miles.
  • SmallbehindB757– 4 miles.

2. Also, separation, measured at the time the preceding aircraft is over the landing threshold, is provided to small aircraft:

  • Smalllanding behindheavy– 6 miles.
  • Smalllanding behindlarge, non-B757- 4 miles.

At airports, controller time takeoffs and landings based on elapsed time rather than nautical miles of separation. Wake turbulence will dissipate naturally over time, and wind can also blow the turbulence away from the runway.

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

(Video) When Pilots treat the Aircraft Like a TOY! | Air Crash Investigation

The Real Purpose of “Heavy” and “Super” Call Signs

The larger and heavier an aircraft is, the more hazardous their wake turbulence is. For this reason, Heavy and Super category airplanes need to call out their size on the radio for two reasons.

Firstly, doing so reminds the air traffic controllers of precisely 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 every call serves as a warning to other pilots who might be flying in the same area. If a pilot hears a heavy or super aircraft landing or departing a runway ahead of them, they know to give it a wide berth.

Share on FacebookShare on PinterestShare on WhatsApp

Related Posts

  • What is a Hush Kit?
  • What Are The 5 Generations of Fighter Planes?
  • What is an Afterburner? (and how does it work)

About the Author

What Does "Heavy" Mean in Aviation & Why Do Pilots Have To Say It? - Aero Corner (5)

Matt Claiborne

Airline Transport Pilot. Certified Flight Instructor-Airplane, Single and Multiengine Instrument

(Video) Deadly Culture! The Incredible Story of One-Two-Go Airlines Flight 269


Why do airline pilots say heavy? ›

When a pilot uses the phrase “heavy,” he is reminding ATC that his aircraft is large and requires more separation between it and the aircraft following.

What does it mean when a plane says heavy? ›

The FAA defines heavy aircraft as those with a maximum takeoff weight of 300,000 pounds or more. These heavy aircraft don't have to be operating at that weight, but they still get designated as heavy. Only the Airbus A380-800s and Antonov An-225 are designated as super aircraft.

What aircraft are considered heavy? ›

A heavy airplane, as classified by the FAA, is any airplane with a maximum takeoff weight of 300,000 pounds or more. If an airplane has a maximum takeoff weight of 300,000 pounds or more, it's classified as a heavy airplane.

What phrases do pilots use? ›

Pilots Have Their Own Secret Language. Here's What They're Really Saying
  • “Let's kick the tires and light the fires” ...
  • “Feet wet” ...
  • “We've got a deadhead crew flying to Chicago” ...
  • “There's a pilot in the jumpseat” ...
  • “It's 17:00 Zulu time” ...
  • “George is flying the plane now” ...
  • “We're flying through an air pocket”
Mar 27, 2019

Why do pilots say butter? ›

The term butter comes from the texture of regular butter. It is smooth and slick, how a good landing is. To butter the landing, when you land you have to keep the nose up by flying just above stall speed to keep the plane at a neutral rate of altitude speed.

Why do pilots say blue? ›

The callout from the pilots like "LOC blue" serves to remind themselves of the current flight guidance modes, and to maintain awareness of mode changes. This is also to ensure that their mental idea of "what the aircraft will do next" is up to date and fits to the current flight situation.

Why do pilots say V1 rotate? ›

During the takeoff roll, the pilot monitoring the displays (PM) will call out the two important speeds: V1 and rotate. This indicates to the pilot flying the aircraft (PF) when they are beyond the safe stopping speed and when to rotate the aircraft into the air.

How do planes fly if they are so heavy? ›

Planes do not actually defy gravity, though. Instead, the tilt and area of a plane's wings manipulate the air particles around the plane, creating a strong enough lift that the force of gravity is overcome by the force of the air beneath the wings.

What does pan pan pan mean in aviation? ›

The pilots sent out a Pan Pan Pan, signaling that the aircraft was experiencing a problem, but there was no immediate danger. At the time, they believed there was an issue with the air conditioning system and were unaware of the rapidly intensifying fire in the ceiling.

Why do they say souls on a plane? ›

ATC: 4194 Say souls on board. (This is the ATC terminology for asking how many people are in the plane. It is the standard terminology, and when you file any flight plan that's the term for number of people on the plane; but when you hear it said out loud by a controller it's usually a bad sign.

What does squawk mean in aviation? ›

SQUAWK: A Basic Definition

In short, SQUAWK refers to the communication that comes from an aircraft's transponder — or the radio equipment that a plane has that allows it to communicate with the radar system of air traffic control on the ground.

Can a plane be too heavy to fly? ›

While not as common an occurrence as overbooking, it does happen. Various factors (including air temperature, elevation, runway length and slope, and obstacles near the runway) can limit how much weight an airplane can safely carry.

What is a group of pilots called? ›

In commercial aviation, the aircrew are called flight crew.

What do you call a pilots nickname? ›

An aviator call sign or aviator callsign is a call sign given to a military pilot, flight officer, and even some enlisted aviators. The call sign is a specialized form of nickname that is used as a substitute for the aviator's given name.

What do pilots call themselves? ›

One will take full responsibility for the flight and be referred to as the Captain. If both pilots are Command Course qualified, one pilot will take responsibility for the flight and will be referred to as 'Commander'.

What does Bingo mean to a pilot? ›

“Bingo” originally means to divert. According to the US Navy, the Bingo profile is when aircraft is in an emergency fuel situation. Pilots calculate the required minimum fuel and give an okay bingo call before departing to fly safely.

Why do pilots say bingo? ›

"Bingo" originated with aircraft carrier operations. "Bingo" actually means to divert. The official US Navy definition of "BINGO" is: "An order to proceed and land at the field specified, utilizing a bingo profile. Aircraft is considered to be in an emergency/fuel critical situation.

Why do pilots say pickle? ›

Pickle. Slang reference by pilots to the release of ordnance (bombs and canisters) over a target, one at a time in close sequence, on one pass. Such a release allowed the ordnance to cover a larger linear area.

What does the Navy call their pilots? ›

A naval aviator is a commissioned officer or warrant officer qualified as a crewed aircraft pilot in the United States Navy or United States Marine Corps.

What is a bob on flights? ›

Do you have codes you use to refer to passengers? Major says when he first started flying two decades ago, flight attendants would sometimes use the code “BOB” AKA “best on board,” to refer to the passenger they deemed most good-looking. “It's just a bit of fun,” he says, adding it's not as commonplace now.

What does deadhead pilot mean? ›


Definition: According to Smith, a pilot or flight attendant who is deadheading onboard a flight is one who is traveling to a destination to be repositioned as part of an on-duty assignment. "This is not the same as commuting to work or engaging in personal travel," he clarified.

Why do pilots always sit on the left? ›

Sitting on the left side of the cockpit, the PIC has a better view of the runway during traffic patterns to the left. The left-turning tendencies caused by P-factor, a symmetrical thrust, spiraling slipstream, and torque make it easier for the airplane to turn to the left rather than the right.

Why do pilots say no joy? ›

A pilot reports "no joy" when an attempt to establish visual or radio contact with another aircraft is unsuccessful; or when an attempt to acquire a target - either visually or on tactical radar - is unsuccessful.

What does 3 lines mean in pilot? ›

Three Stripes indicate that the person is the co-pilot or second in command. They assist the captain through flight planning and updating communication and flight mechanisms. Four Stripes insignia is worn by the captain; the one ultimately in charge of the safety and operations of the flight.

Why do planes do not fly over the Pacific? ›

Because of its vast size, crossing the Pacific Ocean requires a staggering quantity of fuel. However, most commercial aircraft do not fly directly over the Pacific Ocean; instead, they choose what are known as 'curved paths'. These paths offers a faster, more efficient route given the curved nature of the earth.

Do planes have to dump fuel before landing? ›

Is jet fuel going to rain down on me? The good news is that pilots are supposed to dump fuel at a safe height above the ground and away from other aircraft, and in addition, over as remote an area as possible. In the case of Heathrow, for example, most fuel dumps have occurred over the sea.

What is the heaviest thing to fly? ›

The great bustard is probably the heaviest living animal that can fly. The males normally weigh between 10 and 16 kilograms, but some can reach 21 kg. For comparison, the wandering albatross has a larger wingspan, but only the biggest reach even 16 kg.

Why do pilots say Roger? ›

So, in short, "Roger" means "r" which stands for "received." The word "Roger" means nothing more. Taking it a step further, some may know "Roger" as part of the full reply "Roger Wilco." Translated into typical English, that phrase actually means "Received, will comply."

Why do planes squawk 7700? ›

Squawking 7700 in an emergency

The most well know of these is the code 7700. This is used to indicate an emergency of any kind. A pilot will enter this when in an emergency situation - either instructed by ATC after declaring an emergency or without communication if there is no time.

What is the difference between S.O.S. and Mayday? ›

While it has the same meaning as S.O.S. – "Save our Souls" – "Mayday" is more commonly used to convey an emergency verbally. S.O.S. is used less often these days since it was used mostly to indicate an emergency situation when transmitted by Morse code – three dots followed by three dashes and three more dots.

Why do pilots say Bogey? ›

Bogey, according to Eric Partridge's slang dictionary, is Royal Air Force usage from early in World War II meaning ''an aircraft suspected to be hostile. '' American aviators picked it up from the R.A.F. veterans; in 1945, Newsweek used the term to mean ''in radar code, an unidentified enemy aircraft.

What is a ghost flight? ›

A ghost flight has no formal definition but is generally considered to be a flight that operates on less than 10% passenger capacity. With aviation's environmental footprint under close scrutiny, it is understandable that the issue of such flights has been getting attention.

What does squawk 777 mean? ›

It is for if an aircraft is being intercepted by the military, to let ATC know so they can take the appropriate measures. Follow this answer to receive notifications. answered Jul 8, 2022 at 3:38.

What is 0000 squawk code? ›

0000 — A generic code that is not assigned and should not be used. 1200 — VFR aircraft. The default code for all flights–if you aren't asked to set anything else, you should set 1200.

What is Charlie squawk? ›

You may also be asked to “stop squawk mode Charlie”, that is, turn your transponder off Mode C.

Can a 400 pound person fit in an airline seat? ›

Can a 400 pound person fit in an airline seat? There is no legal weight limit for passengers on U.S. commercial flights but some airlines such as Southwest ask customers who cannot fit into one seat to book two. It says if a passenger cannot lower the armrests on one set they must buy another - whatever they weigh.

What airline is best for overweight passengers? ›

The Best Airlines for Plus Size Passengers:
  • Delta Airlines. Delta Airlines is the best airline for plus-sized passengers. ...
  • JetBlue. ...
  • Southwest Airlines. ...
  • United Airlines. ...
  • American Airlines. ...
  • Air Canada. ...
  • Hawaiian Airlines. ...
  • Spirit Airlines.
Dec 23, 2022

Which seat on plane is best for big person? ›

Best seat for larger passengers

Selecting an aisle seat is your best bet as it allows you to lean out into the aisle so you aren't compressing the person next to you. What most people don't realize, Jeff says, is that the aisle armrests actually lift up, making for a much more comfortable ride.

What is a female pilot called? ›

Women have been involved in aviation from the beginnings of both lighter-than air travel and as airplanes, helicopters and space travel were developed. Women pilots are called "aviatrices".

What are pilots in the Marines called? ›

Every journey starts with a first step.

Why do pilots say Fox 2? ›

When you fly one of our Air Combat missions, you will hear “FOX 2, Fight's On” to initiate our canned setups. “FOX 2” is a brevity code used by fighter pilots to declare a weapon's release (sorta like “bomb's away” from WWII).

What are pilots in the Army called? ›

A fighter pilot is a military aviator trained to engage in air-to-air combat, air-to-ground combat and sometimes electronic warfare while in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft.

Why are pilots called ACE? ›

The term 'ace' is generally taken to mean any fighter pilot credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft. Lone aerial combat provided an outlet for acts of personal bravery. The aces were seen as chivalrous heroes engaged in honest and impressive one-to-one fighting.

What is a pilot soldier called? ›

Aviation Officer | goarmy.com.

What do pilots say after landing? ›

Make shortly after landing, once the engine noise has subsided. “Ladies and gentlemen, [Airline Name] welcomes you to [city]. The local time is [time]. For your safety and the safety of those around you, please remain seated with your seat belt fastened and keep the aisle(s) clear until we are parked at the gate.

How do you greet a pilot? ›

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning / afternoon / evening. Welcome on board (flight reference). This is Captain / Co-pilot (your name) speaking and I have some information about our flight.

What is the salary of flight captain? ›

The national average salary for a Pilot Captain is ₹6,28,815 in India.

Why are Jets called heavy? ›

A “heavy” designation means an aircraft has a certified maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 300,000 pounds or greater. This designation helps controllers better alert and space aircraft accordingly that might be more susceptible to the increased wake turbulence created by these heavy aircraft.

What do pilots usually say before takeoff? ›

Most pilots will typically introduce themselves and the cabin crew; state the aircraft type, flight number, and route, and remind passengers of the airline's seatbelt policy. Also, frequently given are the flying time, and the estimated time of arrival.

What is the 1500 rule for pilots? ›

Normally, 1,500 hours of flight time are required before a new pilot can fly commercially, though there is an exception for certain military experience that cuts the requirement in half. The so-called 1,500-hour rule was passed after the fatal Colgan Air crash in February 2009 near Buffalo, New York.

Is a 737 considered heavy? ›

The Boeing 737 can weigh from 132,000lbs/60,000kg to 187,000lbs/85,000kg at takeoff depending on the model, compared to a small Cessna 172 weighing around 2,400lb/1,11kg.

Why do they say how many souls on board? ›

ATC: 4194 Say souls on board. (This is the ATC terminology for asking how many people are in the plane. It is the standard terminology, and when you file any flight plan that's the term for number of people on the plane; but when you hear it said out loud by a controller it's usually a bad sign.

How do pilots greet passengers? ›

“On behalf of the flight crew, we would like to welcome you aboard Easy Airlines flight number 123.” -The term “welcome aboard” is often said by the flight crew to greet passengers when they first board the aircraft. The captain may also say this at the end of the announcement such as “once again, welcome aboard.”

Why do pilots say knock it off? ›

The phrase "knock it off" means to stop the work, listen, then reassess the situation. 2. Odie says that, like fighter pilots, workers have nothing to lose if something goes wrong on the job. 3.


1. How To Talk To Air Traffic Control | ATC Radio Basics for Pilots
(Fly With The Guys)
2. Pilot Sucked Out Of Plane: The Mystery Of British Airways Flight 5390 | Mayday S2 EP1 | Wonder
3. What happens if an aircraft climbs too high?!
(Mentour Pilot)
4. What's the Annual Salary of an Airline Pilot
(74 Gear)
5. WHAT did These Boeing 737 Pilots MISS?!
(Mentour Pilot)
6. Haunting LAST WORDS From Pilots Before They Crashed...
(Destination Tips)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg O'Connell

Last Updated: 02/11/2023

Views: 6429

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (62 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg O'Connell

Birthday: 1992-01-10

Address: Suite 517 2436 Jefferey Pass, Shanitaside, UT 27519

Phone: +2614651609714

Job: Education Developer

Hobby: Cooking, Gambling, Pottery, Shooting, Baseball, Singing, Snowboarding

Introduction: My name is Greg O'Connell, I am a delightful, colorful, talented, kind, lively, modern, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.