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SoundQs is a series of stories based on listener questions (formerly known as Local Wonder). At KUOW, stories start with your curiosity. So, what do you want our reporters to investigate? Do you have questions about what’s happening in the news? Is there something you’ve always wondered about our region? We’re listening. Send us your SoundQs, and a KUOW journalist may follow up.How to Submit a QuestionUse the form below, email it to us at, or share it on social media and tag @KUOW / #SoundQs.null

Is a plane from Sea-Tac going to crash onto your house?

Nikk Wong lives on North Beacon Hill and wonders if a plane might one day crash on his house.
KUOW Photos / Megan Farmer
Nikk Wong lives on North Beacon Hill and wonders if a plane might one day crash on his house.

Seattleites worry a lot about disasters. Earthquakes, landslides, forest fires (or at least the smoke from them) ...

Then there's the concern that a plane might land on your head.

KUOW listener Nikk Wong looks at all the jets headed in and out of Sea-Tac Airport and wonders: What are the chances they might crash on my house?

“Sometimes I'm going to sleep, and I'm just looking at the planes flying directly over me,” said Wong, who lives on Beacon Hill. “And I mean, these things are like tens of thousands of pounds.” 

So, what are the chances that a plane will actually land on your house, which in Wong's case is right underneath the flight path above Seattle?  

Super low. 

First of all, air traffic controllers don't want a plane to land on your house.  

Last week, when a ground crew worker stole a plane from Sea-Tac, the air traffic controller steered him away from populated areas. 

[asset-audio[{"description": "Sea-Tac air traffic controller gives Richard Russell advice on landing away from populated areas. ", "fid": "146764", "uri": "npraudio://201808/stolen_plane_edit_cut.mp3"}]]And Jawara "Jay" O'Connor, a commercial pilot based in Renton, points out that pilots also want to land safely. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jawara O'Connor, a commercial pilot based in Renton, does not want to land on your house. ", "fid": "146763", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201808/Kuow5.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Jawara O'Connor"}]]And that means never, ever landing on your roof.

In an emergency, O'Connor said there are lots of other options like alternative runways, or even logging roads. As a last resort, there's water.

“If I did [make an emergency landing] I would probably park it in Puget Sound a little closer to the beach — maybe Alki,” O’Connor said.

That's exactly what happened in Seattle back in 2002, when a historic Boeing 307 Stratoliner was forced to make an emergency landing.

The plane had just been restored and was headed on its last flight to the Smithsonian.

"It was running low on gas," said Ted Hutter with the Museum of Flight. “They knew at a certain point, flying into Boeing field, they would not make the airport." 

They had to make a decision.

"But in that short distance between Boeing Field and Elliot bay, there's people, there's houses, there's all sorts of others that could be impacted — literally — by something like that," Hutter said.

The pilot, Richard "Buzz" Nelson, made an emergency landing in the water by Salty's restaurant, and everyone on board survived.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner was the first commercial transport aircraft with a pressurized cabin. ", "fid": "146765", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201808/6283654117_b0217e8e11_o.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Flickr / Daniel Mennerich "}]]

Of course, accidents can and do happen.

Over the years, there have been several fatal crashes on Beacon Hill — Nick Wong's neighborhood.

In 1956, a military plane crashed into an apartment building on the west side of the hill, killing 11 people on the plane and the ground.

A few years later, three people were killed when two light planes collided over the area.

And in 1974, two police officers died when their helicopter plummeted onto Beacon Hill after colliding with a light aircraft. The two people aboard the Cessna also died.

None of those accidents involved Sea-Tac Airport.

But here's an incident that did: On a spring day in 1956, a four-engine Boeing 377 took off from Sea-Tac, suffered a mechanical issue and ditched in Puget Sound near Maury Island. Five of the 38 people on board died. The pilot chose to ditch, believing he couldn't make it back to Sea-Tac or to McChord air base.

Overall, the chance of a plane hitting your house is incredibly low. According to the Port of Seattle, there were over 400,000 takeoffs and landings at Sea-Tac last year and no accidents. 

But Wong wants to know why all these planes are routed over his Beacon Hill house in the first place. Why was Sea-Tac built with runways running north-south, routing planes over highly-populated residential areas?

Actually, when Sea-Tac airport was built back in the 1940s, the runways did not all go north-south. There were also runways running roughly southwest-northeast and northwest to southeast.  

[asset-images[{"caption": "Photo of runways running in different directions in 1948 (the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport officially opened in 1949).", "fid": "146761", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201808/1948-1-shot_cropped.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Port of Seattle"}]]Sea-Tac continued to evolve and expand over the last 70 years.  

[asset-images[{"caption": "Sea-Tac runways in 1982.", "fid": "146762", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201808/1982-1-Shot.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Port of Seattle"}]]

Today, there are three runways at Sea-Tac, and all run roughly north-south. That orientation helps pilots take advantage of wind patterns. 

“The mountains, and in particular the Cascade Mountains, channel the air so it mostly flows either from the south or from the north," said Nick Bond, the state's meteorologist. 

O'Connor said pilots want their planes to face into the wind, because that makes it easier to fly.

"The faster that wind is blowing, the faster the wings create lift, the faster the plane gets off the runway,” O’Connor said.

Facing into the wind also helps pilots during landings. 

At other airports, where the prevailing winds are less predictable, crosswinds can create challenging conditions for pilots during takeoff and landing.

So even though it may seem dangerous to route flights directly over the city, with our prevailing winds, it makes pilots' jobs a little easier — and maybe a little safer. And that's probably a good thing for people on the ground, too.

Year started with KUOW: 2004