Jumpseat: Assaulted by an A380
As we passed our first waypoint of 20 degrees longitude westbound over the North Atlantic, my copilot and I studied the TCAS symbol on the navigation display. Another airplane was approaching us from behind at the 5 o’clock position. Our 777 was cruising at FL 390. The other airplane was 1,000 feet below at FL 380. Within minutes, the anonymous jet appeared in view from the copilot’s side window.
“Great photo op, Boss,” my copilot announced as he stared outside.
“Who is it?” I inquired.
“Air France. It’s an A380.”
“Just happen to have my camera available,” I remarked.
I unbuckled, rose from my seat and retrieved the Nikon from my laptop bag. Taking a step toward the copilot’s window, I took in the view. Yup, it was definitely a Kodak moment. The A380 was gliding by at a speed of Mach .85, .02 Mach faster than us. I considered pushing the thrust levers up and matching the speed for pure gamesmanship, but burning more fuel didn’t make sense just for entertainment purposes.
As my camera clicked away, I made a subjective observation. The A380 has a majestic quality in flight. On the ground, the airplane has no sex appeal. I’m sorry, but a Beluga whale pregnant with twins is more attractive.
Once my marginal attempts at photography were complete, I retreated back to the left seat with the Nikon. A quick scan of my pictures revealed I’d managed to capture a few decent shots — cool.
Proud of my accomplishment, I keyed the mic on the air-to-air frequency and hailed the Air France flight. When the captain responded, I offered to e-mail the photos. He was appreciative. We exchanged a few more pleasantries and some A380 trivia. Unfortunately, we would have another exchange, but through no deliberate fault of Air France, this encounter wasn’t as pleasant.
It is accepted fact that most international airline war stories begin with, “When the captain was on break ...” This short story is no exception.
A few hours later, my bladder and caffeine levels were at polar opposites. I excused myself and exited the cockpit. After my lavatory visit, the next order of business was a cup of java. I trotted into the first-class galley. As I began to pour, the airplane experienced a rapid succession of intense turbulence. We began a pronounced roll to the left. The very pleasant and seasoned flight attendant I had engaged in conversation grabbed the nearest stationary piece of galley equipment for support. Her smile was replaced by a wide-eyed expression.
The seatbelt sign soon illuminated. Within moments, the intercom phone chimed. The flight attendant reached for the handset. My copilot was calling. He was commanding all flight attendants to be seated. Imagine that.
By the sharpness of the bumps and the definitive bank of the airplane, I had a good idea that we had not encountered your garden-variety clear-air turbulence. I stumbled my way to the interphone and called my copilot, indicating an urgent desire to return to the cockpit.
I hopped back into the left seat only to be greeted by another bout of turbulence. Suspecting foul play, I glanced at the traffic symbol on the TCAS display. Sure enough, another airplane cruised directly ahead of us at FL 400. I immediately pushed the heading select button on the eyebrow of the glareshield and turned us 30 degrees to the right.
In spectacular fashion, I watched as a wispy spiraling circle rocketed back toward us. It was a wingtip vortex. Never in my career had I actually seen one in its entirety at cruise altitude. The vortex once again appeared, buffeting the airplane. I instructed my copilot to ask Gander Center for an immediate altitude change to FL 400. I pressed the vertical-speed button on the glareshield eyebrow and rotated the dial to a 500 fpm rate of climb. I wasn’t going to wait for the next encounter. Within moments, another wispy spiral sped its way back toward our position. Only this time, we missed its wrath.
Our clearance request was granted without delay. I continued our climb, selecting the more efficient VNAV mode. Utilizing heading mode, I corrected our slight deviation away from the course line until LNAV re-engaged. Once level, through the observation process of the TCAS and radio chatter, we determined that our friends at Air France had cut my coffee break short. They had climbed above us at some point down the road.