In the short period of time that I have flown the 777, I have learned at least one lesson. The airplane has the ability to climb its way out of turbulence. Even when other airplanes are attempting innovative tactics of flying lower to avoid choppy air, the majority of my experiences have proven that the 777 does better at higher altitudes — because it can. And it can do it better at faster Mach numbers. Mach 0.85 and FL 400 are not uncommon combinations.
When I returned to the cockpit at the completion of my rest break, I expressed my gratitude. With a little more than an hour remaining, we reached our oceanic exit point, slightly west of the southern tip of Ireland. The relief pilot asked if I wanted him to load the hold at the Ockham VOR — a position about 10 miles south of Heathrow airport — into the FMS. Most times, the hold is standard procedure in London’s airspace. On average, the delay is no longer than 15 minutes.
In the States, an EFC (expect further clearance) time is always given with a holding clearance. Oftentimes, an EFC is a cruel joke. A high percentage of airline flights would have to divert to their alternates if the original time were adhered to. An EFC is given for the primary purpose of exiting the hold if radio contact is lost. Interestingly enough, the London controllers do not normally issue an EFC time. I never press the issue. Why? When the British controllers advise the delay time, they are accurate to within one minute, sometimes to the second.
Entering the hold on the FMC or not entering the hold on the FMC is often the question. Against my better judgment, I instructed the relief pilot not to enter. I thought it might send positive vibes. Of course, if you bring an umbrella it won’t rain; if you don’t, well … no surprise. I lost the bet. It wasn’t long before we were told to expect a hold at Ockham VOR.
The three of us began the process of preparing the airplane for our arrival into Heathrow. Approach briefing complete. Descent checklist initiated. Fuel requirement calculated. Execute the hold.
As we drew racetrack patterns in the sky, I peered out the cockpit windows. We weren’t alone. A British Airways 747 circled above. A South African A340 circled below. One by one, flights were released from the holding pattern. We were given clearances to progressively lower altitudes until our turn for approach vectors began.
I glanced at the upper corner of the nav data display as we began a descent from 8,000 feet. The wind vector arrow indicated a southwest direction at a mere 78 knots. Ouch. The approach to Runway 27R would be interesting. The airplane began to buffet as it skipped through invisible speed bumps.