As we climbed toward our cruise altitude of FL 330, I asked my copilot for a printout of the weather at London’s Heathrow airport, our destination. I wanted a current report for my announcement to our passengers. We had just departed JFK.
Even at 0530 local London time, the metar indicated that a strong wind condition existed from the southwest. Our relief pilot, who had been to the United Kingdom on a recent trip, said the same weather pattern had prevailed over the last several days. Because of a cold front that was approaching the U.K., I would discover that the windy conditions would intensify.
Prior to departure, I had discussed our flight plan with the dispatcher. According to my view of the WSI weather picture, the filed track across the North Atlantic put us on a collision course with an area of turbulence defined by a semioblong blob on the upper-level flight plan guidance chart. The area seemed to indicate that an altitude higher than FL 330 would be a better ride. And a more northern track would avoid the area almost entirely.
I realized that the dispatcher had a dilemma. The wind charts displayed much more favorable tailwind values on the southern tracks. In this day and age, weighing the risk of a potentially uncomfortable ride versus fuel efficiency is a common consideration. But I was still confused about the lower altitude selection. Dispatchers primarily focus on the business of flight planning. They tend to have a more accurate vision of the road ahead. I very often acquiesce to their logic.
As predicted, our dispatcher had sound reasoning. Reports of earlier flights indicated that the lower altitudes were smoother. Regardless, the dispatcher was willing to amend the filed track to more northern latitudes and a higher altitude because of my concerns. Knowing that the airplane was capable
of climbing because of relatively light fuel loads, I could always request higher flight levels once on the route. I elected to stick with the original plan.
Nearing two hours and 15 minutes elapsed flight time, we approached my rest break period. The final instruction for my two copilots before I left the pointy end was to not interrupt my nap in the bunk with a bumpy ride. They grinned and nodded. I would find out later that they took my tongue-in-cheek request with more seriousness than it rightfully deserved.
I had closed my eyes for only a few minutes when the airplane began a semirhythmic shake. The turbulence began to intensify. I kept my eyes closed, attempting to ignore the annoying movement. A few minutes passed and then I felt my ears begin to pop. I smiled. My copilots were climbing the airplane away from FL 330. As a matter of fact, they had decided that FL 400 had the best chance of solving all of the turbulence problems. It did.