Flying Across The Pond

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Eagerness brought me to Miami Operations an hour prior to my scheduled sign-in time. After almost 22 years with the airline, I was doing something new. I wanted a non-rushed opportunity to review material that I was not completely comfortable with. My trip was to the Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport in Paris. I was flying across "The Pond." Prior to my line operating experience (LOE) with the check airman the week before, I had flown to Paris only twice, and that was 19 years prior. At that time I was a shiny new copilot on the 767. I had been with the company barely three years. Because I had made a wrong entry on the bid sheet, I was awarded an international flying line by mistake. I attended international training with all the enthusiasm of a high school senior on the last day of Math class. International flying, especially to Europe, seemed intimidating to me back then. And after having had experience with night freight operations in a previous life, the body clock hours made it seem as though I would be stepping backward. I persevered nonetheless, and managed to enjoy myself until I reclaimed a domestic position the following month.

Since that time, I have flown internationally as both a 727 captain and a 767/757 captain. Because of seniority and personal preference, my primary trips were to Latin America and the Caribbean, but never to Europe. Today would be different.

I walked over to the Operations desk and picked up the flight documents folder and the North Atlantic Jeppesen binder. The Miami base had instituted a relatively new perk. Pilots flying across the pond can check out the North Atlantic charts and approach plates almost like it's done at the local library. The revisions are completed by Operations staff. Since we are responsible for flying to the Caribbean, Latin America, South America and Europe, one less Jepp binder in the flight bag is a welcome relief. Our airline is still in the research stage of an electronic flight bag.

I perused the flight documents folder. Although the actual flight plan was not available because of my early arrival, the forecasted weather and the designated North Atlantic tracks were inside the folder.

My first order of business was to familiarize myself with the names of the airports that could become diversions in case of an emergency. The four-letter ICAO identifiers were still Greek to me. It would be bad form to begin a diversion to, let's say, LPLA because of an engine fire and not know that I was taking the airplane to Lajes Airport in the Azores, a territory of Portugal.

My second order of business was to review the overall arrival into CDG. Having paid only moderate attention during geography class, a quick study of the area chart and the arrival structure refreshed my memory.

With the review complete, I trotted over to the nearest computer and entered the code to print out the flight plan data. When the printer ceased its clatter, I retrieved the paperwork and walked into the international area of Operations. It felt as though I was a new member of an old club. Surely, somebody would ask me for the secret handshake … .

There is nothing special about the international area other than a large counter top that is available to plot courses and shuffle an abundance of paper. I was soon joined by my copilot, Mark Kenny. We had flown together years earlier and had become reacquainted on the employee bus. I informed him that I was new to Europe flying. It was my first trip without supervision and I might need some minor hand holding. Mark is an affable guy. He was happy to oblige.

I began to orient myself with the course across the Atlantic that the dispatcher had filed on the flight plan. We were on a random track that took us north of Bermuda and into Paris by way of southern France.

The track system is an intricate ballet of specific latitude and longitude points across the North Atlantic that is crafted each day to flow hundreds of airplanes into and out of Europe. The daily engineers of the tracks factor in winds, weather and destinations. Each track has specific coordinates defined in that day's track message. The tracks are all designated with a letter-X, Y and Z being the southernmost routes.

Our track was random, which meant that a letter wasn't defining our coordinates. Instead, we would have to use the coordinates printed on our flight plan. Weather and traffic are often the reasons for a random track.

The flight documents folder contains a "To Do" checklist on the outside cover. Considering all the squares that need to be filled before we even leave the ground, and the fact that I am still operating in unfamiliar territory, I literally began to fill in the squares.

After I checked off all the items that we could complete before we stepped into the cockpit, Mark and I collected our bags and began our trek to the airplane.

We were greeted by the Purser who, like most flight attendants senior enough to be flying to Europe, ran her cabin like a battleship heading out to sea. Despite the brusque manner, I knew I could depend on her if anything hit the fan.

As Mark and I plopped our bags into the cockpit, we introduced ourselves to Jess the relief crewmember, also known as the FB. Jess was in the left seat, setting up the cockpit. Having a third crewmember is one of the perks to international flying. Not only is the FB a valuable asset to the crew in terms of sharing some of the workload, but he or she is the reason I find long haul flying palatable. Why?

A flight scheduled for over eight hours of flying time is manned with an extra crewmember. The extra crewmember is qualified in both the right seat and the left seat. He or she relieves the captain or the copilot. We divide the rest breaks equally among the three of us, with everybody present in the cockpit during the takeoff and approach phase. The rest breaks work out to be about two and a half to three hours for each of us, depending upon the flight time.

The Europe trips on the 767 in Miami depart between 1800 and 1830 local time. By custom, the extra crewmember takes the first break. That means that the remaining breaks come at a time when my body is ready for rest, especially if I stick to my normal routine of waking up at around 0700 at home. We are provided a first class seat for this rest break. For the most part, I have no problems napping. After a quick splash of cold water on the face, I arrive back in the cockpit relatively refreshed. The trip from Europe back to the U.S. departs at a very early body time hour. I don't find it difficult to nap by the time it's my turn for a break, even though the westbound leg is a daytime operation.

I arrive home less fatigued than I would after a domestic transcon. My head is ready to hit my own pillow at normal bedtime hour. The following day, I am back to a regular routine.

Although I enjoy the challenge of multiple takeoffs and landings more than long haul flying, my Europe schedule has its advantages. I work two less days a month compared to the domestic trips that I had flown when I was based in New York. Because of international pay and longer flight times per trip, I am earning more and working less. I like the math. And my current seniority is allowing me this opportunity (at least for now ... ), where it hadn't back in my earlier 767 captain days.

After Mark and I organized our respective sides of the cockpit, we began the process of verifying our route. This process is repeated in various procedural forms all the way across the pond. Why? Collision avoidance is the short answer. Believe it or not in this day and age of computer technology, the North Atlantic is a non-radar environment. With hundreds of airplanes operating within the track system in Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums (RVSM) airspace, everybody has to be on the same page. Being on the same page means flying the assigned track at the assigned altitude at the assigned airspeed. With no radar available, crews are required to transmit positions at regular intervals utilizing established protocols. With some exceptions for those airplanes equipped with automatic updating capability, the transmissions are all done on HF radios.

Ancestor worship? Well ... yeah, especially when most of us are equipped with SatCom. But nobody can argue with the fact that the system still works. Although one does wonder how well the system works, when it takes 15 minutes to finally broadcast a required position report in the middle of the night because of frequency congestion, notwithstanding the fact that reception on HF radios is more of an art than a science. And throw in a foreign accent for good measure.

I know that most of the oceanic control stations have updated their equipment from grease pencils on a Plexiglas board to computers, but until somebody convinces me otherwise, I still believe that the voice at the other end of the radio has an assistant that is standing at the side of a crusty, green box rotating a crank handle. With my signature affixed to about 100 documents and forms, and the before starting engines checklist completed, the gate agent closes the forward entry door. We are pushed back on schedule and begin our taxi to Miami's Runway 8 Right. With a near full passenger load of over 200 people and fuel, the airplane weighs in just below 400,000 pounds.

The takeoff performance reflects the heavy weight. Rather than rocketing skyward, the 767 seems to wallow in the climb despite the effort of two GE engines at 61,000 pounds of thrust. It's okay. Rather than flying like a nimble Corvette, the airplane is flying like a comfortable, old Cadillac.

Less than a half hour into the flight, we are level at cruise altitude. Our FB has left the cockpit for his rest break, leaving Mark and I with the calculated times for the last two breaks. We receive our oceanic clearance in Bermuda's airspace with New York Center. After verifying once again that the flight plan is in agreement with the clearance, and the clearance is in agreement with the coordinates loaded into the flight management computer (FMC), we are on our way to Paris.

Mark and I catch up on a few years, and before I know it Jess is back in the cockpit. It's my turn for a rest break. My watch reads almost 2200 Miami time.

It requires a certain level of trust in order to leave the cockpit in charge of two other pilots, otherwise I would sleep with one eye open. My only requirement is that they know the closest place to go if anything hits the fan. The FARs require that for extended twin operations (ETOPS) in a 767, 180 minutes is the maximum in point of time that the airplane can be away from an alternate airport. Three hours can be an awfully long wait to contemplate your existence when the airplane has an engine fire that won't extinguish. Even though the dispatcher has already calculated the legal alternates, closer ones may be available. My airline encourages this thought process, as it should. The North Atlantic is a lonely place in the middle of February (or any time of year for that matter). Despite our training, ditching is not a maneuver I want to perform in my lifetime.

I leave the cockpit with the instruction of not to wake me up until the airplane actually touches down in Keflavick, Iceland, one of our alternates. The guys grin, knowing that I am being tongue-in-cheek. They will have me up at the first sign of trouble.

The hours pass. I return to the cockpit rested. Mark takes his break. The tangerine glow of the sun begins to make an appearance on the dark blue horizon. Mark returns. We begin our descent. I decipher most of the French controllers' heavily accented instructions in English, only asking the other two guys for an occasional translation. My ears haven't quite acclimated to the sounds. We land. I make one of my better touchdowns.

Other than following what seems to be an overly difficult set of taxiway instructions and signage, we arrive at the remote parking area without incident. I set the brakes. My watch reads about 0330 Miami time, 0930 Paris time. The crew bus waits for us by the nose of the airplane. Nine flight attendants and the three of us from the cockpit shuffle down the steep mobile stairs after all the passengers have deplaned and we have exchanged our greetings with the ground crew. We hand our bags to the driver and climb aboard the bus. Our eyes are a little droopy. Our beard lines are a little darker.

The arrival at the hotel 30 minutes later is met with the standard smile and "Bonjour" from the staff. We wait the standard 15 minutes for our rooms to be declared ready for occupation. When the key cards are distributed, we trot to the elevator. I suggest a meeting downstairs at 1430. Mark agrees. Jess has other plans.

In the afternoon, Mark and I begin a journey that takes us down to the Seine, around Notre Dame, past the Louvre and around most of Paris. When our feet finally tire of the walk, it is time for dinner. We return to the hotel mildly exhausted and slightly frozen. My head hits the pillow at around 2200. Our trip home to the States will begin from the hotel at 0930 Paris time the next day.

As the airplane launches into the sky from CDG with Mark at the controls, I smile. I have joined a new club. So far, the initiation hasn't been too bad. I just might get used to the pond ...