Jumpseat: Iceland? Checked

An in-flight emergency triggers a welcome diversion.

North Atlantic Chart

North Atlantic Chart

** A North Atlantic plotting chart shows diversion
and route from KEF to JFK.**

We had departed London and just passed 30 degrees west longitude, slightly less than halfway across the ocean. The flight attendant chime sounded in the cockpit accompanied by the engine instrument and crew alerting system message “cabin call.” I put the interphone handset to my ear.

“Les, it’s Liz. We have a woman in coach that we believe is having a heart attack.”

Liz was the purser, the lead flight attendant.

After a momentary pause, I responded, “Has a physician been requested?”

“Yes, he’s treating her now.”

I visualized the doctor pulling the pads out from the case of the onboard automated external defibrillator and applying it to the passenger.

Reaching forward with an index finger, I pressed the “alternate” page of the FMC (flight management computer). A list of four-letter identifiers for the nearest alternate airports was displayed. Peering at the instrument panel clock, I made a quick calculation.

“Our best alternate is one hour and 20 minutes away. Keep me advised, Liz.”

“Will do,” she said with the calm of a 911 operator.

After flying across the North Atlantic for almost 15 years without incident, I was about to break my winning streak.

As per protocol, we had been proactive in monitoring potential alternate airport options. Relative to our position, two airports on the list were suitable in terms of distance and acceptable weather conditions: Gander, Newfoundland, and Keflavik, Iceland. If Gander became the choice, the current track westbound could be maintained with only a minor correction once we neared the Canadian coastline. Keflavik would require a turn of more than 90 degrees off the current track, but it was nearest in point of time.

I looked at my copilot, Deane, and said, “Via the CPDLC (controller pilot data link communications), send a free text message to Gander Radio that we have a medical emergency on board and that we may be requesting direct to Keflavik.”

Deane nodded with a sheepish grin. I understood the hesitant expression. It is anecdotally typical that, when an emergency event occurs, one crew member has just completed his initial operating experience flight with a check airman on the trip prior. This was the case for Deane. Although he had demonstrated great aptitude for a pilot new to the 777, some understandable awkwardness with the airplane’s electronic nuances remained. I guided him through the steps that would allow him to complete the task I had requested.

Liz had been providing me with updates on the passenger’s status. Initially, the 77-year-old woman was unresponsive and ashen. Although the AED was never utilized, she had been laid prone in the aisle. As time progressed, the woman became more lucid and was moved to the first-class cabin. Her pallor, however, remained the same. Further inquiries to her accompanying husband indicated that she had suffered similar symptoms the day prior.

When Deane completed the airborne text message, I instructed him to contact our dispatcher via satcom. It was time to involve the physician on call.

Soon after the warble of the satcom ring filled the cockpit speakers, our dispatcher answered. Deane explained the situation. The physician on call was conferenced in and briefed. The tone of the physician’s analysis indicated that our medical problem might not be dire. This analysis conflicted with that of the onboard doctor.

I took a deep breath and sighed inwardly. It was time to put on the proverbial captain’s hat. I looked at my copilot, shook my head, unsnapped the intercom handset from its cradle and pressed the code that would chime the first-class cabin. Liz answered almost immediately. I explained that I needed the doctor’s final recommendation. The doctor was emphatic. Land the airplane.

I nodded at Deane. He conveyed the information. Although the dispatcher wanted us to consider Gander, if time was of the essence then Keflavik was the only option. We were about to fly 201 passengers and 11 flight attendants to a destination where none had probably ever been — including Deane and I.
I visualized the off-track contingency procedure. We had been cruising at FL 390. Other traffic on the North Atlantic tracks was vertically separated, both north and south of our position, by 1,000 feet. The contingency procedure allowed for a descent 500 feet below our current altitude in order to cross the tracks without conflict.

I reached behind me to the aft jumpseat and retrieved the oceanic track message from the international folder. The message indicated that the northernmost track was at 59 degrees latitude. With Keflavik at 64 degrees north, we would have sufficient distance to initiate a descent. Although an alternative procedure was to make a 180-degree turn and parallel our current track eastbound at a distance of 15 miles while descending below FL 285 (the bottom of the entire track system), my vote was to proceed direct. Besides, why burn fuel unnecessarily at the lower altitudes?

Reaching over to the altitude-select window, I twisted the set knob to FL 385. A push of the knob began the short downhill ride from FL 390. My next button push was on the FMC “alternate” page. I selected BIKF (Keflavik). My finger poised over the line select key for a brief moment and then I pushed “divert now.” The airplane banked gently to the right.

With my headset in place, I selected the transmit button for 121.5 and keyed the mic switch.

“All aircraft on guard frequency, this is Flight 123. We are on track Delta at position 33 degrees west. We are a Boeing triple seven with a medical emergency on board, descending to flight level three-eight-five. Proceeding direct Keflavik.”

The radio was silent for a moment as though a storm was about to pass. I knew exactly what was occurring in other airplanes. Crew members were abruptly ending their cockpit banter. Pilots were leaning forward in their seats and verifying their position.

Within seconds, the frequency became a blur of voices, all wanting to assist. Although I appreciated the well-intentioned efforts, the volunteer spirit was creating a distraction for the task at hand. The task at hand was to communicate effectively with the appropriate oceanic ATC facilities … notwithstanding the priorities of flying and navigating.

In addition to other concerns, our passengers became immediately aware of our course change. An untypical turn is noticeable to most, but in the 777 it is also confirmed electronically through the cabin flight-tracking map displays. In the midst of our hectic pace, our customers had to be informed via a public address.

Although brevity was my goal, the message had to be conveyed concisely using my best captain’s voice.

Through various means of CPDLC messages, high frequencies and VHFs, we obtained the required clearances.

En route, the dispatcher monitored the weather situation and kept us updated. A severe-turbulence forecast area was added to the mix. Although I opted to begin an earlier-than-planned descent to avoid the reported turbulence altitudes, the most current information indicated that the turbulence would not affect our route.

Time compressed. Soon, the rocky southern coastline of Iceland appeared through the dingy gray of an overcast sky. Peering through the windscreen, I wished for a few extra moments to sightsee. Although the view was darkening because of the approaching sunset, it was postcard spectacular.

Except for the typical gusty-crosswind conditions, our touchdown was uneventful. We parked at a specially designated gate. The paramedics were on board within seconds. I took a brief moment to speak with our ill passenger, wishing her well. Her appearance was not a picture of health. Our divert decision was well advised. Unfortunately, privacy restrictions prevent us from obtaining direct information concerning our passengers.

The team of contracted agents and mechanics treated our arrival almost as if we were a scheduled flight. Our sole purpose was to depart as soon as possible toward our original destination of JFK. Flight plan paperwork was received, bags removed and maintenance inspections completed. Fueling, well, only a slight problem.

The fueler insisted on knowing how the bill was going to be paid. I indicated that my debit card wasn’t an option. When his monotone expression remained unchanged, I thought it best to call our dispatcher via the satcom to discuss the logistics. Problem eventually solved.

Although I chided Deane to consider using the onboard survival suit for the walk-around inspection, he declined. That being said, he was grateful to a mechanic who offered his winter jacket.

Reviewing our company manual, I checked for “i’s dotted and t’s crossed.” Satisfied, we began the process of departing.

Just prior to our takeoff from Keflavik, I keyed the mic and made an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your understanding today. We are number one for takeoff.”

I glanced out the windscreen and surveyed the black desolation of the airport. “As a matter of fact, we are the only one for takeoff.”

We rocketed into the Northern sky without hesitation. I had given Deane the leg home to JFK, compelling him to complete the mission more successfully than I had.

Despite the long day, I smiled inwardly. Who else gets the opportunity to visit Iceland for 55 minutes with a borrowed 777? Way cool.