Jumpseat: Stuffing Six Hours of Flying into a 15-Minute Bag

An airline glimpse into the strategic decision process.

Jumpseat Heathrow

Jumpseat Heathrow

** A British Airways arrival onto Heathrow's Runway 27R with the London skyline in the background.**

North Atlantic crossings to London have become such a frequent part of my repertoire that the ocean is now marked with a magenta line dotted with large directional arrows that say, "Les, this way!"

Regardless of the routine, each trip has its own unique challenges. A trip this past January was no exception. It was a typical representation of how the mundane en route portion of a flight can compress itself into the very last few minutes. And even when you think you've prepared enough — well, you haven't.

Prior to our evening departure from JFK, a review of the flight plan and maintenance log indicated that our 777-300 was limited to Cat I weather conditions. In other words, the airplane was restricted to the standard ILS weather minimums of a 200-foot ceiling and half-mile visibility. Why? An autoland had not been performed within a 60-day period — an FAA requirement. The requirement is referred to as a flight confidence check. What does this really mean?

In the case of an ILS at Heathrow, we would not be authorized to execute the Cat III approach to a visibility as low as 75 meters — a procedure that requires the use of the autoland system. There is no decision height. In the 777, that translates to three operational autopilots and three isolated electrical systems. The status of our airplane restricted us to a visibility no lower than 550 meters and a decision height of 200 feet agl.

That being said, as long as the weather remained at or above Cat I minimums, we were still allowed the use of the autoland system. Completing and documenting a successful auto-land would reset the 60-day clock.

A review of Heathrow's weather indicated that fog was a possibility for our arrival — a very typical forecast. I sent a free text message via the flight management computer (FMC) to our dispatcher asking for use of her crystal ball. The tongue-in-cheek reply gave it a 60/40 chance of no fog occurring. Her answer referenced the recent weather pattern.

Regardless, we launched skyward from JFK's Runway 22R without trepidation. Because of the tailwinds provided by a winter jet stream, it would take us just under six hours before we entered London's airspace.

As our relief pilot left the cockpit for his rest break, the first officer and I began normal cruise flight activities for a North Atlantic crossing. In the interest of providing accurate information to our passengers via my "welcome aboard" PA, the first agenda item was a printout of current Heathrow weather. Although still VFR, the observation did indicate a slight deterioration from the prior metar. No big deal.

At the completion of my rest break four hours into the flight, I entered the cockpit and joined my frequent relief pilot, JD, while the first officer, Mark, clacked the door behind him to begin the final break of the flight. As our conversation progressed from catching up on our personal lives to the state of the airline, and then to dinner plans for the layover, London weather began a slow, downhill slide. Neighboring Gatwick Airport had become 100 broken and 400 meters. Not good.

With Prestwick, Scotland, and Dublin, Ireland, as the alternates, I chose the latter due to a slightly better forecast — not to mention the beer. I tapped away on my iPad, reviewing Dublin's runway configuration and approach procedure choices.

Meanwhile, we had slowed the airplane to 0.79 Mach due to an arrival curfew of 0600. As with most European airports, Heathrow is noise-sensitive. Touchdowns prior to the curfew time are fined. I wasn't about to break out my MasterCard.

Because of a choppy ride, I had JD request a lower altitude. We were cleared from FL 320 to FL 290, and then soon to FL 140 for a typical crossing restriction at an arrival fix approximately 30 miles southwest of Heathrow.

Glancing at the fuel totalizer, I calculated that we had about 65 minutes available to make oblong circles at the standard holding fix before it would be time to escape toward our alternate. Within a moment or two, the EICAS screen displayed "Comm," indicating we had a message.

Our dispatcher had been keeping an eye on the weather, opting to change the nearest alternate from Dublin to Manchester, England. The message provided the appropriate calculations. I understood the logic but wasn't overjoyed with Manchester's forecast. Dublin would remain an option.

Glancing at the time, JD unsnapped the handset from its cradle in the center console and called Mark in the upper bunk. His break would be over in 10 minutes. In retrospect, had I been more proactive, I would have disturbed Mark a few minutes earlier, but then I didn't anticipate the approaching proverbial fire drill.

I made my final "thanks-for-flying-with-us" PA to our passengers, offering an estimate for our touchdown that assumed the typical couple of turns in the holding pattern. As we awaited Mark's return to the cockpit, I asked JD to retrieve a weather printout for Heathrow, Gatwick, Dublin and Manchester. Heathrow had now deteriorated to a visibility of 450 meters — below minimums. At least we would have time to discuss our options.

While Mark and JD did the seat change shuffle about 30 minutes out from Heathrow, London Control cleared us unexpectedly direct to a fix north of the airport. I acknowledged the clearance, stabbing at the appropriate FMC buttons for both the route change and the anticipated holding procedure.

With Mark reacclimated to his seat, I briefed him on our route change, the weather and our alternate possibilities. Once he tapped to the appropriate page of his iPad, we briefed for the 27L ILS approach — my first misguided assumption.

Five minutes prior to our anticipated hold, Heathrow Approach directed a turn to 120 degrees toward a downwind leg. Uh ... what happened to the hold? We would violate the curfew, and besides, the weather was below Cat I minimums. I instructed Mark to advise ATC of both issues. The response was that the curfew was no longer applicable because low visibility procedures were in effect — a fact buried in a long-forgotten Jepp page.

Well, OK, but the visibility was below our minimums. Nope, not anymore. The RVR was being reported as 1,000 meters with a 100-foot ceiling. And, oh, by the way, the runway will be 27R. The ATIS had stated that a switch to 27L would occur after 0600, but I hadn't anticipated landing prior to that time.

Thinking that I was at least five minutes ahead of the airplane, I was now five minutes behind. In a flurry, I pressed the FMC buttons and selected the ILS procedure for 27R. With Mark literally on the same page, I briefed the approach, this time discussing autoland procedures. Why autoland procedures?

First, the weather was variable and would most likely get worse as the sun began to make an appearance. Second, ego notwithstanding, the airplane would perform better than I would. And third, an autoland was still legal with the current weather.

By the time we were vectored to the base leg, my mind had accelerated back to five minutes ahead of the airplane. With my left hand lightly gripping the control wheel and my right hand resting gently on top of the thrust levers, I monitored the subtle movement of the autopilot and autothrottles.

At 50 feet above decision height, the approach lights twinkled through the gloom. Almost ceremoniously, I slid my finger away from the go-around button on the thrust levers; I had been almost certain we were going to miss the approach.

The airplane remained locked on the 3-degree glideslope rail. Flawlessly, we touched down onto the murky concrete of Heathrow's Runway 27R.

The only task left for me to accomplish was pressing the autopilot disconnect button on the control yoke to regain rudder control for the turn onto the high-speed taxiway. The tower instructed us to simply "follow the greens." I scanned ahead, noting that the green centerline lights of the taxiway led us all the way to our gate. Nice.

Later, as my crew and I climbed aboard the transportation bus parked just below our jet bridge, I noticed the terminal building and the surrounding airplanes were becoming gray silhouettes. The visibility had drastically deteriorated.

We had been fortunate to arrive in a window that allowed us to stuff six hours of flying into a 15-minute bag. Twenty-four-thousand hours and I'm still learning.

Get exclusive online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.

We welcome your comments on flyingmag.com. In order to maintain a respectful environment, we ask that all comments be on-topic, respectful and spam-free. All comments made here are public and may be republished by Flying.