Published in December 2014 issue

By Alan Carter

I would imagine that, to many, the first part of this title will be a wee bit obscure, unless, of course, you are familiar with detoxing, Chinese restaurant menus and cultural geography!

I thought that, after writing about my adventures into the Middle East and “Out of Africa” (Airways, June/July/September 2014), I would spin around and look at a recent trip of mine from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Guangzhou, China. I studied the notes which I had made while piloting in the opposite direction two days previously in my fabulous Boeing 747-400.

Well, back to the beginning of the journey, when I was about to depart from Saudi Arabia. First, the flight briefing had to be completed with my Turkish dispatcher and co-pilot in our compound’s gym — yes, gym, don’t ask; long story! Anyway, with all the paperwork checked, it was time to jump into our crew bus and head off for a short, 30-minute jaunt to Jeddah’s airport.

Having arrived at the airport, we filled our tanks up as much as possible, so we would be landing with around 170,000 pounds of fuel and no payload. I have said before that one of the most useless items in aviation is fuel in the bowser, but I would like to add that this is especially true when operating cargo flights, where the prospect of a fire is a real, real worry of mine.

To digress, one of my own personal concerns is the carriage of lithium batteries on my flights—aircraft have crashed and people have died, allegedly, when these have caught fire. I like to know exactly where these items are on board my aircraft, and then I also try to find out how long they have been left outside on the ramp soaking up the sunshine. You see, when these batteries overheat and catch fire, they are virtually impossible to put out with our fire protection systems and procedures—spraying with water just upsets them and makes the fire worse due to the resultant chemical reaction, which causes oxygen to be generated and so, literally, add fuel to the fire.

So, lithium batteries are not nice, not nice at all, but, unfortunately, these ticking time bombs are in everything. I have read of mobile phones catching fire on children’s beds, laptop computers combusting in aircraft cabins— with a little thought and knowledge, these could be turned into the next weapons of mass destruction very easily, too easily. As a “Freight Dog,” I tend to carry things which are made to go “bang” in the night—or in the day, for that matter—though I‘ve never heard of a tube of toothpaste doing so!

Well, as I was saying, that recent day in Jeddah, our cargo holds were empty and our tanks almost full, and I was looking forward to a nice flight to China, followed by a stay in a fabulous hotel.

On arriving at our aircraft, once again all was ready for us and we should have been able to pushback and start engines in a half hour. As an aside, with a good cockpit crew, it is posible to arrive at a “dead” aircraft and start engines in fifteen minutes; legally, professionally and safely. The Boeing 747-400 is such an easy aircraft to manage, but as with all lovely ladies of a certain age, treat them well or they will kick you in the backside!

As we pushed back, a message popped up on our EICAS (Engine Indicating Crew Alert System) warning of a problem with one of our air conditioning packs; this was odd as we had actually switched it off. These machines supply conditioned air to the aircraft cabin and, if there is a failure in their main valve, then—as I have been told by those wiser than me—it fails in the open position, which is the most ideal scenario when airborne, obviously. However, as we had not yet departed, we needed to scratch our heads about this, especially as these packs are located underneath our center fuel tank and I really would have liked to have been able to switch them off if they were to overheat!

So, a conversation with Air Traffic Control ensued. Here at Jeddah, these occasionally turn into comedy sketches worthy of Monty Python. Take, for example, my previous flight. Upon arriving in the vicinity of the parking area after flying in from Nairobi, our ramp was not clear and there were still freight pallets scattered around, making for obstacles in our path. While advising ATC about this, and as we had another aircraft waiting behind us, we came up with some suggestions. This turned into an immediate farce, with ATC insisting that they make the suggestions, shouting over the radio, “I am controlling—not you!” (which surprised me, as nothing good was happening as a result of their control!)

Today, though, with little fuss, we were cleared to pull back onto stand so that our technicians could have a look at us. After a shortish delay and the correct engineering work having been completed, we pushed back, started our four Pratt & Witney engines and commenced the ten-minute taxi journey to the holding point of Runway 34L.

Our taxi routing took us past a row of parked executive aircraft, not just Cessnas or Gulfstreams—those are poor people’s toys here in the Middle East. These were shiny Boeing 737 BBJs, Airbus A320s and even a very sexy-looking Boeing 747-400. However, there was also a sand-covered Boeing 727, the owner of which must have forgotten about when upgrading!

Clearance to depart was given to us and off we went—730,000 pounds of airliner powered by over 200,000 pounds of thrust accelerating from zero to 300 kph (sounds more impressive than 190 mph or 165 kts!) in just over a minute!

Once airborne, we first paralleled the eastern shore of the Red Sea, passing by our compound. We were shortly cleared by Jeddah Radar to our initial fix of OBROD, 25 Nautical Miles (NM) northeast of the airport and, according to my map, heading towards “Pump Station Number 9”—only in Saudi Arabia could you find an airport/ heliport with that kind of designation!

Heading further eastwards, routing to the south of the capital city of Riyadh, I was amazed at the size and ferocity of the thunderstorm loitering over the city. The lightning created a vista akin to a firestorm and I was sure that the rain must have been lashing down in almost biblical proportions—a comment I would keep to myself, though it was a sign of things to come.

The edge of my radar, which was set to a range of 80 NM, started to turn green, then yellow and then yellow with red spots. With the antenna tilted 1.5 degrees down, this image started marching down my radar display, signaling to me that these were storm clouds and not returns from ground features. “Best finish my coffee now,” I thought, having only one shirt with me.

Contacting Abu Dhabi ATC soon expanded our picture of what to expect; aircraft were calling out everywhere saying that they were deviating left of track or right of track. It seemed that the whole of the United Arab Emirates was being bombarded by huge thunderstorms. These stretched for nearly 200 NM and, with a storm area almost 50 NM wide in parts; this was going to be fun! It appeared that everyone was heading for the same gaps, funneling into them like sand dropping through the center of an hourglass.

ATC were doing an absolutely brilliant job; only the pilots sounded stressed! After deviating to the south of our track by almost 40 NM, there was “our” gap. Turning left by about 30 degrees, we slipped between these meteorological monsters with only a modicum of turbulence and the way ahead was clear; however, it was almost 30 minutes of very intense concentration. This was very annoying as my meal, my first meal, was ready and getting cold.

Thunderstorms in the Middle East can be extremely vicious; one colleague of mine flew below the anvil of one of these beasts and hit hail that was falling out. His forward Windows were shattered—fortunately just the outer pane—and his radome was turned into a marshmallow-type of substance after being intensely pummeled. The radio aerials atop the fuselaje were destroyed and the forward edge of the wing looked like it had been given a good thrashing by a huge baseball bat. All this took less than 30 seconds, but time temporarily seemed to stand still, he had said.

Well, now that we had passed Muscat in Oman—the hottest capital city in the world, I read somewhere—and were heading in the right direction, we joined the route, which was depicted, on our Operational Flight Plan, known as the OFP. With the Arabian Sea disappearing below us at over 550 kts, it was time to eat, so I did!

Landfall would occur next over western Pakistan, by Karachi. With the vicious weather behind us, the night turned black. I rotated my head like an excited owl in search of the moon. I swear the moon disappeared, or Mr. Putin had claimed it and hidden it somewhere; I’d not seen it for weeks!

Suddenly, the radio chatter sounded for a few minutes like I had fallen into a scene from the film Top Gun, as various American military aircraft with call signs that only their military could come up with—such as “Six-pack” and “Cobra”—advised that they were “Going Tactical,” which I imagine would not have meant good news to some folks on the ground in Afghanistan.

I have flown into most of the major Afghan airfields and they are welcome to them. The one which I disliked the most was Mazar-e Sharif, which advertised that the unpaved areas were mined and that, after landing, four-engine aircraft had to shut down their outboard engines so as to avoid ingesting any mines. I have seen what a large bird can do to an engine; I shuddered at the thought of what a mine would do! On my return, I calmly advised my company of the lunacy of flying into there in a Boeing 747, and said that any kind invitations sent to myself to revisit would be politely declined—so I ended up going to Kandahar! You can never win in this game. Management and schedulers would show the best Las Vegas póker players a thing or too; being able to smile and do one thing while appearing to do the polar opposite seems a pre-requisite for those positions. I should know, I was in management! But I was a rubbish poker player, so I did not last too long!

Passing by Ahmedabad in India, the notion of curry entered my head and, with just over five hours of my flight to go, my thoughts once again turned to food. Well, we were heading towards an airport called Bhopal Raja Bhoj in the State of Madhya Pradesh and, I am sorry, but to me that sounded like a vegetarian side dish!

That is often the problem with operating long-haul flights, boredom often prevails and you need a strong sense of discipline to keep a professional attitude and not allow nonchalance and fatigue to creep in—so you just eat more; that is my excuse anyway!

Continuing across Northern India and flying over the city of Ranchi, a onceimportant post for the old British Raj and a name which would be ideal for my next spaniel puppy, the turbulence started to increase. There were no clouds around; it was what is known as CAT, Clear Air Turbulence, and not detectable by our weather radar systems.

We do have what are known as shear values on our OFPs, which are an indicator of potential wind shear events. These are vertical wind shear values in meters per second per thousand feet at the indicated position. Stay with me; the shear value is determined by quantifying the difference in wind speed and direction for the wind 2,000 feet above and 2,000 feet below the planned altitude at that position—does that make sense? The value assigned to our position was 15, associated with a 109-knot wind at 37,000 feet, very high in my opinion.

It was not long before the surface of my coffee cup resembled one which surfer Mick Fanning would find a challenge; I had never seen white caps in cups before! While I still had control over my eyeballs, we requested descent to 31,000 feet, where we found smooth air and a nice ride.

I mentioned control of my eyeballs because, on one occasion, when flying into Madeira’s infamous Funchal airport in a Boeing 727, the turbulence was so bad on the approach that I could no longer read any of the old-fashioned instruments. My captain wasn’t fazed; he just continued to suck on his pipe, flying by the rather considerable seat of his pants. He was a fabulous character who walked with a stick, which I am sure “intrigued” his passengers! But he had probably forgotten more about aviation than I would ever know.

Back to India and leaving the obvious smog suffocating city of Calcutta in our wake and hurtling ever eastwards towards the soon-rising sun at a groundspeed of over 1,100 kph—beat that, Mr. Clarkson, in your Bugatti Veyron—Indian ATC advised us that no turbulence was reported at the higher altitudes. So, to improve our fuel economy, we climbed back up to 37,000 feet— why-oh-why did we ever believe him?

To the north of us, our charts indicated that the tropopause lurked around 35,000 feet and the mother of all storms had burst through and into the troposphere. Dhaka, in Bangladesh, was receiving a real lashing akin to that of Riyadh some four hours earlier. I swear I saw a rare atmospheric event, a sprite, or lightning which extends upwards and out of a thunderstorm. It was a display not unlike those produced by my old school’s Van-Der-Graaf machine; that is, if my memory serves me well from my brief period of time studying science!

Just north of Mandalay, we entered Myanmar (or Burma— you choose) airspace. I couldn’t see a road leading to it though, but had a Eureka moment instead—I saw a moon identical to that designed by Mr. Spielberg, although I couldn’t see a little boy fishing from it, a shame, really, as he could have caught Venus which was slowly rising below it.

It would shortly be time to enter Chinese airspace and, even with a 100-kt tailwind, our ride was smooth again and the surfing championships on top of my coffee were called off. Now we would throw away the good old Imperial measurements of feet and miles and instead orientate ourselves to fly vertically in meters, horizontally in kilometers, and expect wind speeds to be given in meters per second. The Chinese have really embraced the metric system!

So, clearance was given to us to enter Chinese airspace at 11,300 meters, which means climbing from our current altitude of 37,000 feet all the way up to 37,100 feet—well, it kept us occupied for a full fifteen seconds.

Our Chinese controller had the sweetest voice as she asked us, in a tone that would have been impossible to refuse, to offset our track by 3 NM to the right, as there was no radar here at the moment. This was a simple task, which could be entered directly into our Flight Management Computer and handled by the auto-flight system.

There are other factors that need to be considered when flying in Chinese airspace. One of which is the procedure to comply with should the need arise to make a rapid descent, which would primarily be the case of an emergency descent due to pressurization system problems or the aircraft being too heavy to maintain its current altitude should an engine fail. This procedure would call for us to turn right of track by 30 degrees until we could parallel the cleared track by 10 km while turning on all exterior lights. In my opinion, it is always worthwhile to review the various countries’ ATC procedures to see what differences there are from the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) ones which we normally comply with, as in aviation there is always something waiting to catch you out.

Heading towards the city of Kunming, the safety altitude starts to increase up to 17,000 feet above mean sea level, though to the North of us, toward Chengdu—home to those fickle but cuddly giant pandas—it rises as high as 27,000 feet. Both of these numbers are of importance to us as pilots.

First, these numbers matter should we need to make an emergency descent, which means descending in a controlled yet expeditious manner should the aircraft’s cabin lose pressurization, and not in the manner that Hollywood tries to portray. Which reminds me of the old “joke” made by an elderly Captain: “When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep, and not yelling and screaming like my passengers!” Our procedures state that this descent should be down to the higher between 10,000 feet and the minimum safe altitude, so all pilots should always know at all times the height of the ground below them, as bumping into it at 6,000 feet per minute would be a disaster, which, unfortunately, does happen.

Second, should we depart from Chengdu’s airport, which would have been quite feasible, then the 27,000 feet safety altitude would have needed to be considered in the case of an engine failure. The reason is that, if the aircraft, our Boeing 747-400 I am talking about here, would have weighed at takeoff more than 770,000 pounds (350 tons) then, on three engines, we would be joining those giant pandas for a bamboo meal on their mountainside and they would turn out not be so cuddly after all!

Another scenario which needs to be considered with this 27,000 feet safety altitude is when we are flying the freighter variant of the Boeing 747-400. Should we receive a warning of a fire on the main cargo deck—the área which is normally full of ever so polite and well behaved passengers, known affectionately as SLF, or Self Loading Freight—then our procedures would call for us initially to descend to 25,000 feet and depressurize, and, in so doing, try to starve the fire of oxygen. Again, without good situational awareness, we would be dining with those now ever-so-popular pandas!

Well, with now just about two hours to go before we commenced our descent into Guangzhou on a beautifully clear night, only random clusters of lights could be seen on the ground from our lofty perch. This really was a barren area, almost mirroring the constellations shining down from above us. With the temperature in the cockpit at 27 degrees Celsius and the air as smooth as silk, it was a really soporific environment. Very easy to nod off to sleep…but of course I didn’t!

At dawn, it was time to complete the approach briefing with my co-pilot. This generally starts with a review of the aircraft status— in case anything has fallen off or broken down during the flight— checking the weather reports for our destination and alternate airports, as well as the NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) for those two airports. This is followed by a discussion on the approach, landing and missed approach procedures, as well as expected taxi routings after landing to our parking position.

It was 03:00 on my body clock and, staring out of my window at the vertical bands of orange, turquoise and every shade of blue rising from the distant horizon, warning of the imminent sunrise, yes, I started to feel tired. After 30 years as a pilot, I am not a hero and I briefed an auto-land, especially as the weather forecast was informing us of misty conditions.

As an aside, if you want to be geeky, you can very simply calculate how far away the horizon is. It is the square root of your “eye height” given in miles. For example, if you are standing on a 3-foot high boat and you are six feet tall, the horizon is 3 miles away. For us at 37,100 feet, the horizon is—sorry just looking for my calculator—193 miles away!

With the descent checklist completed and a lower level requested from Air Traffic Control, it was time to step up a gear mentally and look forward to the landing.

The approach path into Canton was simple. Radar cleared us for the GYA2X arrival for Runway 20L. This meant flying a box pattern using the LNAV (Lateral Navigation) function of the auto flight system to position ourselves for the final approach. This also meant following a stepped descent to avoid the high terrain which was programmed into the VNAV (Vertical Navigation) profile— turning our aircraft into a simple computer game, but with strict rules which needed to be followed to prevent needing to ‘reboot’!

Once we had broken out of the cloud, I fully understood the need for strict adherence to the descent profile, as the scenery below us was one of undulating hills covered with verdant forests. No doubt hiding those pesky pandas, shrouded by patches of mist and low cloud—absolutely stunning. China is seemingly filled with so many paradoxes as the sheer beauty of the place often runs in parallel with the ugliest of man’s ideas for cities and chronic pollution.

The landing onto the 12,467-foot (3,800 meters, if you prefer!) long runway was uneventful, well it was flown by ‘George’ my trusty automated sidekick, he invariably does a better job of it than me!

As we taxied in to the cargo apron, I was reminded how it never ceases to amaze me just how many Chinese airlines there are, incredible. It also never fails to amaze me how ugly the Airbus A380 is—yes, I’m biased, as I have been married to Mr. Boeing for more than 30 years, much longer than any—I’m sure you can fill in the gaps, just as I am about to fill in the gap between my last glass of beer and my next one! Cheers, mine’s a Tsing Tao!

I told you, being a pilot is a glamorous life.