Published in October 2015 issue

By Justin Schlechter

Those mighty words, yelled in the direction of Maverick and Goose in the classic ‘80s movie, Top Gun, are still remembered and repeated by flight crews all over the world to this day. The only difference is that most aviators plying their trade today wouldn’t consider their station in life to be a low one, but rather an interesting and rewarding position that enables them to fly incredible machines into incredible cities worldwide, with bellies and cargo holds filled to the brim with goods destined for each and every corner of the earth.

I was lucky enough to be a member of the fraternity of pilots that flew this magnificent ship in and out of some of the most difficult airports and over some of the most inhospitable terrain you could imagine. At my carrier, we flew both passenger and cargo versions of this aircraft, but, for today’s flight, we are bound for Hong Kong in a Boeing 747-400(ER)F that is just a few years out of the factory in Seattle.

The -ERF is an extended-range freighter capable of a maximum takeoff weight of over 412 tons, or over 900,000 pounds. This incredible amount of weight can be lifted with ease due to the four Pratt and Whitney 4062 engines, each capable of producing 63,300 pounds of thrust at takeoff. To say this machine can do amazing things is an understatement.

On today’s flight, we will be departing Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC), one of the busiest wide-body airports in the world, on a nine hour and 36 minute flight to Hong Kong (HKG); the flight time being reasonably shorter than normal due to the light winds aloft and to a more direct routing along the Great Circle Route through Russian airspace. Normally, our route takes us way south of Russia out over the Pacific.

ANC is a very popular airport for transient cargo aircraft because more than half of the world’s population can be reached with a less than 10-hour flight. On any given day and at any given time, it is not uncommon to see 10 or more wide-bodied freighter aircraft parked on the transient ramp as they get refueled, re-catered, and re-crewed before launching off toward other parts of the world. There is a lot of work to be done to get this flight underway, so we will start from the moment we get picked up at our hotel to start our journey.

Whenever we depart out of HKG, our airline’s main base, the flight crew meets in the dispatch area to brief for the flight. Today, in Anchorage, we do not have that luxury. So, most of us will have looked at all of the applicable paperwork on the computer before leaving the hotel. Our company enables us to view the flight plan, weather packet, applicable Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), and route map before the flight—all very convenient to do from the comfort of your hotel room. Going over this beforehand saves us time when we get to the aircraft, so that we can do an abbreviated briefing and get airborne as quickly as possible.

In the van, the other First Officer, the Captain, and myself discuss the flight and come up with a game plan. Today, our flight has a twist that we need to consider, and we have not even arrived at the aircraft yet.

The weather forecast for our arrival in Hong Kong is showing very strong winds out of the southeast, with rain and the possibility of strong thunderstorms associated with the outer bands of Typhoon Conson, which is approaching the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea. HKG is built on a man-made island situated on the northern side of Lantau Island, where mountains rise to over 3,500 feet. With the winds out of the south, the approaches into HKG can be rife with windshear, so we need to consider that we may not be able to land there. Our normal alternate airport, Macau (MFM), is not going to be available due to a certain company policy dictating that we cannot use it today. We are left with going to Shenzhen (SZX) as an alternate. However, if other aircraft are holding, going around, or diverting, it will fill up fast and, because Shenzhen is only 15 miles north of Hong Kong, if the weather is bad in HKG, it will be bad there as well.

Our initial decision, right off the bat, is to select a more distant alternate airport, Guangzhou (CAN), about 80 miles northwest of HKG at the northern end of the Pearl River Delta. This will mean carrying approximately four extra tons of fuel on top of what was planned by the company. Three of these extra tons will be used to divert to CAN if necessary, and the fourth will be uplifted to compensate for the increased fuel burn resulting from carrying them all the way from ANC to HKG. In other words, it costs fuel to carry fuel.

We do not take these decisions lightly, as they do drastically affect the company’s bottom line. Still, we need to leave ourselves with smart and sensible options if our flight does not go according to plan. We decide on a total final fuel load of 126.6 tons. This will give us 11:51 endurance.

Unlike the B747-400 passenger model, the entire main deck of the freight version is stripped of amenities. The entire aircraft can be filled with cargo. Some other differences are not so readily visible: reinforced landing gear and brakes to accommodate our increased weights, and the lack of a fuel tank in the horizontal stabilizer. This tank, present in the passenger model, adds 10 additional tons of fuel to the aircraft’s total capacity. The lack of the stabilizer tank means that our aircraft can only carry a maximum of 160 tons of fuel.

One quite noticeable difference is the incorporation of the nose cargo door. This is only evident when in use, but is a vital component for this aircraft. Our airline has carried 100-foot ship masts as well as helicopters that, had it not been for the nose cargo door, would have been impossible to load.

From the main deck, we go up a few very steep steps to the upper one and get settled in. As we get comfy in our seats, we are given the flight plan packet. We check that nothing has changed since we looked at it back at the hotel, and begin to go through the aircraft maintenance log to make certain that any defects have been handled appropriately. In our case, there are none, so that makes our lives a little easier.

Now our tasks get divided. My fellow First Officer (FO) goes ahead and does the walk-around inspection, ensuring that all of the pallets on the main deck are locked in place and that any dangerous goods, as indicated on the Notice to Crew (NOTOC), are appropriately identified and not leaking or damaged. As it is the Captains’ leg, he begins by setting up the Flight Management Computer (FMC) and Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).

The flight plan and our performance data is loaded into the FMC. The ACARS allows us to have uplink and downlink capabilities to communicate with the company and receive ATIS information, other airport weather, and other operational items. Once the Captain completes this task, he does his ‘flow pattern’, ensuring that all of the switches and buttons in the cockpit are in the correct position.

While the other two are busy at their jobs, I do a safety inspection of the cockpit and the upper deck. I check that all of the oxygen masks, fire extinguishers, life rafts, and a multitude of other safety items are in place and working order. When you spend 80% of a flight over water, it’s very important to make sure that those rafts are onboard (let’s hope they stay packed away forever!). After this task is completed, I head back into the cockpit to do exactly what the Captain just did. I go through the FMC and ACARS, ensuring that everything is set appropriately for our flight and that the flight plan has been entered correctly. I then do a flow pattern as well. It may seem silly, but double and even triple checking some items is essential and cannot afford to be skipped.

>FLIGHT PLAN & CLEARANCE_

Our flight will be departing ANC at 11:10. This means that we’ll be flying in daylight the entire time. We’ll land in HKG in the early afternoon tomorrow. The weather forecast is rather benign along our route, with no areas of turbulence in view. It is looking as though our journey will be a pleasant one.

With our preflight checks completed and our performance data entered in the FMCs we are just about ready to get underway. A quick call to clearance delivery confirms that we are cleared to HKG, as filed. We verify that everything is set correctly and request clearance to start all of our engines.

>SPINNING FOUR ENGINES TO LIFE_

Our newest models of the B747-400F are capable not only of starting the engines automatically, but also of doing so two at a time. Despite this marvelous technology, we monitor the start as if we were doing it manually. As long as the auto-start system works as advertised, it will start the engine, or abort the start, automatically, unless there’s a lack of oil pressure. That would be the lone scenario in which we, as pilots, would need to manually abort the start, as long as the system is functioning. Normal, hot, and hung starts are all handled by the autostart system.

The command to start engines three and four comes from the Captain and, with a quick pull of the start switches on the overhead panel, and with the fuel control switches on the center pedestal positioned to ‘RUN’, our two massive engines begin to spin to life. Within about 45 seconds, they stabilize and we start the other two. With all four engines running, I begin my after-start flow and shut down the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), ensure that the hydraulic pumps are set to auto, position the flaps to 20 degrees, and set our elevator trim for departure. With the flow completed, we run the ‘After Start’ checklist and say goodbye to the ground crew.

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>TAXI CLEARANCE_

We are just about underway and, with a call to ground control, we receive permission to taxi. We verify that the aircraft is clear on both the left and right and release the parking brake. With just the slightest bit of breakaway thrust, our 384-ton ship slowly lurches to life. While we make our way to the runway, we do a check of all the flight controls, and double-check that the trim is also set. With a quick recap of our departure procedure, we run the ‘Before Takeoff’ checklist and switch over to tower frequency, on which we are instructed to taxi into position and hold.

The Captain lines up the nose of the aircraft onto Runway 33, and Anchorage Tower clears us for takeoff. Everyone on the flight deck is ready and, with a tap of the TO/GA buttons, over 240,000 pounds of thrust begin to accelerate us down the runway, pushing us back in our seats.

>VEE ARR, ROTATE_

As we rapidly approach Earthquake Park, which lies just off the departure end of the runway, we pass V1. A few seconds later, I call out “VR”; our massive aircraft rotates 12 degrees upward and loses contact with earth. As we roar out into the Alaskan sky, upon passing 600 feet, we make a left turn to a heading of 300 degrees. As we begin our ascent out over Cook Inlet, with the aircraft passing 2,500 feet, the nose lowers and the leviathan begins its acceleration to an initial speed of 269 knots. In the US, the maximum airspeed below 10,000 feet is 250 knots, unless you need to accelerate further for the purposes of cleaning up the aircraft; in that case, you can climb out at V2+100, giving us a minimum clean speed of 269 knots.

At first, the aircraft accelerates rather slowly, but, once the speed does start to build, it rises rapidly. The flaps get retracted to 10 degrees. Then, at 5 degrees, the engines reduce their power to climb thrust as previously set in the FMC. Still accelerating, we continue the retraction process with Flaps 1, and then Flaps Up, which produces a noticeable rumble throughout the airframe as the remaining inboard and midspan leading-edge Krueger flaps stow. We complete the ‘After Takeoff ’ checklist and continue our climb out over the Tordrillo mountain range, 60 miles west of Anchorage. What a beautiful sight, with snow-capped mountains up to 10,000 feet! With a push of the center autopilot to ‘Command’, we sit back and take in the magnificent view.

We are cleared by Anchorage Center up to FL300, and level off 23 minutes after takeoff. The autopilot, having been engaged earlier in the climb, does a nice job and the auto throttles adjust the engine thrust to maintain our cruise speed of Mach .82 (82% of the speed of sound). We put away our Anchorage charts and take out the appropriate en-route ones. At this point in the flight, our paperwork begins and, since I am the ‘pilot monitoring’ (PM) on this flight, it is my job to begin filling in our flight log, where we keep track of all of the times we expect to pass each waypoint, as well as the times we actually do. Approximately every hour, we also make fuel checks to ensure that we are not burning more fuel than we should be. By comparing our times over our waypoints with those expected, we can make a reasonable determination of whether we have a headwind or tailwind that is stronger or lighter than forecast.


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>HOPE FOR THE BEST, PLAN FOR THE WORST_

Another item of particular importance on a long oceanic flight is the depressurization critical point. Depressurization is considered to be our most fuel-critical scenario, due to a fuel burn at 10,000 feet roughly 50% higher than that at FL300. Our two alternate airports, for the purposes of this flight, have been pre-selected by our dispatchers. Today those airports are ANC and Osaka-Kansai International Airport (KIX), in Japan. To be considered legal alternates, these airports need to meet certain weather requirements. The forecasts at both are for VFR conditions, so they are valid for use. We will cross the critical point three hours and 22 minutes into the flight. At that point, in the event of a depressurization, it would take equal time, as well as equal fuel, to continue on to KIX or return to ANC. Based on our planning, we would need at a minimum 51.4 tons of fuel, at that point, to either turn back to ANC or continue to KIX should we experience a depressurization. That amount of fuel would be enough to proceed to the airport of choice, carry out an approach and landing, and still have 30 minutes of reserve. At today’s critical point, we expect to have over 79 tons, so, although it is a ‘critical’ point, we have plenty of extra fuel, which is always welcome.

One particularly neat aspect of flying the Pacific Ocean is the use of Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) and Automatic Dependent Surveillance (ADS) for our communication and position reporting when out of radar and radio contact. CPDLC is a fancy way of text messaging between the pilot and the controller. By using the FMC, we can type our messages to the controlling agency and receive messages from it. When we want to request a step climb after burning off fuel, we type our request and send it off. ADS is a unique system that allows all of our position reports to automatically be sent to the controlling agency. We are required to manually send a position report whenever we cross a Flight Information Region (FIR) boundary, but, having done that, the system will take care of our position reports automatically. On most of our Pacific crossings, we utilize both of these systems. However, because of our northerly track through Russian airspace, we will be in radio contact with ground facilities that do not have CPDLC or ADS capabilities. As a result, we will be making our position reports manually on the radio.

>CRUISING ALTITUDE_

The vast majority of our flight is spent in cruise mode. Compared to the departure and arrival periods, the cruise portion is a much more relaxed and lower workload one. The old joke was about the pilot who said, “I can’t wait to get up to cruise so we can take a break!” Seriously though, most of the time in cruise is spent doing our fuel checks and keeping track of our position. Probably the most important aspect is keeping track of our position in relation to the few airports that are available on our route of flight.

On a typical flight from the US to Asia via the North Pacific/ Russia, we have a handful of airports that are capable of handling a 747 in the event of an emergency diversion. Leaving ANC, we have a handful of airports dotting the Aleutian chain, such as Cold Bay (CDB), Adak (ADK), and Eareckson Air Station (SYA) on isolated Shemya Island, which, in the last few years, was visited by an American Airlines Boeing 777 that had a false cargo fire warning.

To the north, situated on the freezing tundra of Siberia, are airports in Magadan (GDX) and Petropavlosvk-Kamchatsky (PKC). Petropavlovsk Airport is on the north end of Avacha Bay, also home to the largest nuclear submarine fleet at the Russian Navy’s disposal. As we fly past these airports, we will make use of a great feature of the ACARS that allows us to print out the most recent weather conditions for these airports. Most of the time, the conditions in many of these places are awful, but, when confronted with an emergency in which time is of the essence, such as an uncontrollable cargo fire, landing the airplane is essential regardless of the conditions. Fortunately, mid-Pacific diversions are quite rare. Knock on wood!

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>CLIMB, OPTIMIZE FUEL BURN_

As the flight progresses and we burn off fuel, it will soon be time for a step climb. We try to fly at the optimal altitude for the best combination of fuel efficiency and adequate stall margins, which will be needed if we encounter rough air. Our initial climb from FL300 will take us up to FL315 or, more importantly, 9,600 meters, as the Russian airspace that we are flying through uses meters. As we progress towards the FIR boundary, we will use meters until we reach Japanese airspace; at that time, we will revert to using feet, or flight levels (FL) in this instance. By the time we reach the coastline of Hokkaido Island, we have burned off enough fuel to allow a climb to FL360. We make our request and up we go.

As mentioned earlier, the B747-400F is not all that easily identifiable from the exterior except for three major items, the most evident being the lack of passenger windows along the fuselage; I guess Boeing figured that boxes do not need to look outside! The other two items are the shorter upper deck, more commonly associated with Boeing 747-100 and -200 models, and the inclusion of two six-foot high winglets on both wings. Winglets, despite their additional weight, actually decrease fuel burn by 2-3% per flight, a substantial saving.

The main interior difference, at least from a pilot’s perspective, is the rather civilized upper deck area, which has been converted into what I would consider to be a small apartment. With no cockpit door, but instead a curtain to separate the cockpit from the upper deck, going back and forth is done with ease. Upon leaving the cockpit, we are in the galley, which is usually stocked quite nicely with meals, sandwiches, fruit, sodas, juices, and water, as well as the most used item, the coffee maker, which has helped many a tired freighter pilot to keep his eyes open while flying all night!

Aft of the galley, we have six Business Class style-seats that can be used by off duty company personnel or pilots. Behind those seats, Boeing has really spoiled us freighter pilots. Here is our bunk area, with two bunks, one on the left hand side of the aircraft and one on the right. Each is completely separate and private from the other, which allows a pilot to get some rest on ultra-long haul operations. On flights longer than eight hours, we have a three-man crew, and on those longer than 12, a four-man one.

Not counting takeoff or landing, on flights with three pilots, the flight gets split into thirds, and on four-man operations, it is split in half. Not a bad way to cross the Pacific, resting soundly during your break. In fact, it’s time for my break now! As I leave the flight deck, the other First Officer comes back and takes my place. Time for a quick snooze.