Published in November 2015 issue
By Justin Schlechter
Our flight has progressed nicely, and we are now about one hour out from landing in Hong Kong. I am back in the right seat after a nice rest in my private bunk and I see that we have just passed Taipei off our left side.
It is time to begin setting up the aircraft for our descent and arrival. We will be very busy from this point on. There is a lot to do.
>PREPPING FOR ARRIVAL_
We have been monitoring the weather conditions in Hong Kong (HKG) ever since our departure from Anchorage (ANC) and, so far, it appears as though the forecast of potentially severe thunderstorms stemming from a typhoon, that we had received on the ground, was not completely accurate. It is very difficult to get accurate weather forecasts for 10 or more hours from departure, but you work with what you get. Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) ‘Golf ’ at HKG is showing winds at 130 degrees at 11 knots, 10km visibility, and scattered clouds at 2,000 feet. The temperature is a steamy 30ºC and the landing approach in use is the Instrument Landing System (ILS) to runway 07L and 07R.
Thankfully, it turns out that the predicted thunderstorms and rain have not materialized. What has been accurately predicted, however, are winds out of the southeast, but at a much more reasonable 10 knots. These conditions can still result in some topographically induced turbulence, but not the severe windshear that can potentially roll off the hills of Lantau Island.
With the weather information and arrival runway determined, the Captain sets up the FMC with our arrival procedure. Today’s arrival will be carried out on Runway 07R, via the ELATO 5A STAR, or standard instrument arrival procedure. In addition to setting up the Flight Management Computer (FMC), the Captain sets our reference speed for landing and the autobrakes, and conducts an approach briefing. As usual, I review what has been inputted into the FMC to ensure that everything is set up properly. Having done so, it is time for the briefing.
The Captain begins: “We will be doing the ILS Runway 07R via the ELATO 5A STAR. The ILS chart is 11-2.The localizer frequency is 109.9 and the final approach course is 073 degrees. We will cross 4.0DME at 1,300 feet and continue down to a decision altitude of 227 feet. In the event of a missed approach, we will climb to 5,000 feet, remain on track to PORPA intersection, and then turn right onto a track of 182 degrees, initially. There is a speed restriction of 210 knots until on a track of 182 degrees. There is significant terrain around Hong Kong; most noticeably along the right on final approach and straight ahead. The highest MSA [Minimum Safe Altitude] is 4,300 feet. The weather is good, however, with the wind out of the southeast, there is the possibility of some shear, so we will fly at Vref+10 knots [as opposed to Vref+5, in normal conditions]. We will use Autobrakes 3, and max reverse thrust. It will be a Flaps 30 landing, with an associated Vref of 150knots.We will arrive at Hong Kong with 20 tons of fuel, and we will revise our alternate to Shenzhen due to the improved weather. Our minimum diversion fuel is nine tons, which gives us an extra 11 tons of leeway in the event of a missed approach. We have more than enough fuel for at least two additional approaches if need be. The major threat is the possibility of windshear. If we encounter windshear, we will do the Windshear Escape Maneuver. As a review, I will press the TO/GA [Takeoff/Goaround] buttons and pitch up to 15 degrees while ensuring that the speed break is retracted. Ensure that Max Thrust is set and call out our descent rates and height above terrain.” That last remark is directed at me.
“We will not change landing gear or flap settings until we have cleared the windshear. Any questions, comments, or concerns?” The other First Officer and I, having nothing to add, put on our shoulder harnesses and headsets and do the descent checklist.
>DESCENDING TOWARDS HONG KONG_
We initially get cleared to descend at pilot’s discretion to cross MUSEL fix at Flight Level (FL) 130. It’s time to begin the arduous process of bringing this hurtling 290-ton beast from Mach .82 to a complete stop. It takes a lot of skill, mental math, and an intuitive sense of momentum control to accurately and safely guide her down to the runway, on speed, and on profile.
The descent phase of flight is a relatively quiet time in the cockpit due to all three of us intensely concentrating as we approach Hong Kong. Sterile cockpit rules call for no discussion unrelated to our flight below FL150, but it is rare to have any even above that FL because we are all paying extra close attention to the commands from the Air Traffic Controllers.
One of the most difficult aspects of flying international is decoding the different accents we hear on the radio. Flying into Hong Kong, we are given the luxury of exceptionally wellspoken Air Traffic Controllers, but it would be a lie to say that we never have trouble understanding the different accents.
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>CLEARED FOR THE APPROACH_
Descending through FL150, Hong Kong Radar re-clears us down to cross Tung Lung (TD) VOR (Very High Frequency Omni Directional Range), just east of Hong Kong Island, at FL110. Despite the earlier forecast, it is a remarkably clear day and we are treated to an incredible view of the Pearl River Delta, with Macau about 50 miles ahead off to the west and Shenzhen about 30 miles distant off to the north. The soaring skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon—a marvelous display of vertical urban development—pass off our right wing. Most of the year, Hong Kong is mired in a murky haze of pollution; however, the conditions prevailing in the summer tend to keep the air clear of pollutants, resulting in crystal clear days such as this one.
Just south of Repulse Bay, we get re-cleared down to 3,000 feet and told to reduce speed to 220 knots to maintain spacing from the preceding aircraft, another B747-400F, owned by UPS, a few miles ahead of us.
The Captain asks for Flaps 1 and, with a familiar rumble, the leading edge begins its transformation to help us reduce speed while simultaneously increasing lift. While slowing, it’s worth noting that, for arrivals from the east, Runway 07L is the normal runway of choice. However, Runway 07R is much closer to the cargo apron, so we had assumed, correctly, that we would be assigned the latter. As we fly just south of its coastline, descending out of 7,000 feet, we are treated to an amazing view of the south side of Lantau Island, which, besides having some of the most lush foliage and pristine beaches in Hong Kong, is also home to the Tian Tian Buddha. This statue, one of the largest of its kind in the world, is over 100 feet tall, and will be clearly visible once we turn onto our final approach.
We round the corner at SOKOE intersection and begin to track towards Nanlang (NLG) VOR on the 157 radial towards STELA intersection. We are told to contact Hong Kong Director and, once again, to reduce speed to 180 knots. As usual, the Captain asks for our massive flaps to be extended. I move the handle to the Flaps 5 position and, on further request, to Flaps 10. As our trailing-edge, triple-slotted fowler flaps move into position and we continue slowing, there is a noticeable change in the pitch attitude of our aircraft. The Captain positions the speedbrakes to the ‘armed’ position, ensuring they will deploy upon main gear touchdown, and calls for the landing checklist. We complete it and hold on the final items—the landing gear and final flap setting—since we are not yet fully configured.
Approaching STELA at 180 knots, we are cleared to intercept the localizer on a heading of 040.We set Flaps 20, while also beginning to reduce to 160 knots. As the localizer begins to move, I enunciate, “LOC moving,” and then, as it captures, “LOC”. I inform Hong Kong Director that we are fully established and they clear us for the ILS Runway 07R.
>RUNWAY IN SIGHT, GEAR DOWN_
Now things are happening fast. As soon as we receive the clearance, the Captain calls for gear down as we simultaneously intercept the glideslope. With a loud guttural groan and vibration, the underbelly of our aircraft transforms to allow the twisted, morphed landing gear to deploy into its proper extended and locked position. After seven seconds of engineering magic, we have 18 massive tires hanging in the 160-knot torrent of air rushing under the aircraft.
With the gear down and locked, the next call is for Flaps 30, with the resulting, and quite noticeable, pitch down. We complete the landing checklist to ensure that the gear and flaps are configured for landing and are then instructed to contact the tower.
“Wind 130 at 15 knots, gusting to 20. Cleared to land Runway 07R. Be advised the preceding aircraft experienced plus and minus 10 knots from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet, and plus and minus 15 knots from 1000 to the ground,” is the initial reply from HKG Tower after checking in.
Almost instantly, as this transmission ends, the aircraft lurches and then pitches up aggressively: we’re caught in the lee of an ocean of rough air tumbling off the hills of Lantau while we’re descending through 1,800 feet MSL (Mean Sea Level). The green airspeed trend vector on our PFD bottoms out, indicating a very large decreasing airspeed excursion. The autothrottles, still engaged, begin their battle and instantly compensate for the airspeed reduction with a massive upsurge of engine thrust. The resulting increase in noise is heard even up on the flight deck! No time today for checking out the Tian Tian Buddha.
As soon as the airspeed returns to Vref+10, we get an increasing airspeed excursion. The autothrottles now back off, but the Captain manually prevents them from reducing thrust as much as the computers would have them do.
To quote our Operations Manual, “In the man-machine interface, man is still in charge.” The reason for the Captain’s action is that these massive engines take some time to spool up from low or idle thrust settings; so sometimes, in gusty situations, it is not advisable to let the autothrottles reduce thrust as far as they would. We accept the high speed excursion, knowing that the speed stability of the B747-400 is excellent; it has a very good tendency to return to the speed from which it was displaced by the associated gust. As predicted, the minor shear ends, and our speed returns to 160 knots, with the autothrottles bringing the engine thrust back up to the appropriate power setting to maintain our airspeed.
The battle continues for the remainder of the approach, until we descend through 500ft MSL. With two flicks of each thumb, the Captain disconnects the autopilot from the yoke and the autothrottles from the thrust levers. We soar across the threshold at 50 feet and 160 knots, right on glideslope, and the aircraft begins its robotic countdown.
“50.….40….” Think about the flare.
“20.….” Thrust levers to idle!
“10.…” Hold what you have and transition your eyes to the far end of the runway!
The Captain squeezes just a bit of left rudder and, as the nose aligns with the 12,000-foot runway, the speed brake lever moves fully aft as the massive jetliner skims onto the pavement. Instantly, 16 huge vulcanized rubber tires bite into the pavement and the aircraft begins shaking as the autobrakes immediately go to work, the wheels spinning up to 160 knots.
The Captain moves the reverse thrust levers fully upward and then aft, releasing a torrent of reverse thrust in a violent and loud crescendo. The brakes and reverse thrust strain in an allout effort to bring 290 tons of 747 to a halt. They do an amazing job. As the airplane slows through 70 knots, the autobrakes are disconnected and the reversers are stowed.
We exit the runway on the high-speed exit and make a left turn onto taxiway Kilo. Finally, we can hear ourselves think again. What a ride!
>TAXIING A TIRED 747 TO THE RAMP_
We taxi into the ramp, down the canyon of widebody tails lining the edges of the taxiway. The flaps have been retracted, the APU started, and the landing lights turned off as we turn into Bay C27. We come to a stop as dictated by the marshaler and set the parking brake. The Captain turns the hydraulic pumps off and, with four quick movements of the wrist, the Fuel Control Switches are positioned to ‘cut-off ’. With that, our long-haul flight from the far side of the world is complete. As the engines wind down, we complete the shutdown checklist and file away the remaining paperwork.
It’s been a great flight, but the whole crew is noticeably tired. Thirty-six hours in Hong Kong will cure that before we do this all over again! We go down to the main deck and get a nice blast of hot, humid, fragrant Hong Kong air. The ground crew is already offloading the pallets of cargo and, as we get onto the crew bus that will take us through customs, I take one last look back at our ship. The B747-400F. It’s an incredible machine.
Looking back, it makes me proud to be one of the privileged few to have flown “a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit outta Hong Kong!” It wasn’t so bad after all.