Published in September 2015 issue

By Clayton Taylor

Even in my wildest imagination would I have believed that someone speaking with a heavy Russian accent would one day say to me, “You are cleared to enter Mongolian airspace.” But that’s exactly what happened on a recent 12-day trip to Asia. When those words were uttered, I was in the midst of a grueling six pack— that is, a trip that crosses the Pacific Ocean six times before going home. I never do these things because, when I get home from a trip like that, all of my bodily functions are messed up for a week.

In the summer, the East Coast of the US is 12 hours behind Beijing. For someone like me, who has acclimated to the central US, it’s a 13-hour difference. That means that, every other day, my body clock is forced to reset: noon becomes midnight on the next day, when I arrive, and then it becomes noon again on the same day I left when I get back. It sounds confusing because it is.

The flight was scheduled to be 14 hours in duration and had four pilots on the manifest. During pre-flight planning, I drew our course line and noted that we would be flying about 100 miles from the geographic North Pole. When we fly that far north, we communicate via HF radio with Gander Area Control in Canada—the guys who used to be called ‘Arctic Radio’. Depending on winds, we may actually fly even further east and talk to the Norwegian controllers at Bodo Air Traffic Control. That’s the long way but, thankfully, we were scheduled for a more southerly route on this trip.

Due to the lack of wind over the pole, our actual flight plan indicated that we’d be in the air for about 12 hours. Once that number is announced, someone always asks, “How do you want to do the breaks?” Unfortunately, I established myself as a problem child right off the bat when one of the captains suggested that we break the trip in half and take a five-and-ahalf hour break each. That would leave one hour for us all to be up front during climb-out and descent. I objected right away. I was the more senior copilot and could have easily gone along and taken a second break, since it was early in the day and I would likely be able to nap seven hours hence. But I’d been down that road before on the B747-400. On that airplane, I was frequently the junior pilot and relegated to the first break on a 15-hour flight, which meant I would get no sleep. The junior copilot on this trip was new to the plane and would have likely gone along with whatever he was told. But, after 21 years of yanking the gear, I no longer feel the need to keep my opinions to myself. In the end, we decided to each get a short break early on and then a longer break toward the end of the flight. It worked out great and, by the time we arrived, everyone was about as rested as one can get while riding in an airplane. But it wasn’t accomplished without some hard feelings. The captain I was paired with literally did not speak to me for two days, other than to suggest that it wasn’t all about me. Yes, I’d momentarily forgotten that it was all about him.

When we transit the earth higher than 80 degrees north latitude, we have to tell our flight guidance computers to align with true north rather than magnetic north. In addition, as we edge closer to the polar region, we lose CPDLC (Controller–Pilot Data Link Communications) as well as our satellite phone capability. We make position reports to Gander radio but, since they don’t forward those reports to our company dispatcher, we also communicate on another HF radio with San Francisco radio and ask them to relay our position and fuel situation, along with the en route winds and weather, to the company. It may sound kind of busy but, at these latitudes, we have very little else to do for hours upon hours. We rarely see another airplane and, whether it’s cloudy or not, we are surrounded by white beneath us and blue above.

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Gander coordinates our arrival slot time for entry into Russian airspace with Magadan Control (GDX). Since I was last in this region, Magadan has implemented CPDLC, which allows us to communicate with the Russian controllers via text message to get altitude and frequency changes. Another change is that Russia now uses feet instead of meters when up at altitude.

If we enter Russian airspace a little to the west, we are over a very mountainous and a very cold-looking Siberia. If we are closer to the coast, the mountains aren’t quite as immense and the land beneath is broken up by rivers that seem to flow from horizon to horizon. Some parts of the ground are barren and treeless, while others are clearly Bigfoot territory. I sent a picture that I’d taken of Magadan, Russia, to a friend as we flew overhead; he responded that it looked like a very lonely place in which to live. Indeed, it did.

Flying over Mongolia was uneventful and not at all interesting. Parts of China and Mongolia look a lot like Saudi Arabia: vast open stretches of flat land covered in brown dirt for as far as the eye can see. I’d go ahead and take Mongolia off your bucket list if I were you.

Descent into Beijing (PEK) requires everyone’s attention. Anticipating what the controller is going to say goes a long way toward guaranteeing a successful outcome to the flight. Whereas the Russian controllers seem to be a somewhat easygoing bunch, I don’t get the same feeling when talking to Beijing Control. Strict adherence to procedures is an absolute necessity.

China uses meters, so we set meters in our altitude window, but then convert it to feet and fly the feet. It does take a little getting used to since both are displayed on our screens. After a couple of transmissions in which I stepped on my tongue, the hitherto silent captain managed to break his silence long enough to voice his displeasure with my unprofessional babbling. He was right, of course, so I spun myself up to speed and paid even closer attention. I told myself where to look before speaking into the microphone, and that seemed to clear everything up.

I had been to Beijing quite a few times, but it had been a while. The one thing I noticed right away was how clear the air was. In Shanghai, you almost can’t walk down the streets on some days because of the filthy air. Sometimes, it’s so bad that you can barely see across the street. Beijing used to be like that and, having not been there since before the Chinese hosted the Olympics, I could not believe how much nicer it was on this visit. In my absence, Beijing had become a fairly clean, modern and vibrant city. I’m still not crazy about the food; I don’t eat anything that’s not cooked and I would never drink the water, but still…

On this trip, it was Golden Week. It’s actually a Japanese holiday that runs for a week, but It seemed that the Chinese were also celebrating the opportunity to have a family gettogether, which likely explained why all of our flights were so full.

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Walking to Tiananmen Square was a chore, as the sidewalks were chock full of people. Did I mention that I don’t like crowds? There were armed military personnel everywhere, along with a very strong police presence. I found it interesting that the police randomly stopped people on the street and asked them for identification, but they seemed totally uninterested in me. I’m sure I was being closely watched, but no one bothered me. I was fascinated by the fact that the locals seemed to harbor no ill feelings about being harassed by the police every few blocks. I can only imagine what would have resulted if New York’s finest had tried doing that same thing in Central Park.

Across the street from Tiananmen Square is the entrance to the Forbidden City. It’s the big red wall you see on TV with a giant portrait of Chairman Mao hanging on the front. I think In the past it was considered the winter palace the imperial palace for the Ming and Qing dynasties but, today, it’s a tourist site.

I wandered in and took a few pictures. When I tried to leave, I was told by an angry looking Chinese guard that I could not. Of course, he could have been saying, “The free food is that way,” when he pointed and barked at me, but I kind of doubt that. I tried exiting through a few giant doorways, but I kept getting the same response. No one spoke English, so I was on my own.

I wandered around trying to figure out how to make an exit without getting shot. It took a while but, eventually, I wandered through a gateway that led to freedom. No one yelled or pointed a gun at me, so I sped up my gait and kept my mouth shut. The only problem was that I ended up in the hutongs (the old, crowded, communal quarters of the city). Considering that I was wearing shorts and a brightly colored pullover, you can imagine how much like a sore thumb I stuck out in a place like that. I received lots and lots of solicitations from people of both sexes and various walks of life. The fact that I didn’t speak Chinese, or they English, didn’t seem to slow things down one bit. But I had more pressing concerns:

I had no idea where I was or how to get back to my hotel. So I did what I had done the last time I got lost.

I was a newly minted private pilot and recalled an old airport bum telling me that, if I were to ever get lost, I should have held a heading. It didn’t matter which heading, I just had to hold it steadily until I saw an airport.

If I could have seen the sun through the thick China haze, I would have been OK, but I couldn’t. I walked down a long, narrow road that was reasonably straight for a very long time. I don’t think I have ever seen as many women hack and spit on the sidewalk as I did that day.

Anyway, I eventually happened upon a main road. It was a lucky find because, from there, I could hail a cab if necessary. Of course, I could never admit to anyone on my crew that I had caved in and taken a cab, so I pressed on. Eventually I got my bearings and successfully made my way back to the hotel on foot.

The next day, I flew back to the States. Then back to Beijing, then back to the States, then back to Beijing then—well, you get the idea.

The following month, I was scheduled for Rome. I couldn’t wait.