Every day that I go to fly my ‘Queen’—the Boeing 747-400—I have a smile on my face. However, this time, I was more excited than ever, as not only was my wife traveling with me, but also Enrique, our Publisher and Editor in Chief.
Our flight was to be operated by a Wamos Airlines Boeing 747-400 for the Venezuelan airline Conviasa (V0). We were initially planned to fly EC-LNA—a General Electric CF6-powered variant—but, for operational reasons, our aircraft was changed at the last minute to EC-KXN, a Pratt & Whitney 4056-engined aircraft.
This change meant we needed new OFPs, or operational flight plans, as well as a new ATC flight plan. These two aircraft are very similar but have different weights and performance criteria. For example, the empty weight of EC-LNA is 184,235kg versus 187,536kg for EC-KXN, a difference of just over 3,000kg. So we needed to get the paperwork correct!
Examining the flight documents in our office at Madrid-Barajas Airport’s (MAD) Terminal 2, I realized that we had no weather information for our destination, Caracas (CCS). For some time—I’m guessing due to the political and economic situation in Venezuela—not everything had been readily available. That was no real problem; it just meant that we needed two alternate airports on arrival in the Caracas area, and we needed to carry the fuel that would enable us to fly to the farthest one. That day’s alternates for CCS were Curaçao (CUR) and Barbados (BGI), which could be reached with 5,300kg and 10,800kg of fuel, respectively.
So, once all the weather charts, planned route and our passenger load had been checked, we could decide on how much fuel would be required for the whole flight. With only 170 passengers booked for an aircraft capable of carrying 450 and a flight time of just under eight hours, our fuel load would be relatively light: around 95,000kg compared with the full fuel load of 173,000kg, which meant a takeoff weight of just under 310,000kg.
Our aircraft that day was a ‘white tail’, meaning that no company logos were painted on the fuselage. That often happens when one company leases its aircraft out to different operators.
Onboard, the 747 was being catered and cleaned. It was a little cold as it had remained unpowered overnight, and the temperature outside was only 3°C. So, the first thing to do was to power up the APU and warm us all up!
My co-Pilot, Pablo, was off completing the external walk-around check, so I settled into my seat to start setting up the cockpit instrument panels and loading our FMS with our performance data and routings.
Our departure was planned from Madrid’s runway 36 left on a ‘Caceres 1X’ departure, which would initially take us north of Madrid before turning west, eventually towards the Portuguese capital Lisbon. Coasting out, we would pick up our track across the Atlantic Ocean.
These tracks are normally part of an Organized Track System, which create aeronautical highways across the sky in either an easterly or westerly direction. However, for our route, we were heading much further south than where these were located that day, so we would fly a ‘random’ route, made up of positions to be overflown, designated purely by their latitudes and longitudes.
That day, almost seven hours of our flight would be over open water, as we would head south of the Azores towards the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Grenada before making Venezuelan landfall at Caracas itself.
So, my co-Pilot, once back on board, started the performance calculations and completed the load sheet, then checked all I had been doing.
There is a saying: ‘In God we trust, all else we check’. And this is mandatory in aviation, as even a small mistake could have huge repercussions. Neither of us had flown for three weeks and it was an early start. Even with my 25 years on the Queen, I still need to wind myself up mentally and ensure I haven’t forgotten anything. And besides, I’m not getting any younger!
As we were still refueling, the first coach load of passengers had to wait before they could board. This is a recognized safety precaution, as we were loading all the baggage and cargo into the holds on the right side of the aircraft while refueling at the wing station on the left. So, in the event of an evacuation, most of the emergency exits would be blocked. Not a safe scenario.
Refueling didn’t take long to complete, and so it was time for me to find my wife and Enrique among the passengers boarding at the L2 door, the second entrance from the front of the aircraft on the left-hand side. Here, we had time for a quick photo opportunity before I escorted them to their Business Class seats on the upper deck of my fabulous Queen.
Time now to complete our preflight procedures, instrument checks, Pilot briefings, and checklists. These briefings include what we expect to do on departure and what we would do in case of an emergency, such as an engine failure or fire. Neither Pilot should ever have to second-guess his colleague.
There should be no doubts or concerns, and standard operating procedures need to be adhered to. Remember: we always need to have a plan B, as I have mentioned so many times in previous articles for Airways.
Now, we were ready to close the doors and start our four engines. Wamos procedures have us starting them in the order of 1, 2, 3, 4. The start procedures and checklists take just under 10 minutes and, as we were parked on a remote stand—which meant we didn’t need to pushback, with our flaps set to 20 degrees and the flight controls checked—it was time to release the brakes and taxi for the two miles to the northerly runways.
I was so excited to be sharing this experience with Enrique, who was seated behind me on one of the two flight deck jump seats; I wanted to ensure he witnessed as professional an operation as I could produce with my colleague. And my co-Pilot excelled at this.
All the time, Pablo was explaining our taxi route to me, which way to go, etc. He was far more experienced in Madrid airport operations than I was, which made life much easier for me. It was better to use his knowledge and experience than try to do it all myself, looking sideways at my airport map while ‘driving’ a 300-ton aircraft at 20kt on a narrow piece of concrete.
With the pre-takeoff checklists completed, and clearances obtained and confirmed, it was soon time to line up on runway 36 Left. Takeoff clearance obtained, lights selected on… I increased the engine power, cross-checked that all was normal, and set takeoff power. Boy, did I have a huge smile on my face!
We accelerated past our V1 decision speed of 142kt and I eased back on the control column to rotate the aircraft at 153kt at a pitch up rate of 2 ½ degrees per second. We soon passed our engine out climb speed V2 of 162 knots… the whole operation ran like clockwork on that beautiful Madrid morning.
Once all the flaps had been retracted, we completed our after-takeoff checklists and accelerated to our initial climb speed when passing 10,000ft AGL. This actually read as 12,000ft on the altimeter, as Madrid sits at 2,000ft ASL.
Heading west towards Lisbon, my co-Pilot contacted Santa Maria for our Atlantic crossing clearance. Once this was verified, it was time to settle back to our cruise procedures of constantly monitoring the aircraft systems, completing the necessary paperwork, and checking our fuel usage—while sending and replying to messages on our CPDLC (Controller Pilot Data Link Communication) system. That’s a facility that reduces Pilot workload as simple text messages are relayed back and forth, for example when requesting climbs or descents or changes to the route.
In the back of my mind, I was constantly rehearsing what to do if we had a sick passenger, an engine failure, or, worst of all, a cargo fire? A long overwater crossing does not give you many options, so it’s best to always plan ahead. Never let yourself be surprised is my mantra—situational awareness is the most important concept that all Pilots should always be updating, enhancing, and sharing with their colleagues.
As we crossed the ocean and our fuel load lightened, we completed step climbs to more efficient altitudes until we reached our final cruise altitude of FL400.
I was hoping for pretty views of the southern Caribbean islands, particularly Barbados, but, unfortunately, Mother Nature had placed a huge line of thunderstorms there, which meant that we had to deviate more than 60 miles north of our intended track to stay safe.
With the bad weather behind us, it was time to contemplate our arrival into Caracas. We planned for an arrival onto CCS airport’s runway 10, with a route programmed into our FMS that would take us downwind to the north of the airport before turning left to join the ILS and hopefully make a smooth landing… I didn’t want to let Enrique down!
We calculated that we would land at a weight of 230,000kg, which included sufficient fuel to hold for 40 minutes before diverting to our newly designated alternate of CUR, should CCS be closed for any reason.
Well, the weather was now much better in CUR than Barbados, making it a sensible choice. So we calculated an approach speed (Vref) based on using 30 degrees of flap at 137kt and with an auto-brake setting of 3, this would give us a deceleration rate that would use only 6,000 of the 11,500ft of available runway.
During the descent, Enrique pointed out places of interest, the names of the islands below us and, most importantly to me, where the Venezuelan archipelago of Los Roques could be found—the day after’s destination in Enrique’s King 100 and a wonderful story for another time.
With the approach checks completed, we started to configure the aircraft for landing, which also allowed us to slow down. We were number two to land and I didn’t want to whiz past the airport at 250kt; so, with flaps 10 set, we reduced speed to 180kt and were cleared on an intercept heading to join the ILS approach.
As we intercepted the glideslope, the landing gear was selected down, speed-brakes armed, and landing flaps selected. The auto flight system was still flying the approach as I didn’t want to disconnect it and fly manually until the aircraft ahead had vacated the runway and we were cleared to land, just in case we would have to make a missed approach. This ‘go-around’ procedure can be flown and monitored much more safely using the auto-flight system—in my opinion.
Well, the views were stunning, the sea off to the left of us and the cloud-shrouded mountains to the right. Cleared to land, I disconnected the autopilot and auto-throttle, and, as we crossed the runway threshold at a wheel height of 50ft, I started the flare… and we were down.
To make it all so much more exciting, Enrique recorded every stage of the flight. The end result, a fantastic video that’s available to all of you online!
It was an absolute pleasure having you all onboard Conviasa Flight 3013 from Madrid to Caracas.