By Tony Vallillo (26 December 2008)
Every max weight takeoff is interesting. In the C-5 or C-141, with four engines, such an affair was always good for a lengthy tour of the runway, to say nothing of an intimate view of the over run and the real estate just beyond the over run! Two engine airplanes have better performance; but even so, a max weight takeoff in the 767 can be a prolonged affair, and always stands in contrast to the performance at the normal lighter weights. Fortunately, runway 31L is one of the longest civil runways in the world, and more than 14,000 feet separate us from the opposite end as we commence our takeoff roll.
Needless to say, I have selected max power tonight, even though there is, surprisingly enough, a reduced power setting available for this takeoff. The difference between the two is small, and I prefer to avail myself of the drop or two of extra power we can squeeze out of the CF-6's tonight. If we lose an engine we will need every pound of thrust we can get, and there is always the chance, in that event, that I might be so distracted by inhaling the seat cushion that advancing the throttle on the good engine could well slip my mind!
Fortunately, my Irish half still revels in the traditional luck and both engines keep pounding out a steady roar as we proceed down the runway, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Rotation speed is a whopping 167 knots tonight, and we don't reach it well past the halfway point of the concrete, which is also well past the tower. The controllers get a great view from up there, nearly 300 feet in the air, and almost 15 seconds will pass after we begin rotation before we climb above their vantage point! When rotation speed finally does arrive, I raise the nose carefully, lest I drag my first tail skid, something that I certainly want to avoid doing this close to the probable end of my career! After rolling for what seems like another mile with the mains still firmly on the ground (but in reality only around another 1000 feet or so!) the ship finally shakes itself loose of the runway and starts to climb, albeit at a more stately pace than usual.
On all takeoffs from 31L at JFK, a left turn is begun at 400 feet above the runway, the better to avoid mixing it up with the LaGuardia traffic a few miles to the north. At this late hour (it is now past midnight) there is little chance of that, but turn we must and turn we do. I ease the yoke left and let the ship lean over to around a 15 degree bank, and we gracefully wheel toward Canarsie, several miles away over in Brooklyn. There is a line defined by a radial of Canarsie VOR that we are supposed to remain south of, and another, a few miles further on down the line, that we are supposed to cross above 2500 feet. In order to achieve both of these objectives, I will leave the flaps at the takeoff setting of 5 degrees a bit longer than normal, since the process of accellerating while retracting the flaps will slow the climb to a crawl, and the higher speeds after the flaps are up (tonight over 250 knots!) will increase the turn radius. Time enough to retract the flaps after we reach Canarsie.
Tower bids us adios, and sends us over to departure control, whereupon we are immediately given a left turn direct to SHIPP, our first fix tonight. The departure thus simplified, I lower the nose a bit to accellerate and call for flap retraction as the minimum speeds appear on the instruments. We must be particularly careful tonight, because the min speed for going from flaps 1 to flaps up is very close to the flaps 1 speed limit - 250 knots. It can be tricky to keep the speed below the limit until the flaps (actually, the leading edge slats) are completely retracted, but it must be done, since an overspeed would require an inspection after landing down south.
After things are cleaned up, we can relax a bit. Since I already anticipate the possible end of my airline career in a few months, I will hand fly tonight longer than I otherwise might, the better to firmly fix the flying qualities of the 767 in my now-volatile memory! Indeed, I wish that I had a better recollection of how some of my earlier airplanes handled, particularly the supersonic T-38 trainer in Air Force Pilot Training. I flew the "White Rocket" for 6 months, but I have little recollection, after nearly 37 years, of its handling qualities, other than that it flew like a fighter! I did get to try my hand at the T-38 Link trainer about a decade ago, the same Link trainers that we used back in 1972. I was surprised at what a handful the airplane was - nothing at all like the fingertip pressures on the stick that I thought I recalled. Of course, the Links themselves may well have deteriorated over the years, and for that matter I have no idea, at this stage of life, just how faithfully the Links reproduced the control forces of the T-38 even back then. All the more reason, therefore, to hand fly as much as I can over the next two months, the better to remember the last Boeings that I will likely have the privilege of flying!
It is now well past midnight, and the first order of business, after the navigation chores are in hand, is to plan the break schedule. It may seem that airline pilots are merely creatures of luxury, seeking comfort to the exclusion of other concerns, but the reality is that we are still almost 11 hours away from Buenos Aires, and we have already been up for at least 7 hours. As I mentioned in the first installment, the last break (if we were to go with a single break plan) would not begin for another 7 hours or so! Since none of us are in a physiological position to go that long without at least a short nap, we come to quick agreement on a split break plan. The splits work out to around 1:45 each, which means that no one need stay awake longer than around 3 1/2 hours. This should make things manageable.
The bane of the existence of the FB, the third pilot, is to take whichever break the other two pilots don't choose. So our FB now heads for the cabin, to avail himself of the first break. The Purser has, by now, provisioned the cockpit with a tray of assorted sodas, juices and the all-important mixed nuts, so we will not starve while waiting for the main course, which usually comes an hour or two later, after the paying customers have been fed and watered. This is as it should be, and we don't complain unless things are going really slow in the cabin. There has been a time or two in my career when the meals have not made their appearance until nearly three hours into the flight, but fortunately in each instance I had coincidentally seen fit to provision myself with a sandwich from the terminal. The FO, on the other hand, had not been so prescient, and the growls from his mid-section occasionally drowned out the ATC communications on the overhead speaker!
Approaching SHIPP we are cleared direct to WAYDE, on Amber 300. This cuts a bit off a corner and saves a mile or two. From WAYDE we will be flying on Amber 300 for several thousand miles! A-300 is the Interstate 95 of the aviation world - the main airway from north to south in the western Atlantic. There are several essentially parallel routes on either side of A-300, but for some reason it seems to be the preferred route, at least for us.
A-300 has been around for most of my AA career, although not always in the form it has tonight. Sometime around the late '80's or early '90's the airway was changed, and wound up with a kink in it abeam Bermuda. Prior to that time, it was a straight shot from CHAMP, the fix at the New York Center boundary, all the way to Dorado NDB. I still have one of the high altitude charts that shows A-300 as a straight line. Going back farther in time, the airway was called A-20, and the waypoints were different, although the route was the same straight shot. I found an old LORAN chart of the western Atlantic at Oshkosh last summer, dating from 1975 when I was flying the C-141, that shows A-20 with the northern waypoint named TUNNA. That brought back a few memories, because I dimly recall flying over TUNNA in those days. TUNNA was not at the same coordinates as CHAMP - it was closer to what is now BERGH intersection. (And just to confuse matters further, there was another fairly extensive reorganization of the WATRS [Western Atlantic Route System] area just after I retired in April 2008, and apparently even A-300 is now either changed or gone altogether. Que Sera! So the next edition of MSFS may well not support flights down A-300!)
The part of A-300 that I am most familiar with, of course, is the Champ-DDP segment, which is the principal route between the New York area and San Juan Puerto Rico. NY-SJU has been one of the world's major air bridges since the end of World War II, when a migration of sorts took place that seeded the major cities of the northeast, particularly New York, with people from the greater Antilles. These new residents, and their descendants, have long been among the "flying-est" folks in the world, and many of them make one or more pilgrimages yearly to the home island, often on American Airlines. It has been my pleasure over the years to have played a minor role in the journey of more than a few of them! Gracias, amigos, for the privilege!
After plodding along for three hours or so, and making a few HF position reports to keep ourselves and the controllers in the New York Oceanic center occupied, the lights of San Juan begin to peep over the horizon ahead, playing hide and seek with the always-present cumulus buildups. At this time of year, and at this time of night, the buildups are benign, and pose no threat of thunderstorms that must be avoided. It is, of course, a different story in the summertime! Deviations nearly the length of the island are not unknown in thunderstorm season! Fortunately, at least at the lower altitudes on the approach, tropical thunderstorms are nowhere near as violent as the sort that spawn in the midwest of the United States. Although they all must be avoided, the tropical variety can at least be approached a bit more closely down low, which is just as well, since weather deviations down here can involve crossing a national border!
As we check in with San Juan center , just south of KRAFT, we are cleared direct to the opposite boundary, an intersection called KIKER. This shifts our route enough to the east that we will pass almost directly over San Juan itself. Many a delightful layover I have spent on the beach in San Juan! And then there was the time when we had a layover during a hurricane. This storm, forecast to pass somewhat north of the island itself and thus not be a risk to life and limb, nonetheless impelled AA to move all aircraft off of the island, taking with them the crews that had been on layovers the day before. Those of us who came in on the day in question were told that the hotel was prepared for the blow, and we were needed to recommence operations the following day, after passage of the storm. With a few misgivings, we obediently trooped out to the crew van and were regaled, on the way to the hotel, with the driver's memories of hurricanes from his youth, all of which were considerably more violent than we hoped the current model would be! Suffice to say that the storm did indeed pass a bit north of the island, and we were spared the worst effects of the inner bands of wind. But what hit San Juan was no slouch either - winds of around 60 knots or so were enough to drive the rain horizontally, and power at the hotel was lost within an hour, not to be regained until morning. It was amusing to see the winds shift as the storm passed - originally around 60 knots out of the north, and then, an hour or so later, 60 knots from the south! I'm glad I wasn't flying in that mess!
One perennial feature of the San Juan center that we will miss tonight is the unmistakeable voice of the controller we know as "Clay". I can only presume that is his real name, because sadly I have never met the man. Clay apparently hails from somewhere well south of the Mason-Dixon line, and has perhaps the most recognizeable voice in all of air traffic control worldwide. A few pilots have querried Clay over the years as to why he is not directing traffic at, say, ATL. His reply, apparently, has always involved a love of the ocean and the tropical lifestyle. The latest rumor is that he has retired. Too bad, because he had become an integral part of a trip to San Juan. The skies of Puerto Rico won't be the same without him!
Just north of the island we meet our opposite number, flight 956 bound for New York from Buenos Aires. Normally this meet occurs near Margarita, just offshore from Venezuela, but we are late tonight, and 956 was on time. We exchange pleasantries and a bit of info about the weather before passing in the night. Other than 956 and a few other deep-south flights, as well as a few freighters from Fedex and UPS, there is little traffic at this time of night.
As we fly over the south shore of Puerto Rico, we enter upon the Caribbean Sea itself. In our less geographically literate era (although perhaps Google Earth may change that!) there are those who think that any island from Bermuda on southward is in the "Caribbean". Not so. The north shore of Puerto Rico is actually caressed by the waters of the North Atlantic. Only the south shore looks out upon the Caribbean. These waters and the shores that faced them were once known as the Spanish Main, when the treasure ships of the Conquistadores brought back the loot of two continents to the mother land in Europe. And where treasure was, so also were those who sought to relieve the Spaniards of the burden of it! Pirates and privateers lurked in these waters, and a portion of the loot never made it back to El Escorial.
In the 20th Century, this area became one of the cradles of early civil aviation. By 1920 airplanes were being used in Colombia to carry the mail, landing on lakes and rivers for lack of actual airfields. In 1927 the nascent Pan American Airways began its long trek to global service with a route from Key West to Havana, using a borrowed seaplane for the inaugural flight. Juan Trippe, the visionary president of Pan Am, had his sights set from the very beginning on a route system that would stretch from the United States nearly to Patagonia, and over the next decade he achieved that goal, partly by internal expansion, and partly by acquisition. By the late 1920's Trippe had managed to set up a route system throughout the Caribbean region and the Gulf of Mexico, roughly along the lines of Charles Lindbergh's historical goodwill flight in the Spirit of St. Louis in late 1927.
Trippe then expanded the Pan Am route system along both coasts of South America. He pushed the line all the way to Buenos Aires along the east coast, with frequent stops to accommodate the modest range of the small early seaplanes. But soon enough, Trippe was faced with serious competition here, when Ralph O'Neill's New York, Rio and Buenos Aires Airline started flights from Miami to Buenos Aires with the superior Consolidated Commodore seaplane. Trippe fought back using his considerable influence at the Post Office Department, and eventually a shotgun wedding was arranged by which Pan American took over the assets of NYRBA, and the Commodores underwent a change of livery.
Along the west coast, Trippe ran up against the formidable presence of the W.R. Grace shipping line, at that time the principal surface transportation entity in the region. Grace had already begun to take an interest in the new dimension of aviation, and through political connections had undertaken to block Pan Am's moves south from Colombia. Both companies, however, accepted the reality that cut-throat competition could be detrimental to profitability, which was a tenuous thing at best in the infant airline industry. And so it was that in early 1929 Pan Am and the Grace Company created a joint entity - Pan American-Grace Airways, known also as Panagra. This line would eventually reach all the way to Santiago Chile, and across the Andes to Buenos Aires, and serve all points between, including some stations in the high Andes. The pilots were a colorful lot indeed, but the safety record they would eventually chalk up is impressive, especially considering the primitive facilities available until after WWII.
In 1967 Panagra would be acquired by Braniff Airways, which would then change its name to Braniff International. Braniff would operate an extensive South American network based upon the original Panagra routes until just prior to its bankruptcy, when the package of routes and an extensive infrastructure in South America would be sold to Eastern Airlines. Eastern, of course, also fell on hard times, and Bob Crandall, the hard driving president of American, would purchase the entire package in 1990, thus bringing the eagle logo to the South American continent and setting the stage for my own Latin odysseys! Such as we are embarked upon tonight!
A few minutes prior to KIKER intersection, we call ahead to Maiquetia, the Venezuelan center responsible for ATC services in the southeastern Caribbean and eastern Venezuela. At once the journey acquires a Latin flavor - for until this moment we have been chatting with American controllers (notwithstanding a few controllers in the SJU center who are obviously native to that island!). And for some reason the radio transmissions themselves change - more metallic sounding and seemingly more distant, but still eminently serviceable. From now on we must take pains to ensure that our own transmissions reflect a strict adherence to standard ICAO verbiage, because English can no longer be taken for granted as the first language from here on down.
After WWII the countries of the world formed the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, which is now an arm of the UN. One of the early actions taken was to establish an international language of aviation; and, perhaps not surprisingly, English got the nod. In practice what this means is that at any international airport in the world, as well as all ATC enroute facilities, some level of English is available, specifically a more or less standardized vocabulary of words and phrases covering the needs of aviation. So, for example, a Russian pilot flying for Aeroflot into South America could communicate with ATC in English, since it is highly unlikely that any controllers in South America are fluent in Russian!
This, of course, works very much to the advantage of those such as myself, for whom English is a first, second and third language! (Midwest, Southern and New York varieties!!) Pilots in other parts of the world whose native language is other than English have an extra subject to master in pilot training. In reality, the level of knowledge required is not the same as conversational fluency, but rather the mastery of that standard catalog of phrases and words - words such as takeoff, landing, lineup and wait, and so on. Although most international pilots around the world are in fact fairly fluent in English, the controllers may not be - after all, they do not travel the world daily, and they may have little use for conversational English fluency at home.
Interestingly, this also imposes a burden upon the native English speaking aviator. Not only must he learn to identify the ATC version of English when transmitted through occasionally poor reception conditions in many colorful accents, but he must be on guard to use only the correct phraseology in his queries and replies. In the USA, we often grow accustomed to speaking the vernacular in our exchanges with ATC, and they always understand a transmission like"...we'd like to run around that weather to the west, if you can approve that.." Try that on a controller in Brazil, however, and you will likely get a request for a repeat! Or the Portuguese equivalent of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Over?!" Indeed, the language issue is one of the most important elements of international training, and for the most part it is all carried out on the line. It takes a newbie several trips before he or she can really understand many of the controllers outside of the good ol' US of A.
By now the east is beginning to show evidence that yet another day may be in the offing. Normally, dawn does not break on these trips until we are south of the Amazon river, but we are running so late this morning that we will get an extra treat - the Amazon by day! But first, we must traverse the mountains of eastern Venezuela. These are nothing at all like the Andes, of course, but they must be reckoned with, and so one of us switches his radar display over to the terrain mode, the better to examine the lay of the land below. By the time we actually get to these mountains, in the Canalma National Park, the sun is up. I have never seen this area before by day, and the landscape is ruggedly beautiful indeed. And apparently sparsely populated.
Approaching PAKON intersection we call ahead to the Brazilian center, known as Amazonica. We will be talking to them for well over an hour, and the signals must travel through repeater stations, which occasionally creates a strange echo effect on the radio, as more than one repeater transmits the same signal at slightly different times.
The terrain below flattens out, and the ground cover, which was more like eastern Colorado back in Venezuela, is now becoming jungle. The jungle looks for all the world like a textured green carpet, the only variations being created by the shadows cast by the many clouds down low. I begin to wonder if we will actually be able to see the Amazon river when we reach it, or will it all be obscured by an undercast. Time will tell!
There are more important things to attend to at the moment than the clouds below, for we are now fast approaching the Equator. Our only notification of equatorial passage will, of course, be the digital readout on the IRU panel over our heads, and the passage of the waypoint EDRIP on the nav display. EDRIP sits directly on the 0 degree latitude line, and I count down the distance to go, the better to grab a picture with the IRS coordinates showing the exact moment of passage. Tonight the two of us now on duty have both crossed the line many times, but I imagine there are at least a few Pollywogs in the back. They, of course, are fast asleep, or else they surely wish they were. In any event, neither ceremony nor announcement serves as their initiation into the court of King Neptune. More's the pity.
From the days of sail to the present day, an elaborate ritual marks the first equatorial passage of a newbie, known in the maritime world as a Pollywog. A rite of passage not unlike a fraternity initiation takes place on the deck, with the Shellbacks on the crew (those sailors who had already crossed the equator) serving up the trials and torments! Even the ship's Captain, if it be his first crossing, must needs submit to the ceremonies, which culminate in the presentation of the initiates to "King Neptune" and his "court" (a coterie of Shellbacks dressed outlandishly for the part!). These festivities were typically more physical on military ships than on liners, where things were considerably watered down (no pun intended!) for the benefit of the more fragile passengers. At the end of the ceremonies, the initiates are presented with a certificate identifying them as Shellbacks and attesting to their crossing. There are two special orders of Shellback, as it happens - the Golden Shellback who crossed the equator at the 180th parallel of longitude, and the Emerald Shellback who crossed at the prime meridian (0 degrees longitude). The Golden position is just west of Howland Island in the Pacific, and the Emerald lies in the Gulf of Guinea, close by the African coast, so neither of these locations is in what would be considered the shipping lanes, no doubt accounting for the rarity of those two certificates among the world's mariners.
All airways in this northern part of Brazil converge at Manaus, the old rubber-barrons' city on the Amazon. There is a modern airport at Manaus, and indeed this is one of only a few enroute alternates between Venezuela and Bolivia. This is not an ETOPS flight, but in some respects it is similar, because with so few alternates careful consideration must be given to the notion of where to go if a mechanical or medical problem became acute. There are, in fact, only three really preferred places to go along the northern two thirds of Upper Amber 300 (UA300) - Margarita, an island just off the Venezuelan coast east of Caracas, Manaus itself on the Amazon, and Santa Cruz, in eastern Bolivia. The airports at Boa Vista, just inside the Brazilian border, and Tefe, west of Manaus, are emergency only, meaning that there may be little more there than a runway. A large airliner once diverted into Rio Branco, another emergency-only field, and found that there were no stairs tall enough to reach the aircraft doors!
Manaus comes and goes beneath a solid undercast, and with it goes our daylight photo op of the Amazon. Oh well! I have seen both Manaus and the Amazon by night many times, with the moon reflecting off the wide river giving the appearance of a river of silver. Actually, the wide part of the river that reflected all of that moonlight was the Rio Negro, which joins the Amazon at Manaus. Be that as it may, it was a beautiful sight indeed, and Manaus looked like a golden medallion on a silver chain.
Non aeronautical maps show numerous small towns and villages along just about every tributary of the river. The river must surely be the highway in this part of the world, because there appears to be but one road into Manaus, coming down from Boa Vista in the north. Other than that one road, and the river itself, there is only the air bridge from this city in the middle of the jungle to the rest of Brazil. Which is perhaps why Brazil had some of the earliest airlines, including the colorful Panair do Brasil, which became a subsidiary of Pan American after the NYRBA acquisition.
As we forge ahead south of the Amazon, we have been aloft now for nearly 6 hours. Each of us has already had one of our two breaks, and it will soon be time for my second attempt at a bit of sleep. Actually, sleep has not been hard to come by tonight, and the first break passed quickly in complete oblivion. And the short break is not really a problem, because I have always found it nearly impossible to get more than a couple of hours of sleep at a time on airplanes. It has always been something of a mystery to me how the crews of Northwest, when they split the oriental flights into two equal parts, could make much use of the 7 hour breaks that resulted! The big problem for me, as I'm sure it is for you, is the lack of humidity on an airplane. The air in the cabin has been taken from the compressor section of the engines - squeezed to very high temperatures (around 300 or more degrees C) by the compression process. In that process, much of the moisture has been driven out of the air, and what little remains is further purged in water separators in the compressor-turbine cooling units (the so-called air conditioning "packs"). If much moisture remained in the air going through these packs, the cooling process would result in it freezing and icing up the works, so it is virtually all removed.
The humidity level in a pressurized airliner cabin is less than 5%. Compare that to the levels in deserts - typically around 20-30%. Sleeping in an environment like that dries out every membrane in the body, and before long the feeling of daggers in the nose and throat stabs you awake! In my Air Force days, I found that wearing a cotton surgical mask would allow re-breathing enough moisture to enable sleeping for 3-4 hours at a stretch, but that solution is not viable when taking a break in full view of the passengers! (I'm not a doctor but I play one on my breaks!) So I just pull the blanket over my head and hope that the tent effect works half as well. There is talk of humidifiers on the newer 787's, but they won't be here in time to do me any good, other than as a passenger!
We are still in the Amazonica Center's airspace, and will be for a total of over two hours! That's one big center. In contrast, some U.S. centers can be traversed, in some areas, in as little as 15 minutes or so! Of course we have had a frequency change or two along the say, but the sectors at Amazonica are as large as entire centers elsewhere in the world. And even by day there is little traffic, although it is still fairly early in the morning. Things may liven up a bit later in the day.
As we approach the boundary between Amazonica and LaPaz, the next center, I reach for the Jeppesen enroute chart once again. Some may think that, with all of the moving map displays, we never touch a paper chart. But there is a wealth of information on the chart that we can avail ourselves of, and it is a good idea to maintain at least a general sense of where we are relative to something other than the glass screen. Failure of the nav systems, or of the electronic instrumentation is only a remote possibility, but it has happened. In this part of the world, it makes sense to have your backup plan readily available. Actually, come to think of it, that makes sense anywhere in the world!
The charts for South America have changed a great deal since I started flying down here in the mid 1970's. For one thing, there are now a great many more airways than there were way back then, as well as a few more VOR's and other navaids. Communications has come a long way as well. It was not uncommon to talk to some of the controllling agencies down here via HF radio. Fortunately, things have improved, and VHF is available along our entire route structure. Radar control was unknown in the '70's, save for terminal facilities at a few of the biggest airline airports like Rio and BA. Today, though, there is radar coverage over much of South America. Amazonica, for example, has had radar contact with us since we passed PAKON, and we have made not a single position report to them. That is about to change.
My South American enroute charts are the only ones I still highlight in any way - elsewhere, since they are just a backup, that sort of attention to detail is no longer required. But here it pleases me to highlight the FIR (Flight Information Region) boundaries, as well as the airway we are travelling. In addition, I color the FIR boundary reporting points. All of this serves to remind me where we must get in touch with another center, since on occasion we lose radio contact just around the boundary. Fotunately, the Jepps have convenient boxes with the appropriate frequencies, so we are usually always in contact with who we need to be talking to.
Looking at a chart from the 1970's, we see a much different picture. There is actually very little controlled airspace - the white areas on this chart are controlled. This is an Air Force chart, and the symbology is different from the Jepps, and I'm not sure whether the fact that both the high and the low Jepp charts of today are entirely white is indicative of the extent of controlled airspace. Still, note how few airways there were back then. Most of them were based upon NDB's (non-directional beacons). There were only a tiny handful of VOR's in all of South America in those days - today there are many more, and only a relatively few NDB's defining airways. Actually, most of the high altitude airways we are using are more or less RNAV airways - the VOR's are often much farther apart then would be practical if actual VOR navigation was relied upon.
Athough the communications frequency listings showed VHF availability back then, those frequencies were only useable for a short distance from the station. HF frequencies were the order of the day, and almost all of the communications enroute was handled that way, static and all. I can dimly recall what a goat rope it often was trying to understand the controllers (which is sometimes difficult even on VHF) through the static and distortion of HF, especially at night and with thunderstorms in all quadrants! Sometimes you just had to soldier on, hoping that ATC was moving the little plastic shrimp boat with your number on it along your route in accordance with the last estimate you were able to pass. This last estimate was occasionally hours old. It was always a relief when voice communications of any sort were restored on nights like that.
In those days, the navigators were quite busy keeping us headed in the right direction. Although we did use the NDB's and the occasional VOR, the navs could refine the course with data from the Doppler computers, which worked fairly well over the jungle as I recall. With the Doppler giving us speed and track, the Nav could get an update from bearings on radio stations (NDB, VOR) and even celestial shots if the sky conditions were right. All in all, I never got lost down here. Perhaps I was lucky. It really wouldn't have mattered, in this neck of the woods, since terrain is not a factor. Over to the west a ways, things are different, but we'll talk about that on the way back! For tonight, we can just see the edges of the Andes on the terrain display at max range, and we will be well clear of them.
Entering Bolivian airspace, we revert to making position reports. Some centers want reports at every compulsory point, others do not. After a few trips, you get a sense of who wants what. Pilots have always been creatures of sloth, and are averse to rousing themselves to make position reports, now that they have gotten spoiled by years of radar contact! It is occasionally possible to avoid reporting certain waypoints by estimating others farther down line in the last report. Occasionally ATC, no doubt moved by the same proclivities, will simply say "Roger, report such and such". It is always worth a try, and if they want something different they will tell us! As I said, you quickly develop a sense of who wants what!
La Paz wants just one report prior to the opposite boundary, which suits us just fine. The opposite boundary separates Bolivian airspace from that of Paraguay, the Asuncion Center. At night, Asuncion is easy to spot - it is perhaps the only sizeable town in the world still lit largely with mercury vapor lamps, which are a bluish-white, as opposed to today's sodium vapor lamps, which are the familiar amber-yellow color. I once had a layover in Asuncion many years ago, one of the very few in South America in my Air Force career. I remember little about the place - we weren't there very long, only a few hours, and we did little more than eat and sleep. Well, maybe a bit more than that...but my lips are sealed!
In addition to the good VHF communications that now prevails under the Southern Cross, we now have the added benefits of ACARS, the VHF data link service. This is not universally available down here, but coverage is effective over roughly a third of the route. This means that we can monitor the weather at destination, or anyplace else that reports. When we first bought the South America route package from Eastern, along with all of the infrastructure there was a facility that was known as Flight Support Lima. Located, as its name implies, in Lima Peru this was a private, mostly HF, radio communications facility the origins of which went all the way back to the Panagra days. The operators, so we were told, were mostly retired Captains, and thus had considerable aeronautical experience beyond merely talking on the radio. Prior to SATCOM and ACARS, we made position reports every few hours to this facility, which relayed them by land line to dispatch. They were also able to get weather for us, often augmented by their own not inconsiderable local knowledge of the continent! The HF radios they used were old, and not overly strong, and Flight Support Lima was often difficult to contact, but by and large the system worked reasonably well, and they were a familiar voice in the night. With the arrival of ACARS and SATCOM, however, they were redundant, and a few years ago the station was closed and the last of the operators retired.
In their place was SATCOM, a feature of most all of our international airplanes these days. SATCOM resembles a telephone more than it does a radio, and it is operated just like a phone - you dial numbers with it and you can connect to any phone anywhere in the world! It is the same system that the passengers in the back use whenever they feel burdened by an intolerable excess of money! (The rates to use it are as astronomical as the satellites it relays signals to!) In fact, if enough passengers were using it at the same time (imagine a charter flight full of software billionaires, as an example - albeit not FS add-on software billionaires, since there are no known entities in that category!!) we would have to override at least one of them in order to acquire some essential bit of weather or operational data! It has been done.
For some unfathomable (at least to the non-astrophysicists among the pilot ranks!) reason, both ACARS and SATCOM are often unavailable in the area we are now transiting - Bolivia, Paraguay and northern Argentina. This has nothing to do with the people or governments of these fine countries, but probably is the result of both ACARS ground station geometry and satellite geometry. Whatever the reason, it is precisely here that we need to start paying attention to the destination weather, and we sommetimes cannot do so. The weather in BA has been known to be below even CAT III minimums on occasion, especially around our arrival time. Indeed, it was at BA that I had occasion to fly the second, and now of course the last, real CAT III autoland approach in my long and distinguished career! On that occasion we were also unable to update the weather in the last three hours of the flight, until the ACARS came alive again around an hour out. It was, perhaps, just as well, since by the time we got a weather report the visibility was up to around 1000 feet. As much of a shock as this was (the forecast had been for essentially VFR!) the reports from the previous two hours would have really floored us - visibilities of around 100 feet, which is below even our autoland minimums of 300 feet. Several of our flights to BA (American has had as many as five flights a day into BA from El Norte) had diverted, and at least one crew had gone illegal at the alternate, a fate worse than death for both crew and passengers! When we made our approach, fully coupled, it was merely a rehash of many an old simulator ride, and the landing was uneventful.
As I return from my second break, a little over an hour north of BA, the weather has just come across the printer after the usual communications blackout. It is of some concern, since there appear to be thunderstorms in the area - in fact, more or less over the field. We must now consider our plan of action. We have two alternates this morning, because one of them is Montivideo Uruguay, which is so close to BA as to be affected by the same weather, including thunderstorms. The other is Cordoba, which is located around 360 nm northwest of BA. It will be easier and quicker to divert to Cordoba from where we are now than to proceed all the way to BA and retract our steps. This we would do if the weather at BA was certain to remain unfavorable. Thunderstorms, however, are a fast moving and/or shortlived phenomenon, and the place would have to be literally besieged by storms in all quadrants before it would make much sense to divert from here. Fuel, of course, is always an issue, but we have enough to make the long version of the divert, and there is another closer alternate - Rosario- that we can avail ourselves of, since the weather there is adequate. So we press on southward, with options in hand and the back door firmly open, so to speak!
At Resistencia, a VOR located at the airport of a city in northern Argentina, we come across the second of the great South American rivers we will encounter on this trip - the Rio Parana. This river would actually lead us to the third great river, the Rio de la Plate, and thus to BA eventually, but we will not follow the Parana, which curves around to the west and eventually swings back east to join the Rio Uruguay and form the Plate just north of BA. Instead we will follow the airway more or less due south from SIS, and head for the cluster of close-together waypoints that always announces the imminent end of a journey. When we see this cluster of white characters appear at the top of the nav display, we know we're almost there!
Somewhere south of Resistencia, breakfast makes its way to my lap. On these flights, omelets are on the menu, and I dig in with gusto! We don't see omelets on the Atlantic anymore, and I miss them, since they are one of my favorite breakfast entrees. I enjoy this one as I review the arrival and approach to the Ezieza airport at Buenos Aires. From the north, we almost always use the PAGON arrival - PAGON 6A is the variant that was in effect in February 2008 - and since the wind most often favors runway 11, we transition seamlessly onto the No. 1 VOR DME/ILS approach from ARSOT. This approach has a CAT IIIA variant, with a minimum visibility of 200 meters (roughly 600 feet), but I very much doubt we will need to go that low. The latest report now indicates that the thunderstorms are moving off to the northeast, and it appears that we will have little difficulty landing. This is just as well, because although we do indeed have fuel to get back over to Cordoba and land there, what we have little of on a flight of this length is fuel for holding here in the vicinity of BA. This is often the case on really long flights, and on occasion diversions have resulted when even a 20 minute hold might have allowed a flight to land.
A decision to burn some or all of the diversion fuel holding at destination is a dicey proposition, to say the least. A pilot who does this is putting all of his or her aeronautical eggs in but a single basket, and is possible to paint yourself into a very uncomfortable corner. I have never done it myself, always preferring the better part of valor. The only circumstance when it might make even the slightest amount of sense to stick around would be when the field was under the influence of a very transient condition, like a small thunderstorm, that was clearly going to vacate the premises quickly. Fortunately, most places have closer alternates available, like Rosario, and we can easily manufacture some holding fuel by calling dispatch and changing the alternate. Although in the strictest technical sense alternate fuel is purely a preflight planning function, and it is entirely the Captain's judgement as to fuel management once underway, all of us stick to the same guidelines, and I would never consider approaching a weathered-in terminal area without enough fuel actually onboard to hold and then divert. There are advantages to being the first one at the alternate, among them first crack at the fuel truck!
Today, though, all of this is academic, because as we make our descent over the city itself we can see, by eyeball and radar, that the rain has moved away to the east. The path to the airport is clear, and we have only a few airplanes ahead of us, meaning that little or no delay is to be expected. And indeed, no delays are encountered. Turning the corner at ARSOT, I begin to configure the airplane for the approach and landing. By now we are considerably lighter than we were almost 11 hours ago, around 280,000 lb now, and the approach speed is in the normal range - around 137 knots Vref. At this weight and speed, the 767-300 is a real pleasure to land - stable and yet responsive.
We slide down the glide slope and cross the threshold. The runway is still wet, which might just smooth things out even more. And indeed it does - the landing is one to be savored! They aren't all like that, of course, but it is always rewarding to get one. The smoothest landing I ever made in my life was one night on a wet runway at Frankfurt, in a C-141A. The 141 was an easy airplane to land well, because it flew like a giant Cessna 172 and you had to actually flare it and hold it off for a bit. On the rainy night in question I just kept holding it off, and the pitch attitude got to be 5 or so degrees nose up, which was a bit more than the normal landing attitude of the Starlifter. At that point I got to wondering if we were actually on the ground (!) and, thinking that at the speed we were making, less than 100 knots, we had by God better be, I called for the spoilers to be extended. Normallly this call is made as a command, but on this night it was more like a question - "Spoilers?" As the spoilers deployed, I was mentally prepared for the airplane to drop like a stone to the runway, but nothing happened, other than an increase in the rate of decelleration. We had been on the ground for several seconds before I called for the spoilers, and nobody knew it! Every pilot should get at least one like that in a career! And yes, that was the only one!
As we taxi in to a terminal that looks, in parts, like a set from the movie Evita, we are all ready for this particular oddysey to be over. Just the deplaning, customs, and a 45 minute ride to the city separate us from the comforts of an exceptional bed. The Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Buenos Aires is one of my favorites in the entire world, and soon enough I will bury myself under duvets and crisp sheets and take a long nap until it is time to meet the crew for a night on the town. A night that will feature the best steak in the entire world! See you in a few hours!