Written by: Captain Alan Carter • Airways Magazine, June 2014 – Left-Seat Chronicles
I have previously written about my travels in both Afghanistan and Iraq, exploring the risks and adventures to be had in destinations not normally found in travel brochures.
My experience operating the fabulous Boeing 747-400 aircraft around Africa – again primarily to airports off of the normal tourist routes – is something I quite find pleasure talking about.
Generally, these flights down to the second largest continent in the world start from either Amsterdam or Brussels in Europe, or alternatively Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
Flying from Jeddah on behalf of Saudi Arabian Airlines is a painless procedure which makes operating from the United Kingdom seem like trying to break out of a top security prison.
On arrival at Saudi Operations and Control Centre, there is always time for a quick cup of coffee from an excellent cafeteria, whilst “hovering” in the corridor to access the Internet on one of the third party operators’ open Internet server.
Once refreshed and e-mails checked, as here we can now download the comprehensive flight briefing package, it is time to pass through security control which is normally manned by members of either the Saudi Army or Air Force – a very laid back procedure which takes just seconds (unlike the horror stories I can recount from experiences at London Gatwick).
After security, we are immediately advised of the number for our crew shuttle bus, which is always waiting expectantly. We exit the building for the ten-minute drive to the cargo ramp, a journey to the central area of Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport (OEJN) driven conscientiously at the 20kph airport speed limit.
This short journey takes us past the impressive Hajj Terminal and the fabulously lit Royal Terminal, but neither is as impressive as the illuminated vista of the new passenger terminal which – whilst under construction – is lit in the manner of a Disneyland park designer’s fantasy on an unlimited budget.
Nothing would surprise me though; the airport construction company being used is part of the infamous Bin-Laden Group, a name forever associated with aviation but for all the wrong reasons.
Arriving at one of the 9-1 to 9-6 cargo apron parking stands, the efficient operation is readily visible, from the refuelling of the aircraft to the replenishment of the catering.
Generally the offloading of any inbound cargo is already completed and the aircraft almost ready to be accepted by us, as most flights departing from Saudi Arabia for Africa are empty sectors.
Occasionally we carry very expensive cars, for equally priviledged clients, or aircraft engines for either overhaul or replacement, but the norm is to operate an empty sector.
On a side note, when operating an empty Boeing 747-400 on short flights, in other-words with a low fuel load and no cargo, other considerations come into play. Ballast fuel needs to be used; this is to ensure that the aircraft centre of gravity is within limits throughout the duration of the flight.
This fuel is usually loaded into the aircraft’s centre tank and by definition cannot be used for normal operational requirements. However, in an emergency of course this fuel can be used.
As we say in aviation, the three most useless things are: Jeppesen charts in the car, runway behind you and fuel in the bowser, but I digress!
Climbing up the steps to the aircraft’s main entry door our suitcases are deposited awaiting tying down by one of our loadmasters; then it is up the aircraft’s integral steps, dodging the caterers and their multitude of catering boxes, to the upper deck and our “office” and “rest area”.
After checking with the engineers that there are no technical problems with the aircraft and having read the technical/maintenance log, it is time to grab a bottle of water and settle into the flight-deck.
These days the two crew members, captain and co-pilot, are split into two roles, one being Pilot Flying or PF and the other Pilot Monitoring or PM. It is my current company’s Standard Operating Procedures, SOPs, for the Pilot Monitoring to conduct the external check of the aircraft.
So, after checking that the parking brake is set, the brake wear pins can be checked and the necessary exterior lights selected on the departs. The external check if conducted correctly should take a minimum of ten minutes (with a flashlight if it is dark). If the PM takes any less time, send him back out again!
So whilst Pilot Monitoring goes off for some exercise – roughly a 0.25 kilometer walk for a Boeing 747-400 – Pilot Flying checks the aircraft documents, manuals and the flight briefing package to ensure that all is present and correct for the safe and legal operation of the upcoming flight.
This is also the time for the “power up” checklist or as it is sometimes known the “safety” checklist to be completed. This ensures that all the hydraulic and electrical services are correctly and safely configured and that the Inertial Reference Systems are starting their alignment process.
These IRSs take approximately 10 minutes depending on aircraft latitude. Their countdown to alignment is indicated on both pilots’ Navigation Displays. Most of this checklist involves actioning or checking switches on the pilot’s overhead panel.
When the PM has returned from his stroll outside, it is time to analyze the flight briefing package together. Checking the weather, Notice To Airmen, or Notams, and flight plan, a final fuel figure for the route can be agreed upon, whether it be the same as the one calculated on the operational flight plan or something higher should the pilots decide it prudent to increase it.
I should state the fuel loads calculated for flights departing Saudi Arabia always have far more than is legally required, generally an amount which places the aircraft a couple of tonnes below the maximum landing weight of 652,000 pounds, roughly 295.7 tonnes at destination (obviously this is due to the very low cost of fuel here in Saudi, when compared to African destinations where the price often has no reflection on current market rates).
Once again PM and PF split their duties completing forms for performance calculations, security checklists and trip information, the latter to enable the loadmaster to complete the loadsheet.
Each crew member also has his own areas of responsibility regarding the checking and setting of all the cockpit switches, with PF also loading the Flight Management System, or FMS, with all the route, performance and navigation information to successfully complete the flight.
With all the pre-flight procedures completed, the loadmaster delivers the loadsheet and the engineer the technical log for checking and signing by the captain. The loadsheet weights and take-off performance data are now read out by the captain and inputted into the FMS by the co-pilot, a double check to ensure that any chance of mistakes being made is minimized.
It has been known to happen, all too regularly, that this crosscheck has been incorrectly completed, with very dangerous consequences. For example inputting a zero fuel weight of 409,000 pounds instead of 490,000 pounds, will mean that take-off speeds will be incorrect by more than 10 knots and, combined with a lower than required take-off power setting, could lead to scraping the aircraft tail during rotation or worse, running off the end of the runway or stalling; all have happened.
PF now briefs his colleague as to how the departure is to be flown, which generally starts with a logical sequence of events, from aircraft and weather conditions, through taxi to climb out.
For today’s flight, it is a short taxi journey from the cargo ramp at Jeddah’s airport, past a vast area of parked Saudi Arabian Airlines aircraft, none of which will ever fly again but would form the backbone of a very impressive airline should they ever be sold (which they won’t be) to the threshold of the newly opened Runway 34 Centre.
The briefing then continues with the expected departure routing, which in Jeddah is very simple – maintain runway heading then climb to 5,000 feet before receiving radar vectors to the initial fix on the flight-plan routing.
Safety and Transition altitudes are discussed as are climb speeds and cruising altitudes. The emergency briefing is then discussed covering eventualities and actions both during the take-off roll and initial climb (for example, should an engine failure occur), and what safe routings are to be flown whilst dealing with checklists and reconfiguring the aircraft for the return to Jeddah.
Now with confirmation that all the ground-crew have left the aircraft and the front door is closed (otherwise it is a wee bit breezy once airborne!), it is time to complete the Before Start Checklist, obtain the Air Traffic Control Clearance for both the departure, engine start and pushback. Oh, and most importantly, to ensure that the Shawarmas – locally made beef and chicken wraps – have been placed in the oven!
Having an auto-start system, we can start two engines simultaneously during the pushback procedure and with the After Start Checklist completed– which includes a check of the flight controls whilst the flaps are running to the take-off setting of 20 degrees– it is time for us to move under our own power and our flight to Lome in Togo can begin.
After only five minutes of taxiing and having completed the Before Take-off Checklist and Line Up Items (which include setting the lights, weather radar and transponder), we are handed over to Jeddah Tower and given clearance for an immediate take-off.
We check that the runway is clear of aircraft, vehicles and flocks of birds, and that the approach segment has no arriving aircraft to affect us by looking both visually and on our Traffic Collision Alerting System (TCAS), then take-off thrust is set and we start rolling, which at high weights can take almost two minutes – almost enough time to make a cup of coffee!
Once airborne, we automatically change frequency to Jeddah Approach and are cleared to climb to 15,000 feet, with a left turn to our initial navigation fix that takes us on a south westerly track over the Red Sea and towards Sudanese airspace, coasting in over Port Sudan.
Khartoum Air Traffic Control clears us on a direct track to Al Fashir, passing to the north of the Capital City Khartoum, which I used to operate into whilst flying the Boeing 737NG for the Eritrean State Airline from Asmara – tales for another time, please note, Mr Editor!
Looking out of my flight-deck windows, I realize how fortunate we pilots are and how we view scenes that 99% of the world’s population never see. Yes, it is very desolate, but striking desert scenery nonetheless, as well as stunning cloud formations!
Passing just to the north of the Darfur region and the horrors that this area hold, it just doesn’t seem right to be sitting here with my meal on my lap (unfortunately Africa offers up so many inconsistencies, so much that is unfair).
Crossing the border into Chad we route further westwards passing to the south of another Capital City, N’djamena, also an interesting place to operate into. On my last visit we were parked on the tiny airport ramp when another Boeing 747-400 landed operated by the Luxembourg airline Cargolux.
With no room on the ramp, they had to wait for us to complete our procedures, remaining on the runway for over an hour with their engines shutdown. I can imagine that this was an unnerving experience, especially at night in an airport with no radar coverage and an at-best dubious security situation (after all, one of their aircraft did take a bullet through the wing on one departure from there!).
The sandy topography of Sudan is slowly being replaced with more fertile terrain as the view out of my window turns from yellow to green. Skipping briefly over the northern most tip of Cameroon, the country of Nigeria beckons next as do some very impressive thunderstorms.
I am neither a great fan of Nigeria– having had my aircraft “mugged”in Lagos– nor thunderstorms– which I refuse point blank to tangle with. I once found myself inside one of these behemoth tempests whilst flying at low level along the Berlin Corridor in a Boeing 727, gyrating and rolling like a tennis ball inside a washing machine!
I was then a co-pilot for the oh-so-wonderful British airline Dan Air during the mid-1980s, when the city and its country were both so ruthlessly divided and before that company was so ruthlessly destroyed.
As we approach the comparatively tiny country of Benin, it is time to complete the Approach Briefing for an RNAV approach onto the 3000m long Runway 22 at Lome (DXXX).
As with the majority of African airports which I operate into, the Instrument Landing System (ILS) hardly ever seems to be radiating. However, the RNAV is a fabulous alternative and not susceptible to the vagaries of interference by the local population!
There have been many occurrences to my knowledge of parts of the airport being “relocated” to add character features to local houses, as well as instances of having the fuel tanks syphoned on my DC10– but this contingency was covered in the fuel flight plan!
Our routing takes us on an almost straight-in approach for Lome. With the approach and landing checklists complete, we allow the AFDS (Autopilot Flight Director System) to navigate whilst we monitor and complete configuring the aircraft for our final approach, by selecting flaps to the landing setting of 30 degrees.
Views of the higher ground pass by to our right as their summits pop through the inland cloud base.
My co-pilot disconnects the automatic controls at 1000 feet and with the airport clearly in sight. I look out of my left-hand window and see the coastline beneath some widely scattered cumulus clouds. The long sandy beach seemingly stretches endlessly with a string of apparently dilapidated cargo vessels laying at anchor.
Crossing the runway threshold at 50 feet my co-pilot starts the flare manoeuver and the sixteen main wheels gracefully contact the runway surface as the speedbrakes automatically deploy whilst reverse thrust is selected on the four General Electric engines, effortlessly decelerating us from our touchdown speed of almost 160 knots.
Passing through 60 knots the reversers are stowed and the automatic braking is cancelled as my co-pilot lightly touches the brakes and says “You have control”.
I can see disappearing past us on the right-hand side a display of aircraft which can only be seen in Africa– dilapidated and rusting old Boeings amongst shiny multi-million dollar executive jets—TIA: This Is Africa!
The easy part of the day is over, now the hard part begins; we have to find our way to our hotel and a cold beer (well, we had just flown from Saudi Arabia and a cold one is well deserved!).
Part II of Out Of Africa, will take us to Douala and Yaoundé in the Cameroon, before heading for Kinshasa in the Congo and the “joys” which these destinations offer.
Regardless, I love every minute of it and consider myself to be truly lucky to be allowed to do what I do. As I tell my new co-pilots, “never take any of this for granted, as we are truly so
Read the second chapter of Captain Carter’s story in our July 2014 issue!