Night, over water

No horizon line. No lights. Black below; black above. You’ve left the comforting, glowing lights along the shoreline and set your track into the void over the black, depthless ocean.

On a moonless or cloudy night, over deep water, without visual reference and out of normal VHF radio communications range with air traffic control, you are alone. Having charge of all souls on board, while always a heavy responsibility, feels heavier.

If you’ve never flown the oceanic system, imagine piloting a lone sailboat striking out into deep water to sail to Europe. Or imagine leaving the warm, blue atmosphere into the cold dark for the Moon (for the record, I stipulate that space flight may be more complicated). As an airline pilot entering class II oceanic airspace, you have more of a feeling of being completely on your own than anywhere else in the system.

Over land, you’d usually have many more resources available. For example, flying most places domestically, you have several suitable airports to land at within your fuel range and within just a few minutes of the need arising. You also have quick and easy communications with air traffic control. They have you in sight on radar most of the time. They can provide valuable support in times of compressed decision making. But over water, your normal resources are much more limited.

Fire or smoke? Medical emergency? Loss of hydraulics or other mechanical failure? A line of thunderstorms has blown into your path with 70,000 foot tops, (and you at 35,000 feet)? Volcanic ash cloud blown over the flight path? You are at least an hour from the nearest suitable airport for landing. Deviating off course is limited by the oceanic airways and HF “communications” (the sarcastic looking quotes are meant to indicate that communication may be the wrong choice of words).

Airline cockpit at night
It can get very lonely out over the Atlantic.

Lack of close suitable airports, lack of communication, and as always, you are limited in your choices by fuel. If necessary, you have the option of declaring an emergency and doing the safest thing when you cannot get air traffic approval in time, but you are also taking the chance of flying into other traffic when deviating off of the airways.

Imagine the following scenario. You are sitting in the cockpit, preparing the aircraft for the flight as the passengers board. You load and check your flight plan and waypoints, check the weather, test the HF radio. You’ve checked the suitable alternate airports; fuel is legal and suitable for the planned flight and reserve.

Now you’ve departed. After reaching your first oceanic waypoint, you’ve left radar coverage, and entered the “no man’s land” of the oceanic system. You configure the HF radio to make the required position reports. The HF radio bounces a signal off of the ionosphere, sounds like it travels to Pluto, goes back in time to the 80s, and around the world seven times before it comes creaking back to your speakers.

While you mentally rehearse the required minute-long speech comprising your position report, 10 other pilots jump on the radio, trying to jam their position reports in, so they can go back to quietly pondering the depths of the ocean below. Listening for eons to other aircraft making their long and difficult-to-read position reports and the relay service reading it back to each one, requesting confirmations each way of the things that couldn’t be heard or understood. Each of your position reports can take anywhere from a minute (if you get on at just the right time), to 15 minutes if there is a long line and/or if communication is especially bad.

Imagine tuning into a radio station with barely a signal, mostly static, turning up the volume and shouting back and forth. Without the coverage of radar, these position reports are required in the oceanic tracks to keep airplanes separated by time crossing fixes, and altitudes. In other words, air traffic control can’t “see” you anymore; nor can they hear you on the normal VHF frequencies. You must relay your position on the HF radio through a service or middleman who goes between you and air traffic control. Because of the communication difficulty and time required to communicate, getting permission to actually do something takes forever. It has to be relayed by this middleman service from you to air traffic control and then ATC’s response to the relay service, and they back to you.

You are now two hours into your oceanic flight, with hours to go. As you prepare for your next excruciating position report, several incredibly loud, startling buzzers sound in the cockpit; an emergency call from the flight attendants. One row of your passengers thinks they smell smoke. As the flight attendants evaluate the state of that row’s mental health, and brief each other on the information, one of them points out a haze in the air. They conclude that there is definite smoke, and now believe that the cabin floor may feel warm. You are one hour from the nearest suitable airport.

Or, you are two hours off shore again, and they call. Someone is having a heart attack or stroke in the cabin. You are still more than one hour from any suitable airport. Or imagine that you are congratulating yourself on having made three flawless position reports with just the right amount of seniority in your voice, when your on-board radar picks up a line of red radar returns that now entirely covers your oceanic airway.

Tracks
They’re called tracks, but sometimes they feel like prison cells.

At 500 miles per hour, you’ll be reaching that weather in 19 minutes. It can take 15 minutes to request permission to deviate and get an answer back from air traffic control through the middleman radio service. The minutes stretch while waiting for a response while you hurtle toward the red line. Fourteen minutes later, you receive a call to your aircraft’s HF radio, and the answer is “unable” to your request to deviate off of your airway to avoid the weather (possibly due to other aircraft on the airway in the direction you need to go). You are running out of time and options; a position no pilot is comfortable with.

As each airline pilot prepares for their overwater flights, they think about these scenarios. Because of the vast stretches of time and space without a place to land, sometimes “good” options don’t exist.

As companies add Satcom to the aircraft, faster and clearer communication becomes available to pilots overwater. Satcom is basically a phone in the cockpit with the ability to call dispatch for weather info and a host of other information, a telemedicine service to speak with doctors, and air traffic control. Communication is clear and easy to understand. Another invaluable resource that is being added to aircraft is Controller Pilot Data Link Communications, or CPDLC. This system allows the aircraft to be “seen” while overwater and out of radar coverage.

In an airplane with CPDLC, the archaic HF position reports are not needed. Altitude change requests and deviations off track can be requested with a text message. Response times are much faster and absolutely clear because they are in writing. In an environment of reduced resources like over water flights, these added resources are invaluable to pilots when needing to make decisions in a time compressed situation.

Companies adding these very expensive systems to cockpits should be lauded, as these resources don’t bring in revenue. They do provide the company with the efficiencies of increased communication abilities. For example, unnecessary diversions may be avoided and the best choice of airport can be used more often. With better communication to someone that has full access to all information in real time, we may be able to choose an airport for diversion that has customs facilities, fuel, gate space, handling abilities vs. just choosing the known close airport and not knowing if it has a gate or handling available.

Overwater flights may seem like just another day at the office, but like a lone sailboat on the ocean, or space flight, out over the water you are on your own with more limited resources and many things can happen. You cannot plan for the all of the vicissitudes of life. What you can do is consider the resources that you do have before and during the flight: your crew, telemedicine, your dispatcher, fuel, suitable airports, communications, air to air comm with other airplanes in the oceanic system, and others.

In my 19 years flying for airlines, 13 of those years flying over water, I’ve been fortunate to have never had more than minor customer medical issues and minor mechanical issues while in the oceanic system. But you can bet that I think about these possibilities every time.

16 Comments

  • At the other extreme, the freedom/consequence of blue water (beyond divert range) carrier flight ops…beyond not ticking off the Boss inside 10nm, few rules other than check-in/return on time and don’t break the jet. Unlikely to be near air routes and no reason to be at airliner altitudes. It can be all the best stuff of day VFR cloud surfing or the less pleasant of being shot (catapulted) into the darkest night hole with nothing but the marshal (holding) stack circus and night trap to “look forward” to.

    … and if you want some amusement, ask on old goat about maneuvering in marshal to make the approach time +/- 10 seconds given the alternative of ‘fessing up on freq.

  • I had my only engine out failure at night over water in a C-172. Sounds dramatic and it was frankly. But due to some intelligent “what if” flight planning on my part, the situation became only an exercise in airmanship to land a SEL aircraft to a controlled airport for a safe dead stick landing.
    The incident occurred over Suisun Bay east of San Francisco. I fly higher at night and airport to airport. Takes longer to get there but far safer. The engine coughed and sputtered for a while before taking a nap. We were at 8,500 ft. I actually had a choice of landing on highway 80 extending from Sacramento to Concord. At night I fly IFR as in I fly roads between airports.
    In this case we had just entered the cone of glide to Buchanan Field in Concord. So this became a story of, engine getting real quiet, call mayday, got landing clearance any runway my choice, glide to Buchanan arriving at about 3,500 ft, lose sight of the airport because the lights do not point up, glide about two miles west to regain the beacon, get to pattern altitude at about the right distance from the north south runway and land on the first third.
    All of that excitement because a mechanic did not make a correct repair to the carburetor and a part fell off.
    Moral: fly high at night between airports along roads where you can see headlights. If I had flown direct to San Jose our destination from Sacramento, we would have been in the unlighted Sacramento Delta somewhere when the engine stopped making noise.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with Captain Britt’s favorable comments regarding the Controller Pilot Data Link Communications system (CPDLC). It’s arguably the biggest improvement in oceanic operational safety since the adoption of turbine power. However, there is more to the story.

    Nearly twenty years ago the FAA, and selected airlines, formed a partnership to develop Controller Pilot Data Link Communications. The plan was to demonstrate CPDLC at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center. NASA would develop the technology, the FAA would build the infrastructure and the airline partner(s) would equip 300 airplanes with the required avionics to verify the system’s performance. The total taxpayer investment ended up being about $100 million. Shortly after the ground based system was activated, the airlines abandoned their commitment (only 30 planes were equipped) citing shifting financial priorities.

    To add insult to injury the airline lobby – Airlines for America (A4A) – later cited the failure of CPDLC as its principle argument for stripping our Air Traffic Control system away from the FAA and placing it in the hands of a private corporation.

    We should all be grateful that the airlines are equipping now for CPDLC. But we should be mindful that the industry held back this quantum leap in safety and efficiency for a decade in order to reduce costs and further a political agenda.

  • Captain Britt. Thank you for another interesting article. Please keep them coming. And—-what is your favorite of those ‘many leather bound books’?

  • Good article. At XYZ we had CPDLC but still used the HF radio to establish radio contact via back up means (what a PITA).
    We were airborne starting at about 0400 departure in MEM/IND. I had crossed a dozen times when i was faced with two other crew members who were new hires with 0 (ZERO) crossings. Less than 100 hours in the plane…
    Terrified? You bet! One more reason why XYZ hires HIGHLY Qualified pilots
    I was on pins and needles. When we got established on to the NAT tracks I got my break to take a 97 minute rest in the back and the brief was ” if you hosers touch anything up here come get me”….
    It went as expected no one went off script. We landed in Paris around 1900 local time.
    Tradition in the airlines is that for first year guys (they are getting serf pay) the Captains buys the drinks. In Paris a beer is $12+ so my ground brief was I’ve got a hundred Euros € and when that’s gone we will just do rounds…
    Some where out side of the Twouis Mallets (3 hammers) in the latin quarter around 6 AM local time we walked out and some how made it back to the hotel……
    Great memories
    While CPDLC is great the SELCAL is perhaps better since you don’t have to listen to the endless static (white noise) of someone calling you on the HF radio. When they call, you get a ding and can then listen to the radio either Moncton radio on the west side or Scottish on the east… do they really speak English?
    Sparky

  • Great story . Things we don’t think about all that when we board a plane to fly somewhere. WE as passengers know the pilot will make every decision to keep us safe. You sound like one of those pilots. Congratulations on all you have achieved.

  • “…. ayeee …. talk to an old salt navigating the North Atlantic…. in constant fear of a “wolf pack” attack …. your concerns will pale by comparison.

  • In 14 years of flying the North and South Pacific, South America and the North Atlantic I never experienced that much drama. My biggest concern was fire in a pressurized compartment, very remote but very serious when you have no where to land within a few hours. My hero Lindbergh must have had a big set.

  • Thank you for “the rest of the story” regarding oceanic crossings. Many years ago (pre-9/11), I had the pleasure and privilege of sitting for an extended period with the pilots of a B-747 far out over the Pacific on a dark night. They sat facing me, in the jump seat, as we talked airplanes. At some point, I commented, “You guys sure don’t look out the windscreen very often.” Simultaneously, they turned, look out front, then turned back and said, “Not much to see out there, eh?” Later, I commented that the radio was awfully quiet, and they informed this gawking pvt pilot that we were out of radio range. Your article gave me that same feeling of unease mixed with confidence whenever I’m aboard an airliner heading out over the ocean.

  • Great article; many of the stories in the comments section just as rewarding. As a passenger only, the question of how we’d come down in the water does come to one’s mind over the Atlantic, so reading of the new commo and tracking equipment is very encouraging.

  • I have at least 500 oceanic crossings in 707’s L1011’s and B767’s over a 35 year period mostly routine but you are still always thinking about what could go wrong but I would not give it up for anything!

  • Sparky; Wish you would have mentioned your airline so I could avoid it. Appreciate your transparency, but being the senior member of a flight crew you weren’t showing any intellect or positive mentoring in leading the younger crew on a all night binge drinking soiree! And, I’m guessing that with a nickname like “Sparky”, you probably don’t follow the “8 hours bottle-to -throttle” rule either. Just sayin’…

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