Flying in the coronavirus sky—a freight pilot’s perspective

Nothing but silence.

I watch the N1 fluctuate between 89.1 and 89.2. The fuel flow indicates 5700 lbs an hour per engine. All is well. All within the airplane seems normal. And yet, the silence is unnerving—almost unbelievable—as we approach a longitude of 30 West.

I am flying across the North Atlantic in a Boeing 767-300 aircraft today. I’m a 767 captain with an international freight company and have flown to six of the seven continents, experienced the cold Siberian winters and the heat and humidity of the Congo from the flight deck of the Boeing 747 and 767. Yet today is a completely new experience.

Desert
The desert down there is awfully quiet—but so are the skies right now.

Today, there is no global terrorist threat or war keeping airplanes out of the sky. The threat is a microscopic organism, silent but still deadly as it spreads around the world. On the ground, people’s lives have been disrupted, in ways small and large. But from 33,000 feet, the silence gives the feeling of a much more dramatic shift: like a Twilight Zone episode, in which everyone below me has disappeared.

Normally even with the use of CPDLC (Controller Pilot Data Link Communication, a two-way text based digital communication system between pilots and controllers) and ACARS it can be a struggle to check in on HF when making the transition from Gander, in Canada, to Shanwick, in Ireland. This is normally the busiest oceanic airspace in the world, with about 1,500 flights a day. But today, I hear nothing but an eerie silence.

At the same time, there are other, more tangible, signs that the world below me has changed.

The North Atlantic Tracks, usually referred to as NAT Tracks, are a series of routes that change daily for the vast amount of traffic typically crossing the Atlantic. But today, and every day now that I fly, the routes are changing in different ways.

On this trip, for example, we are flying to Germany, where I will spend the next week flying between Europe and the Mideast. We have 30 hours of rest in Germany before heading to Dubai’s Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC), in the UAE.

We take off and, after flying across Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, we head toward Egyptian airspace, en route to Dubai. A lot of countries require you to make contact before entering their airspace, and Egypt happens to be one of them. Normally, those calls aren’t any big thing. But in this eerie, locked-down world, nothing is routine.

Alexandria
Before crossing into Egypt, you really want to make contact with ATC.

As we get close, the first officer is monitoring com one while I start trying to call Cairo Control. Despite the lack of traffic on the frequency, and repeated calls, I can’t seem to get a response from Cairo. Finally, just as we enter Egyptian airspace, I make contact. It’s a sign of what’s to come.

We make our way through Egyptian airspace and head toward Saudi Arabian airspace and Jeddah control. ATC hands us off from Jeddah center to Bahrain center only about 40 minutes out from DWC, and when I check in with Bahrain, the controller requests our CON number.

We are a augmented crew of one captain and three first officers, and none of us have ever heard of a CON number. We are now fast approaching DWC—an incredibly high workload period of the flight—and we are searching madly to find this number in the 100 pages of paperwork that makes up our flight plan. Bahrain tells us this is something new the UAE has just started requesting. I use the satcom to call dispatch. Even they are unsure what the CON number is, but after a brief conference call, a number is provided to us. We still have no idea what a CON number is, but evidently the number we give them works, because we are cleared into UAE airspace.

As we approach DWC on short final, I look down and see rows upon rows of idle, parked heavy jets lining the taxiways and ramps. The majority of Emirates A380s and 777s are nose to tail, covering most of the concrete at the airport. We are the only aircraft on final and as we land on runway 30 the tower instructs us to exit at V6, the last high speed taxiway. Tower switches us over to ground and, once again, there is nothing but silence. DWC is one of the busiest airports in the Mideast, and it’s the middle of the afternoon, and we are the only aircraft moving at the airport. Just like the silence in the air, the utter stillness on the ground has the eerie feel of something out of the Twilight Zone.

Life soon appears, however. A requirement for entry to the UAE is a health check. This is a new requirement that a lot of countries have started since the pandemic has begun. The vans soon show up to transport us to the health center for our mandatory health check. This involves completing several pages of paperwork, and then a temperature check and a nasal Covid-19 test. Next we are taken to a security screening and immigration. The time, from opening the aircraft door to our arrival at the hotel door, is four hours.

DWC airport
All those airplanes aren’t waiting to take off, they’re parked.

The next morning, we taxi out between the rows of parked aircraft amid the same surreal silence and stillness, as if we are the only active aircraft and crew left in the world. Our next destination is Kuwait International Airport (KWI), and after the challenges of yesterday, we are hoping for a relatively smooth day of flying today. But in this new normal, nothing is going smoothly.

As we enter Kuwait airspace and begin the STAR (Standard Terminal Arrival Route) for KWI, Kuwait ATC asks for our destination. We confirm our destination as KWI. Kuwait Control informs us that KWI is closed to incoming flights, takes us off the arrival, and gives us vectors away from the city. It’s only a two hour flight from Dubai, and we’ve been following our filed flight plan—which includes landing permits for KWI. We relay the landing permits again to the Kuwait controllers, who tell us to stand by. After couple more vectors and a descent to 12,000 feet, I call ATC again, and I’m told again to stand by.

In the 767, when the calculated fuel burn to the destination and alternate drops below our reserve fuel level, we get an “Insufficient Fuel” message on the FMS. It’s one of those messages you never like to see. As the Insufficient Fuel message appears on the FMS, I query KWI ATC once again. And once again, the only answer is, “Stand by.” Most captains tend to add a bit more fuel to the minimum reserve fuel level for a bit of comfort, but I’m fast approaching the edge of my comfort zone. Once again, we pass our landing permit numbers to ATC, and I tell them that if we don’t get vectors towards the airport, I will be declaring a fuel emergency and will be coming in to land. Once again, their only response is, “Stand by.”

In some parts of the world, approaching fuel minimums for one airport wouldn’t make me overly concerned, because there would be countless other airports we would have access to. In the Mideast, however, that’s not the case. I’m pretty sure Iran would not be happy with us dropping in for a bit of fuel unannounced. Fortunately, I don’t have to find out. ATC finally gives us vectors and we are cleared to land. While the Kuwait airport does not have as many jets parked around the airport as Dubai—perhaps because Dubai is such an international hub—there’s still a significant number of empty, idle airplanes lining the taxiways and ramps.

After a relatively quick turn, we head back to Germany. The only other aircraft I hear on frequency during the seven-hour return flight is one lonely FedEx freighter.

In all my years of flying I’ve never experienced anything like this. Even after 9/11, the airlines returned to the sky more quickly, and in larger numbers. Before the pandemic, it was easy to complain about crowded frequencies and long wait times before takeoff. But to experience a complete absence of traffic, silent frequencies, unnerved controllers and health inspectors, and major international hubs looking more like the aircraft boneyards at Davis-Monthan AFB, is a sobering and surreal experience that puts all those old irritations in a whole new perspective.

Flying across Europe last week, I noticed more traffic in the skies. I hope that continues, and things are able to return to normal soon. Believe it or not, I actually miss trying to break in on HF to give a position report.

26 Comments

  • Hey, James… I am one of those pilots you didn’t hear on the radio. Very sad and weird days here at this side of the world – as well as in most of the globe, actually. In my last flight, one and only in two entire months, Bahrain didn’t even repeat our route – like they always do as you know. Although is more than fair that you freighters are getting a rather forgotten credit for all the things you always have done silently, I really hope us, carrying passengers, can get up there asap too. More nerve wracking then flying on empty skies is leaving them empty in the first place. Cheers!

  • Thank You for your perspective. It shows how this Pandemic has slowed our world and affected EVERYONE significantly. It has showed us how we are NOT in control of much of our world that we thought. I enjoyed reading your story. Maybe we might begin to realize how much we depend on our God to help us through. I hope it helps us to return to dependency on God and not ourselves. May God bless you for your perspective and sharing with us. May He Bless you, keep you safe and your tank full enough to get you home safely! Pat

  • Great article! I too flew post 9/11 and can only say that these times are a reminder of days gone by where I was one of the first to get airborne after 9/11 and it was eerily quiet on the airwaves! So much so that I heard NY Center say, “XYZ, you’re cleared direct LAX” (From JFK)! Sadly, this unseen killer will haunt us for some time to come. Fly safe and tailwinds!

  • I’m curious why your crew is one captain and three first officers. Does it have to do with training?

    • Ken, FAR 121 and 117 have specific requirements based on block time and duty day. Typically less than 8 hours two pilots, 8-12 hours three pilots and over 12 hours four pilots. There are other factors that come into play as well, such as departure time.

  • I had a similar experience on a much smaller scale (C182) last week.

    I needed to fly into San Jose, CA, normally a very busy airport in the heart of Silicon Valley. There was a NOTAM that said the tower was closed and NORCAL would handle approaches. However, as I entered the bay area they handed me off to the tower. There was only one controller on duty and she cleared me to land immediately. I asked if she wanted me to expedite my landing and clear the runway. The reply was no, I was the only aircraft in the area.

    I taxied to the super luxurious FBO, remember this is in the heart of millionaireville, and there were no other aircraft on the ramp. The doors into their immaculate hangar were partly open and it was stuffed with high end jets but nobody around. I had called to verify they were open but only a few folks were on duty.

    The terminal side of the field was full of airliners, one at every gate and others parked around the ramp, but no people, no baggage trains, nothing moving. It was like a science fiction movie. If this is “the new normal” I politely decline to accept it.

  • Delivering a pax B763 to a mid-east MRO for conversion to a freighter, I experienced the same eerie silence on the tracks in late April. We are unable to use CPDLC so it’s basic HF and thundering silence. I heard only ten jets on that crossing all Fedex and UPS. A most unusual time!

  • There is something eerie about landing and taking off at an airport and taxiing on the ground on your own where normally you wouldn’t even think of moving your airplane for more than a few feet without clearance under the careful eyes of ATC.
    On February 16, 2020 we arrived at Yuma airport (NYL), where I’ve landed for 20 years, on our way back from medical missions to Mexico. ATIS announced that the tower and ground were closed. I don’t know if Covid-19 was the reason. Having landed at many uncontrolled airports in my recreational flights I have never experience the same eeriness. My friend, who was flying in his own plane, and I were announcing our position at every taxi intersection and crossing every runway. You almost had the feeling that someone was watching you and if you made any mistakes they would be on the radio giving you a number to call after you were on the ground. I guess the FAA has us well trained.
    Good luck Captain James.

  • What a great story. Although it was many years ago it brought back wonderful memories of carrying beautiful horses for the Sultan of Oman; German dairy cattle into Kuwait City airport. The control tower was still smoking. TV folks were there. They only filmed the cattle being offloaded, not interested in the three of us. In a show of gratitude the airport manager had me brought to his office and we had several cups of tea,of course. He then casually slipped a note across his desk and requested I pay $5000 US dollars for a landing fee! When I declined and pointed out that the plane shown on the bill was of a Russian airline and not a 747, he offered more tea. It was fun flying with a crew that had a sense of humor. Again; great article.

  • What a great story. Although it was many years ago it brought back wonderful memories of carrying beautiful, very expensive, horses for the Sultan of Oman; German dairy cattle into Kuwait City airport. The control tower was still smoking. TV folks were there. They only filmed the cattle being offloaded, not interested in the three of us. In a show of gratitude the airport manager had me brought to his office and we had several cups of tea,of course. He then casually slipped a note across his desk and requested I pay $5000 US dollars for a landing fee! When I declined and pointed out that the plane shown on the bill was of a Russian airline and not a 747, he offered more tea. It was fun flying with a crew that had a sense of humor. Again; great article.

  • Thank you James for a great article.

    I fly a C182 in a busy airport (KBED). I also experienced that eerie sensation last week, the loneliness during taxi and in the air.

    But the eerie sensation started even before I arrived at the airport. Driving to the airport I was listening to the ATIS in my car and I heard something I never heard before at KBED: “attention: tower and ground control are combined on frequency 118.5”.

    • Chuck, if my memory is correct KBED was always sending me bills for landing fees. I had never landed there, but the N number on my aircraft was only one digit off from a plane based there. Eventually I was able to convince them it wasn’t me.

      James

  • We live in very strange times. I am very happy to have retired after a lifetime in the airline industry accumulating 20 k hours along the way. It grieves me sorely to see all the young men and women I have encouraged and nurtured , harangued and cajoled to facing what could be a long career break. I hope that the airlines and all have the sense to offer early retirement packages to those whom that will suit and leave the seed corn for the future to continue in a career that they ,by and large, have bought and paid for by their own efforts.

  • Back in 2001, on 9/11, I also worked for an international cargo airline based in Purchase, NY. We had a fleet of only 747’s at the time, got to watch the twin towers on that clear Tuesday morning, and all that surrounded the event. Because 2/3 of our fleet was operating outside CONUS, we continued to operate the airline at a slightly reduced capacity during the grounding. Shortly thereafter, it was all hands to the rigging as we flew lots of MATS missions for the buildup in the mideast. Those kinds of experiences leave long-lasting memories.

  • James,
    I was of another time doing transoceanic, world-wide flight (Pan Am 747 captain), but I can totally relate to your experience. I was down there for Desert Storm, and when there was the very occasional communication, the operative phrase was “stand by.”
    I am very curious as to what the layovers were like. Good luck to you.

  • I hear the same stories from my brother but during this period I’ve been replacing and painting the trim on my north Florida home and I couldn’t help but notice the difference in the sky.
    Even between the cold fronts the air was crystal clear, a brighter blue and everything smelled fresher. The skies were unscarred by contrails and the number of stars had multiplied by ten.
    Only an occasional contrail would accompany the daily droning of the lone P3 on its way from Cecil Field to the Gulf. The local GA air-tivity on the other hand had actually increased. It’s not flying that is threatened by CV19, only airliners.

    The contrails are still missing but now that my state is stepping on the gas again, the traffic is thickening and the stars are disappearing.
    The GIA theory teaches us that all life on earth is connected and in reflection maybe Covid 19 is just nature’s way of catching a breather or, more likely, firing a warning shot over the (cockpit) bow.

  • James,

    This is a fantastic real world report on what it’s like to operate in the current environment. Thank you for sharing.

    May I have your permission to read this piece on Podcasting on a Plane?

    -Brandon

  • Thank you Captain Ivy for the thrilling story. As a retired USAF crew member Electronic Warfare Officer I was amazed at what you described as the new normal. Having flown all over the globe I could only imagine that your experience in these ” locked down aerospace times” is as you described downright eerie. I could only think of combat times when everything is up for grabs. But even in combat we got back to safe skies after exiting hazardous airspace. The routine you described is I would say hazardous to say the least. When are the major countries going to step up and get flying back to somewhat normal so a crew can do their job getting cargo and passengers to destination safely?. God Bless you Captain Ivy and keep um flying!

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