Part 1: LX40, across the Atlantic in eleven hours
From a childhood dream to a real job
If you think of the term dream job, you immediately think of numerous key words. Fireman. Police. Vet. Or PILOT! Sales Wick is one of the few people that can honestly say that he fulfilled his childhood dream. He earns a living as SWISS Senior First Officer on the Boeing 777-300ER, the largest twin-engined jet of our time, and flies thousands of passengers to far away countries and continents and then flies them back home every month.
I met Sales in Zurich a while ago. Since we share a passion for aviation (just like me, Sales also has an aviation blog and he also shares his best photos on Instagram @sky_trotter) he recently suggested that I accompany him for a weekend while he works. This is how my childhood dreams came true. I was able to look over his shoulder in the cockpit for a whole weekend.
The journey on the jump seat of the Triple Seven was to fly westwards from Zurich for eleven hours until we reached the City of Angels on the Californian coast. After more then 50 hours under the American sun, we were to return to the Swiss metropolis. These three days were jam packed with unique impressions that brought me a step close the profession as a pilot and the unique operation on the long-haul flight across the Atlantic. Breathtaking landscapes, the skyline of down town Los Angeles, Long Beach at night and even a flight in the desert. I am dedicating the first part of this series to our outbound flight – LX40. Get ready! Fasten your seat belt we will shortly be “cleared for take-off”!
Hour 0 – Start the day with…Bircher Muesli!
Like in all areas of life, pilots also have to start their day right. So, before we start this long journey, we strengthen ourselves with a good amount of sleep and a large breakfast and a large cup of the essential fuel that reliably drives the generations of pilots forward: Coffee.
Before we leave the airport, Sales examines his uniform and we pack the last of our belongings. Cameras? Checked! Batteries? Equipped and charged! SD-Cards? Empty and stored! We can set off.
1:25H before take off – time for the briefing!
Sales lives close to the airport, so he enjoys a short commute. One hour and 15 minutes before take-off, SWISS starts the briefing in the Operation Centre. This is where Sales meets the rest of the cockpit crew. Due to the size of the airline, it is not often the case that the same crew flies together. This is deliberate because this avoids running the risk of pilots “blindly” relying on one another during their routine.
The captain of today’s flight is Patrick Widmer. The crew is supported by Thierry Schwank, who is also a Senior First Officer like Sales. Thierry and Sales already know each from their their type rating for Boeing 777. Why the need for three pilots, if modern aeroplanes can easily be operated by two? At SWISS it is common for three pilots to be on board particularly long long-haul flights. This ensures that each crew member can get enough rest in order to be able to concentrate fully on the critical phases of the flight, i.e. take-off and landing. However, now is not the time to relax, it is time to prepare for the flight.
First, we obtain our planned route from the flight dispatch centre. Due to the wind at altitudes our route is taking us far north. From Switzerland across Germany and Denmark, southwards past Norway and right across the heart of Greenland. We are ascending at 73 degrees north! Once we pass Greenland, we continue to fly over water until we finally pass Canada to reach the American mainland. After that we continue our journey to the south-west. We will reach the United States crossing Idaho and then the Rocky Mountains and the Yosemite National Park in California. As we fly along the Pacific coast, we finally reach the greater area of Los Angeles via Santa Monica.
We have all the documents – now we head to the briefing. At the briefing the cockpit crew first discuss the whole flight. What does today’s route look like and what are the weather conditions along the way? What are the winds like? And what do the “Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs)” look like today? NOTAMs are given short and important information that is important for the flight as supplementary information. Is a runway or a taxiway at the destination temporarily closed? Do the navigation systems not work from time to time?
All these factors play an important role and it also helps with the decision on how much kerosene is “taken along”. An important part of the briefing is also gathering information about the situation at any alternative airports for all stages of the route with the help of the aforementioned NOTAMs. A diversion to an airport other than the destination airport can be caused by many things, for example a medical emergency, a fault or simply bad weather at the destination. Preparation is the most important thing.
The cockpit crew now go to speak to the cabin crew in order to discuss the flight of the day with them. Being a passenger, my process involves going through security and passport control. While both of the first officers prepare the cockpit and start up the aircraft system, Patrick takes me to the airport ramp. Another place where plenty of things take place prior to the boarding of passengers.
While our Boeing 777 is filled with cargo, equipped with catering and equipment and the passenger’s luggage is loaded, the so-called pre-flight check is carried out by a specifically trained and qualified mechanic.
In doing so, he walks around the aircraft and examines critical points of the aircraft to test its airworthiness. After that the captain visually inspects the triple seven during his round and approves the machine. Everything is perfect today.
Start-up – into the cockpit
73.9m long and a span of 64.8m. A maximum start weight of more than 351 tonnes with a range of 13,649km. Space for 340 passengers. This is the Boeing 777-300ER, the SWISS flagship. Now it is time for me to enter the aircraft.
After a short introduction to the members of the cabin crew under the management of the Maître de Cabine, I sit on the jump seat, i.e. observer’s seat in the striking Boeing-brown cockpit of the triple seven. An incredible feeling.
Once more, as Mission Commander, Patrick discusses the pending take-off procedure with the crew. Thierry will be Pilot Flying at the start, Sales will take over the landing in Los Angeles 11 hours and 25 minutes later. As Pilot Monitoring, captain Patrick will support the flying pilots during this leg of the journey and take-over radio communication. The roles will be reversed on the inbound flight and the captain will be at the controls during take-off and landing while his first officers support him as Pilot Monitoring.
It is common for the Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring roles to be taken in turns. Now it is time to obtain route clearance from clearance delivery, the planning unit of air traffic control. As soon as the on-board computer has been fed all the information and the cockpit is readily prepared, we are “ready for push-back”. Now it gets serious.
While the pushback truck pushes us back, Patrick starts two powerful GE90 engines, Thierry sets the flaps, i.e. the “landing flaps” to 15 and Patrick tests the function of all control surfaces. Few minutes later we are given the go ahead to taxi, i.e. rolling to our runway, in this case runway 16, in the south-east direction.
We line up behind a few other machines waiting to take off and then we get a message from the tower: “SWISS 40 heavy, line-up and wait runway 16”. Captain Patrick carefully moves the approximately 345 tonne heavy triple seven to the runway.
This is followed by a magical stillness where we eagerly wait for the words of the air traffic controllers. “SWISS 40 Heavy, cleared for take-off runway 16”. Patrick pushes the thrust levers forward and the two GE90 engines begin to roar and provide the necessary power with a sonorous humming sound in order to accelerate our Boeing 777-300ER to the previously calculated safe climb speed of 178 knots. “80 Knots! V1, Rotate, V2” – Approximately 45 seconds later, 345 tonnes move seemingly effortlessly into the Zurich afternoon sky. Directly after take-off, Thierry takes a left turn to the east. This manoeuvre reduces flight noise for the residents of the airport.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean
Pilots manually fly the aircraft for just seven to eight minutes. However, once autopilot takes over the flight, the crew still has to work. Lean back and look out of the window for eleven hours? Wrong. Even mechanical aids such as the autopilot function need to be continuously monitored and the flight must be managed as such.
For example, a fuel check is carried out every hour, where the actual fuel burn is compared to the planned “target values” upon reach specific waypoint. Just like humans, the instruments and board computers can also make mistakes. Therefore, the crew continuous analyses all values and critically examines them.
We are climbing our initial altitude of 32,000 feet. Sales will take the first break today. After approximately the first half of the route, captain Patrick prepares himself for the first break. As the Senior First Officer, Sales will represent him during the next three and a half hours as commander of the aircraft and will “take over” the left seat. Special additional training authorises experienced first officers to take on that role.
Obviously we are not the only people intending on flying across the North Atlantic. No other airspace in the world is so well utilised. At the same time, radar coverage is weaker over the ocean. This makes an accurate staggering of traffic absolutely essential. Therefore, long before entering this airspace, we receive our “North Atlantic Clearance”. Today we are following a “random route”. Other flyers are assigned a specific North Atlantic Track. These tracks are reissued every day and adapted to the current weather conditions. Within these tracks, it is necessary to only operate in a specific direction and flight altitude. Start and end points of these tracks are usually waypoints in Western Europe and North America. Approximately 90 minutes before approaching the North Atlantic airspace, we obtain the necessary Oceanic Clearance from the responsible ground station, Shanwick Oceanic. Each time we pass a new coordinate on our track, the aircraft uses CPDLC to automatically report to Shanwick Oceanic and provides information on the time of the flyover, our altitude, air speed in mach and the estimated time of arrival of the next coordinate.
While the first four hours of the flight are accompanied by thick clouds, the grey/white shroud finally lifts above Greenland and we were given a breathtaking view of the never-ending ice of the glacier.
Shortly before reaching Canada, I leave the cockpit to get some sleep. I wake up just in time for the flyover into the US-American airspace. Unfortunately, the Yosemite National Park was covered in thick clouds. We have now completed most of our route.
In around 40 minutes, Sales will land the almost 74 metre long Boeing Triple Seven in Los Angeles. However, prior to approaching the Californian metropolis, the Senior First Officer addresses the passengers once more to tell them about the current flight and the weather conditions at the place of destination.
Air traffic control, SoCal Approach, give us the so-called IRNMN TWO standard terminal arrival route. This “Iron Man” first takes us straight until we reach the Pacific coast. At 9000 feet, i.e. a height of three kilometres, we fly over Santa Monica and turn to the 071 degrees heading that takes us parallel past LAX. This provides us with a spectacular view of the Hollywood sign and down town Los Angeles and we then turn into our final approach on runway 24R. Although this view is so beautiful: landing is a critical phase of each flight which involves a particularly high workload for the entire crew. Particularly when attempting to land in Los Angeles with a densely populated airspace. I’ve got the best place on my jump seat – I have time to wholeheartedly enjoy the spectacular panorama.
The crew intercepted the instrument landing system, which is used to determine the perfect glidescope to the runway. Sales switches off auto-pilot and takes over the control of the aircraft. During the final approach, a distinctive computer voice counts down the distance to the ground in feet. Shortly after “Twenty-Five-Hundred” Sales instructs Patrick with “Gear Down” to extend the landing gear and then completely extend the flaps in order to guarantee sufficient boost despite the drop in speed.
«Three hundred,… two hundred MINIMUM». Minimum refers to the so-called decision height. If the runway was not visible at this point, we would have to do a go-around. However, we have complete visibility thanks to the Californian sun. “Continue” Sales replies while his eyes constantly move from this instruments to the outside to examine the runway in order to reach the perfect touchdown of 300m after the runway threshold. This enables Sales to perform a gentle landing. After 11 hours and 26 minutes, we reach American soil and Los Angeles welcomes us with fantastic weather. Now we’re off to the crew hotel – time for a good meal in Long Beach and an exciting layover in the Golden State.
About the author: Aaron Püttmann (@pilotstories), 25, studied Aviation Management in Bad Honnef and now works at a large global airline. He also keeps an aviation-related blog on pilotstories.net, where he tells his readers about his passion for flying.