Please have a look and leave some comments on what you think.
As I approached this idea to write about “a day in the life” I figured it best to take the “average” day. As most of my trips (about 75% of them) have a sign on time in Hong Kong between 10pm and midnight, I will write about one of those days.
One of the most important things when considering starting a flight after 10pm that will last anywhere from 8-14 hours or sometime more, is proper rest. So when I’m going to bed the night before I go to work, I usually set my alarm for around 700am. I find it important to wake up nice and early with some sort of physical activity for the morning. Usually this involved a workout with Impact Fitness of Hong Kong. By the time an intense workout is over at about 930 I return home for yet another important part of the work day. A good breakfast. It can be a very uncomfortable flight if you have eaten large, rich meals all day before going to work late at night. Not only can it be physically uncomfortable, but a full stomach also (for me anyway) really makes me want to go to sleep, especially when its near midnight. So for breakfast, usually a fresh fruit/spinach smoothie, or maybe a couple of eggs, avocado, and a decaf coffee. Decaf is important, along with waking up early for a common reason which I will get too. The next few hours can vary, sometimes we will take the dogs to the beach, or the waterfall, or do some errands in the town center of Mui Wo. Those few hours can also be as simple as taking the dogs for a walk and relaxing at home and catching up on some North American TV. When that comes to an end, I will usually take care of all my “pre-flight” activities. I pack my suitcase, get my uniform ready, and review the route for the evening with our company port pages and route briefings. The port pages are a 4-12 page document that detail everything there is to know about a given airport. Terrain considerations, speed restrictions, Low Visibility Operations capability, even as detailed as to which taxiways our large 747-8 can taxi on (Vancouver as an example has many taxiways that are not certified for a plane of that size). The route briefings are just that, a 8-12 page document that detail ATC requirements, typical weather patters for a given region, communications procedures, and others, so that before heading out on a given flight, between the port pages and route briefings, we can have an excellent understanding of a new route, or a good review of a route we frequent. So with those notes done, and my luggage packed, I will either look at the bus schedule or arrange for a taxi. Generally the ride from my village to the airport is about 40 minutes. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but it usually offers a nice view crossing the mountain range on Lantau Island.
So off to bed. My pre flight nap. The light breakfast/decaf coffee, along with waking up early in the morning and working out, usually yield a little fatigue for me by mid afternoon. This is the perfect scenario. I close the blackout blinds, put in ear plugs and head for bed. I usually set an alarm for 3-4 hours later depending on how tired I am. If I sleep for the whole time, great! If I wake up after 2 hours, well that is just my body telling me I’ve had enough sleep. So when I wake up I am usually greeted with my wife having prepared a nice dinner for me. Again eating lighter foods, and smaller portions are key for me. If I have a big heavy, rich meal, I get to work and just want to crawl into bed. If I have a smaller meal that is healthier, I remain energetic when it comes time to report for work. So after dinner, I will relax with the dogs and my wife. Take the dogs for a walk, and then check the airline’s employee web site for the first version of our Computer Flight Plan. Usually within about 5 hours of the departure time, there will be an initial flight plan generated. Sometimes these plans will change, usually just the Zero Fuel Weight as passenger/cargo loads can change. So once I have downloaded the 60 plus page document onto m iPad, I start with the basics. First things first. Check the aircraft registration, the type (can be one of five different types: 747-400 passenger, 400 freighter, 400 Extended Range Freighter, 400 Boeing Converted freighter, and of course the 747-8F) of which there are three different engine types. So there are some numbers (weights, and engine temperature limits are the most relevant) that need to be reviewed once we know which plane we will be operating.
Next I check the fuel information. I cross check all the numbers with the total fuel required and then add the zero fuel weight to get a ramp weight. These figures are all on the flight plan, but of course we double check them before each flight. From those calculations we can get our takeoff and landing weights to ensure they are within the operating limits. For those interested, the maximum takeoff weight of the 747-8F is 447,695 kgs. Or just under 985,000 pounds. Quite impressive in my opinion.
With all my preflight notes complete, its shower, change, and head to work. I like to arrive about 30-45 minutes before sign on time to make sure I am well prepared, and just in case there are some traffic problems I have a built in buffer.
So arrival at work. We scan into Cathay City with our crew id cards and head to the storage room next to flight planning where I leave my suitcase until it’s time to head to the plane. The room is quite large, and accommodates several wide body crews (up to 21 of us on a 747-400 passenger flight). Off to the bathroom to quickly get into my uniform shirt. The Hong Kong summers are too hot to make the commute to work in a uniform shirt, so I usually wear a T-shirt and then make the change into a freshly ironed shirt once I am at CX City. With that, it’s onto the briefing tables. Cathay has a nice set up where each flight has it’s own table or counter with our documents bag. In here we find the binders with all relevant port pages and airport charts for the route. We also add a few house keeping items. Ear plugs, sanitary wipes, screen wipes, replacement earmuffs for the headset, and of course, Evian facial spray to help stay moisturized in the dry air of a pressurized airplane. Once “the shopping” is done, I double check that the paperwork matches the online information that I looked at earlier. It is around now when the other crew members arrive and we all introduce ourselves, or catch up with someone we may have flown with before. It is quite common that there will be some changes to the load (passengers or cargo) at this point, or perhaps the aircraft tail number we will be flying, if there has been a maintenance issue with the planned airplane. Once we take note of any changes, the crew decide on a fuel load. If all things are as planned and there are no outstanding contingencies, we will take flight planned fuel. Our flight plan fuel covers virtually all contingencies enroute (weather, traffic, etc.) as well as an additional percentage to cover us in case there are more things to deal with on our flight. Generally speaking flight planned fuel is enough, but occasionally we will increase that fuel if the weather at the arrival end is questionable. Even with an ok forecast at out arrival airport, we can take advantage of other clues to see if the weather will in fact be as advertised. The most common example is returning to Hong Kong, with say Shenzhen as our alternate. Perhaps Hong Kong has some thunderstorms in the forecast, but Shenzhen does not. So using Shenzhen as the alternate is legal, but when you look at Macau, and Guangzhou weather, you see they are both forecasting thunderstorms. All of these airports are within about 20 miles of each other, so it is likely that some extra gas will be needed.
Ok, so fuel is decided. Off to the airplane. We clear customs and security right in our building next to flight planning. We jump on a crew bus and make the 5 minute drive to the airport. Depending on the gate, or cargo position we are parked at, we are usually at the plane within another 5 minutes. Collect our bags, and make our way up the stairs to the main deck. In the freighter we leave our suitcase on the main deck near the L1 door, where cargo handlers will strap them down next to the sidewall in the midst of 100 plus tons of cargo. On a passenger flight, we can check out bags right at Cathay City and they are loaded in the belly just like everyone else’s bags. Up to the cockpit now and we all sort our belongings and start with job number one. The Captain will go through the Log Book. ANy outstanding defects or operational notes we need to consider? Hopefully not. For the most part these “snags” are dealt with whenever the aircraft has some down time between sectors. Of course if there is a serious matter, they are dealt with immediately. When all the information in reviewed in the Log Book, we then start our duties. The pilot flying for the sector will begin initializing the FMC and ACARS, while the monitoring pilot will go do a walk around. Big or small, every plane needs a walk around by one of the flight crew. Me? Well the second officer has the responsibility of a cockpit pre flight check. It is a basic run down of all the equipment on board. From cockpit voice recorders, to life vests, to escape harnesses. The freighter aircraft adds more of the safety equipment that normally falls under the duties of a flight attendant (life rafts, portable oxygen masks, etc). Once that is done, it’s time for the easy part. Make the beds. Both the freighters and passenger 747’s have two beds for in flight crew rest.
When that is done. We all assemble back in the cockpit. I usually start a pot of coffee if I am on a cargo flight, and grab some bottles of water for the Captain and FO. When we are back up front, the cockpit set up is finished. Our final zero fuel weight arrives via ACARS and we enter the current weather information and send for our Take Off Data for the day. We obtain our IFR clearance, enter the data into the CDU for the flight, and then we are ready for pushback and start up. Throughout all that my role as a Second Officer is basically just support and an extra set of eyes.
Next comes the fun part. Taxiing our for takeoff you get a real sense of the size of the 747, especially when you pass any other airplanes. With the exception of the A380, the 747 dwarfs other airplanes. A large wide body like the A330 doesn’t even compare to the length and height of a 747. It’s a cool feeling considering the last airplane I was a crew member on had a prop clearance of less then 12 inches. Once on the takeoff roll, it doesn’t take long for the mighty 747 to reach takeoff speed. Despite being more then 800,000 pounds, or just shy of a million pounds in the case of the 747-8F, Boeing and GE/Pratt Whitney, and Rolls Royce have teamed up to make an airframe, wing, power plant combination that would defy what the Wright Brothers first envisioned possible when it came to powered flight. Even at the heaviest weights, we reach a cruise altitude of 31,000 feet (typically) in around 20 minutes or less. With an economic cruise speed of around Mach 0.83, the 747 is almost climbing at that speed through the final segment, and rarely needs any time to accelerate. My old metro, at a heavy weight, might be climbing at 140 knots when leveling at 21,000 feet, and would take 10 minutes to reach a cruising speed of 190 knots indicated airspeed.
So with the plane set up in cruise, we have a few house keeping items to take care of. By this time I will have jumped in the right or left hand seat depending on who is ready for sleep first. Fill out a bit of information in the ACARS for the closing report that will come at the end of the flight. Next, enter the step climbs as they appear on the flight plan into the CDU. This gives our FMC (the brain of the airplane) an accurate plan for our flight when it comes to calculating fuel used and time to our arrival airport. Once the house keeping items, the next thing to do is get some enroute weather. When departing for Anchorage, the first airports that we obtain weather for are usually Taipei, Naha (Okinawa), Fukuoka and Osaka. These are basically the major airports on our route at intervals of about 45 minutes to an hour. The reason for checking weather at airports we have no intention of flying to? Well once the ACARS prints out the latest METAR’s we check to see if there would be any reason that we could not land there in the event of an emergency. We also go over the NOTAM’s (which we checked before the flight) for those airports for a quick reminder on the relevant info. So if we know there are no NOTAMS restricting a landing, and the weather is good to support a landing, then we file that in our minds as good to go “in case of”. In case of what? Well a cargo fire is the most time critical situation, and if that occurs, we take immediate action to head to one of these airports. Engine failures and depressurization are also critical situations, but mostly when it comes to fuel. Depressurizing is the most fuel critical situation, as we have to descend to a breathable flight level (FL140) where our engines are less efficient per nautical mile flown. In both these cases however, we more then likely would not divert to the closest airport. It is a very situation specific. If we had a simple engine flameout, we can consider continuing all the way to the destination (especially if the destination is Hong Kong). Once an event has occurred and has been dealt with, we will communicate with the company and then make the best decision for the situation.
Ok, so we are cruising happily along with all the house keeping done, and with good situational awareness as to where to go in the case of an emergency. Here comes the boring part. For the next several hours, the job basically consists of monitoring the radio and making frequency changes as we cross FIR boundaries. Hourly, we make a fuel check to cross check flight planned fuel burn vs actual fuel burn. The 747-8 typically makes gas on a long haul flight. That is, burns less gas then the flight plan predicts so on our arrival, we have “made” more gas to use in the event of a diversion or holding time.
Lets fast forward to the last 90 minutes or so. Prior to the top of descent, we will review the planned arrival into our destination based on the latest ATIS for the airport. Based on our landing weight, we assess our landing performance via a Landing Data request sent via ACARS. A quick review of the aircraft status (in case any systems have failed or downgraded during the flight) and we are ready to descend and make our approach to landing.
By this time, as the Second Officer, I am comfortably in my observer seat, watching the more senior crew do their thing. Again I am an extra set of eyes and ears, and there for support. Once on the ground and parked, its simple again for me as the So, put the documents away, file a bit of paperwork. We leave the plane for customs, and hopefully without too much delay, we are on our way to the hotel. Check in, receive our per diems, and get up to the room.
That is all for this installment.
Blog Post 4
Well today’s work trip is quite an easy one for me. I am sitting in business class of a Cathay Pacific 777-300ER enroute from Hong Kong to Vancouver. It is the first work trip that has brought me to my home country Canada, albeit about 1200 miles short of my home town of Winnipeg. That said, these trips that involve a PX (deadheading sector) are for me at least, a interesting change of pace. Basically I head to work like usual, accept I do not go through the pre-flight routine of checking weather, NOTAMS, and other Flight Planning information. I simply show up to the airport, and get on the plane in a nice comfortable seat with the usual great service our cabin crew have to offer, and a multitude of things to keep me busy for the 12 hour flight.
Today I find myself reading a book I picked up in Anchorage last week. “Arctic Bush Pilot” by Jim Reardon is an interesting read about a pilot who had his beginnings in the US Navy during World War Two, moving on to Alaska following the war to make his living as a bush pilot. For an aviation enthusiast like me, it definitely has some interesting stories. It has also jogged quite a few memories from my recent days flying in Northern Canada. Particularly the cold weather stories bring back some chilling memories.
I will start off by saying the best $300 dollars I have ever spent came in September of 2006 when I bought a used Canada Goose “Resolute” parka. One of our most senior pilots at the time had been hired by Air Canada was selling off his things that he would clearly no longer need at his new job. Air bridges at Toronto International Airport, just aren’t as cold as the ramp in Shamattawa in January. So set I am with my new/used jacket for a Canadian winter that was sure to take me to colder places then even I was used too. Before I go on, if anyone finds them in need of a good parka for any cold weather environment, the Canada Goose parka’s are worth their relatively steep new price of 500-1000 dollars. Rob a bank if you have to, you won’t be sorry.
Back to the point, cold weather adventures. The first of the cold weather experiences I can recall came in the winter of 2006/2007. Churchill Manitoba, a small port town of about 800 people located at the northern edge of Manitoba on the coast of Hudson Bay, was in need. The only means of heavy transport in and out of Churchill is the rail. No roads here, so the largest of shipments will come by train. However the tundra approaching churchill is so uneven, that the train ride, despite being 600 miles or so, takes more then 2 days. The uneven ground forces the train to slow to about 20kms an hour for the last few hundred kilometers. This particular Friday night, the train which had a large load of fresh food onboard, was stranded in the heavy, drifting snow somewhere south of Churchill. The local Northern Store was running dangerously low on food, so they called in a Perimeter Metro 3 to take a load of groceries to fill the void until the train could be dug out. It was particularly cold in Winnipeg, somewhere around -30, the usual January deep freeze. But 600 miles north, it was worse. Much worse. We filled our plane full of groceries, engine tents, survival gear, and as much gas as we could carry. Unfortunately because of the long leg in front of us, our Metro 3 full of cargo couldn’t take enough gas to make the flight non-stop. So we planned to refuel in Gillam Manitoba, about 200 miles south of Churchill. I was flying with a relatively new Captain, and I had only been flying for Perimeter for about 6 months, so between the two of us, we had little experience to draw on with respect to cold weather operations. We landed in Gillam, a balmy 40 below zero with enough wind to make it feel even worse. The landing in Gillam was my first gravel strip night landing (of what became hundreds by the time my 6 years at Perimeter were up). Landing on gravel provides its own risks like propeller damage, and steering capability among others, but factor in landing at night in Northern Manitoba and it became a very challenging experience for a new First Officer like myself. Landing at night in these communities we flew too is not like landing at a major airport. Typically the runway lighting is much weaker, the approach lighting is usually non existent, and the surrounding darkness of Canadian Boreal Forrest provides a black hole effect, as if the runway is just floating in space. I managed reasonably for my first of these challenging landings, but the hard part of the night was yet to come.
We filled our tanks and obtained our IFR clearance to depart Gillam for Churchill via the remote Winnipeg Center frequency. Once departed, we had a quick 45 minutes up to Churchill. We called the airport Shell Fuel provider and arranged for a fuel truck to meet us on the ramp. We wanted to spend as little time as possible on the ground in an effort to keep the plane from freezing solid. We also spoke to the office in Churchill and relayed our ETA so that the grocery store could also be ready with a truck to transfer our cargo into. All of the things we needed to do for a quick turn were arranged, and we were set with our plan once we landed. Shutdown, get out and put the engine intake plugs in, and secure the engine tents to preserve the heat. Hustle to the back and unload the cargo as quick as possible. Close up the cargo door, remove the engine tents and plugs, and get the hell out of there. So as we land and taxi into the large apron at Churchill, we soon realize (as neither of us had been to Churchill before) that we have no idea where to park. We decide the best place is behind our company Merlin near the terminal building. Mistake number one. As we set the park brake behind our sister ship, I bundle up in my Canada Goose and all the other winter gear I collected that fall, and open the door to step outside. Then it hits me, the coldest I have ever felt to this day. Air temperature -53, with a 20 mile per hour wind, that felt like the mid -60’s. And much to my dismay, the Merlin in front of us is spooling up it’s number two engine, about to magnify the windchill tenfold. I yell at Scott to get out quick, as we have little time to get the engine tents on before the propwash from the starting Merlin makes it much more difficult. We manage relatively quickly, before the Merlin has started it’s other engine. Good work I must say on our part. Now we move to the tail of the plane where the large 4×6 cargo door is located. The captain of course takes position well inside the fuselage which has retained some heat, while I am settled at the door ready to pass cargo to the truck drivers. We move as quick as we can and almost make the entire offload without any problems. That is until I let a 2 liter plastic jug of ketchup slip through my now frozen hands (mitts would have been a better option then the gloves I was using) onto the concrete below. The Drop was about 5 feet, and in that time, from a plane that was still above zero (although not by much) the plastic had frozen and shattered into a million pieces by the time it hit the ground. Cold. Damn cold! I figure that the loss of the ketchup is a small price to pay given the expense that charter would have cost, so I do not lose any sleep over it.
With the offload complete we remove the engine plugs and tents, button up the doors, and start up our two Garret turbo prop engines. By this time, we have enough gas to fly non stop to Winnipeg in a little less then 3 hours. The downside? The plane is now nicely chilled to somewhere well south of zero, and the cabin heating system doesn’t have a chance at warming it up even over the course of 2-3 hours. Typically we preheat the cabin and cockpit of the plane on right before we depart on flights in the winter. Large Herman Nelson heaters with cloth hoses pump 100+ degree heat into the plane warming the entire cabin in a few minutes. Pull the hoses out and close the door quickly and the plane will retain most of that heat for a good 15-20 minutes. Once the engines are started, the cabin heating system can maintain that heat quite easily, but producing that heat from a cold soaked plane, is near impossible.
So what followed was a shivering 2 hours and 45 minutes in a cockpit full of frost except for the portion of our heated forward windshields. Wearing our parka’s, gloves, and a toque in the cockpit definitely helped, but cold was the dominant feeling for the evening.
It wasn’t uncommon in the various types that I flew at Perimeter that we had planes with weaker heating systems, and even sometimes those systems failed. So flying while seeing your breathe in the cockpit was not all that rare. But that one cold night in the winter of 07 proved to be the coldest I have ever been. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Years later I found myself in another cold situation in Gillam this time. I was a Captain on the Metro 3, and was sent to Gillam for an all day hold on a charter flight. We landed with no incident and with the 40 below temperatures, ensured the plane was put to bed for 9 hours with everything plugged in we could find. We had both engine block heaters plugged in and could hear them working, we had the intake plugs and the engine tents wrapped quite snug. We had two portable heaters for the cabin, and they were functioning properly, so when we left the plane for the hotel for the day, we had every notion that we would be returning to a warm, ready to fly airplane. How wrong we were.
As it turned out, the power for the engine block heaters had tripped at some point much earlier then our scheduled departure time of 5pm. The cabin heaters were plugged into a different circuit and were fine, so the inside of the plane was comfortable, but the engines were very cold.
The Garret engine had a minimum oil temperature for starting of 0 degrees Celsius. Our oil temperatures were sitting near -12. I had stared more then a few engines near zero before, and knew that with good ground power, it would be a slower start, but still doable. In Gillam however, the oil temperature was much colder, and there was no ground power, just two very cold 24 volt batteries in the frozen wing of our plane. Our duty day was such that we had to be in the air by 5:30 in order to have a legal amount of time to get to Winnipeg. As this was approaching quickly, we were running out of options. Plugging the block heaters back in would mean several hours to get the oil temps back to above zero, and there were no hangars in Gillam big enough for our 56 foot wingspan. I looked at my FO and said, well, we can spend a night here, or we can give it a try.
To start the Garret, we placed one hand on the “stop and feather” knob in case we needed to abort the start for any reason, and the other hand on the start button. Once pressed, the starter would engage and with power from our battery, would crank the engine. Rotation comes first, and at 10% engine RPM, a yellow ignition light would illuminate over the EGT guage, and fuel would automatically be scheduled into the burner can for light off. That process would usually only take bout 10 seconds. On this day in Gillam, it took longer. A lot longer. We used a trick by flipping the battery switch from parallel into series, which effectively doubled our cranking amps as we used both batteries to start one engine rather then just the respective one. This helped, but we still sat patiently with my thumb on the starter switch for what must have been close to a minute. Beyond the starter limit of 30 seconds. I was doing a few things this day that were well outside the prescribed method of operating the Metro. But like any plane, there is what the manual says it can do, and there is what it can ACTUALLY do. I learned what it could actually do that evening. Once number two spooled up we let the oil temperature warm up well into it’s normal operating range, trying to be as careful as we could after having put the starter and oil systems through the ringer. Once it was safe, I increased the engine RPM in an effort to recharge the over worked battery after the long start. That process normally took 2-3 minutes to get the operating amps back below 100, a safe range to attempt a cross generator start on engine number one. This evening, that took almost 20 minutes. But eventually the amps dropped, the battery was charged, and we went through the whole process again on the number one engine. Two hours later upon arriving in Winnipeg, I spoke to the mechanics (who I had a great working relationship with) and explained what I did. They were to my surprise, happy to hear that I had taken a few risks, but ultimately got the airplane running and home. If I didn’t, it would have likely meant a late night for the mechanics as they prepped another plane to send north to rescue my passengers. They assured me they would look over the engines, but said they would be shocked if there was any damage. Sure enough, my ego, and the engines lived to fight another day.
Here I am 7 years removed from my trial by fire into the cold weather operations of Canadian flying, sitting in the warm cabin of a brand new 777, sipping a piping hot jasmine tea. Times certainly have changed, but I wouldn’t have traded those cold winters day for anything, especially with the lessons learned that will hopefully one day make me a successful Captain at Cathay Pacific.
Fly safe (and warm if you can)
So on a recent layover in Anchorage i picked up a mountain bike at Walmart to leave in our crew storage room at the hotel. It certainly makes getting around Anchorage a less time consuming task then walking (although I do enjoy going for a walk around town). So this time in ANC I was looking forward to putting some miles on my bike. Unfortunately rain dominated the weather forecast for Anchorage this weekend, but I grabbed my rain gear and threw it into the suitcase before leaving Hong Kong.
After landing at about 5pm and having dinner, I managed to get some sleep for a few hours despite it being 2pm Hong Kong time. Sleep is always important when you fly long haul, and the easiest way I have been able to fight fatigue, is to just sleep when I’m tired. The trick to to be sure you are not tired when you are reporting for work and about to sit in the seat of a jumbo jet with 400 people on board. This usually means fighting through a little fatigue in the hotel/on a layover to be sure you can get the right amount of sleep when you really need it most. So I wake up at the crack of 2am Anchorage time and do the usual shuffle between watching tv or maybe some movies on Netflix. By the time morning comes, I head to Walmart at 6 am. I am in the market for the biggest gas BBQ I can find, and North America is much cheaper then Hong Kong. I find the one I want, but soon realize I grossly under estimated the size of the box. No way I can handle this thing with my usual load of a suitcase and flight bag. So I decide to put it on hold until the next trip and bring an empty large suitcase. I will unpack the box in the hotel and then repack it into something that rolls. Too bad I didn’t think of that a few days ago. I waste some time wandering around the near empty store and stumble onto a hiking book for the Anchorage Area. Perfect. Between my mountain bike and my hiking shoes, I hope to cover more then a few trails while I have the chance on these trips.
Back to the hotel to find myself tired after some breakfast. It’s raining still, and the local forecast calls for clearing skies in the afternoon. So what better time to get a few more hours sleep.
I wake up at 3pm and eagerly get ready to get on my mountain bike as some blue sky creeps through the hotel window. I read the trail guide for the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The trail starts in downtown Anchorage just a few minutes ride away from my hotel and leads all the way to Kincaid Park on the other side of Ted Stevens International Airport (PANC). It’s a 22 mile round trip that is sure to offer some great scenery and maybe a little wild life. The guide cautions for bear and moose encounters and offers the standard “what to do if” so I make sure to read that twice. As the trail leads me by the airport, I make sure to bring my camera’s in hopes of catching a few planes passing over top. The first few miles of the trail take me along the mud flats of Bootlegger Cove. The smell of the pine forrest the trail cuts through is reminiscent of Canada, and certainly nothing like the smells of Hong Kong. It is a crisp 12 degrees in Anchorage today, coupled with the humid air, I can see my breathe for the first time since last winter here, as I puff along the 11 mile trail. The first point of interest is Earthquake Park. In 1964 the largest earthquake in the history of North America (and second largest in worldwide recorded history) struck the Anchorage and surrounding areas. This park used to be home to residents of Anchorage, but after dropping almost 40 feet during the quake, it has since been turned into a park. After a few more miles I realize I am getting close to the airport. I do a quick lap to the end of the trail and then back to a great spotting location at the departure end of runway 33 at PANC. There is a 150 foot bluff just behind me over looking downtown Anchorage and Cook Inlet, a spectacular view for those willing to venture close to the edge.
As I park my bike, drink some water and get my camera’s out of my bag, I take a moment and smile as I realize I flew a 747, 4700 miles across the Pacific, then biked another 11 miles only to sit and watch planes takeoff and land. I used to skip class in University and do the same thing about 12 years ago in Winnipeg. Even while flying at Perimeter in Northern Manitoba, I would often run outside our passenger lounges to see the occasional C-46 or DC-3 takeoff after having dropped off a load of freight for one of the communities. So here I am sitting under the runway when after only a minute or two I hear the roar of four Pratt Whitney R-2800 Super Charged Radial engines lifting the 100,000 pound Douglas Airliner first built in 1946 into the sky. It’s a sound I have always loved. It’s a sound that reminds me of what my grandfather heard every time he pushed forward the throttles of his airliners of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s before entering the world of turbo props and jetliners. This particular DC-6 belongs to Everts Air Cargo. Everts specializes in cargo delivery to the most remote parts of Alaska (and the world) in some of the most vintage airplanes still flying today. There fleet includes DC-6’s, C-46’s and DC-9’s, among some newer turbo props they use on passenger runs. I have been in touch with the company and will hopefully have a jump seat ride or two arranged for my next visit at the end of the month. As the DC-6 disappears on the horizon, Fed Ex is next in line for departure. There MD-11 lifts off on the Anchorage 6 departure, which calls for a left turn 30 degrees at 600 feet. There is something very pretty about a heavy jet, gently banking in the evening sun as it heads for a part of the planet where English is foreign, the food is different, and the street signs confusing. Simple, but beautiful. The next departure is the one I have been waiting for. Cathay Pacific flight 074 (CX074) departing for Miami Florida. It is the continuation of the same flight I operated the day before from Hong Kong to Anchorage. I manage to get what I think (you can judge for yourself once I have uploaded the photo’s) are some very nice shots of our “Hong Kong Trader” Boeing 747-8F. It is much quieter then the older MD-11 it followed, as the General Electric GENx-67B engines are a much more modern design with a higher bypass ratio, thus reducing the noise.
For me, my evening at the departure end of runway 33 will not get much better then that. So I pack up my gear and head for Lake Hood Seaplane Base. Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane aerodrome, is located immediately adjacent to Anchorage Airport. We share the airspace with the small float planes, as they often pass underneath us while we are on final approach to landing as they position for landing at Lake Hood. I pedal my bike past the two terminal buildings, around the corner to the first of several parking apron’s of Lake Hood. There is also a gravel strip which services the wheel aircraft here so there are plenty of bush planes to see. As I scan the ramp, I can see so many of the planes I have flown in the past. Cessna 152’s, 172’s, and 182’s. Cessna 185’s, there are even a metro or two on the other side of the fence. I stop and try and recount all the different planes I have been checked out on. Here is the list I could come up with:
Cessna 172 (Land and Seaplane versions)
Cessna 177 RG
Beechcraft King Air 100
Fairchild Metro’s (SW2, SW3, SW4, SW5)
DeHavilland Dash 8
and of course the Boeing 747 (-400, 400F, 400 BCF, 400 ERF, and -8F)
As I notice the Era Alaska Dash 8-100 takeoff, I realize that almost all of those airplanes I just listed can be found at this airport. I have recently started calling Anchorage “my home away from home, away from home” and this is another reason why!
Now I start pedaling again and head for the largest concentration of seaplanes in the world. I park my bike next to the 3 foot chain link fence and get lucky with my timing. There are two Dehavilland DHC-2 Beavers taxiing for takeoff, as well as a Cessna 185 (an aircraft I have a few hours of seaplane time in) and two Beaver’s on approach to land. Five planes will land and takeoff in the matter of a few minutes. Luck is on my side. I get some pictures and videos of the movements at Lake Hood. There is something romantic about float flying. I got my seaplane rating in the summer of 1999 while I was 16, and flew a total of about 50 hours mostly on a Cessna 172, and a few hours in a Cessna 185F. It is still the most fun I have had flying, even though I did little more then take the plane to a friends cottage and go fishing every other weekend for a summer. I guess the idea of landing anywhere there is water gives the typical seaplane pilot a huge sense of freedom that you just don’t get when you are forced to land on a runway that was built for planes. Lakes, rivers, inlets and the like weren’t built for anything, they are just there for seaplane pilots to use. To fish, to hunt, to canoe or mine, whatever the purpose, they are just there for enjoyment one way or another. As the evening rush at Lake Hood appears to be winding down, I snap one more picture of our 747-400 lifting off in the distance destined for New York. With that, I start pedaling the 11 miles back to the hotel. I really hope I can arrange that jump seat ride with Everts next trip, and I just may have to see about a ride in a seaplane for old times sake. A ride, into wild Alaska.