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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.
Here are just some of the things I heard while at “work” the other day:
“you have to eat all those sandwiches before we takeoff”
“what can i get the girls to bring you to drink?”
“Lamb or chicken for dinner?”
“what do you mean you just ate? then to flight attendant on the interphone yes we will both have the caviar then back to me who says no to caviar?”
“well 30 more minutes and we are done for the day” (with 6 hours flying time left – relief crew ready to take over)
and of course, while I climbed into the top bunk after changing into my pajamas in the 747 cockpit’s own private bathroom, while getting paid “goodnight, set your alarm for 6 hours so we don’t sleep through the landing in Hong Kong”
Life is pretty sweet.