By, Captain Nancy Adrich
There are some interesting procedures and challenges with international flying. At least, I found them interesting. One of the biggest challenges, in my opinion, is language. I frequently was not sure if the controller actually understood me, and I knew that I frequently did not understand him. I found it particularly disturbing when the controller and local pilots used the local language, and the international pilots used English.
As a pilot, I can learn a lot by listening to what is being said. Of course, the Automated Terminal Information Service gives the pilots wind, weather, and runway information, but listening to the controller give directions to other aircraft is very important. You can get an excellent idea of how many airplanes are in the area, their location, and their flight conditions. You can learn what fixes to anticipate in your clearance by hearing the fixes given to other airplanes. When this is done in another language, all that information is not available to you.
However, one of the things I found particularly interesting was the use of fuel on long international flights. When I was flying, the FAA required an alternate to be filed on all international flights. it was necessary to carry enough fuel to reach your destination, hold for 45 minutes, then fly to your most distant alternate, and hold for 2 hours. The FAA also required you to carry an additional 10% of your calculated fuel burn on the entire trip.
For instance, let’s look at a hypothetical case. You are in an airplane that burns 12,000 lbs per hour, and you are going on a 12 hour flight. That is 144,000 lbs of fuel, plus 45 minutes of hold ( another 9,000), then enough for your most distant alternate, and two hours of hold there ( 6,500 + 24,000). That is 183,500 lbs of fuel. Now, you have to add an additional 10% to satisfy the FAA. That brings the total required fuel up to 201,850 lbs, when you actually plan to burn 144,000. You are now carrying almost 60,000 lbs of extra weight in fuel you do not plan to burn. Fuel is expensive, and the heavier the airplane the more fuel it burns. This extra fuel is a huge waste of money on most international flights.
Now, most pilots pride themselves on being pretty clever, so you’ve got to figure somebody will come up with a way to get around carrying all this additional weight. Right! Somebody did! It is called a “reclear fix.” Here is how it works.
When your flight plan is filed with the FAA, it is from your point of departure to your destination:
Departure Point A Destination B
(that makes perfect sense). However, the company only clears you to an intermediate point, the “reclear fix” – C
The FAA doesn’t know about C, and doesn’t really care. They clear you to your destination.
The whole point is to save fuel and weight. Since the company has only cleared you to point C, they can calculate the fuel burn from A to C, and add 10% to that. That 10% is converted to burnable fuel once the “reclear fix” is passed. You still have to carry the 39,500 required to hold at destination, fly to the most distant alternate, and hold there for 2 hours, but the 10% requirement is drastically reduced. Example:
Flight time from A to C is 10.8 hours, with a burn of 129,600 lbs. The extra 10% that has to be carried for that portion of the flight now becomes burnable fuel. The remaining 1.2 hours will burn 14400 lbs, which when added to the required reserve fuel of (45 min hold; fuel to alternate; 2 hr fuel ) is 53,900. The savings comes when you only have to add 10% from point C to B, which is 5390, instead of 10% of the entire 183,500. Now the fuel required at take off is reduced by 12,960 lbs. Not a huge savings per flight, but when multiplied hundreds of flights per month, it becomes significant!
Each flight must make position reports to Air Traffic Control (ATC) as well as to the company. If for some reason, the fuel required at the “reclear fix” is not sufficient, the flight will not be cleared by the company to proceed, and must get a new clearance from Air Traffic Control to an alternate airport.
A problem arose one night when the crew got a little confused. They were short of fuel at the “reclear fix” and turned off the route of their initial clearance by ATC. Since ATC does not know anything about “reclear fixes” and “reclear fuel” they were surprised when the flight to changed their route. It caused some consternation, and that crew was invited to enjoy an expense paid trip back to the training center for additional training. After that incident a lot more attention was paid to making sure pilots completely understood the procedure.
My favorite international airport was Heathrow in London. First, I loved being in London, and second their ground procedures. For some reason, it seems that London always requires at least one circuit in a holding pattern. I have had to hold for over an hour going into London, but I have never been there without at least one turn around the holding pattern. However, once you are on the ground they are very efficient.
At about 5 miles from landing the controller asked what gate you will be using. Then, once on the ground, the clearance is always, “Follow the green.” They have a series of green lights embedded in the concrete of the taxiways, and will turn them on in sequence to guide you straight to your gate. If you follow the green, there is no way you can get lost taxiing around that huge and complex airport. The Brits are pretty good at some things!
I was always a little nervous flying from London to new Delhi. This was before Desert Storm, but tensions were high in the Middle East. We were not allowed to fly over Iraq, but we could fly over Iran. We had very elaborate procedures in place in case of any problems requiring an diversionary landing in those areas. I always had this fear that if I did to divert into Iran, someone might notice that I am female! Thank goodness, that never happened ( having to divert I mean, most people DO notice that I am female!).
Flying over Turkey was amazing. The mountains are beautiful, but I was never able to identify Mt. Ararat from the air. I kept looking to see if I could find Noah’s Ark!
Over Iran the most spectacular sight is the Ayatollah’s Komeini’s Mausoleum in Tehran. It is brightly lit and easily seen from the air. It must be huge, because it can be seen long before you get to Tehran.
Another amazing sight is the border between Pakistan and India. Believe it or not, the whole border is lit with what appears to be street light. This line of lights extends for hundreds of miles, and is clearly visible from the air.
I remember one particular flight from London to New Delhi. we were briefed that Iraq was firing live rockets at night. We stayed very alert that night. I’m not sure a Boeing 767 Airliner could dodge a rocket, but at least we were looking.
There were other interesting things about flying in South America, and I will spend a little more time on them in a future article.
By Capt. Nancy Aldrich, Aviation Writer
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