Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Saipan roundtrip and an email from a new B-767-300ER captain.

I'd planned to introduce you to FO James Reeman in this posting but that will have to wait awhile as I've had a few problems attaching his photography to my blog. You're going to really enjoy it so stand by a while until I iron out a few problems.

In the meanwhile, join Greg and me as we flight plan, meet our crew and fly to Saipan and back to Narita.

We'd arrived in Asia a few days earlier via Delta 183, Seattle to Osaka in this B-767-300ER. Of course we had a relief pilot for this flight as it covered 4,617 nautical miles in ten hours 54 minutes. We carried a moderate load of 200 passengers with 7,200 pounds of freight and 143,500 pounds of fuel for a takeoff weight of just a little over 400,000 pounds.  After takeoff from SEA we travelled north to Anchorage. I love flying through this area along the Aleutian Island Chain past Cold Bay and Dutch Harbor. Northwest Airlines pioneered this region during WWII in DC-3's and DC-4's and created an impressive history under extremely harsh conditions. In other words, other airline pilots paved the way for me today.

From here we made a slight westerly turn to join the North Pacific tracks, go feet wet and traverse Russian and Chinese airspace. Ten and a half hours later and more than ready to land, we started our descent after passing Sendai, Tokyo and Nagoya. The Japanese eastern coastal region is spectacularly beautiful and my thoughts go out to the many Japanese friends that I've made over the years as I write this. They've endured massive destruction in the form of earthquakes and tsunami's with their usual uncomplaining attitude. I've traveled the world, met thousands of people and have never met kinder or gentler people. Let me give you a few examples below of just some of my friends. Please notice, they always have a smile on their faces.

A crew from Osaka to Narita

Meeting a JAL crew while standing in the customs line at Saipan.

One of our gate agents at Nagoya.

"Ah, Pecksohn, konnichi wa."

Here are four of the six ladies who run the Radisson laundry service for our pilots and flight attendants. Every time I show up they act as if I'm the most important person in the world and they couldn't wait to see me. It's a nice greeting when you're 4,000 miles from home!

Well, Greg's still a little worn out from our long flight from SEA to Osaka and curled up in one of the Lazy-Boy recliners in the crew lounge. Kids!

But the slave driver that I am, gets him up to draw our oceanic chart down to Saipan.

And finally out to the gate to meet our flight attendant crew as we await the arrival of our 757. Yup, more smiling people. It's nice to fly with someone who has a sweet tooth as he passes out chocolate macadamia nuts.

Here's our route from Narita to Saipan: RJAA, MANGO, OTR20, ADKAK, A337, TEGOD, G205, GUYES, DCT PGSN. A337 is the yellow line to the far right. This is a relatively quick flight of just three hours eight minutes to cover 1,342 nautical miles. We'll be out of VHF range so will communicate via HF with Tokyo and San Francisco Radios. This will be a long day though because this is a SPN turn. We'll have an hour and a half on the ground and then it's crank it up and fly back to NRT. About a 12 hour duty day with nearly eight hours of flying. The southern flight will be uneventful, but the return trip will be spent dodging thunderstorms that build along this route as the day passes. They won't be imbedded so navigating past them is fairly easy, except for the HF radio work to coordinate it all though.

Here's what it looks like on a more conventional National Geographic map. We're the black line to the right. From Narita we'll fly pretty much directly to Iwo Jima and follow the Bonin Trench which becomes the Mariana Trench to the Northern Mariana Islands. This area encompasses the deepest point of the worlds largest Ocean, which according to National Geographic is 36,200 feet.  

Approximately 200 miles north of Saipan, we've contacted Guam approach on VHF and received a clearance to descend, pilots discretion to 10,000 feet. In an attempt to stay high as long as possible and save fuel, we've built an intersection in our FMC to cross a point 30 miles north of Saipan at 10,000 feet and 250 knots. This will give us an economical, power off descent of 29,000 feet. We've added the 250 knots by habit, because if more than 12 miles offshore it's not necessary to slow to this restricted speed. But 30 miles at 250 will pass quickly enough so we'll keep it in and plan as usual. Besides, we're a little early so it's not necessary to come screaming in and then have to use the boards.

In the distance you can see the runway at Saipan, but do you see those parallel strips just over our nose? They're what remains of old "North Field" from where Enola Gay launched on 6 August 1945 with its nuclear load code named "Little Boy" en route to Hiroshima. Three days later Bockscar launched with her load "Fatman" for Nagasaki. The next day, 10 August 1945, Japan capitulated and WWII unofficially came to an end. Saipan and Tinian here are just two of the 14 islands that make up the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands that stretch some 300 miles.

Saipan, straight ahead. But what's that over in the far corner just beyond the airline ramp?

Greg and I have about 1:45 minutes on our hands so after completing our shutdown checklist, wolfing down lunch and preparing for our return trip to Narita, we abandon the cockpit in search of other aircraft.

And this is what we found. Andy, our station manager piled into his truck and drove us to the other side of the field where we found this. It's a Volga-Dnepr IL76TA, just one of a varied fleet designed for heavy lifting. 

This is a Russian based company, that I've seen all over the world that specializes in moving large, bulky, heavy objects. This aircraft normally has a crew of seven with a MTOW of 346,000 pounds and a range of 3,650 miles. I think that this is the smallest aircraft in their fleet. A rather ungainly looking flying machine, but it gets the job done I suppose.

Four tires per main truck for 16 tires on the main landing gear. Look forward and you'll see the nose wheel assembly with four tires. I'd love to see all these wheels retract!

Andy and Greg beneath the tail. Look closely... you'll see them.

Anyway, this is why the IL 76TA is here today in Saipan. This Shanghai Airlines B-767 blew the right engine shortly after takeoff and returned to land. A few days later a new engine was shipped in and maintenance was working on it when we arrived.

OK, we have to run and head back to our 757 to launch for Narita, but before we do, Andy gives us a quick tour including this WWII Japanese bunker. After the Marines secured the island on 7 July 1944, this airfield became known as Isley Field, home to the 73rd Bomb Wing, 21st Bomber Command of the 20th Air Force. Picture if you can 180 B-29's on this site. 

Thanks for following along on this quick Saipan turn, but before I shove off, let me leave you with an email I received regarding recent events in Japan. This is a first person account from a brand new 767 captain on his first Asian trip. He and his crew did a fantastic job... my hat's off to them.   

 PIREP Airline flight on approach to Tokyo during earthquake

Subject: Report from an airline pilot on approach to Tokyo during earthquake
 I'm currently still in one piece, writing from my room in the Narita crew hotel.
It's 8am. This is my inaugural trans-pacific trip as a brand new, recently
checked out, international 767 Captain and it has been interesting, to say the
least, so far. I've crossed the Atlantic three times so far so the ocean
crossing procedures were familiar.

By the way, stunning scenery flying over the Aleutian Islands . Everything was
going fine until 100 miles out from Tokyo and in the descent for arrival. The
first indication of any trouble was that Japan air traffic control started
putting everyone into holding patterns. At first we thought it was usual
congestion on arrival. Then we got a company data link message advising about
the earthquake, followed by another stating Narita airport was temporarily
closed for inspection and expected to open shortly (the company is always so

From our perspective things were obviously looking a little different. The
Japanese controller's anxiety level seemed quite high and he said expect
"indefinite" holding time. No one would commit to a time frame on that so I got
my copilot and relief pilot busy looking at divert stations and our fuel
situation, which, after an ocean crossing is typically low.

It wasn't long, maybe ten minutes, before the first pilots started requesting
diversions to other airports. Air Canada , American, United, etc. all reporting
minimal fuel situations. I still had enough fuel for 1.5 to 2.0 hours of
holding. Needless to say, the diverts started complicating the situation.

Japan air traffic control then announced Narita was closed indefinitely due to
damage. Planes immediately started requesting arrivals into Haneada, near Tokyo ,
a half dozen JAL and western planes got clearance in that direction but then ATC
announced Haenada had just closed. Uh oh! Now instead of just holding, we all
had to start looking at more distant alternatives like Osaka , or Nagoya .

One bad thing about a large airliner is that you can't just be-pop into any
little airport. We generally need lots of runway. With more planes piling in
from both east and west, all needing a place to land and several now fuel
critical ATC was getting over-whelmed. In the scramble, and without waiting for
my fuel to get critical, I got my flight a clearance to head for Nagoya , fuel
situation still okay. So far so good. A few minutes into heading that way, I was
"ordered" by ATC to reverse course. Nagoya was saturated with traffic and unable
to handle more planes (read- airport full). Ditto for Osaka .

With that statement, my situation went instantly from fuel okay, to fuel minimal
considering we might have to divert a much farther distance. Multiply my
situation by a dozen other aircraft all in the same boat, all making demands
requests and threats to ATC for clearances somewhere. Air Canada and then
someone else went to "emergency" fuel situation. Planes started to heading for
air force bases. The nearest to Tokyo was Yokoda AFB. I threw my hat in the ring
for that initially. The answer - Yokoda closed! no more space.

By now it was a three ring circus in the cockpit, my copilot on the radios, me
flying and making decisions and the relief copilot buried in the air charts
trying to figure out where to go that was within range while data link messages
were flying back and forth between us and company dispatch. I picked
Misawa AFB at the north end of Honshu island. We could get there with minimal
fuel remaining. ATC was happy to get rid of us so we cleared out of the
maelstrom of the Tokyo region. We heard ATC try to send planes toward Sendai , a
small regional airport on the coast which was later the one I think that got
flooded by a tsunami.

Dispatch then sent us a message asking if we could continue to Chitose
airport on the Island of Hokkaido , north of Honshu . Other company planes were
heading that way. More scrambling in the cockpit - check weather, check charts,
check fuel, okay. We could still make it and not be going into a fuel critical
situation ... if we had no other fuel delays. As we approached Misawa we got
clearance to continue to Chitose. Critical decision thought process. Let's see -
trying to help company - plane overflies perfectly good divert airport for one
farther away...wonder how that will look in the safety report, if anything goes

Suddenly ATC comes up and gives us a vector to a fix well short of Chitose and
tells us to standby for holding instructions. Nightmare realized. Situation
rapidly deteriorating. After initially holding near Tokyo , starting a divert to
Nagoya , reversing course back to Tokyo then to re-diverting north toward Misawa,
all that happy fuel reserve that I had was vaporizing fast. My subsequent
conversation, paraphrased of course...., went something like this:

"Sapparo Control - Airline XX requesting immediate clearance direct to Chitose,
minimum fuel, unable hold."

"Negative Ghost-Rider, the Pattern is full" <<< top gun quote <<<

"Sapparo Control - make that - Airline XX declaring emergency, low fuel,
proceeding direct Chitose"

"Roger XX, understood, you are cleared direct to Chitose, contact Chitose

Enough was enough, I had decided to preempt actually running critically low on
fuel while in another indefinite holding pattern, especially after bypassing
Misawa, and played my last ace...declaring an emergency. The problem with that
is now I have a bit of company paperwork to do but what the heck.

As it was - landed Chitose, safe, with at least 30 minutes of fuel remaining
before reaching a "true" fuel emergency situation. That's always a good feeling,
being safe. They taxied us off to some remote parking area where we shut down
and watched a half dozen or more other airplanes come streaming in. In the end,
Delta had two 747s, had two 767's and a 777 all on the ramp at Chitose.
We saw two American airlines planes, a United and two Air Canada as well. Not to
mention several extra Al Nippon and Japan Air Lines planes.

Post-script - 9 hours later, Japan air lines finally got around to getting a
boarding ladder to the plane where we were able to get off and clear customs. -
that however, is another interesting story.

By the way - while writing this - I have felt four additional tremors that shook
the hotel slightly - all in 45 minutes.

*    *    *    *

And for those who think that we just push buttons once in a while, maybe you'll think of "ghost-rider" (I love that reference) and his crew should that misguided thought ever pass through your brain again.  

Thanks for following along.... until later, Rand


  1. Rand,

    Another excellent post. Having just flown through NRT (and experiencing the 7.2 foreshock) to ROR (and back, after the 9.0 quake), I definitely appreciate the look into transpac and Asia flying. The e-mail concerning flying in after the 9.0 quake was a nice add in!

    I look forward to flying with you some day.

  2. Capt Skibi,

    Thanks for writing. I've been flying Europe for the last few months and have missed Asian flying. I just hope that everyone is well over there. And thanks for mentioning the email add on, those guys performed beautifully.


  3. Another great post, Rand. That picture of the field that Enola Gay launched from is pretty neat. Lots of history in the part of the world.

  4. Rand

    What a great read! Thanks for the Saipan route - I plugged this into my Flight Simulator planner (FSBuild) and will try that route soon!

    And incredible read of that email from the company captain too - that must have been a very interesting and scary situation to be in! That amount of traffic must have been something to see!


  5. What are those white cloths on the window sill behind Greg and the Jepp charts in Saipan? They really look like athletic socks drying.

    Great post as usual and nice catch on the IL-76.

  6. Good catch Jim,

    Yes, they're Greg's socks that he forgot to wash back in NRT. He's a frugal guy and figured that this was an opportune time to dry them.


  7. Hey Rand,

    As a big airline enthusiast, I just wanted to say kudos on handling the fuel situation very well. I'm sure all the pax appreciated it... :)