It was a cool and misty 4:00 am at the cargo complex at LAX airport. We all chatted on our way out to the awaiting 747 that we were to pilot half way across the globe. There were four of us pilots because it was such a long flight, with one captain and three first officers. Because of the strong headwinds across the Pacific, we wouldn’t be over much water on our way to Hong Kong because the flight was planned well North of the great circle route. After departure, we would head up toward Anchorage, and even pass overhead Mongolia before coming back East to Hong Kong. After taxiing out to the runway, we were cleared for takeoff. The toga buttons were pressed and the huge engines roared to life. As we lifted off the runway, I let out a small sigh as I looked at the computer generated time remaining. It read 15 hrs, 15 mins.
I started my last 10 day trip with this LAX-HKG flight. This ultra long-haul flight can end up being quite nice because any flight over 12 hours gets a fourth pilot. With four, we can split the flight up in half and hopefully sleep for half the time we are airborne. The best situation is when the flight has two Hong Kong based gents and two LA based pilots. This is because HKG guys are ready to sleep while we are awake, and vice versa, so the rest-work cycle helps all four of us. On today’s flight, we had four pilots, but all four of us were North Americans. The SuperBowl was the night before and it was early for all of us.
One of the other F/O’s was going to fly us and I did the walk around. When it’s 110°F on the ramp in Bangkok, the walk around is a quick one. It’s also a quick one in the -30°F in Fairbanks, except for an extra linger around the pack outlets for the air-conditioning — warm even on the coldest days. However, today is was a cool 65° and I took my time and enjoyed it. On this length of flight, each of us will get two business class meals to heat up, plus salads, sandwiches, snacks, and lots of drinks. None of this has helped my waistline over the years.
I’ve flown Anchorage to Hong Kong a lot of times, and depending on the time of year, it’s usually around 10-11 hours. On this day, it was six hours to overhead Anchorage! So, from then on, it was just a normal flight like I am used to. The route of flight actually does makes sense, especially when the strong head winds are considered and one gets their mind wrapped around great circle flying. The strong jet stream winds whip really hard from West to East mostly around the central Pacific. If we travel really far North, even though it adds track miles, we burn less fuel because we are fighting much fewer winds.
The route plot shows how far North and West we went, including west of Beijing and over Mongolia. The straight line on this type of map is the great circle route, or the most direct path between the two cities, or points on the globe. The long and winding line is our actual path. The closer we are to the great circle line, the more efficient we are in a no-wind condition. You can see how strong winter jet streams can affect where we fly. Another good thing about this map is that it shows more clearly how the great circle route makes sense. If we were to fly out over Hawaii and the Philippines to go from LAX to HKG, you can see just how much farther that would be, even though that would be the path many people would assume we would take.
In the winter, another concern about being so far North is the temperature of the fuel out there in the wings. Jet fuel has minimum temperatures that have to be maintained or it can gel. When we spend multiple hours in -75°F air, it doesn’t take too long for the fuel to get cold. The remedy is to speed up (if there is enough fuel to rationalize the extra burn) or descend into warmer air. Speeding up will warm the airplane slowly, because of friction with more air molecules produces a little more heat. Not enough to warm your hands by, but maybe just enough to slow the rate of temperature loss in the fuel until we are in a warmer climate.
This flight was the beginning of a W pattern for me, where I cross the Pacific four times before coming home. At the end of a trip like that, where most of the flying is on the wrong side of the clock, I’m usually spent when I get home. Even so, it is still an amazing thing to take off out of Los Angeles and touch down 16 hours later on the other side of the planet. Our newest 747, the -8, is so efficient that with medium freight loads, it can actually make it from LAX to Singapore or farther. Wow! Hey, I love flying, but that might be a little too long, even for me!