Khabarovsk (UHHH) was cold and quiet. At five in the morning, there still wasn’t a lot of activity on it’s streets. As the sun was still beyond the horizon, the deep blue sky in it’s predawn light made things look even colder in this Russian town. Snow blanketed the entire landscape, and at this early hour, it was hard to tell where the deep blue of the sky ended and the cold blue ice on the ground began. A few amber sodium-vapor lights shown out from the cold darkness to reveal that life does indeed exist out here on the western plain. Life during the winter months has to be tough in a city like this, at least it would be for a Texas boy like me. On this cold, hard day north of the Chinese border, I’ll have to resign to simply imagining what lies ahead this work day for the inhabitants of Khabarovsk.
As our 747-400ERF pressed on at 38,100 feet, (or 11,600 meters due to being in Russian airspace) I’m sure we looked like a silent glint, slowly passing high overhead. As so often is the case, I wonder what is going on down there in the cities and towns we pass by so quickly, at nearly 9 miles a minute. Can they hear us or see us? Are they getting ready to head out to work? What kind of jobs exist in a city like this? Have they ever ventured as far as Moscow or even Europe? Have they heard of God’s grace? How do they deal with the bitter cold? Will I ever get to visit this city and see it from the ground, where I can connect with locals and truly take in the culture?
I was excited about this most recent trip across the Pacific, traveling from Anchorage to Hong Kong, because we were taking a more Western route, one that I had never been on before. As this route plot will show, (click on it to see it larger) instead of staying off the Eastern coast of Japan like I typically have in the past, we headed inland over Eastern Russia and China. The perfectly straight line on the map is the great circle route, and the zigzag line is the route we actually planned on flying. We try to stay as close to the great circle route as possible, because it is the most direct path. However, airspace restrictions, air traffic control restrictions, restrictions that force us to stay somewhat close to alternate airfields, and depending on the upper level winds, we often have to deviate from the “perfect path.” Because of this, we crossed over Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Harbin, Beijing, and actually approached Hong Kong from the West. It seems odd to approach Hong Kong from the West, like flights do from Europe, but that is the way things often happen with the high winter winds.
This trip included a great crew, but also a chance to look down and see things I have never seen before. We could clearly see the border between Russia and China — a river, that to the south supplies water to thousands of small Chinese farm plots. Odd rectangle after odd rectangle littered the ground like an uneven checkerboard that extended hundreds of miles. North of Harbin, (pronounced Har-been) China, I wondered how these farmers lived, especially in the cold winter months. Do they have cars and drive to Harbin? Do they only live with cattle and donkeys? How can there be so many individual family plots so close together? I’ll have to visit someday to find out. To the North of the river was mother Russia. The landscape there was stark and bleak. There weren’t any farm plots and there wasn’t much of an organized look to the landscape. The soil may not have been conducive to farming, or people found work in the cities instead.
As the miles ticked off further South, we crossed over Harbin. It is renowned for the winter ice show that is put on there every year. Click this link to see more photos of this amazing event. This isn’t anything like what is seen in other parts of the world, but a huge production that takes months to plan and put together. Blocks of ice are cut out of a river and hauled to a central local where huge ice sculptures are made, like castles and such, and then lights are placed inside of the ice. At night, it’s a sight to be seen. Farther south was the huge city of Beijing and the Great Wall. Clouds came in, so I wasn’t able to see the wall, but I’ve heard it’s quite the sight as well. Also unseen, but flown over, is this tower in Guangzhou, where engineers are building the second tallest metal tower on Earth.
Approaching Hong Kong from the West, heading Southeast, means the Sierra arrival. It can be a bit tricky to fly because it leaves you high as you fly over Macau’s airport and then controllers can give you a quick descent clearance and point us toward the airport. As my Australian friends like to say, you can get “caught out” by being too high to get down in time. It’s a lot like arrivals into JFK, where sometimes you get slam-dunked down, and other times you go way out and then way back in to the airport with a gradual descent. Murphy’s law says that if you plan on a quick descent, you’ll get the slow one, and if you hope to get the slow descent, that is when controllers point you at the runway and clear you to descend 15,000 feet, and do it quickly. The 747 is a beautiful machine, but when we are heavy, it takes a lot of work to get it to slow and descend at the same time. As soon as we plan ahead, ATC has a different idea.
This was a good trip because I got to see a lot of new things. Aviation is all about routine and getting things to be as mundane as possible, so that we are ready if anything should happen. However, sometimes, breaking things up a bit and seeing new things is good for the soul and the aviator in all of us. People often ask me how I don’t get bored on these long flights. Honestly, there is too much to do to get bored, however, boring can be a good thing, because it means emergencies aren’t happening! On this trip, breaking through the routine proved to make for quite a fun trip.