I recently (well, it was when I wrote this pre 9/11) had a chance to visit the flight deck of a BA 747-400 en route from Johannesburg to Heathrow, overnight. The flight was BA054, departing 21:00 from Jo’burg. I managed about an hour’s chat with the Captain and FO during the cruise, overhead N’ Djamena in Chad, until it was time for the crew change over.
Below is a link to a set of files for owners of Aerowinx PS13 747-400 Simulator, so that they can re-create the flight for themselves.
Flight deck visit
I just had a chance to visit the flight deck of a BA 747-400 en route from Johannesburg to Heathrow, overnight. As this was my first such visit to the sharp end of a 744 (having been upfront in 757s and 767s before) I thought other PS1 users may be interested in the experience. It’s a long posting, so, with everyone sitting comfortably, I’ll begin…
The flight was BA054, departing 21:00 from Jo’burg. Pushback was on time and we left runway 03L and climbed steadily up to FL310. We had settled into the cruise, dinner came, was eaten and cleared away and I requested a trip up the stairs. As I rounded the top of the stairs, I noticed a marked increase in wind noise which continued into the flight deck. Stepping in, with the lights dimmed and the 01:00 dark African sky revealing nothing outside the windows, I felt a strange sensation that I have never before experienced in any of my previous visits up front in an airliner. There was an overwhelming sense of being in a dimly lit metal shack which was falling headfirst into a black abyss. Or, rather being in a cabin that was strapped to the front of an arrow shot forwards into blackness. I haven’t before had such a sense of either the total darkness of a night flight or the speed at which we were rushing over the planet. The engines were silent (inaudible over the wind noise) and there was a slight amount of turbulence which was shaking the plane as if to remind us that being in a metal box, flying at M.827 at 31,000 feet, was not a natural state of affairs. Even when the captain turned on the exterior lights to see if there was any cloud, there was absolutely nothing to see, just total blackness! Another PS1 flight deck visitor described what I think is the same sensation, as feeling totally disconnected from and unaware of the huge plane in which we were flying. Very spooky!
After introductions, I sat in the jumpseat and took a review of the instrument panel. FL310, M.827, heading 337, H-rated engines, SPD, VNAV, LNAV, left AP engaged. FO handling the navigation and making the ‘blind’ calls to other traffic, the Captain checking in with the next ATC area. TCAS showed another aircraft, 6000 feet above us, which we were catching. It was interesting to spot it on TCAS then look out the window in the correct direction and see the flashing lights just where I expected them. The plane’s position was just slightly left of us and well above and it passed above us and out of sight. We discussed the captain’s idea of building in a fixed, but known, random offset in each FMC as it is manufactured, so that no two planes would fly exactly the same route-they would be offset by a couple of miles either side. This would help to avoid near misses as no two planes would be on exactly the same centre-line of an airway. This prompted the FO to show me a 2 mile offset track on the FMC. The AP banked us 5 to 7 degrees to the right and turned us about 15 degrees towards the new offset track, which we joined in a few seconds, then banked left to maintain the new track. The FO remarked that we had been following an offset track until ATC had earlier given us a ‘direct to xxx’ instruction, after which the offset had been removed by the FMC.
We were nearing N’Djamena in Chad and the Capt checked in with ATC there. They asked us our registration (I think it was something like G-CIVX). The Captain said that this was so that they could invoice for services rendered to the flight. The crews like to keep these ATCs on their toes by asking for additional information, such as current weather, runway availability etc. ‘Anything to get a bit better value for money’. After a quick check of the FMC, the Captain decided we could improve our ETA by climbing to FL350. We requested this from N’Djamena, but were informed that there was another aircraft in the next block ahead of us at that flight level. Over Africa, with the lack of radar, flights are allocated a block of time at a specific FL, kind of like the North Atlantic tracks. Similarly radio calls are made along the lines of ‘All stations, this is Speedbird 54, Johannesburg to London Heathrow, FL310, xxxx at 05, next yyyy at 35, Speedbird 54, FL310’. These reports are made 5 minutes before reaching each waypoint. The LEGS page in the FMC showed various waypoints with associated speeds from M.827 decreasing to M.807 as the aeroplane decreased its weight. These were set by the Cost Index which had been entered. The Captain said that for BA, the CI varies from 0 to 400. The CI sets the balance between fuel costs and crew/time costs. If fuel is cheap, the CI is set to 400, and the fuel burn for the trip is increased. This is similar to having expensive crews – you want to minimise the trip time. If fuel is expensive, the cost index is decreased to 0 and the fuel burn is decreased, but the trip takes longer.
We passed into the Tripoli FIR and tried to contact them on HF, but with no response. Apparently this was common – HF can sometimes fail to pick up any station, other times you can’t hear the closest stations, but others much further away come in clearly. Atmospheric refraction is the cause and in this year of increased solar activity, things can be interesting! According to the Capt, Cat 1 landing is worst case that BA allows the crew to land manually, any worse is done by autoland with the crew monitoring the approach. The FO noticed that the throttle lever for Engine No 1 was a centimetre or two advanced from the others and remarked on this to the Captain (making sure I hadn’t nudged it). The Capt had pushed it forwards to try to balance out the engine N1 parameters. The FMC seeks to balance the EPR values for the RB211 engines, whereas an imbalance in the N1 values will lead to an imbalance in fuel flow and can sometimes set up a cyclical ‘beating’ behaviour of the engines which is like a low vibration, which can be felt by the passengers.
The only other thing I noted whilst up front was the EICAS message display. The usual ‘NO SMOKING ON’ was showing as well as ‘SATCOM OFF’. The mid-way relief crew change was about to occur (the Capt would go lie down, the FO would take command and the relief crew would take over as FO) and this would make the flight deck cramped so I decided to leave and try and get some sleep.
Thanks to Capt H. and his crew for their patience in chatting to me, and for giving me a chance to sit up front in one of these amazing machines. I have placed on my web site suitable SITUATION file, ROUTE file, weather fax printout and an attempt at a RoutePlan flight plan for this flight for those who would like a go at this for themselves.
Good flying, Andrew.
PS13 simulator files
Click here to download the zip file: ba054.zip