Friday, 25 January 2013

Flying on the IL76 from Baku to Aqaba....Part 2.


Mounted on the overhead panel drooped a colour GPS display which contained pre-stored routes, I watched earlier as this was loaded by the captain and although not connected to the autopilot it allowed the two pilots to monitor the route programmed by the navigator.

After SAGIL point our route took us westwards, climbing to the south of the Caucasus mountain range where the safety altitude rose to 17,000 feet. Our VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator) which also displayed TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) aircraft indicated that we were climbing at a rate of 500 ‘something’ per minute, normally this is calibrated in feet but I guessed on this aircraft it was meters per second. As all the other cockpit indications referred to meters and kilometres per hour, as is the Russian way.

At our initial cruise altitude of 32,000 feet and M0.73 we passed to the north of Azerbaijan’s old capital city of Ganja and the border with Georgia. I excused myself from the cockpit and wandered down to see the navigator. I was met with a welcoming smile whilst he busied himself with the operational flight plan and fuel checks.

Leaning forward over the glass bubble, appearing not unlike a medieval galleon’s figurehead I was mesmerised at the sight of the lights of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. I was privileged to have a view that very few other pilots would have witnessed, I couldn’t work out whether it was like looking into a bizarre fish tank or out of one……..

Making my way back to the cockpit I was invited to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, where for the next ten minutes I tried to understand the information displayed in front of me. My new friends took it in turns to explain as best they could and the mist of uncertainty slowly dissipated. Whilst various crew members plied us with cups of hot tea and pastries. The hospitality was almost humbling, I had never felt so welcomed in another crew’s ‘office’.

The artificial horizon in every aircraft I have ever flown had a horizon which moved both up and down to show pitch and left and right to indicate roll, nothing so simple here! A vertical strip in the centre of the device rose up and down and an aircraft symbol moved left and right with a separate indicator alongside indicating the amount of roll and another separate indicator to show yaw. I found this to be very confusing but then that was because I was used to a different system.

Scanning the flightdeck and having watched the crew’s operation of the aircraft made me realise how hard my Azerbaijan colleagues must have worked to make the transition to a whole new concept of flying and operating on the Boeing 747-400 aircraft.

Our route took us into Turkish airspace east of the ancient city of Erzurum which was fortified and expanded by the Roman Empire so many centuries ago, before we turned south towards the Kurdish region of Iraq north of Erbil.

I was now flying over a country which I had spent many hours staring down at when based in Baghdad (See February’s edition of Airways magazine) operating an Iraqi owned Boeing 747-400. Turning onto a south westerly track as we flew by Baghdad, the American Air Traffic Controllers cleared us to descend to 24,000 feet and the crew prepared themselves for the descent, approach and landing into Aqaba’s King Hussein airport.

I have a confession to make……just prior to entering Iraqi airspace I left the flightdeck and slept for almost two hours on the row of seats I spoke about earlier. Hence the history lesson as opposed to aeronautical observations!

With the flight engineer controlling the speed with the thrust levers, the navigator steering the aircraft with the radio operators and ATCs instructions the captain controlled the rate of descent using a pitch control switch on the autopilot unit. Again flying by committee but it worked and appeared to be such a relaxed and easy operation.

We were further cleared to Aqaba’s VOR and the procedural ILS approach to the northerly runway. With the captain flying what appeared to me from my vantage point a perfect continuous descent on the outbound radial and a procedure turn to the left, the flight engineer adjusted the speed and selected the flaps and eventually the landing gear as we turned right and intercepted the localiser.

I would like to add that the entire approach was manually flown using raw data, in other words no sophisticated flight director systems, just good old fashioned skills and I could only imagine how hard I would have had to have worked to achieve the same level of accuracy and smoothness that my captain exhibited.

Looking ahead as we approached the coast I could see the port to the right the Israeli town of Eilat to the left, an airport which I flew into 25 years ago on one of Dan Air’s Boeing 727s,and ahead the beach and swimming pools of the Intercontinental Hotel.

The touchdown was as smooth as the rest of the flight and made me realise the height difference in the flare between the IL 76 and the Boeing 747-400….I have to admit that I did squirm a little in my seat as the rate of descent was arrested at a height much lower than I am used to!

The flight engineer selected reverse thrust and with the captain applying the brakes we turned off of the runway at its northern end for the short taxi to our parking position.

With the engines shut down the circuit breaker switches selected to off, my adventure was over.
All I can say is that I would like to thank the crew who were so hospitable towards me and opened my eyes to a way of operating a large jet aircraft in a manner which I had never seen before.

I have asked to fly on the Antonov 12 next and if I do I shall let you all into my experiences onboard what I would imagine is an equally fascinating aircraft.