You always get that extra little buzz when it says ‘AY 005’ on the flight preparation papers. One long-haul flight out of many, but for us it’s the oldest and most traditional one. Finnair’s first long-haul destination was New York, and the route ran via Copenhagen and Amsterdam on a DC-8 aircraft. Pilots, at least, remember Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic 86 years ago as a milepost in aviation history. For the pilot, crossing the Atlantic no longer means bearings twirled with a plotter as messy lines on a route map, or rough navigation with tops and hyperbolae of positions, cigarette stubs in the ashtray next to three weatherworn aviator hats. Nowadays, the route is operated with an Airbus 330, with modern equipment to enable a safe crossing of the ocean with two pilots, without navigators or aviation engineers. However, there still is something special about it from the viewpoint of the pilot.
The route to New York isn’t run of the mill. The flight planners choose the route according to favourable large air currents. Sometimes we fly from the south from above Northern Scotland. This time the route runs from above Iceland and over Greenland. Unlike on the continent, when flying above the ocean we are off the radar and beyond the reach of air traffic control’s monitoring. In addition, there are no radio transmitters in the middle of the ocean so there is no undisturbed, continuous speech connection to air traffic control. The third thing to pay attention to is the shortage of alternate airports. The pilots should always have their eye on the nearest alternate airport along the route that is located no less than two (sometimes three) hours away from the plane. On this flight, the alternate airports are Keflavik and Goose Bay. The Greenland terrain is high and mountainous. When flying above it, the pilots revise the special procedures in case a malfunction is detected in one of the engines or pressurisation and altitude has to be decreased.
Even when above the ocean, the navigation is done normally using GPS (i.e. satellite navigation). However, the waypoints are latitude-longitude coordinates, unlike anywhere else, and there are no earth stations or beacons for a backup. Instead of the magnetic north, the direction reference is the fixed geometric location of the North Pole. ‘Finnair five, cleared to New York via 65N000W, 66N010W, 67N020W….’ reads the air traffic controller for us close to the western coast of Norway. As there is no radar monitoring by air traffic control, the spacing out between the aircrafts is based on following the provided route clearances and speeds with pinpoint accuracy. After receiving the clearance, both pilots carefully cross-check the directions and nautical miles, and that they tally with the aircraft’s navigation equipment. After that, it’s ‘Have a good flight!’ Bit by bit, the voice of the air traffic controller fades beyond the reach of the VHF radios. A little bit of Charles Lindbergh in us starts to stir.
Over the Atlantic, there is a text-based messaging system with satellite connection to air traffic control. But the system is quite new and not entirely without its problems. That is why the progress of the planes is still tracked by radio operators using almost one hundred-year-old HF radio technology. The HF signal bounces between the ocean and the layers of the atmosphere far beyond the horizon, and its range is in theory thousands of miles. But at the same time, the connection is prone to the changes in the day and the sunspot rhythm. There are a lot of noise, scratching sounds and breaks in the connection. ‘Iceland radio, Iceland radio, Finnair 5, position 65N030W at 1810, request SELCAL on DM-BF…’
‘Finnair 5, on boundary…ccchhccccssshhhh… Gander on frequency… eight.. cchhcssh.. niner one….’
(You can listen to the HF radio communications live from this link. Can you make out what they’re saying?)
A new continent. The east coast of Canada, Newfoundland and the vast wilderness. The feeling of already reaching your destination when there are still around three hours to go. Moncton, Bangor, Boston. More and
more planes start to circle the skies when approaching New York. We often move in on the John F. Kennedy Airport above the beautiful capes and islands of Long Island. The airport itself is one of the most intense in the whole wide world. As the silhouette of Manhattan looms in the background, the air is swarming with traffic in all directions, at all altitudes. The airport often uses up to three runways simultaneously. There are landings and takeoffs every couple of minutes. Especially during the rush hour, the air traffic controllers read the clearances at the double, with a strong east coast accent. They are tough professionals who expect quality also from the pilots. ‘Finnair five heavy turn right on juliet after landing 757 cross 22R keep rolling join alfa hold short of november charlie monitor groung point niner’, you have to hear and roger your own clearance without delay.
(You can also listen to the radio frequency of the JFK air traffic control from here. You may spot Finnair five at 3.30–4.00 pm New York local time)
Snowfall and exceptional weather is a chapter of its own. The air traffic in New York may be badly disrupted then. You may be in for a long wait in the air. When the weather forecast is poor, the captain needs to prepare for various scenarios already prior departure by reserving enough fuel. Usually the cockpit receives advance information from Finnair’s New York ground personnel on the available runways, weather and congestion a few hours before landing. We know many of that crew already. One known to all was Maucca Leppälä, who was the Manager of Finnair’s New York ground services for 23 years, but recently retired. Now the operations are led by Ulla-Maija Baker. Greetings to all, it’s always nice to see you.
The hotel transportation runs smoothly in a relaxed atmosphere as the crew discusses what happened on the flight. The blocks of Brooklyn, inner city kids playing basketball and the neon signs of garages and diners blink in the windows. This nation of drivers is returning home on four lanes. Over the radio, I can make out Bruce Springsteen’s guitar, or maybe it’s just my imagination. Arrival at the hotel, saying good evening to all other crew members. Hang up the uniform and put it in the closet. The metropolis quietens down into the early evening as the sun slowly floats down and hides behind the silhouette of New Jersey. That’s us, Charles and I. A brief moment when the silver wings on the uniform’s jacket seem to shine a little brighter than usual.