Photo: Uldis Peļņa
Once airborne, the pilots had completed the first stage of the journey; it almost felt as if we were halfway to Paris. It was at this point that the third “pilot” entered the cockpit—though he had been there all along, just waiting for his turn. This, of course, was the autopilot function, which was switched on as soon as the plane reached a cruising altitude. Autopilot is another one of the great advances in aviation technology. But once again, this does not mean that the pilots have an easier time thanks to this tiny button—the pilots are not just lounging up there and enjoying the view. In order to use the autopilot function, the pilots must fully program the necessary directions, speeds, engine powers, and altitudes. This information has been given to them in their flight information packets, though it is constantly updated by the many air traffic controllers with which pilots are in constant communication for the entire duration of the flight.
Paris via GARSO
Before we could get to Paris, we had to go to GARSO. Where in the world is GARSO? Well, if you have ever flown from Riga to the southwest, then surely you have been there. GARSO is a point on the map of European skies, marking the entry point into Lithuanian airspace. The entire European airspace is divided into these points, some of which coincide with the airspace borders between countries. Each of the points is given a five-letter word that can be easily pronounced, but does not actually mean anything. The pilots would set their “headings,” or flight directions, toward these points, moving in a set route from point to point.
As they approach each point, they announce their presence to the relevant air traffic controllers, often using the country’s own language for courtesy’s sake. Our captains were heard to say Dobri dyen as they passed over Kaliningrad, Guten Tag as they crossed the German border, and then Bonjour as they headed into French airspace, though English is the official language of international aviation. This fragmentation of the airspace into different national zones certainly makes the pilot’s job more difficult, as he must announce his entry into each zone and transmit and receive information from each air traffic control center. European airspace has approximately thirty such different centers, which reflect the different countries down below.
Though the flight route is planned out in advance—reading like a Dadaist poem of words like GARSO, NINTA, and ELVIX—air traffic controllers can change a plane’s direction at any time. If there is little flight traffic through a given zone, then air traffic controllers will “straighten” a plane’s route; conversely, controllers can make a plane follow a more circuitous flight path, to avoid areas of heightened air traffic. This is one of the reasons why planes sometimes land a bit before their ETA, or Estimated Time of Arrival. Air traffic controllers also update information about the airplane’s unique Squawk number, which it uses to communicate its presence and location to other aircraft.
Throughout the 2.5-hour journey to Paris, the pilots constantly kept their flight log updated. This log is an ancient tradition in the history of navigation. It extends back to the earliest days of maritime travel, when ship captains kept a log of their activities (with entries like “Spotted a humpbacked whale on ye starboard side. Aahrr!”). And if the television program Star Trek is any indication, these logs will continue far into the future (“Captain’s log, year 3015: Deep-space presence of Klingons noticed on the planet Orkon). Actual aviation flight logs are not as literary as their predecessors or their distant-future successors. The log mostly consists of entering the arrival times for various points (such as the aforementioned GARSO, NINTA, and ELVIX) as well as the all-important fuel consumption indicators for each point along the route. At the end of each leg of the journey, the captain will put down some notes about the flight, but these consist solely of numbers and codes, and will probably never find their way into a work of literature.
If you have ever followed the progress of an airplane by observing its position in relation to the ground, then you surely know that “the approach” begins many kilometers before the end destination. When flying into Paris, the approach begins shortly after passing over the French border; when coming back to Riga, pilots begin their approach just before flying over the coastal town of Liepaja. When driving the same route in a car, you would never say that your are “almost there” when you are still more than two hundred kilometers away; but this is the difference between traveling 100 kilometers an hour or rushing along at 310 knots or .5 MACH—half the speed of sound.
The approach inaugurates a new phase in the flight, and additional tasks and procedures on the part of the pilots sitting in the cockpit. For one thing, they must study up on the weather forecasts and runway information at their destination, in our case, Charles de Gaulle Airport, or CDG. The next step is to coordinate the chosen approach to the airport. Each city has several possible approaches, which also carry code names just like the points on the airspace map (our selected approach to CDG was called VEDUS). The pilots communicate with the French air traffic controllers to approve their approach route to the airport. When this has been set, they proceed to prepare the airplane itself for landing. This means going through another checklist of procedures, which culminates in turning off the autopilot function and beginning to manually steer the plane toward its designated runway.
Since the Boeing 757 is such a large airplane—weighing in at more than one hundred tons, with a wingspan of 41.05 meters—the aircraft’s takeoffs and landings are remarkably smooth. For a passenger sitting in the cockpit, the plane seems only to gently sway from side to side. As a result of this gentle and quiet atmosphere, passengers can barely notice the moment when they touch down upon the runway. And as the Wingtips team found out, this is also true up in the cockpit: even though we were mere centimeters from the pilots and their controls, we were unsure of the exact moment of touchdown. Though only sign that we were safely down on the ground—and not just hovering above the runway—was a slight upward tick in the smile of the captain, who had once again completed a perfect landing.
Aviation Shop Talk
Upon landing at CDG, the pilots steered the plane to the designated gate at the arrivals terminal. This position had also been coordinated in advance, and could be viewed on the detailed map of the airport that the pilots consulted when determining their approach. The route to the gate at CDG was rather complicated, as CDG is one of the largest airports in Europe, but the long trip to the gates gave the Wingtips crew the chance to hear the pilots discuss the various aircraft encountered along the way, as well as to chat about the various airlines that operated them. The sensation was similar to people-watching in a crowded city square: there was much to see and much to talk about. (“Look at that Airbus A380 over there! That’s one ugly plane, but one hell of a smooth ride!”)
This long ride through the airport’s noontime traffic on the runways and exit routes also gave Wingtips the chance to hear the pilots discuss what they liked about the Boeing 757. Seeing so many different types of planes on the ground at CDG—some of them large, state-of-the-art vehicles, others smaller, classic planes that the airBaltic pilots had operated before—provided an optimal environment for some aviation shop talk. As it turned out, the first officer of our flight was most appreciative about the 757’s size, because the operation was more structure and thus demanded more support from ground crews. The support for a bigger plane was more thorough, while support for smaller planes was often less intensive. According to the captain, the seven-five was an extremely high-performance aircraft, and he compared the plane to a Mercedes S-Class automobile: comfortable, spacious, and reliable—a workhorse of the skies, and one that commands attention as it moves amidst the hustle and bustle of the runways.
On the Runway
After finding out how the flight had been—smooth, of course, with not a single complaint from the Paris-bound passengers—the captain donned a yellow reflective vest, offered one to the Wingtips crew, and headed out to inspect the plane. It was hard to believe this hunk of metal had just flown through the atmosphere, because sitting on the runway it looked just beautiful—glistening in the sun’s rays, its shiny surfaces reflecting subtle changes in the light, its wings extended like an eagle’s in full flight.
But Wingtips had little time for these poetic reveries, because the inspection was a serious procedure and demanded great attention. The captain checked for damage to the aircraft’s speed indicators (little tubes on the nose of the plane) and antennas (little rods sticking out from the aircraft’s belly). He then inspected the wheels (which had supported the plane’s massive weight as it touched down on the runway) and checked the shocks and struts for drips and leaks. Finally, the captain turned his attention to the engines: enormous blades encased in reflective material, which were still warm to the touch. As we passed beneath the plane, the bottoms of the wings dripped condensation on our heads—a reminder of the subzero air temperatures at 35,000 feet. The plane had endured some difficult conditions, to say the least, but looked to be in great shape.
As we taxied back out on the runways, waiting our turn for lift off, the pilots once again repeated the pre-flight procedures, which had now become familiar, though certainly no less obscure to an untrained ear. Somewhere between the back-and-forth calls of “oxygen” and “pumps” and “pressurization” and “parking brakes,” one thing became distinctly clear: we were headed home. Fortunately, as soon as Wingtips heard a distinct rumble in the stomach of the first officer, another thing quickly became clear, too: somewhere along the way between Paris and Riga, we’d be eating lunch. And eating lunch with two commercial pilots in the cockpit of a Boeing 757—traveling at speeds of .7 MACH and at a height of 40,000 feet—is quite an unforgettable experience. It’s one that is definitely worth writing home about.
Tags: boeing 757