Sunday, September 26, 2010

FID: Cleared for Takeoff

What would “Flight into Darkness” be without a flight into darkness? So it looks like the story is going to have a few scenes with an airplane in it. What better airplane to use than the one I am most familiar with and spent many, many, many hours flying—the Boeing 767.

This is going to be a "crash" course in how to fly a Boeing 767 commercial jet... I'm going to teach you just enough to make reading “Flight into Darkness” more interesting.

Boeing 767

Boeing 767
Most of you have probably been a passenger on a B-767 or B-757, but just in case you haven’t, the picture above is a Boeing 767. It is a twin-engine, two-pilot, wide-body jet airliner that has been in service since 1982 and is in currently in service with over 40 airlines.

There are 3 basic variants of the 767, differing in fuselage length (767-200; 767-300; 767-400) and 6 different models (767-200; 767-200ER; 767-300; 767-300ER; 767-300F; 767-400ER) of the basic design (not including military designs). Pilot certification for the B-767 type rating authorizes a pilot to fly all variants and models, including the B-757 and its different variants and models. Pilots working for airlines that operate both B-757s and B-767s might show up for work and be assigned to fly any of the numerous models of either jet.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
 In the novel, there will be a scene(s) at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The location of LAX is west of Los Angeles, on the Pacific coast. The primary direction for takeoffs (and landings), due to the prevailing winds and noise abatement, is west over the Pacific.

LAX Airport - overhead view
There are two sets of parallel runways, one set on the north side of the terminal area and one to the south side. The runways are named in relation to the compass and in the direction that takeoffs are being made. On the south side of the terminal, facing west, the runways are 25L and 25R (corresponding to 250 degrees on the compass and “L” for left and “R” for right). On the north side of the terminal area, the west-facing runways are 24L and 24R.

LAX runway diagram
Aircraft departing LAX are assigned a departure runway based on their destination. For example, destinations to the west (i.e., Hawaii, Japan, etc.) or north-northeast (San Francisco, Seattle, etc.) will normally use the runways on the north side of the airfield. Aircraft departing LAX for destinations to the south (San Diego, Mexico, Central America, etc.) and southeast (Miami, Dallas, New York, etc.) will normally use the runways on the south side of the airfield. In addition, departing aircraft use the inside runways (runways closest to the center of the airfield) 25R and 24L.

In the novel, the runway that will be used at LAX is 25R. At the end of this post, you will have the opportunity to make an actual takeoff from runway 25R at LAX. It is a daytime takeoff. In the novel, it is takeoff "into the darkness".

Runway 25R - LAX
Flight Management System (FMS)

Boeing 767 Cockpit
A comment a pilot often hears from passengers who glance into the cockpit: “I hope you know what all those buttons, switches, dials and gauges do.” To the untrained eye, it does look like a mess, but, in reality, everything is very organized and orderly, and the pilots “do” know what every button, switch, dial, and gauge does.

Flight Management Computer (FMS) - CPU
I want to introduce you to a specialized computer that automates a wide variety of in-flight tasks, reducing the workload on the flight crew to the point that a flight engineer or navigator is no longer needed. You will read about this computer in the novel. As a side note, the 9/11 hijackers used these computers to route the planes to their targets by simply entering the latitude and longitude.

The primary function of this computer is in-flight management of the flight plan. It is called a Flight Management System (FMS) and is controlled from the cockpit using a Control Display Unit (CDU) which incorporates a small screen and keyboard. Using various sensors to determine the aircraft’s position, the FMS can guide the aircraft’s autopilot along the flight plan. In the photo below, there are two CPUs located on the forward portion of the console by the pilots knees.

B-767 Cockpit Console
The flight plan is generally determined on the ground, before departure, by one of the airline's dispatchers. It is then typed into the FMS by the pilot, or selected from a saved library of common routes (Company Routes), or downloaded via a datalink with the airline dispatch center.

B-767 Cockpit - Loading/Checking Flight Plan
During preflight, other information relevant to managing the flight plan is entered by the pilots. This can include performance information such as gross weight, fuel weight, and center of gravity. It will also include departure and cruise altitudes. The pilot can use the FMS to modify the flight plan in flight for a variety of reasons.

Military Intercept

It has been standard operating procedures for decades to immediately intercept off-course planes that do not respond to communications from air traffic controllers.

Military Fighters Intercepting a Boeing 767
When the Air Force "scrambles" a fighter plane to intercept a target, they usually reach the plane in question in minutes. The military fighter(s) will then fly next to the non-responsive plane, and rock their wings—a way to say "follow me" to a nearby airport. An example when this might be necessary is if the plane has lost its radio equipment. If the intercepted plane refuses to respond (not good), there is a graduated series of actions the Air Force can use—firing tracer bullets in front of the plane, even shooting it down if it is a threat.

F-16 -- Fresno, AFB - California Air National Guard
This is analogous to police pulling motorists over. Every driver in the US knows that when a police car behind them turns on their lights or siren, they are supposed to pull over, just like every pilot knows that when an Air Force fighter pulls beside them, they are supposed to follow their orders.

The video below is without sound. It will give you an idea of what it might look like if you were a passenger in a commercial airliner and happend to look out your window and see that your flight had been intercepted by F-16s. Normally, the F-16s would first assume a position where the pilots could see them.

The airspace over the northeastern US is among the busiest on the planet. It is home to the nation's political, military and financial headquarters, the largest population concentrations, and key strategic facilities. A jumbo jet in this area suddenly changing direction and altitude, and refusing to respond to air traffic controllers would be as dangerous as a truck on a busy rush-hour freeway driving the wrong way at full speed. When planes go off course in this busy environment, instant reactions make the difference between life and death—which is why NORAD (North American Air Defense) practices these kinds of scenarios, and instantly scrambles fighters when there is any hint of a problem. About 26 bases around the country have fighters armed and ready to scramble on 10 minutes notice.

F-16 - Fresno, AFB
After 9/11, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) increased cooperation. They set up hotlines between command centers while NORAD increased its fighter coverage and installed radar to watch airspace over the continent.

Now you know everything you need to know to grab the controls of a B-767 and blast off on your “Flight into Darkness”. This 6 minute flight is very authentic. The camera view is from the copilot seat.

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