Thursday, January 24, 2008

Highway to Hong Kong by Saigon Charlie

2005 May

ThaiSky Airlines flight 328 pushed back from its' ramp space at 10:50 with 80 passengers bound for Hong Kong along with 12 cabin and 3 flight crew members. On today's flight, with a light drizzle starting to fall, I was on the flight deck.

After securing the cabin and getting our clearance to Hong Kong, we contacted Bangkok ground control on 121.9 for pushback out of our position, Remote Stand 94. The slow-starting high by-pass engines were started next and from there it was only a short taxi to Bangkok International's 21 Right runway. Traffic was a bit heavy and combined with the inclement weather which was starting to slow the process of the day's arrivals and departures, it was only the beginning of what would turn out to be other significant delays throughout the day's flight to Hong Kong and back.

Captain Ken, First Officer 'Y' and Flight Engineer Howard preparing for takeoff at Bangkok International Airport's Runway 21 Right.

As we finally moved to the number 1 position on the taxiway for takeoff, we held short as a Thai military owned C-172 was on final approach to our runway. Joint civilian and military use of large regional airports is quite common in this part of the world, but in Thailand it seems that military, no matter their size or speed of their equipment, get priority over civilian traffic, including some of the the largest aircraft in the world such as ours. There also seems to be no consideration for the use and spacing of these aircraft and their runway assignments.

What makes this situation a bit comical (and highly expensive) to civilian operators is the fact that as we sit there waiting for an extremely slow moving, single-engine trainer to land, we were burning 100 pounds of fuel per minute, along with similar burn rates as the other large jets behind us. Taking a look out of the cockpit window to see who was behind us, it was obvious we were not alone as I counted another 7 jets in position on the taxiway waiting for our little friend to touch down.

As he touched down, we expected him to roll down the runway and turn off on a taxiway and head for the military ramp on the opposite side of the field but instead, he asked for and got permission to turn around and backtrack up the runway to what I guessed was a closer taxiway and parking slot on his side of the field. This event, by international aviation standards for a major international jet port with 8 large jets waiting for takeoff, was almost incomprehensible. Oh well I thought, just another day in Thailand.

A U.S.A.F. Cessna Citation executive jet taxiing onto Bangkok International 21 Right runway for takeoff. He is a long way from home for such a little guy...

As all this slow motion aviation training was happening, an American Air Force Cessna Citation sneaked up from the military side and was now given priority clearance for takeoff as 8 large, wide body jets burning thousands of pounds of fuel waited for takeoff.

The small twin-engined jet taxied onto the active runway and as the rain started to fall even harder, was airborne several moments later, which finally allowed us to be cleared by Bangkok's tower onto the active runway. Final checks were made and as the 3 Rolls-Royce engines with 42,000 pounds of thrust each spooled up, the 350 passenger jet with First Officer Yrjö (Mr. Y to those that know him) at the controls made its way down the runway, quickly lifting off the runway and starting its climb to our assigned altitude of FL 330 (33,000 above sea level).

As we climbed through 10,000 feet at 250 knots, we started speeding up for high speed climb at 320 knots with the mach indicator increasing from .688 at 20,000 feet to .81 mach as we passed through 32,000 feet, over 6 miles above the Thai countryside.

As our destination was Hong Kong, the heading was now 070 degrees at FL330 and with a respectable M.84 (mach speed) with the aircraft's integrated flight management system doing an excellent job of taking the plane to each of the pre-programmed waypoints.

Our route was to take us direct over Ubon Rachathani on the Thai-Lao border, across southern Laos, over the narrowest part of Vietnam, overhead Danang and then the South China Sea for the second half of the flight. As we were passing the mighty Mekong just past Ubon at 11:45 at FL 330, we peered down and were amazed at just how little water was flowing between its banks, with sand bars becoming the predominate feature of what should have been a river flowing with water. The surrounding countryside had a distinctly arid look to it also.

Having lived here in SE Asia for many years and having just returned from a trip across Cambodia where the drought is the worse it has been in decades, one becomes very aware of the significance of water to this region and the world. It seems there just isn't enough water for where and when it is needed. Populations and industrialization grow at staggering rates and combined with shifting weather patterns, countries like China (being the specific culprit for the low level of the Mekong) require more and more of this precious resource. From 6 miles high, it is obvious that problems are severe everywhere.

The weather continues to be an issue for us as we head east with a significant area along the path of our flight having both rain showers and thunderstorms. Our aircraft however is equipped with modern color radar in both the captains and first officer's position. With a range of 300 miles, it is an indispensable tool for passenger comfort and aircraft safety as we often ask and receive permission to make course corrections allowing us to avoid the worst of the weather which could be a very rough ride without such a tool.

As we make our way into Chinese airspace we change from Sanya Control (on China's Hainan Island) to Hong Kong Control and are cleared for a descent at our discretion direct to waypoint 'Baker', giving us a more direct path to Hong Kong's massive new airport, but as we get closer to our destination and things 'tighten up', our ability to manoeuvre around weather is now limited and we end up punching our way into a large line of rain squalls.

A Thai Airways flight opted to deviate around the weather however but in so doing lost their landing sequence which delayed their arrival by 10 minutes as when they re-entered Hong Kong airspace they had lost their landing sequence and were reassigned a new landing slot. The Cathay Airlines ahead of us however opted for the same solution we chose, landing right before us and 10 minutes ahead of the Thai Airways flight that had been ahead of us both. Although it is a bit bumpy on the final descent, ours is a large and heavy aircraft so things aren't really that bad and we make our way around to our assigned runway at Hong Kong's 07 Left runway.

Hong Kong International final approach.

The rest of the approach is smooth with large ocean going freighters of all shapes passing below us as well as the exotic looking high speed hydro-foil ferries to Macau . After an unusually poor vector to intercept the final approach course, we soon have a visual on the runway and our landing clearance, having aligned ourselves to the localizer and the glide slope with both aircraft navigation guidance as well as visual glide slope indicators along the side of the runway.

Approaching Hong Kong International. Concentrate boys!

The landing is a smooth one and at 13:20, 2 hours and 20 minutes from our start in Bangkok,
First Officer 'Y' greases our first of 2 landings for the day and we are taxiing to our gate position after contacting Hong Kong Ground Control on 121.6.

Due to the inclement weather, we experience our second of what would turn out to be four delays for this day's flight as we have to wait for a gate to become available as our assigned gate is still occupied. Monitoring ground control, it becomes quickly obvious that this is a problem for many inbound aircraft with gate after gate being reassigned as aircraft land and have to wait.

Thai Sky Airlines' L-10111 on the ground in Hong Kong.

Eventually a Cathay aircraft pushes back in front of us and ground releases to proceed into gate N28. We were hoping it would be a quick turnaround as our plans for this Sunday evening was to watch the Formula 1 race once we got back to Bangkok. Life being what it is however, plans don't always work out, especially when it comes to airplanes and weather.

We inform the cabin crew to release the passengers and soon our passengers have disembarked. I offer to buy the coffee for this flight so we make our way down the jetway into the international terminal building.

As we clear through the transit gate, I keep setting off the security bells. I know my metal belt buckle is always an issue but the wand was so sensitive this time that it was 'beeping' on something as small as a 1 Baht coin.

After finally emptying everything I had in my pockets, I managed to catch up with the guys and head for the Starbucks located near our gate in the terminal area. I had already exchanged money in Bangkok from Baht to Hong Kong dollars but no matter how often you do this, you just aren't prepared for what things cost in Hong Kong as 4 coffees became 97 Hong Kong dollars, or about $3 USD each! Ouch....

Taking our coffees back to the aircraft we re-board and start preparations for departure as this is normally a quick one hour turnaround, unloading our Hong Kong passengers and than loading those bound for Bangkok. This however was not to be the case for today and as we started monitoring the frequency for Hong Kong Delivery, we quickly discovered that controllers were indicating 1 plus hour delays with aircraft being assigned sequencing numbers into the high 30s! Not a good thing as you can imagine.

The passengers had already started boarding however so we needed to deal with that new issue as well as figure out a way to get into the sequence at a reasonable number.

Calling delivery we indicated we were ready to go with the response being 'I'll call you back'. Another 10 or so minutes of monitoring went by so we made another polite call asking about a sequence assignment and time for frequency change to ground control. Once again the same response. Another 20 minutes and a 3rd call did get a response that we were number 7 with 2 of us guessing how long that would be. I guessed the closest at 15 minutes which actually turned out to be 7 minutes.

Finally getting permission to go, we cranked the number 2 engine and at 15:20, over half an hour late, we change over to Hong Kong Ground Control and start our taxi to the active.

Hong Kong's tower and emergency equipment starting to roll for an Air Canada emergency.

As we make our way towards 07 Right, we become first aware of a possible emergency as we see fire trucks coming out of their stations with their lights flashing with some emergency crews heading for the taxiways. After taking one of the radios and switching over to the Tower North frequency and monitoring this, we discover that an Air Canada flight is returning directly to the airport with apparently a door problem and an aircraft cabin smoke. Of course we or anyone else can not depart or land under an emergency condition so everyone sits on their taxiways and waits.

The Air Canada flight is now 16 minutes out and as we monitor is making an emergency descent to 6,000 feet and then 2,000 feet for runway 25 Right. Although I am sitting on the left side of the aircraft with the Air Canada flight landing on the runway to our right, the first officer witnesses the aircraft touch down and taxi off the runway, coming to a full stop on the crossover. That ends that part of the emergency and aircraft in front of us start moving onto the active and obtaining clearances for takeoff.

Eventually we are handed over to Hong Kong Tower on 118.4 and at 15:45, 25 minutes after we started our engines and an hour after original departure time, were airborne back to Bangkok with 102 passengers onboard.

Switching to Hong Kong departure on 123.8 Mhz, ThaiSky Flight 329 begins another climb to altitude, this time to 35,000 or FL 350, nearly 7 miles above the earth's surface.

Although we are showing rain showers along the way on the radar, we manage to stay clear of them but encounter significant haze in upper cloud layers along the way. It is clear enough however as we pass over the Vietnamese coast and as I peer down from my cockpit window, I can see both the city of Da Nang and its airport almost directly under us.

One can't fly over such places being an American without getting certain feelings and wondering about events that shaped the lives of so many so many years ago, for it was 30 years ago this month that the Vietnam War came to a humiliating end and America experienced one of its first defeats in history. Here in Asia it is not referred to as the 'Vietnam War' but the 'American War'. I guess things depend on your perspective don't they?

Squaking 5161 our transponder continues to send out our identification heartbeat to the radar controllers as we make our way inbound to Thailand. We are handed off between the 'controls' or as we would call them in the US, 'centers'. Eventually after passing over Laos, we are handed off to Bangkok Control and we begin our descent towards Bangkok's airspace.

The clouds have now cleared but we make comments to each other about what is the obvious smog [that had been cleared by heavy rain just this morning] over the area in the distance that is where we are headed, Bangkok. A new layer extending to 2000 has been formed in just 12 hours!

We have been told to expect one of the standard arrivals which for today was 'Candy 4A' but soon scratch that as there are VIP operations underway at the airport so we need to expect our 4th delay of the day and instead are instructed to turn on a vector away from the airport and eventually end up on a very long straight in approach to Runway 21 Left.

The flight engineer, a really super guy from the US named Howard with nearly 9 years flying in the region and almost 20 years on Tristars, calculates aircraft weights and speeds and hands that chart forward whereupon each pilot adjusts his aircraft speed indicators for the aircraft's weight.

Captain Ken Conde is now at the controls for the landing and after changing the altimeter setting to match the airfield's pressure, we lower the flaps to 22 degrees at 6 miles showing 160 knots indicated airspeed and out drop our landing gear at 2,000 feet of altitude, followed by final flap setting, 33 degrees. At this point things are as smooth as you can ever expect and a prompt landing clearance is received from Bangkok Tower.

As did First Officer 'Y' , Captain Ken greases another landing at 18:15 and we are soon taxiing towards our tarmac parking slot. A bit late to watch the start of the Formula 1 race however but nevertheless one decent day all in all given all the delays, weather, emergencies and VIPs!


Bangkok International's CAT II hold short line for runway 21 Right.


Saigon Charlie on the flight deck.


Ken and Y having their Starbucks coffee in Hong Kong.


Thai Sky Airline's Flight 328 arrival gate into Hong Kong International Airport.



This story is dedicated to Captain Ken Conde who died in Bangkok of cancer shortly after this story was written. May his skies always be CAVU.

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