Connecting Europe to South America at night

by L3Harris Airline Academy on Oct 22 2019

Night flying, in terms of procedures, does not differ from daylight flights. What changes dramatically is the environment. At night you have to rely more on pure instrument flying rather than visual clues which are non-existent if your flight is to be over the ocean without any moonlight.

A flight from Portugal to Brazil, for example, would typically use one of the two bi-directional airways that connect Europe to South America or a third one which is multi-directional. A random route can also be used in order to reduce overflying costs, but we assume an airway here. Following an airway is pretty straightforward - the Flight Management Guidance Computer has it in the database - as opposed to random route flying where the risk of a gross navigation error is always present if the route is not carefully inserted manually. Crosscheck becomes very important when doing it.

We fly through several Flight Information Regions (FIR): the first one after leaving the Portuguese airspace can be Casablanca (or Canarias, depending on the airway), Canarias, Sal, Dakar, Atlántico (the ocean part of the Brazilian airspace) and then Recife, the entry airspace in Brazil.

Communications along the route are done on VHF mainly in the areas with radar coverage and consequently within VHF range - Casablanca, Canarias (excluding their oceanic airspace), Sal and Recife. Other from those, Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) is the primary channel of communication. HF is also used on some occasions or if CPDLC link is not available. After a positive CPDLC login is done with the first FIR, transfer to the next one is automatic. In this environment all messages are sent and received via satellite link; we call it jokingly "flying by text message"!

If we fly a twin engine airplane, Extended Twin Engine Operations (ETOPS) is a critical part of the flight; Airlines are given a certain rating in time, 180 minutes for example. That means that along the oceanic part of the route you must always have at any time an alternate airport reachable within 180 minutes of flight in single engine. For that, when your flight plan is computed an ETOPS Entry Point (EEP), an Equal Time Point (ETP) and an Exit Point (EXP) are calculated and inserted in the flight plan route, based mainly on the forecast wind component along the trip. Fuel management is of critical importance so that mainly EEP and ETP are reached with the amount required for operation. After entering ETOPS, up to and until reaching the ETP you must return to the alternate airport "behind" should a diversion be required. After the ETP you must continue to the alternate "ahead", there is no turning back. Therefore, in ETOPS flying at or as close as possible to the planned flight level is crucial in terms of fuel management. This part of the flight normally keeps us entertained.

The weather on route also plays an important role on the flight; wind component, turbulence areas or significant weather, all must be continuously well assessed during the flight. In the Atlantic Ocean the famous Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) is one of the big players in flight planning and management. It appears as a band of clouds, usually thunderstorms that encircle the globe near the Equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winds move in a south westward direction from the northeast, while in the Southern Hemisphere they move north westward from the southeast. When the ITCZ is positioned north or south of the Equator, these directions change according to the Coriolis Effect imparted by Earth´s rotation.

So, depending on the time of the year we can encounter it north or south of the Equator in an area that can range between Sal FIR until very close to the Brazilian coast. Sometimes just a minor deviation from the route is required, other times a very large one has to be made - 200NM was one of the biggest deviations in my case, we had to fly around a huge squall line in a very bad day. On rare occasions you fly straight! At night the lack of visual references makes it harder to deal with the ITCZ for we have to rely entirely on the weather radar and a good crew resource management, should a weather deviation be required. Safety is the main concern but you also have to think about passengers and crew comfort because flying in the ITCZ means rough riding normally! When the area is really active we can witness spectacular thunderstorms whose power and magnitude are dramatically enhanced by the night... some of those occasions remain in our memories forever.

Carlos Garcez is a retired airline pilot from TAP Air Portugal with more than 20.000 flight hours in Airbus and Boeing aircraft. He is also a former flight instructor at our European Airline Academy.

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