Vuelo nocturno – The magic of flying at night

Flying through the night, while the world beneath us is at sleep, is a pretty common thing as a longhaul pilot. Late evening departures lead to far distant destinations like Singapore, Hong Kong, Sao Paolo or J’burg. Depending on the direction of the flight the crew and the passengers either have a short night up ahead if flying eastbound or almost eternal darkness if headed westwards.

 

The latter is the case for my todays flight across the Atlantic Ocean to South America. Our flight is packed and some 340 passengers are settling in for a long night flight. Its my turn to be at the flightdeck for the first part of the journey, as my other co-pilot gets the chance to rest in the crew bunk above the passenger cabin. We are heading our westbound, along the clearly visible Alps to our left. Just before reaching Geneva and the western tip of Switzerland we are making a shallow left turn to join the Rhone valley leading us to Marseille and onward onto the Mediterranean Sea. Our routing will bring us towards Algeria and on across the northwestern part of the vast Sahara. We will be flying past Dakar in Senegal where we will be heading out onto the Atlantic Ocean. Our south-westerly course will get us across the wide blue – in fact it was pitch-black during the night – to the north eastern shore of Brazil. Landfall is expected just north of Rio de Janeiro and the remaining few hundred miles will get us straight towards Sao Paolo. Our landing is expected around 6am local time, still before the sun will rise.

 

The chatter of the French and Spanish ATC accompanies us for another hour, we get changed over to Algiers and past the bright city light of the capital of Algeria towards the Sahara. Tonight will be a special night, since its one of the few nights every August where countless shooting stars will be seen all over the night sky. Deriving from constellation of Perseus, these meteor showers will guide us through the night.

 

Just as the bright city lights are vanishing behind us, the Milky way starts to become clearly visible up ahead. Its now us, pacing at almost the speed of sound along the invisible highway and the pitch-black night sky above this surreal landscape. Ahead of us are another eight hours flight time, but we already stopped counting the shooting stars. And we got already to a few hundred.

 

Enjoy this timelapse video of my night flight towards South America, a short impression of the view that night.

 

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Catching the first light

Being an airline pilot gives me the exclusive opportunity to catch views and sights not everybody gets to see often.

 

Among these rare moments up in the sky are sunrises and sunsets, something I can barely get enough. And as a rookie to long haul flights I am still getting used to those long nights aloft. But as an admirer of the blue hour, of course I get the sights I love the most.

 

 

 

Going to the airport for a late evening departure makes me cross path with all the people working the casual nine-to-five routine. As their workday is already over, mine is just beginning. Our operations center at Zurich Airport gets again busy as we have a few long haul departures just before the night curfew kicks in. The crews are gathering, briefing and planning their flight to some far distant destinations like Hong Kong, Singapore or Sao Paulo. After all the flight planning has been done, our colleagues from the cabin crew met and the security control passed we are heading out to our aircraft. This happens some one hour before the actual departure. While the cabin crew prepares the cabin, the pilots are busy getting the planned route loaded into the flight management computers and get all the aircrafts systems ready for flight. Together with the ground crew we are doing the outmost to depart on time. So, while the aircraft gets fueled, the handling crew loads the baggage and cargo and the passengers start to embark.

 

As all worked out perfectly, we make an on-time departure and start the giant GE90-115 engines during the pushback. Some few minutes later we find ourselves roaring down the runway and taking-off into the cold winters night.

 

 

 

Since we are three pilots on this flight, every one of us gets the chance to rest for some time while the other two fly the aircraft. The captain usually gets the filet, meaning the middle part of the flight, while the two first officers rest at the beginning or the end. I have a long night ahead, as my todays assignment makes me sit in the cockpit for the beginning part. After some three hours we are about to leave Europe behind as we are flying out over the Caspian Sea just to the north of Baku, the capitol of Azerbaijan. One may think that the skies get quiet too during the nights, but in fact they tend to be pretty busy in some areas too. As we are making our way into the airspace of Turkmenistan we are heading into a new day too. It’s now time for the first shift change and the captain to get some rest in the crew bunk. This private retreat for the crew is located above the main cabin and offers two beds and two chairs to relax or even get some sleep.

 

 

 

While the routine tasks keep us busy in intervals there is always some time during the cruise phase of the flight to enjoy the beauty that is our there. The good thing about flying across remote and therefore rather unpopulated areas is the fact that the light pollution is slim to none. These are the moments I get close to the window and enjoy the panoramic view offered to us on the flight deck. Everyone and then I spot stars that are shining brighter than many surrounding him. I always imagine, that these are the stars inhabited by family and friends I have lost and as they are helping me to get safely through the nights by shining brighter than all the others.

 

“SWISS ONE-THREE-EIGHT contact TURKMENABAD on 131.850”; the chatter on the radio takes me back to another routine task. While I switch the radios to the aforementioned frequency the first sings of a new day show up on the horizon. A very slim silver band secedes the world below from the night sky above. Since we are heading eastward it’s like putting the time on fast-forward. Shortly later, the silver band started to alter in color and amplify in size. The first light of every day is so fragile, yet so mellow. The deep blue of the night swiftly changes into a soft orange and later yellow. The sun is rising below the horizon not yet visible to us, but still letting us know that a new day is about to begin. To our sides, the night still firmly clutches the sky in dark colors fading into light eastwards. The starts slowly start to fade, taking a break before yet shining bright again the next night. This short period of time, not yet day, not quite night are among the most pristine aloft. Everything seems in perfect order yet so sublime. Soon the blue hour will yield for a new bright day.

 

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“Challenge accepted” – A windy landing

Fall keeps not only the pharmacies busy – also we pilots get challenged quite frequently. As summer enjoys some time off on the southern side of the globe, some impressive weather systems keep moving in and across Europe. These frontal systems are quite likely accompanied by gusting winds, dropping temperatures and gusty winds. The closer we get to the ground, the smaller our margins for errors get and gusty winds are among those factors not likely to ease a landing.

 

I’ve been flying in and out of London Heathrow many times during my time on shorthaul. My logbook totals some 98 landings at LHR performed by me as pilot flying. Arriving across the Channel we usually pick up a BIG3B arrival into EGLL – as the airport is also know in the world of abbreviations. Quite frankly the airport is operating at its capacity limit resulting in us having to be a little patient before commencing our approach and landing. Each and every airport has some holding areas where the planes queue for their turn. This so called holding pattern normally consists of a 180° turn followed by a one-minute straight flight before doing another turn.

Today LHR is very busy again, resulting in some twenty minutes delay for our flight. Will circling over the Biggin Hill Airport southeast of the metropolis the Captain and I are going through the approach ahead of us. The latest weather report indicates some strong southerly winds and a low cloud ceiling. My job will be to select the proper commands at the autopilot to intercept the final approach path and stabilize the Airbus for it’s landing on runway 27L. As we go through our briefing I mention the important steps and my intentions. My focus is put on the specials we are soon going to face, or one could also call it the challenge. The main hub of British Airways and the gateway of London to the world is equipped with two parallel runways, facing east west. To accommodate the impressive amount of traffic one runway is mainly used for landings while the other handles the departing planes. In between the two runways are the terminal concourses as well as the maintenance area with its huge hangars. They are sitting right next to the runway heads of 27L/R and are well know to cause some nice wind rotors right by the time we are about to settle the aluminum bird softly onto the concrete. Among the dense traffic situation this is one special LHR offers us during weather as this day.

 

“SWISS THREE ONE EIGHT complete the orbit over BIG and leave heading 260 degrees, speed 220 knots”, a precise instruction by the ATC calls and end to the almost 15 minutes waiting in the queue. Shortly there after we will be instructed to continue our descent and after a series of heading changes will be intercepting the localizer of the ILS (instrument landing system). I will fast forward these remaining 10 minutes to landing and focus on the last seconds before touchdown.

 

The autopilot did a hell of a job, getting us properly established on the approach path. Our gear has been lowered, the flaps set and all the checklists completed. A few minutes earlier we started to feel the wind. It has been giving us some nice shakes and bumps as we are making our way towards the runway. My captain acknowledges the landing clearance the last puzzle piece completing all our preparations for the landing. My brain is fully focused and the ringing sound of me disconnecting the autopilot and thus taking manual control of the aircraft just adds a boost to it. We are going faster as usually to compensate for the gusting winds, racing for the runway at a mere fifty meters per second. I get some nice bumps of the wind and gently correcting our flight path to meet the touchdown zone. “One hundred”, the plane talks to me, saying that I am getting roughly 30m above the ground still focusing on maintaining the descending flight path. Soon I will start to compensate for the wind. In order not to be put off by the crosswind I keep veering the airplane into the wind, something I need to correct by the time we touchdown. This is done turning the nose of the aircraft towards the runway and applying some aileron into the wind. So I am basically flying with crossed controls going some one hundred and forty something knots. “Fifty”, we are now over the runway and I shift my focus into the infinite. This helps me to catch my vertical approach towards the runway. “Thirty”, the airplane is almost aligned with the runway banking slightly into the wind, while I gently starting to pull on the side stick slowing that descent. “Twenty, Ten”, Mr. Jean-Paul Airbus (as we use to call the airplane) tells me that we are about to touchdown and only a few meters are between our gear and the 4000 meters of concrete ahead of us. I pull back the thrust lever, cutting the thrust of the engines down to idle and keep adding some backpressure to keep that nose up where it should be. Here we are, certainly not the gentlest one, but a safe one for sure. Our Airbus has firm contact with the ground and I apply the reverse thrust and start braking to slow these 63 tones of pure engineering down. A few moments later we are vacating the runway, making our way to the gate just in time.

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Behind the Scene: Photo Calender "Up in the Sky 2017" now available

Take a closer Look

Cover

Fly me to the moon

This Airbus 319 is nicely established on the final approach of runway 28 at Zurich Airport while the full moon rises into the nightsky.

January

Winter wonderland

The so called Sharklets on the wingtips of our HB-JLT mainly decreases the fuel burn and increases the aircraft’s climb performance. Above all they just look great. Here the 2.4m tall Sharklet can be seen in front of the perfect winter wonderland of the Bernese Alps.

The big honor was up to the pilots of the six F-5E Tigers of the Patrouille Suisse and our Airbus 320 to perform an impressive formation flight as the opening act to the famous “Lauberhorn” ski race.

February

Transatlantic lullaby

Up ahead the setting sun is offering a calming band of beautiful colors and as she descends, painting the earth’s shadow on the horizon. The chatter on the radios is getting less and less as we are leaving the Canadian mainland behind us. The intense and busy moments of our departure in Montréal is a good hour behind us as we are settling-in for a short night flying across the North Atlantic Ocean.

March

Foggy evening

We are closing-in to land on runway 14 at Zurich Airport as a beautiful day slowly comes to an end. In the cockpit of our Airbus, the pilots are fully focused on the landing in challenging weather conditions coming up in a few moments. Meanwhile the world beneath us is about to be covered in dull grey fog, as the pilots are about to encounter low visibility procedures.


April

Colorful delivery

A colorful rainbow is spanning across HB-JNA, the first of ten Boeing 777 a day before its delivery to SWISS. The scene may look calm, but thorough inspections of each and every detail take place inside and outside of the airplane at the flight line of Boeing Everett Airport just north of Seattle.

May

Morning calm

The impressive Swiss Alps provide a scenic background while the first sunrays are welcoming LX139 back home. After its 12 hour long haul flight from Hong Kong, this B777 is on final approach to runway 34 at Zurich Airport, as yet another pre-summer day kicks off.

June

Electrified

While enroute to to Brazil, we are about to cross the inter-tropical convergence zone near the equator and its belt of thunderstorm cells. While circumnavigating this area, we admire it’s breathtaking “side-effect”: The St. Elmo’s fire. While looking spectacular, it is no hazard at all. It is caused by the clouds electrically charging the atmosphere and becomes visible as a luminous electrical discharge once the electrical charge becomes sufficiently intense.


July

Rush-hour

Long haul aircraft are queueing up on taxiway Echo during the midday peak hour at Zurich Airport. This B777 will depart runway 16 in a few minutes, operating flight LX40 bound for Los Angeles while the Airbus 340 is following close behind in its way to San Francisco as LX38.

August

Marry me Switzerland!

A special scenic flight above the Swiss Alps marks the introduction of the Bombardier CSeries 100 at Swiss. On the one-hour long flight the passengers were offed an impressive sightseeing tour of the most stunning scenery of Switzerland. Flying around the famous Matterhorn clearly marked the highlight of this flight aboard this brand new aircraft.

September

Streaks of Lights

As the First Officer turns our Triple Seven onto final approach, the glowing city lights of São Paulo are visible below. After an eleven hour night flight across the South Atlantic Ocean LX92 will soon smoothly touchdown on runway 09R.


October

Busy night sky

We cross continental United States on our long flight though the night back to Switzerland. We are busy avoiding some active thunderstorms ahead while another airliner is coming across our routing one thousand feet above. As he is heading for Los Angeles his beacon and navigation lights are clearly marking his flight path.

November

Winter illusions

We are about to land on runway 14 at Zurich Airport as snowflakes hit our windshield. A cozy warm cockpit is quite a big contrast to the freezing temperatures outside. The visual illusion because of the snow makes landing in these weather conditions challenging.

December

Destination Milkyway

We are passing the city of Dakar on our way to Brazil in the middle of the night, following the milky way on our southern course. Soon we will be flying out into the darkness, where no more lights will mark the presence of civilization until we reach the South American continent. It will be up to the millions of stars accompanying us on our flight.


Welcome on board

As an airline pilot I get to meet a lot of people and see a lot of cities and landscapes. One of my constant travel companions

on my journeys is my camera. The photographs in this calendar were taken during my flights all across the globe. I would like to invite you to take a seat in the cockpit and look at the flying world from a pilot’s perspective.

 

I would like to take the opportunity to thank all who were involved making this project possible again. A special «thank

you» goes out to the flight crews and internal departments for their support and permission to use the images.

All pictures were either taken during cruise flight, on ground or as an observer on the third seat. The safe conduct of the

flight was never affected.

 

Because we care

I am very proud to inform you that by purchasing the photo calendar «Up in the Sky 2017» you are doing good. For every

copy sold SkyProduction donates CHF 5.- to the children foundation of the SWISS employees (Stiftung Kinderhilfe des

SWISS Personals). Check www.swiss-kinderstiftung.ch for further information. Thank you very much for your support.

 

This project is produced entirely in Switzerland and renders an effort to the global climate issue! Therefore all the arising

CO2 emissions are compensated by donations towards projects of myclimate. Further the print production takes place according production sequences in accordance with FSC-standards (from the wood processing until the finished print). The

used paper originates from environmentally-friendly and socially acceptable managed forests.

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A lone Thunderstorm

Not quite night, not yet night - The hours in between are almost endless when flying east-west. On two thirds of the flight, I occupy the right-hand seat up front, thundering through the dark skies in the middle of nowhere.

 

Its the loud 'ping' sounds, the constant chatting on the radios and the discussions with my colleagues, that accompany me through this moonless night somewhere north oft he Himalayas on our way back home from Hong Kong.

 

Six hours ago we lifted-off from the almost four-kilometer-long runway at Chek Lap Kok.

„Ready?“, the final question of my Captain seconds before he moved the two throttles almost to full-forward, unleashing the incomparable power of the two GE-90-115B engines of our Triple Seven.

„Ready!“, I recall the emergency procedure for an engine failure during take-off a final time in my head. We are slowly accelerating and the bright runway lights are guiding us into a long night aloft. Slowly but truly we are picking-up speed. Shortly before the engines reach take-off thrust the Captain calls out: „You have controls“ - „I have controls“.

My hands firmly grip this giant machine. (No pressure but...) Three hundred and twenty-seven people are now relying on me doing a perfect job. I press the control column slightly forward and control the runway centerline with my feet. Few moments later our three hundred and forty-two tones giant is reaching the decision speed: „Veee-one“. We are now too fast to safely reject the take-off run, whatever happens I will have to lift the aircraft off the runway. „Rotate“, the call from the Captain puts the physics at work. I gently start to pull back, lifting the nose wheel of the ground. The aircraft slightly wobbles as gravity starts to loose control. A few minutes later we are passing over the city. Millions of lights are shining bright, boats are crossing in front of the skyline and an unimaginable amount of people are passing somewhere underneath.

 

„Autopilot engaged“ – a long night’s ahead.

 

„SWISS ONE THREE NINER, contact Almaty on One Three Two Decimal One, good morning“. The radio shatter abruptly makes me return to here and now. The vast endlessness somewhere between Urumqi in China and Astana in Kazakhstan is passing below. Our visit tot he stratosphere is just passing half-time as the night slowly starts to give way to a new day. A few minutes ago we where shaken-through by a quick tempered embedded thunderstorm cell obstructing our way. As we where too heavy to climb we had to fly around it, still catching some descent bumps for some time. The weak morning skies start to become friendly again as we are passing into over the city of Astana. I got myself a double Espresso as my shift will last another two hours before getting some brief sleep before landing in Zurich. My colleague and I are constantly updating our flight status and action plan as my eyes glance along the instruments and displays to complement the picture. Nothing too much going on I conclude...

 

I’m not really feeling tired even though I’ve been flying through the pitch-black night, dragging my sleep rhythm somewhere across the globe. I look out the window, below me is about 75% of the earths atmosphere and a land completely unknown to me. Yet I take another sip of my Espresso.

 

Its these moments, I’d say, that keep me hooked about aviation. They are hard to be put in words really. Spending a night in between time zones, crossing have the globe westbound, enjoying such a volatile sunrise gently shaken by a collapsing thunder cell. Five hours before home. What a sight. Or how Charles A. Lindbergh, pilot of the mighty Spirit of St. Louis, put it back in 1953: "Sometimes, flying feels too God like to be attained by man. Sometimes, the world from above seems too beautiful, too wonderful, too distant for human eyes to see.“

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