Saturday, January 13, 2007

First stop: Singapore

One thing I'm sure glad I did in preparing for this trip was to quit smoking. I had my last smoke last Monday evening knowing I'd be seriously deprived on this trip. Thirteen hours from Washington, DC to Tokyo, then another seven from Tokyo to Singapore, and no opportunity for a smoke in between.

It's always a bit weird seeing a flight route between two distant points on the globe. The adage that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line doesn't hold true when those points are on a sphere. The image above shows two routes, the lower arc showing the shortest "great circle distance" between Washington and Tokyo, and the upper arc showing (roughly) the route my flight actually took. There's actually less than 200 miles difference between the two.

One thing I like about flying on United is audio channel 9, "From the cockpit". This channel allows you to listen in on the conversations between the aircrew and air traffic control. This may not be much to normal people, but aviation geeks like me think it's pretty cool. On push back from the gate, you hear the conversations between the pilot and a ground controller, who hands the flight off to a departure controller, who in turn hands the flight off to a center controller, who's responsible for flights transiting a section of airspace.

On long-haul, trans-oceanic flights the last controller assigns each flight a corridor within which the aircraft stays until reaching the next country's controller, who'll assume control of the flight. Flying over the northern most reaches of Canada is pretty much like crossing the Atlantic; one long stretch of silence without contact with any controllers.

Since English is the international language of aviation, it doesn't matter which country is controlling your flight because it's all in English. On top of that, altitudes and airspeeds are always expressed in feet and miles per hour (or mach at cruise speed), so you don't have to do any mental conversions. Except in Russia, where they use metric.

Listening to Russian controllers one would think the old Soviet Union is still alive and well. In the US and other countries the controllers are cheerful and friendly, and if a pilot asks for a different altitude to avoid turbulence or for better fuel economy, the controllers are pretty accommodating, traffic permitting. Not so with the Russian controllers. I heard numerous pilots ask for different altitudes, and not once was it granted. The response was always "maintain 10,600 (or whatever) meters". Further, pilots have to constantly check in and report their arrival at navigational fixes along the way and provide an estimated time to their next fix. Very weird.

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