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Flight to Islamabad

Take a peek behind the scenes of airline pilot life. In “Pilot Chronicles”, we let our instructors, who are all airline pilots, give you some insight in their daily life as a pilot. When they are not instructing at Skywings, our instructors discover every corner of the world. This time, we get on board of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and follow instructor John on his trip from London Heathrow to Islamabad and back to Manchester. Get ready for a flight over high terrain with beautiful sceneries that even crosses partially through Afghan airspace. Cleared for take-off!

Departure day
Never in my life could I have imagined I would ever travel to Pakistan and before the whole covid crisis it was definitely not one of the routes we did on the B787. During the pandemic the company I work for has flown to different destinations (often carrying cargo only) it too probably wouldn’t even have considered operating to before. Whatever paid the bills or even just brought in some cash to keep the company afloat suddenly was worth doing in order to get through this crisis.

Now it was my turn to discover this route and destination. We left Heathrow after the obligatory negative rapid PCR test and the captain was kind enough to let me fly the sector outbound (I always enjoy the challenge of a new destination).

This was a 7h40 scheduled block trip so we are just 2-man crew today. We leave London early afternoon and without any delays, I taxi our long-winged carbon wonder to runway 27R and it’s actually comforting to see we have 7 aircraft in front of us, business is picking up slowly!

Heathrow ATC probably being the best in the world quickly gives us our line up and take off clearance and I manage to hand fly (hand flying probably being a generous description flying a fly-by-wire jet without the autopilot) until reaching FL100 as we turn towards the Southeast and have a nice view of the English South coast on our way across the channel and direct to KOKSY VOR: familiar territory for me.

The strange thing about travelling East in the afternoon is that you are flying towards the sunset so soon the sky turns a lovely colour red in constantly changing shades until it finally goes dark completely.

Sunrise airplane wing
Heading East
At 5 pm Brussels time we are in complete darkness and continue our somewhat boring journey through Russian airspace; generally good ATC I must say.

The final part of our flight and just before our arrival into Islamabad is a bit more interesting; we are now flying South in Tajikistan airspace and along the border with Afghanistan. Our route takes us through a small bit of Kabul airspace but only for about 15 NM so we don’t even need to contact them (and rumors have it there wouldn’t even be a controller listening due to the current situation there).

The other interesting bit about this part of the route is of course the MSA, we are approaching the foothills of the Himalayan mountains and our highest MSA to contend with is 27.600 feet. So we have a planned escape route in case of losing an engine or a decompression which unfortunately does not take us the shortest way to lower grounds into Afghanistan for obvious reasons but either turns back along our route North into Tajikistan, a bit off track to the North into Dushanbe airport or continuing our planned route down South to Islamabad depending on where we are exactly when the need for a descent should arise.

Pilot chart
High terrain
This may surprise you but our driftdown profile following a rapid decompression allows us to stay at higher altitudes of up to FL 250 for about 22 minutes and could take us up to 52 minutes in total to finally get down to FL 100. This is one of the routes where we might need this long driftdown to get away from high ground.

Luckily none of that happens and Tajikistan ATC transfers us to Islamabad approach. It is approaching midnight at our destination, and it is extremely calm in the air, not only do we have very smooth flying conditions but there is just one departing traffic and nothing more.

Approach into Islamabad
We proceed on what you could call a downwind leg for the landing runway and reaching our last cleared waypoint we give ATC a little nudge. Very funnily the air traffic controller seems to have forgotten all about us, clears us to descend further and gives me the feeling he will cut us in short, so I descend a bit quicker using the speedbrakes not to get high on profile. But again, ATC seems to forget all about us and lets us continue for almost another 10 NM and needs yet another gentle reminder before we get a vector to intercept the localiser and get cleared for the approach. At this point we are lower than I would have liked so I drastically reduce our rate of descent not to fly level before intercepting the glideslope.

On the downwind leg I was looking at what appeared to be the runway judging a row of lights in a more or less straight line, but I was shocked to see them moving up and down in a squiggly line as if the runway has some humps in it. When we are aligned with the runway however, I can see it perfectly looks level without any slope. It’s just less well lit than that road running alongside it, and we appear to be diving into a dark hole even with proper runway lightning: a typical night approach phenomenon.

I call it: not my very best landing but definitely a lot better than my worst and one that rates in the top 10 but that’s just my own personal opinion. But either way the runway and taxiways are remarkably smooth (not really a big surprise if you know this airport was only opened in 2018). I taxi to the gate, we shut down one engine 5 min after landing to save some fuel taxiing in and we are off the plane some 20 minutes after we went on blocks.

Airport Terminal
Convoy to the hotel
The trip to the hotel is done in military convoy style: our whole crew (2 pilots and 9 cabin crew) is in 1 van, our bags in another van and then we have a car following us as well as 2 motorcycles. Both the car and the motorcycles are driven by ex-military guys carrying guns to protect us. I had a chat with the coordinator of this whole operation who was riding in our van (he was ex special forces so that’s always comforting) about the safety and the need for these measures and his answer was: “No, it is not that dangerous here but you are foreigners, so you know that there is a risk.”

The hotel we stay in is absolutely stunning: it’s probably more correct to call it a palace, marble everywhere and the staff is dressed in immaculate suits and uniforms. The place is so big I almost got lost the next day exploring it. It’s a real pity we cannot leave the hotel because we are here 48h and I would have loved to see some sights of Pakistan but that’s just the way it is. At least the hotel is big enough to offer some variety in different restaurants and I am genuinely impressed by how friendly all the staff is and how eager they are to please you. On some trips you get lucky, and this feels like a little holiday even if we can’t leave the hotel.

Hotel lobby
3 Hours delay for the return flight to Manchester
About 48 h after our arrival here I am awoken at 2330 local time by the wakeup call. I managed to have a 3,5h nap before the flight so I feel well rested for our 2-crew night flight to Manchester this time. Yet another first for me but the captain takes this sector; we are always struggling to keep our 3 landings in 90 days recency in long haul flying.

When I get downstairs to check out of the hotel some cabin crew tell me they have just been told there will be a delay and we can go back to our rooms until we are called again for a later pickup. The captain calls the company and is told the plane inbound had to return to stand after leaving the first time for a technical issue that was fixed but has now come back in flight. It is having issues with a recirculating fan and it is struggling to stay pressurised at higher altitudes (not exactly ideal with the high MSA’s here in the mountains). Recirculating cabin air reduces the need for fresh air from the air conditioning packs to pressurise the cabin but when they fail you could have a problem keeping pressurised at high altitudes.

First things first: me and the captain work out how long our delay can be before it will actually be too late for us to still depart because we will run out of duty hours to legally complete the flight (unfortunately because we were awoken our duty time has already started). We already agree amongst the 2 of us that we will accept a max 2h discretion above our maximum duty time to get the plane back (I feel quite ok accepting this because I had a good sleep before the flight).

Time to go
2,5h later we get a new wake up call and the confirmation that the technical issue is solved. The flight is almost full and we have no less than 22 people in a wheelchair to board so I’m not feeling very confident we can get off blocks before our duty time runs out, but both the engineers that fixed our problem and the ground staff did an amazing job and made it happen in time!

We get airborne with a 3h17 min delay and soon after take off it becomes very clear that we will not be able to outrun the approaching sunrise while we speed towards the high terrain heading Northeast. While I was looking forward to a dark cockpit to try and have a nap taking turns with the captain I am really enjoying the spectacular views the sunrise over the mountains offers.

A turn to the left on our route gives us an amazing view on one of the highest peaks in the Hindu Kush mountain range on the border between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (the one that is responsible for the MSA of 27.600 feet and I am quite sure it is Tirich Mir mountain we saw).

Mountains sunrise
The rest of the flight goes smoothly and soon we commence our descent into Manchester airport, we have nice VFR conditions above the overcast cloud cover below us and we descend through the clouds to be visual with the ground again at an altitude of about 2500 feet. The weather looks a bit grey and sad below the clouds and we get a nice shortcut straight onto final of runway 23R, there is some terrain to the Northeast, so the captain manages his descent smoothly and avoids high descent rates not to get a GPWS warning.
Mountains snow
Final approach
Last little obstacle to deal with is “the hump” on runway 23R, the runway slopes up towards the touchdown zone and slopes down again shortly after that. So when you flare you need to add a bit more pitch up to land on the uphill slope. The captain pulls it off perfectly and after a smooth landing we taxi along a labyrinth of many taxiways to the gate. Job done with only 36 minutes of our 2h discretion used and a nice little adventure that I thoroughly enjoyed!
Pieter Brantegem
John Thuy

Instructor and Boeing 787 pilot

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