Lindbergh and Me

I took my first trip overseas in May, 1990. It was on an American Airlines Boeing 767, and as usual during my FAA career I flew in the jump seat in the cockpit as this was a familiarization (FAM) trip to enable me as a controller to see the air traffic control system from the pilot's point of view. It was a great program, but sadly, while long immune from political pressures, was suspended, probably permanently, after September 11th.

I had several notions about the trip, one of which was to see what absolute dark was like as I imagined it would be 1000 miles from land over the North Atlantic. I was also anticipating the communications since virtually all of my work had been done directly with the aircraft on VHF AM. Once we were out over the ocean, contact with ATC would be by HF SSB (single side band), with both of which I was extremely familiar from my ham radio activities but not in my ATC experience.

We departed O'Hare at around 2300 (1800 local) and headed northeast. As you are no doubt aware, although England looks almost straight East from Chicago on a globe, in truth the shortest distance between the two is a Great Circle, or a curving track that actually goes over Newfoundland, thus our initial northeast heading. We encountered dusk somewhere over central Quebec, and the terminator, the boundary between day and night, was readily visible and it got progressively darker as we pressed on toward Newfoundland.

No one above the age of ten or so is unaware of the flight Charles Lindbergh made in 1927 as the first solo pilot to fly from New York to Paris in his custom made Ryan monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. I can't imagine an aviation enthusiast alive who hasn't seen the movie of the same name with Jimmy Stewart as Lindbergh. The scenes of nighttime over the Atlantic, sleep deprivation, dead reckoning computations, structural icing, and other adventures are vivid in my mind to this day. In a tiny way, I felt I was following the path Lindbergh had blazed as we pressed on into the evening at FL370 (altitudes are expressed as flight levels above 18000 feet—we were at 37,000 feet).

Up to the point where we began talking with Gander ATC, the communications and procedures were virtually identical to those encountered in any domestic North American flight. But things got interesting as we neared the coast. We were instructed to contact Gander Oceanic for our clearance into the North Atlantic Track.

Although traveling a great circle route (with few exceptions—the Equator or any meridian) involves a constantly changing heading, in practical terms it is usually flown in straight line segments of 300-400 miles approximating a curved path. The transition point of those segments is typically a reporting point for the aircraft, used not only for separation purposes by ATC, but is also a how's it going touchstone for those over the vast and lonely Atlantic in the middle of the night.

Once we had our clearance, we were directed to another frequency to test our SelCal device (a unique, four character code activates an alert in the aircraft when transmitted from the ground). It seems to me there might have been a couple of other housekeeping chores done on that frequency as well. All the while, we were hurtling east at 600 miles per hour and it was seriously dark outside, although with still some glow on the horizon to the north.

Soon we were feet wet (crossed the coast and started over the Atlantic) and after a short time, our regular Gander controller cleared us into our assigned track, terminated radar services, and instructed us to contact Gander Oceanic (they're both in the same building in Gander) for our initial check in. By this time (probably 0200) I had been watching the sky out of the left window for more than an hour after passing the terminator, waiting for the last glow of the setting sun to leave the horizon, but there was still a bit left so I figured another hour and we'd definitely be in the dark.

Our first check point came and went, and it was fascinating to hear the pilot make a position report in the old time, non-radar format I had learned in instrument training as a pilot, and relearned in my initial non-radar air traffic control training. It was even more interesting to hear the exchange between the pilot and Gander on HF SSB with its nasally, Donald Duck timbre, and static crashes as opposed to the crisp, clear VHF communications to which I was accustomed. But it also brought to mind the many nights I had spent in my radio shack, lights dim, headphones clapped over my ears, straining to hear signals in that same noise as I searched for some rare or otherwise interesting contact to make. Ham radio was very much alive to me in the cockpit that night.

The frequency was very quiet so far as other traffic was concerned—it almost seemed as if we had been assigned a discrete freuqency although I was sure there weren't the resources to do that, plus I know how hard it is to keep just two frequencies (VHF and UHF) under control, much less several. The link between the years 1927 and 1990 was palpable, however, and I was constantly in mind of Lindbergh, alone and in the night out over this same, very forbidding expanse of cold and inhospitable oceanic territory. I could picture him fighting fatique, making friends with a fly, sweating ice formation, and managing a sandwich as he checked and rechecked his fuel, his navigation, and the well being of his machine as they droned east as did we.

Somewhere in the middle of the crossing I became truly perplexed why the glow on the horizon still hadn't disappeared, hours now after sunset. Suddenly it struck me—it was late May, only a few weeks from the solstice, and we were far north, probably 60 or 65° in latitude, in addition to being nearly eight miles above the earth. I realized it was as dark as it was going to get, and as the night went on, my calculation was confirmed as it began to get progressively lighter to the north past the midpoint of the crossing.

Despite the three pilots I was accompanying, I couldn't help but feel very alone high above the Atlantic, and hundreds of miles from land throughout the night. Again, Lindbergh never left my mind. I definitely felt a connection to his flight despite his primitive flying facilities versus our state of the art transportation machine (with no autopilot, he hand flew every minute of his 33 hour flight). The few contacts with Gander, and then, beginning somewhere about the midpoint of the crossing, Shanwick, were pleasant reassurances that Lindbergh never enjoyed. Such is the lot of the pioneer.

Around 0500 light on the horizon foreshadowed dawn and daylight, and shortly after a position report exchange with Shanwick, I began to be able to make out some clouds and eventually the surface of the ocean far below. A glint out ahead caught my eye, and after studying it for a few minutes in the increasing light, I was able to identify a TWA Boeing 747 about ten miles ahead of and a few thousand feet below us. I thought that was interesting—I wonder where he came from. What are the odds?

Then I looked out to my right and saw a British Airways Lockheed 1011 about three miles away and a couple of thousand feet below. What was this? Looking around some more, I picked out a couple of other aircraft and then all of a sudden it hit me—for all of that solitary feeling I'd had through the night; for all the quiet on the frequency; there had been a dozen or more other aircraft just within fifty miles of us, and dozens more beyond, that had been making the same crossing and having the same experiences (in reality, being somewhat faster than our 767, both the 747 and the 1011 had probably left Newfoundland between 60 and 100 miles behind us). For four or five hours I had felt utterly alone and isolated, yet there had been thousands of people less than ten minutes away who had been with me all along. I can't describe what a strange feeling that revelation was.

We were still an hour or more from Manchester, our destination, as the sun broke well and truly free from the horizon, and the transition from oceanic control to domestic control and from cruise to approach and landing brought familiar aspects of the environment in which I work. We left oceanic control, established VHF communications with Shannon, were radar identified, and I felt back in my world of ATC. I enjoyed the subtle differences in procedures, and grew excited as once we broke through an undercast I looked at the green earth just a few hours, but a continent and lifetime from home.

The experience of the Atlantic crossing left an indelible imprint in my mind. Two years later, in 1992, I flew to England again and although the dawn wasn't quite so dramatic, since I knew all along this time that a veritable flotilla of airliners were all crossing together, still I felt a kinship with each and every one of them (and Lindbergh again) in having made this dramatic, however routine, journey.

Several times since I've had a similar feeling in making a night drive from Ft. Lauderdale to Naples across Alligator Alley. It gets seriously dark in the Everglades, and with the exception of one midpoint gas stop at Miccosukee, is virtually without feature or facility for 75 miles. It's not as dramatic as crossing the Atlantic, but it sure gives me the flavor of it. If you ever have a chance to do either, especially in the cockpit of the airliner, it's an experience not to be missed.

Fun facts

There is a huge volume of traffic that makes the Atlantic crossing in each direction every day, and the airspace is quite congested—as many as six or more tracks are established each day based on forecast winds, at six or more altitudes—with no radar, longitudinal separation is in dozens of miles, as opposed to the five used routinely within radar coverage. A web search should yield several informative sites. Here's one: Crossing the North Atlantic

Update: here's a video file that's making the rounds on the internet (24 Hours of Air Traffic). It's a world wide view of 24 hours worth of air traffic compressed into a little over a minute—it's a dramatic illustration. Note that you can watch the terminator, both dawn and dusk, as it makes its way around the world. Take particular note of the North Atlantic track eastbound (darkness) about 13 seconds in to the video, and the westbound track (daylight) at about 45 seconds in.

Last updated: 27 January 2009

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