Saturday, August 29, 2009

Spot the airfield: Gold Coast, Queensland

On a flight from Sydney to Brisbane in a Qantas 767-338, Air Traffic Control gave us one turn in the hold over Gold Coast airport, which created a photo opportunity for the seventh instalment of our "spot the airfield" series, where I try to spot, photograph and later identify airfields from a window seat at the back of an airliner.

Previous episodes featured Stuttgart, Dalby, Mitchell and Charleville, Lombadina, Clermont, Southport and more recently Aeropelican.

I am not instrument rated (yet), so you'll forgive the approximate description of the procedure: the airplane first flies over the navigation aid (Gold Coast VOR in our case), makes a 180-degree rate-one right turn, flies straight ahead for one minute, one more 180-degree rate-one turn, then one more minute to get back to the navaid. Each half-turn takes one minute (rate-one turn means a heading change of three degrees per second). Flying the entire holding pattern therefore takes four minutes.

The picture above was taken as we were about to complete the turn away from the navaid. The airplane bit in the bottom left corner is the trailing edge of the right wing. The Pacific Highway can be seen running across the pictures, right above the airport.

The airport's little name is YBCG, CG for Coolangatta which was the name of the airport up until 1999. It is a controlled airport, with one very long 14/32 runway and a very short 17/35 cross runway whose sole purpose is, in my opinion, to introduce confusion in the mind of student pilots trying to comply with a taxi clearance there.

It may not very obvious from the taxiway diagram in the ERSA, but a taxi clearance from the GA parking area to the run-up bay for runway 32 for example actually involves crossing runway 17/35 after taxiway Golf before turning on to Foxtrot. That's the bit marked "Runway Incursion Hotspot".

I flew into Gold Coast a few times during my PPL training. The green patch near the water in the top-right corner of the picture above is Burleigh Head, a VFR reporting point used when flying inbound from the north.

The bit of airplane here is the leading edge of the right wing. The four little vertical metal blades are vortex generators, designed to improve the airflow over the wing. That's pretty much all I know on the topic.

As to the function of the yellow piece of metal with a hole in the middle on the right, this mystery was solved by Plastic Pilot a little while ago.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

You'll come a-Flying Matilda, with me

Whatever the rules are for choosing 5-character names for IFR waypoints, there is still plenty of room left for poetic licence. There's a GAMBL waypoint not too far from the town of Casino and a WOOLY JUMPA somewhere over the Pacific. And SEXXI NIPPL have been reported in the Philippines.

In the case of a string of waypoints off the coast of Western Australia, inspiration was drawn from a well-known poem by none other than Banjo Paterson, Australia's best-known bush poet:


Sing it out loud with me and you'll get the first two verses of Waltzing Matilda, Australia's unofficial national anthem:

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree

Pretty cool, isn't it? There's lots of waypoint trivia out there. Plastic Pilot once proposed to learn French using French IFR waypoints. has some more. The ultimate reference though, at least for trivia related to the UK airspace, is Nick Locke's

David at Land and Hold Short has come full circle: he's not using a song for naming waypoints, he's composing with navaid idents. Combine that with The Checklist Song and you may get the overture of an aviation opera.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Less Bliss and more Boredom

Three weeks after our inbound flight, it was time to say goodbye to the European summer and brace for the Australian winter. Not that we noticed much difference: we spent our first afternoon back in Australia soaking in the sun at Balmoral Beach, officially for the sole purpose of helping our Circadian Clock readjust itself to Australian time.

The flight back was very long, entirely experienced in economy class and entirely uneventful. The photo below was taken at sunrise over the Queensland coast, about one hour before touchdown at Sydney.

The Great Circle from Frankfurt to Seoul took us over Berlin, Gdansk at sunset, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Riga and Tartu before entering Russian airspace not too far from St Petersburg.

Entering Russian airspace in a Korean Air 747 brings back memories of KAL 007, the airliner shot down by the USSR Air Force in 1983. I was only nine at the time but I remember reading about it in the Midi Libre newspaper while on summer holidays with my grandparents in the South of France. Not that I was reading international news at such an early age, I was most likely attracted to the article by a photo of the airliner.

In Russian airspace we used a metric flight level at 11000 meters. However, when flying from Poland to Lithuania through the small Russian territory around Kaliningrad, we stayed at FL 350, i.e. 35,000 feet above the reference datum of 1013.25 hPa.

The landscapes of the Gobi desert over Mongolia and north-western China reminded me of the Australian Outback, minus the color red. Then I realised that, since the Great Wall of China was built in order to ward off Mongolian invasions our flightpath would eventualy cross it and I could maybe spot it from the airplane. I remembered something about it being visible from space, so if I kept my face glued to the window I would not miss it. How awesome would that be.

Unfortunately this was not meant to be as a thick layer of stratus clouds started building below us as we approached Beijing from the north-west. Soon after the airliner altered its south-easterly course to track due south towards Beijing, before resuming a more direct route to Seoul.

The reason for the dogleg could be seen right out the window: a massive thunderstorm had developped right on our intended flightpath.

On approach to Seoul I could observe the little crystals of ice that build up on the inside side of the window quickly melt as we passed through the freezing level at about 15,000ft. Yes, I was utterly bored at this stage of the flight.

By the way, I learnt by reading a German flying magazine on holidays that the German word for freezing level is Nullgradgrenze, literaly "zero degree limit". Another funny one is Wolkenuntergrenze, which means cloud base.

We approached Sydney at sunrise, Brooklyn bridge is sort of visible on the photo below.

We landed on 34L at Sydney after a left-hand circuit. We cleared Customs and Quarantine relatively quickly and jumped into a cab direction home. Just like most cabs it had a GPS on the dashboard.

It's amazing how in the space of a couple of decades a classified military technology initially developed during the Cold War to guide ICBMs has now found its way into most cars, mobile phones and of course airplanes.

It's in 1983 that the Reagan Administration took the decision to declassify the NAVSTAR GPS satellite navigation system in order to allow civilian applications, such as better navigation systems for airplanes. It became operational in 1990, just in time for the first Gulf War.

A decision that was taken when it became clear that the downing of Korean Airlines flight KAL 007 by a Russian fighter jet had been triggered by a navigation error that took it over a prohibited section of Russian airspace.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bliss is Being Bumped up and Bibimbap

This is a post written from an airliner seat I can plug my netbook into, which seasoned travellers will immediately recognise as a Good Sign. A very good sign that the Gods of Seat Assignment finally smiled at me and bumped me up to Business Class. Bumped us up to business class actually since I have the pleasure of travelling with my wife.

This post is low on the usual aviation technicalities, although as we might see later the subtelties of flight level assignment in Mongolian and Russian airspace can be sensed from a passenger seat for passengers with an inquisitive or bored mind.

For a change, this transcontinental trip was not a business trip, which is why we didn't fly Qantas or Singapore Airlines as usual. When the time came to book our tickets for our (Northern Hemisphere) summer holidays, we decided to go with Korean Airlines, who offered the cheapest fares among all the acceptable airlines. We flew Sydney to Seoul in the half-empty A330-300 in the photo above. Note the Emirates A380 in the background. Maybe next time.

As Nina sat in her seat she couldn't suppress a cry of surprise. Her finger was pointing at the back of the seat in front of her, and at the obvious absence of any personal in-flight entertainment system. There was a screen at the other end of our section, but it all looked like a scene out of the movie Airplane.

Our in-flight entertainment came under the guise of the making of Bibimbap. The choice for food was beef or Bibimbap, which the flight attendant explained was a traditional Korean dish. Being the curious and culturally sensitive couple that we are, we both went for Bibimbap, to the obvious delight of the flight attendant.

That's the only in-flight meal I have ever been served that comes with a five-step instruction sheet. Thinking about it, that's the only meal I ever had that comes with printed instructions. On completing step 5 I recognized the dish as something I ordered a couple of times in the past in a small Korean eatery in the Elizabeth Street Arcade in Brisbane.

Bibimbap is a very healthy mix of vegetables, beef, mushrooms and steamed rice. Sesame oil and hot pepper sauce come as separate ingredients. I enjoyed the dish and washed everything down with a big bowl of seaweed soup, not too bad either, just like a Miso soup, but without the evil tofu.

The cabin crew insisted on having all passengers pull the window shades down even though we were right in the middle of the day. This is all the less understandable since there is only one hour time difference between Sydney and Seoul, so it's not like fake night will help us shift our circadian rhythm to our destination. When asked, the flight attendant said it was "rest time". I felt like I was in Kindergarten again, when they forced us to stop playing and take a nap. Anyway, sticking to our theme of cultural sensitiveness, we accepted the Korean Siesta.

Maybe because the cabin was in the dark, a flight attendant carrying a tray full of glasses down the aisle stumbled as she walked by us and spilled some water over Nina's blanket. No drama at all, the spillage was quickly removed using a single napkin, and no garment got stained in the process. The ensuing display of apologies by the flight attendant, and later by the cabin chief was just amazing. I joked to Nina that she should have played the offended customer and ask for a business class upgrade on our next flight.

After a night in Seoul we resumed our journey with a long 12-hour flight to Frankfurt in a 747-400. I had seat 19B. I entered the airplane, turned right and started looking for my row number on the overhead baggage compartment. Suddenly the most bizarre thing happened. The numbers jumped from 12 to 39. I was so surprised that I asked the flight attendant who directed me upstairs. I climbed up the stairs, turned left and found my wife who had followed instructions and arrived there before me. We looked at the wide seat and exchange a very big smile. Business class. And not any business class seats. Exit row business class seats. To paraphrase Flight of the Conchords, It's Business Time.

After that stupid smile left my face and I had finished playing with the controls of the eight different ways in which I could adjust my seat, I looked through the window and saw lots of convective activity down below in the steppes. We were north-west of Beijing, approaching the border with Mongolia.

Then of course came time for our Korean siesta, even though flight KE905 left at 1:15 PM and arrived in Frankfurt at 5:35 PM. I started exploring the options of the in-flight entertainment system. The flight information gave our cruising altitude over Mongolia as 31494ft. Not a round number? How comes? Cruising altitudes obey the rule of flight levels, which typically work in increments of 1000ft.

Then I clicked on the "Metric" box and it said 9600m. Ah ah... Maybe just like the Russians, Mongolia uses the metric system in aviation. That wouldn't be terribly surprising given Mongolia's history of close alignment with the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

The mystery got thicker later when over Russia we cruised at 38094ft / 11611m for over an hour. Maybe the aiplane was assigned a block level and chose the most efficient altitude. Or maybe something else.

The rest of the flight was absolutely uneventful, which is good. I had a Tuna and Kimchi Onigiri sandwich which wasn't bad at all, very filling and quite likely very healthy too. The good thing with flying Seoul to Frankfurt is that it makes one realise how freaking huge Russia is. You could fit a couple of Australias in there. Which to my European appreciation of distances is simply mind-boggling.