6. Burt Rains – Boeing 777

United States – 06:45 Eastern Standard Time – Chicago

She was 209 feet long and she was the Pride of America. Well, that was the name painted on her side but her log name was nowhere near as sexy, Boeing 777-200ER N777AR. But, of course, her crew called her Pride of America, or just ‘Pride’ for short.

This was in no small part because of the pivotal role that she and her crew, many years ago, had played in pushing for getting salary equality for same sex couples. So the name ‘Pride’ on her side also celebrated all those men or women who now had same sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships, depending where you lived.

The first Boeing 777 in commercial service, she’d certainly seen some action, and not just a few records along the way too. But at over twenty years old, Pride was getting a bit long in the tooth now.

As a Boeing 777, she was the world’s largest twinjet, and had been for two decades. With her 7,000 plus mile range, she’d carried up to three hundred and fifty passengers a time on thousands of holidays and business trips, almost everywhere around the globe.

If you had to describe her in human terms, you’d probably say she was a classic child of the nineties, with a round middle and a bit too big around the girth now, for modern tastes. But she was still pretty rakish and had looks that were the envy of many others of her ilk, with a blade shaped tail and two enormous turbofan engines stuck out well ahead of her two hundred foot wing spread.

She was also revolutionary for her time, being Boeing’s very first computer controlled ‘fly-by-wire’ airliner, and the first commercial aircraft to be conceived entirely using computer-aided design.

Talking of records, twenty years ago her sibling 777-200ER had broken the ‘great circle distance without landing’ record for an airliner. A long name for a pretty outstanding record, a great circle was simply the shortest distance between any two airports on the globe. Imagine the world was a football, then stretching a string over it between any two points, then that was a great circle. Flying eastward from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, a distance of 10,800 nautical miles (20,000 km), her sister ‘Super Ranger’ had done that whole journey in just twenty one and a half hours.

Today Pride wasn’t going that far, but a long journey of eight thousand miles in fifteen hours nonetheless. Taking off from Chicago at early light, she was headed to Hong Kong, taking hordes of US holidaymakers for a welcome break in that playground of the Far East. At thirty four thousand feet, her Rolls-Royce Trent engines were propelling Pride at over five hundred miles an hour. They would be taking their own great circle route, north over Canada and the Arctic, then South through Russia and China, before giving everyone a view of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers just before landing.

In the late morning her passengers had already been offered a selection of drinks and snacks from the well-stocked trolley, and many had now put their blinds down to combat the glare from the low winter sun, slanting in brightly through the oval windows.

Many of the more garrulous passengers were chatting to their seat-buddies. Much of the talk was about the fabulous displays of the northern lights that they’d been seeing over Chicago’s tall skyscrapers over the last day and a half. Some told tales of seeing lights so bright that they’d been able to read a novel or magazine by the gauzy green, blue and purple auroral hues streaming through their lounge window or bedroom in the evenings.

For others, mainly the men, they made it all into a competitive point of their own as to who had the best shots, taking pride in showing and comparing their aurora pictures taken on the many smartphones in use around the speeding aircraft. But, despite the different colours and shades and shapes of the northern lights, men and women and children alike, they all agreed they’d seen nothing quite like it in their lifetime. Something that was going to be remembered and shared with loved ones for a long time to come.

A few of the passengers had learnt that the fabulous rainbow shades of the Aurora were actually caused by a solar flare, but few really knew what that was, or really care that much, only that it gave a great night-time light display. Who were they to complain?

In the cockpit of 777 Pride, her Captain Burt Rains viewed the autopilot screen and checked their planned flight path. The sun had set ten minutes ago, and they were just passing over Nunavut and then the top of the Northwest Territories, before heading out for two thousand miles over the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Nunavut was strange. Less than twenty years ago it had been officially separated from the rest of the Northwest Territories, after the Nunavut Land Claims Act with its indigenous Inuit people.

He’d read that even though it only had less than forty thousand people living there, but it covered about the same area as Mexico. So it was huge, the largest new province in the world. And desolate too, with not much there other than groups of weather stations and a small airport. But it did have a claim to fame as the most northern permanently inhabited place, with sixty people, calling itself Alert.

I bet you had to be that all the time in winter too. The current daily average there was minus forty, that odd temperature that was exactly the same whether you were in Fahrenheit or Centigrade.

Burt had always thought the polar routes were special and still unusual, and loved flying them. The view of the Arctic from his cockpit was spectacular. And today, of course, they had the aurora lighting up the sky as soon as the sun had dipped below the horizon.

There were risks to these polar routes, of course. Any solar flare could generate high radiation levels on planes flying at these high latitudes. Knowing that a flare from the sun had created a pulse of plasma that was now on its way, meant their airline bosses had studied the forecasts from the US NOAA very carefully before they allowed take-off. But all the pre-flight forecasts suggested this pulse, first seen on the sun yesterday, was slow moving. Predictions were it wouldn’t hit Earth for twelve hours, by which time the flight crew would be downing their first drink in their favourite Hong Kong bar.

The tricky part of any Arctic crossing was both communication and navigation. Aircraft below their latitude had no trouble sending or receiving high frequency, or HF radio transmissions. But, at these high northern latitudes, virtually all of their VHF communication had been lost as soon as the plane got north of Hudson Bay. So the plane also had a satellite based communication system, as well as HF and VHF voice and data transmitters, all of which were essential to combat the renowned poor signal reception right across the Arctic.

So until they had reached Nunavut they had used their satellite communication system. Below about eighty degrees north latitude there was just enough line-of-sight connection to allow their sat com coverage. But, as soon as they had entered the polar part of the flight they had lost the main satellite connection and had to switch over to purely HF voice communications.

But this was no surprise, as any pilot flying polar routes expected interference with HF voice communication. When the sun was at it its maximum solar cycle, HF voice radio waves were reflected by layers in the ionosphere. The solar wind that was constantly set out from the sun affected what they called the ‘skip layer’, whose altitude moved up and down during day and night, depending on the air temperature and electromagnetic radiation. As every HF voice signal they sent bounced between the skip layer and the ground, any increased radiation from the solar wind adversely affected the signal and quality of radio reception. This was always worst when sunspot cycles were at what they called their solar maximum, which had peaks which occurred every eleven years.

For Burt, the good news was they were now only a year or so after the period of solar minimum, so there were fewer sunspots around on the sun’s surface. This usually reduced the solar wind and made HF voice communications easier. They’d had a detailed briefing on solar cycles from NOAA last year, who’d said the last solar maximum was one of the weakest on record, with far less sunspots produced than in most of the previous eleven year cycles.

Which was why it was very strange to have had the alert from airline HQ this morning about a big solar pulse. Burt thought these pulses only usually happened during a sunspot maximum, which wasn’t due until about 2024. Whilst the sat comms had been fine up until the last hour, he’d had trouble with when HF communications ever since take-off. That’s why they had an IRU and GPS on board.

The IRU was an inertial reference unit that basically told the aircraft where is was at all times, using Earth’s gravity as a constant ‘down’ reference. Even if the plane only moved a fraction, three laser gyroscopes in the IRU measured the change in pitch, roll and yaw of the aircraft and fed it into the flight management system, which constantly monitored the health of all the navigation sensors.

The IRU could also determine the axis of the earth’s rotation and calculate true north from the output from the laser gyroscopes. It could also roughly calculate the plane’s latitude. It was a great bit of kit, but not accurate enough for full navigation, and it took a long time to set in polar latitudes. That’s where their dual GPS came into play, which provided the crucial navigation accuracy over the Arctic.

He checked the navigation systems, location and autopilot once more, and then pushed the intercom button to the flight attendants.

‘Tracy, could we have food and a couple of coffees in here?’

Tracy was in the small plan galley at the front of the aircraft, heating up meals for a few of the first class passengers in the small microwave. She turned to her colleague who pressed to reply.

‘Hi Burt, sure. The usual? Roast beef for you and a lasagne?’

Tracy smiled. She knew lots of pilots brought their own food to eat on flights but Burt and Jeff preferred in-flight catering. Pilots and co-pilots were advised by the airline not to eat the same meals during flights. It wasn’t something the Federal Aviation Administration insisted on, but most airlines did it, just in case. The idea was that by eating different food his co-pilot wouldn’t be affected, and could then take over if something was wrong with a meal like food poisoning. The reality was this meant Burt got the first class meal, and his co-pilot only got the business class meal.

A few minutes later Tracy pressed the security button on the cockpit door and Burt viewed the cockpit camera. This was just part of the security precautions most aircraft now had post 9/11, in case a terrorist tried to enter and take over the aircraft. Most aircraft now had a combination of a number keypads outside the door, for crew access, and an internal lock in the cockpit just in case someone found out the code. Burt pressed the toggle switch in the cockpit that unlocked the electronic door latch.

Tracy put the hot food trays down carefully next to the two pilots, with the coffee behind and to the left and right of each seat.

She was always cautious with drinks in the cockpit. There was a standard airline procedure for food and beverages in the cockpit. Drinks were never served over the centre panel to avoid spilling anything over any of the avionics or switches. A few years ago, she’d been having an after flight drink with a Chicago pilot, He’d told her the mortifying tale of a plane heading from Chicago to Frankfurt that had coffee spilled into the communication panel, accidently triggering a false 7500 code. A red alert went out,  the code that said the plane was being hijacked. All two hundred passengers on board got diverted to Toronto due to the false alert. They weren’t pleased.

Tracey checked the electronic cockpit door lock was secure and headed back to the galley. She desperately wanted to hear more about her other crew member’s latest Hong Kong conquest, and they could chat secretly while prepping the passenger coffee jugs.

In the cockpit Burt ate his hot dinner slowly, looking out of the cockpit window to the north, scanning the glowing horizon. The increased solar wind from the pulse was there in front of him to be viewed as the stunning aurora borealis. Purples mixed with greens and blues and reds down towards the horizon. He could never tire of this view. In thirty years of flying he couldn’t remember such a fabulous display as the aurora he was currently witnessing. Maybe he should he take a photo of it. His wife would be amazed.

They all had pilot friends who took and posted pictures, videos and even selfies online whilst they were flying. But back in 2014, the FAA had issued a rule saying pilots were only allowed to use company-issued devices for tasks directly related to flight operations, for safety reasons or for company communications.

At first they thought that meant there was a ban on airline pilots from using any personal mobiles and tablets during a flight. But the reality was the airline were happy with the both of them using their cell phones and iPads to keep boredom at bay, as long as it was during the routine parts of the flight. And as long as they weren’t trying for a high score on Candy Crush Saga as they came into land.

He looked at his co-pilot, who had clearly had the same thought. Why not? Almost simultaneously Burt took out his phone, and his co-pilot his tablet, pointing them out of the window at the glorious aurora ahead. He’d never post the shots, but it was great to be able to capture the natural world in all its glory, every now and then.