November 28, 2013
2013 Greenwich Mean Time West 30 Degrees
Flight Level 310
I had just drifted off to sleep, with the rhythmic undulations of the aircraft gently rocking me to sleep, when there was a loud knock on the bunk door. Calling the claustrophobic space a bunk was a stretch, but at least it provided the opportunity to get a power nap while my two copilots manned the cockpit. I opened the door and swung my legs to the aisle floor, being careful not to completely sit up so I wouldn’t hit my head on the bottom of the upper bunk.
I blinked against the light in the narrow hallway between the passenger cabin and the cockpit as I let my eyes adjust. Bill Burton, our Purser, was standing in the hallway.
“Captain Hancock, the crew called me to wake you. You’re needed in the cockpit immediately.”
“Thanks, Bill. Could you please send up a coffee, black with Splenda?”
“Right away, sir.”
My mind raced to clear the cobwebs as I tried to envision what the problem was. I
could fully appreciate what the Captain of Air France 447 must have experienced, as he was awakened from his crew rest and rushed to the cockpit as his airplane was falling out of the sky. Two minutes later, he was dead, along with everyone else on his plane.
But this was different. Unlike Air France 447, we were operating in daylight hours. At night, every emergency is at least twice as difficult to handle. More important, we were in a Boeing 777, not the Airbus 340 that Air France 447 flew. Every time I thought of 447, I muttered to myself, “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going”.
I entered the cockpit access code into the keypad on the door lock and waited for the crew to unlock the fortified door. Mary, the First Class Flight Attendant, had arrived behind me with a Styrofoam cup of coffee. I took a quick sip, and the fog instantly started to clear from my mind. Obviously, my degree of sleepiness or wakefulness was totally psychological.
Jim Johnson, the copilot assigned to the left seat, peered through the viewport and opened the door. I swiftly entered.
“What’s up, guys?”
“Sir, we’re having a lot of different problems,” said Mark Mason, my other copilot. “They all happened at the same time, about ten minutes ago. And they all seem unrelated.”
“Okay,” I replied, “let’s go over them one by one. What’s the most serious?”
“ Well,” Jim answered, “we lost our GPS positioning. Both of them.”
That was unusual. Really unusual. The 777 has enough redundancy in its systems
that if one component fails, another will pick up the slack. I’d been flying the 777 for over ten years, and never had a Global Position System fail. The odds against both failing were astronomical.
But it wasn’t that big a deal, really. The Flight Management Computers on the airplane would simply compute our present position, groundspeed and wind vector from the Inertial Reference Units. The IRUs were much more accurate than the Inertial Navigation Systems like we had in the older airplanes. An INS will get you position accuracy within a few miles after a 10-hour flight like ours, while an IRU will get you within a hundred feet. And once we were over land, instead of the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where we presently were, the FMC would use land-based navigation transmitters, VORs, to update our position.
My copilots were too young to remember when we didn’t have “glass” cockpits, with moving-map displays and GPS positioning. During our layover in London, when we’d been doing some “hangar flying” at the hotel bar, they’d confided to me that they’d never flown anything but glass. Even their basic flight training airplanes had glass instruments. Using old-fashion round dials, like I’d been flying with for most of my forty-year career, would be an emergency procedure for them.
“Okay,” I responded, “not that big a problem. What else?”
“ At 30 west we couldn’t get CPDLC to work, and we’ve been unable to raise Gander on either HF or VHF.”
“Did you try the left, right and center radios for both VHF and HF?” I asked. “Yes,sir,” Jim responded,. “tried them all. Nothing.”
That could be a problem, but not a show-stopper. The Controller-Pilot Data Link
Communications System was the airborne equivalent of sending emails back and forth between aircraft and Air Traffic Control. CPDLC made it much easier to talk to ATC
than trying to make contact on the radio through static and interference from other aircraft transmissions. Our fallback communications method would be what we used back in the old days – voice transmissions on the radio, using either HF or VHF. It was really unusual for both radio systems, with their triple redundancy, to be inoperative.
Fortunately, the weather was severe clear. I looked ahead and could see an Air Canada 767 a thousand feet below us, slightly ahead, our speeds perfectly matched. Well ahead I could see contrails, those white trails that form when an aircraft disturbs the air and causes ice crystals to form, that indicated where we would be flying next. All aircraft on North Atlantic routes, called NAT Tracks, flew on assigned flight paths at specifically-assigned speeds. There were additional tracks every thirty miles north and south of our route.
I could see the other aircraft on our Traffic Collision and Avoidance System, called TCAS, and everyone seemed to be on course with no problems.
“Have you tried 12345?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Jim answered, “We thought we’d get your input before we went outside our airplane.”
That was a good call. It could have been something as simple as a couple of popped circuit breakers, and there was no reason to tell the world yet. I instinctively glanced at the overhead circuit breaker panel. None were tripped. I moved my transmitter selector to the right VHF radio, which was tuned to the oceanic inter-plane frequency of 123.45 megahertz.
“This is WorldJet Airways 407 on 12345. Is anybody up on frequency?”
“Hello, WorldJet Airways, this is Air Canada 332, a bit past 30 west. We’re having problems contacting Gander on any of their frequencies, and we’ve lost our GPS. And our SATCOM isn’t working also. Are you having the same problems?”
“That’s affirmative,” I answered, “We have no comm with our company on ACARS also.”
The Arinc Communication and Reporting System was an automatic data link with our company headquarters. Theoretically, we could maintain communications with our company anywhere in the world with either ACARS or the Satellite Communications system. When Air Canada mentioned SATCOM, Mark pointed at the Satellite Communications control panel and gave me a thumbs down signal.
“WorldJet Airways and Air Canada, this is Delta 883. We’re about sixty miles ahead of you. Did you hear US Air’s transmission?”
“Delta, this is WorldJet Airways 407. Negative. Would you relay for us?”
“Roger, WorldJet Airways. US Air said that the word is being passed along that there’s been an EMP attack. No one is in contact with ATC, and we’re all pretty much on our own.”
An Electro Magnetic Pulse attack, the detonation of a nuclear weapon at high altitude over the United Airways States, could wipe out the entire power grid of the country in the blink of an eye. There’d been stories about the Iranians planning something like that, and the subject had been in the news recently when Boeing had announced that they had developed a drone that could do the same thing to an enemy
on a more local scale. But something about the EMP attack story didn’t sound quite right.
“Wait a minute, guys,” I transmitted, “an EMP attack wouldn’t knock out our GPS satellites. I think it might be something else, like sun spot activity.”
“This is Delta 883. You’re right, WorldJet Airways. I’ll pass this up ahead and see if anyone has any more information.”
I heard Delta relay my message, then I heard an intermittent, scratchy retransmission from an airplane ahead of him. Maybe one of the planes ahead of us would get more information. We had our own airplane to worry about.
“Jim, do you have the WBM?”
“Here you go, boss.”
I looked at all five pages of the Weather Briefing Message. It was like I always said: I’d rather be lucky than good. Severe clear weather over the entire eastern half of the United States, from Colorado east, for the next two days. A winter storm was predicted in a couple of days, but right now it was smooth sailing. This was great news. If the power grid was out, there was no telling if the backup systems at all the airports would be operational. We may have navigation signals, we may not. At least it was daytime, and the weather was good. We’d be able to make a visual approach to wherever we were going to land.
Chicago O’Hare Airport, our destination, was always hectic, even when communications were working. Even on a good day when everything was going smoothly, the ATC controllers usually sounded more like tobacco auctioneers than tower operators. If there was any snag in communications, it was going to get pretty hairy.
I looked at the O’Hare forecast. The wind was going to be from the west. At an airport that’s not very busy, that would most likely mean landing to the west. At O’Hare, unless the wind was greater than 10 knots, takeoff and landing directions were not so set in stone. My guess was that we’d be using Runway 32 Left, 32 Right, 27 Left or 27 Right. Depended on which runway they were using for takeoffs.
But wait. If communications were out, there wouldn’t be any takeoffs. Only landings. That meant our potential conflicts had just been cut in half. Things were starting to look up. I turned to Jim and Mark.
“Okay, guys, I think there’s been some kind of event that’s taken out most of the radios and the power grid. Is anything else on the airplane inop?”
“The only other thing I noticed is the EFBs aren’t working,” Jim said. “I think they quit around the same time as the GPS.”
I looked down at my Electronic Flight Bag. The screen was black, unpowered. Unlike when we carried 40 or 50 pounds of paper charts and maps in our “brain bags”, the leather catalog cases pilots had carried since the beginning of commercial aviation, all of our flight documents were now in our EFBs, with backup copies in the iPads we’d recently been authorized to use in the cockpit.
I looked on the overhead circuit breaker panel and found the EFB-L and EFB-R circuit breakers and pulled them out. One potato, two potato, three potato. I pushed them back in. It would take a few minutes to see if recycling the breakers would get the Left and Right EFBs back in operation.
“Jim,” I said, “check your iPad. We may need to use the charts in there.”
“Bad news, Ham,” he answered. “I tried cranking it up a few minutes ago, and all I got was a black screen with the Apple logo. I tried both of the others, too, and none of them are working.”
“Hamilton,” Mark said, “why would some of our equipment work and some not?”
“Most of our electronics,” I answered, “are in the lower electronics bay. That area is well shielded, and the airplane itself acts pretty much like a Faraday cage. The electronics in the cockpit, like the iPads, aren’t so well protected because of all of the windows. My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that there was some form of event, like a sun spot, that caused a glitch. When we get closer to land, within radio range of the States, we’ll try Guard frequency. I suspect that Guard transmitters have some sort of power backup, and they’re probably well shielded. We’ll just have to wait.”
Mark and Jim silently nodded. After about three minutes, the EFBs came back to life. At least we’d have our charts. It was going to be at least three more hours before we were within range of any American or Canadian radio stations.
It was going to be a long three hours.