November 28, 2013
2346 Greenwich Mean Time West 60 Degrees
Flight Level 310
It was time to give ATC a call on Guard frequency. We were still over the ocean, but, I estimated, we would be in range of one of the radio facilities on the east coast.
For the previous three hours we had maintained a listening watch on VHF 123.45, and had passed along our information, sparse as it was, to aircraft following us. If this had been a domestic flight, we would have come into contact with aircraft that were headed east, but the NAT tracks only operate in one direction. Flights on the tracks go east at night, usually to arrive in Europe around the time the airport control towers accept arrivals, typically 0600 local time, like Heathrow. Westbound flights operate in the daytime.
From what I could determine, all of the airplanes I had made contact with had exactly the same indications we had, in terms of inoperative equipment. Fortunately, our TCAS was working, since it was dependent only on the operability of onboard equipment. That meant we would be able to visualize nearby aircraft on our TCAS display, and we would all be able to maneuver to avoid midair collisions with other TCAS-equipped aircraft. At these high altitudes, all aircraft were required to have TCAS. It might be a different story altogether when we got lower, as we approached to land,
since light planes didn’t usually have that equipment. But I suspected there wouldn’t be any light planes flying by the time we got to Chicago.
We had a fairly lengthy discussion about exactly where we should land. Given that the meteorological conditions were virtually the same everywhere, arrival weather would likely not be a factor. There was the real potential that, wherever we went, we might not get a gate at the terminal. That would mean remote parking.
The problem with remote parking was that we might not be able to get off the airplane. The 777 sits so high that it takes a special loading bridge or portable stairs to reach up to the aircraft door sill. If we were to divert to an airport that didn’t routinely accept 777s, we could have a problem with our passengers trapped onboard.
That’s what happened when I was flying a trip on September 11, 2001. Like today, weather was crisp and clear all over the United States. When the national aviation emergency was declared, every aircraft was told to land immediately at the nearest airport.
At the time, I had only been a 777 Captain for two years. Two years may sound like a long time, but the 777 is a highly sophisticated airplane, and it takes quite a bit of time for a pilot to fill his bag of tricks on a new airplane. I was flying a domestic trip, from Washington Dulles Airport to Denver International Airport. We were over Kansas when the national emergency was declared. It seemed like a no-brainer to me to continue to Denver, but when the controllers said land immediately, they meant immediately. The closest small blue circle on my cockpit moving map display, denoting a suitable airport, was labeled “KFOE”. From my Boeing 727 days, when I had flown nothing but domestic
trips all over the country, I had remembered that FOE was the VOR identifier for Topeka.
With some great help from my copilot, I had scrambled to program Topeka into our FMC to enable the pressurization system to schedule properly, located the paper approach charts for Topeka that I carried in my “brain bag”, the catalog case that carried all of my documents, and set up for an immediate landing. As I extended the speed brakes and executed an emergency descent, my copilot had made a quick Passenger Address announcement advising everyone on the aircraft that we were making an emergency landing at Topeka.
When we landed at Topeka, the Ground controller advised us that the loading bridges could not accept any aircraft larger than a 727, so we would have to deplane remotely. Then they told us that the only portable stairs they had would be three feet short of our door sill. I still remembered, now eleven years later, how I had stood on the top step of the portable stairs and helped the passengers deplane, one by one. We had three wheelchair passengers that day. It was grim.
I wasn’t going to let that happen again today, if I could help it. The passengers already were aware that something was wrong. About a half hour after the glitch happened, the purser came up to the cockpit.
“Captain, is there something going on that I need to know about? One of our passengers noticed that our airplane symbol isn’t moving on the Airshow moving map display on the passenger video screens. He did a pretty good impression of Scotty from
Star Trek when he said, ‘They have us in a tractor beam.’ Anything wrong besides the Airshow?”
“We’re not sure, Bill. We’ve lost contact with our GPS satellites, and with all ground- based communications facilities. We’re hearing from other airplanes that the power grid is out all across the United States. Right now, we’re planning on continuing on to O’Hare, but that’s subject to change. I’ll keep you posted as soon as I hear anything new. I’ll make a PA announcement to let the folks know what little I know.”
Bill was one of the few Flight Attendants that could get away with calling me by my nickname. We had flown trips together for years, and I had gone to dinner with the cabin crew on numerous layovers. I usually treated the crew. Bill ran a tight ship in the back, and his crew always did an outstanding job of taking care of the passengers.
Several years ago, I had been dead-heading in the cabin on a domestic 737 flight where Bill was the purser when a passenger, an overweight lady in her sixties, had a heart attack. At the time, not all WorldJet Airways planes had Automatic External Defibrillators onboard, and the 737 fleet was the last fleet scheduled to get outfitted with AEDs. We didn’t have any on board. Worse yet, there were no medical personnel among the passengers, and the two other Flight Attendants were new-hires and had not yet gotten CPR qualified. Since I had been trained on Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation as part of my side business as a fitness trainer, I volunteered to help out. Bill and I administered CPR as a team for over 40 minutes while the Captain made an emergency divert to Spokane. By the time the medics got aboard, we were exhausted. But we saved
the lady’s life, and after the passengers deplaned, we were overcome with emotion. I guess when you’ve cried with someone, he can call you by your nickname.
I picked up the PA handset.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Hancock. You may have noticed the moving map display on your video screens is not working properly. That’s because the Global Positioning System signals are not tuning properly. Apparently, there’s also a problem with the domestic power grid, so we may experience some difficulties with the loading bridge after we arrive at Chicago. We don’t know a whole lot more right now, but I’ll keep you posted as we receive additional information.”
That should do it. Keep it short and sweet. For the life of me, I wanted to start out by saying “We have good news and bad news”, but years ago the company had said that was a big no-no. A career-ending no-no. So I kept it short and sweet.
Now it was time to see if Guard frequency was alive. We tuned the left VHF transmitter to 121.5 megahertz, and made a transmission in the blind.
“This is WorldJet Airways 407 on Guard in the blind. Are there any Air Traffic Control facilities reading my transmission?”
No response. I tried several more times, with the same results. It looked like we would be on our own.
Shortly after we passed over the east coast, our Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System, called EICAS, displayed the warning, “Unable RNP”. That meant that the FMC was not able to maintain the Required Navigation Performance. In short, the navigation information from the FMC might not be very accurate.
Fortunately, I could see the ground. As our flight progressed, I was able to identify several airports on the ground that corresponded with the blue airport symbols on my cockpit moving map display, so I knew I was reasonably close to on course. Onward.
Jim, Mark and I had a fairly extensive discussion about where we should land, and I made the decision to proceed on to O’Hare. Landing there would be as safe as landing anywhere else, we had plenty of fuel, and O’Hare was where the passengers, and the airplane, needed to be.