Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
Aviation International News
From the Middle East to Beijing you have a choice of two routes. One, the most appropriate for twin-engine aircraft, is the southern route via somewhere like Dhaka, Bangladesh, then on around the eastern end of the Himalayas.
The other route, approximately two and a half hours shorter, is via Islamabad, Pakistan, then northeast on Blue 215 to Urumqi, China, roughly 1,000 miles up the road. Then, a right turn, still on Blue 215 to Jiuquan. From there it’s Amber 596 into Beijing.
The initial route out of Islamabad into China exceeds the 60-minute ETOPS rule, which, if most pilots are like me, they tend to think of primarily in association with long, over water flights. There’s a segment on Blue 215 up into China where there are no suitable airports for landing within the 60-minute rule. Therefore, this route is restricted for twin-engine aircraft operating without approved extension to that rule. (Although ETOPS requirements only apply to FAR 121 [or equivalent] operations, our flight department, an FAR 91 operation, has adopted these standards.) With three turbo-fans, our Dassault Falcon 900A suffered no such restriction, so we were able to take advantage of the route via Pakistan and Blue 215.
Other attention-getters on this route are the high enroute altitudes along the airway. The minimum obstruction clearance altitude (MOCA) on Blue 215 at Purpa intersection, the FIR (Flight information region) between Pakistan and China, is 23,100 ft. or 7,026 meters. Purpa also has hard ATC crossing altitudes to maintain eastbound FL 330 (10,050 meters), westbound; eastbound FL350 (10,650 meters).
After a very efficient quick turnaround by Shaheen Handling at Islamabad, we took off toward the south, away from our proposed direction of flight, and climbed to Indek intersection 52 miles south. After a one-eighty, we flew back overhead RN, the Islamabad VOR, and, by then, had the altitude needed for entry into Chinese airspace over Purpa. Motivating us to precisely fly the centerline of the airway was the grid minimum off-route altitude (Grid MORA). The grid, through which we were flying on our climb out from Islamabad, had a Grid MORA of 29,000 ft.
At a takeoff weight of 44,000 lbs., we were grateful for a night departure and cool temperatures from Islamabad’s 9,000 ft. runway. There was plenty of margin for balanced field length but it’s nice to have spare performance in your pocket. An hour into the flight, after a burn off of around 3,000 lbs., we were in a weighty phase of the flight. A one-engine-out driftdown at 451,000 lbs. and ISA left us a final altitude of just over 24,000 ft., or a safety cushion of around 1,000 over the published MOCA.
Aircraft specific driftdown schedules are available through the special request function with Jeppesen Jetplan. They were very comprehensive and broke down segments with driftdown schedules to final altitudes between each checkpoint. Very comforting to have on this route at night, in clouds and moderate turbulence. They were still nice to have on the way back out in clear air with the peak of K2 soaring through the clouds masking the lower levels of the Himalayas.
A thorough reading of the Jeppesen China book should be compulsory before venturing into China on any route, much less this particular route. Fortunately, the China book is as thin as the North Atlantic book.
Hard communications are required at all border crossings but as you read on, it becomes apparent that, on the entry into China from Pakistan, there is required HF contact with both Lahore and Urumqi Centers at least 20 minutes prior to crossing the FIR at Purpa.
Lahore heard us five by five, along with Karachi and Bombay. That was due to the unfortunate practice of all those control centers using the same HF frequency. Finally a Lufthansa flight relayed our position to Urumqi. He heard us trying to make contact on HF, determined he was close, and was kind enough to call on 121.5 and offer his services. That’s an emergency frequency that should be monitored if you have enough radios, especially on international operations. We passed the Lufthansa flight in one of the infrequent clear spaces between clouds. In a silent greeting, we both winked our landing lights.
The weather was unsettled, it was night and HF contact was at its worst. We were able to make radio contact with Urumqi as we passed overhead to get a climb clearance, but that was it for communications until we approached Beijing. By the way, the Lufthansa flight was the only aircraft we saw, or even heard enroute. On the return day flight, HF communications were quite good all the way through China to Pakistan and we even saw an occasional airplane.
Jeppesen states that, “Although in general, the People’s Republic of China is in conformity with ICAO standards, there are some significant differences. For example, altitudes, elevation, and heights are given in meters instead of feet. Horizontal aircraft speed and wind speed in the air is given in kilometers per hour and vertical speed and surface wind are given in meters per second.”
The good news is that conversion charts for all of the differences are published in the Jeppesen China book. You might consider making two photocopies for convenient cockpit reference. You might also want to have a calculator handy in case you’re cleared to an uncharted level or altitude.
It had not been a long flight, or even a particularly long duty day but, flying into the rising sun, our eyes burned nonetheless as we got our first look at the ground below. Morning found us over central China just south of Mongolia. I was surprised at its brown sparseness until I realized I was looking at the Gobi Desert. From our cruising altitude, it looked like Saudi Arabia or the southwestern United States without the circular irrigation patches.
Terminal arrivals into Beijing are quite standard. Transition from a STAR to radar vectors to an ILS approach and landing were all accomplished smoothly and with no delays. A “Follow Me” truck met us clearing the runway and took us all the way to the chocks. The STARs and approach plates all have altitude conversion boxes printed on them. Altitude clearances are given in meters and you can quickly check the box to determine the equivalent altitude in feet if you’re flying on either QNH (the local altimeter setting, as in the U.S.) or on QFE (a somewhat different idea on altitudes used in other parts of the world). In China, QNH is given “on request.”
The idea behind QFE is that, on landing, the altimeter reads zero instead of the published airport altitude. I find this system cumbersome and limited by actual altimeter hardware. At a given airport altitude, the capability of the altimeter to handle the adjustment is exceeded, so you must change to QNH anyway. Why not just fly QNH all the time and avoid the potential confusion. It seems like an idea that has come and should have gone a long time ago.
Beijing has changed a lot since I was last there ten years ago. There is every indication of a booming economy. The number of automobiles has increased dramatically. While we were there, a newspaper headline declared that every family would have an automobile by 2010. In preparation for this achievement, massive road construction projects are underway. Fine hotels and restaurants have proliferated and there is even a grass, nine-hole golf course right in the city. I, of course, had to waste my only day off playing it. I rationalized that the Great Wall and the Forbidden City had not changed much in ten years and, after all, how many people get to play golf in Beijing?
My only other flight into China had been on an airliner from the east and somehow I remember it looking a lot greener coming from that direction. We had flown into Beijing and then made a long and difficult 30-day bicycle ride to Xian and Shanghai on our honeymoon. “Honeymoon?” you might ask. But then that’s another story.