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The Last 100 Miles …

September 28, 2015

100-4100-5cockpi2014-08-02 12.13.31cockpit

All pilots love the last 100 miles. So do I. This part of flight is filled with pleasant activity and there is a sense of achievement in bringing that huge machine, slicing through the space at 700 miles, down to 140 knots and in line with a thin yellow line in the center runway; and then making it land like a meek pussycat. It is both a science and an art. Science is the aerodynamics part and art is the making that invisible flight path in space as smooth, short and cost-effective as possible. Some pilots make it look so simple and easy as if tinkering with strings of a musical instruments. There is a flow and a rhythm in their movements just like the soft hush of water flowing down a gentle slope. And likewise, their aircraft rolls, yawns, twists and turns in a calculated orchestrated manner very similar to the movements of an adept dancer. For others like me, it is more of a science, some hard work and a job done.

The last 100 miles see a constant three dimensional change and the cockpit is filled up with little chores and minor tasks. It is always like coming home no matter where you are landing. Because after the first few times, every place looks as familiar as home. You can meet people at two levels. Either at the level of differences – country, race, religion, culture etc. Or, at the level of similarities – a similarity of emotions such as desires, goals, ambitions, love, hate, jealousy etc. It is amazing how the entire mankind is actually so similar to each other.

Dubai is our destination and now it is only 140 miles away. Below us are the last 30 miles of Iranian airspace. From 30, 000 feet, planning to lose 1,000 feet for every 3 miles, beginning our descent 100 miles out from Dubai should work out just fine; give and take a few miles for the head or tail wind. Iran has no Radars and we have been giving long position reports for the last two hours over its airspace. And now he is unable to give the ‘clearance’ to descend because he is not sure of the traffic coming from the opposite side.

So we go to the UAE radar and get the ‘clearance’. The British controller sounds daisy fresh even if it is well past midnight. The stars are bright and a half moon has been with us for the last three hours occasionally dipping into the few scattered clouds and then peeping out shyly again. Dubai weather is fine just it is 360 days out of 365 days in a year. On this airways, the traffic picks up at night. A Russian Tu-154, out of Dubai, is heading towards Central Asia presumably filled up to the brim with electronic gadgets for which the newly liberated Soviet states have an insatiable appetite. A British Airways Jumbo has been around us for a while and is heading for Bangkok. An Emirates Airbus which just crossed us from below is flying to London. Our aircraft is light having burnt off most of its fuel and now responds to the controls rather swiftly. There is a tailwind of 50 knots. The final cup of hot tea has already been served as the throttles are move d back to ‘Idle’. The aircraft nose dips down, the vertical velocity needle moves down, the altimeter begins its anti-clockwise routine as the descent begins. Our last 100 miles, our ‘arrival phase’ to Dubai, has just begun.

We took off from Frankfurt only six hours back. We left this German city, the financial hub of Deutchland, cold and misty; humming with the customary German zeal and efficiency. The tongue-crunching German words like ausgang, infarct and Bundesbank still fluttered in the mind. Last images of Frankfurt were those Turkish spicy restaurants, the floating barges on the river Rhine, the silent chill of the forest on the sides of the autobahn to the airport and the solid stomping gait of the tall Frankfurters. The city does not have the multicultural mosaic so often visible in the east. It is mostly the shades of grey and an air of formality and businesslike atmosphere. The airport is busy with a constant stream of aircraft landing and taking off. As our aircraft begins to get pushed back from the bridge, we start to engines one by one. When straightened out and clear of the area, the tow-tractor stops, removes itself from the aircraft and the marshallar waves goodbye. The throttles are up, the engines wind up with an audible revving sound and aircraft begins to roll forward heading towards runway 18, the departure runway.

We take off and climb steeply to 5,000 feet following the local noise abatement procedures. And then the climb is resumed piecemeal – to 10,000, to 15,000, to 22,000 and so on as the space above us is cleared in the congested Frankfurt local area. Meanwhile, we change frequencies and transfer over to new ground controls, climbing to our final level of 30,000 feet. Many small European countries like Switzerland and Austria, lush green and scenic, flow back below us faster than we can change to their control frequencies. There are small lakes, neat roads, the Alps with snowy peaks and, all in all, place below us well gifted with nature’s beauty. Then we enter the Eastern Europe with river Danube following us on the far right. The first big country that comes is Turkey. There lay Istanbul on the shores of Marmara looking so inviting and then it is a long flight over the Anatolian plateau. Flying towards the East, the night comes faster. It is already late evening. We fly over the Turkish border into Iran near the huge Lake Van. The colder European air mass is now getting replaced by a warmer air as we fly towards the tropics. The warm air reduces our engine thrust a little. The throttles are pushed up a little to maintain the best cruising speed of Mach 0.8 or .8 the speed of sound. The moon is up as we begin to fly along the Zagros mountain ranges in Iran. Iran is a big country and each dimly-lit city like Shiraz, Zanjaan, Isfahan etc., come after long gaps. Dubai is just 100 miles and our descent has already begun.

‘Clear direct to Sharjah’, UAE radar almost shouts in that still of night. We readjust our navigation computer accordingly. The descent continues at 300 knots until 10,000 feet and then we reduce the speed to 250 knots. Sharjah is just 10 miles from Dubai. We set the navigation frequencies right. Get the latest weather. The moon now looks much brighter and the Gulf waters glimmer against that moonlight. The faint glow of the twin cities of Dubai and Sharjah, which were visible from over 50 miles, now get brighter. These cities sprouted out of sands just two decades back are brightly lit with the main roads equipped with strong yellow fog lights. From the air, this Dubai Sharjah complex looks exceedingly orderly, neat and well laid out. ‘Clear down to 1,500 and fly heading 140.’ ‘Clear to intercept the localizer’ is the next instruction from ground. This simply means that we are allowed to get down to 1,500 feet and when in line with the runway, we can turn towards the runway. From 250 knots, we drop the speed to 200 knots and from then onwards, it is a constant reducing of speed and changing our aircraft configuration with lowering of the flaps in stages and lowering of the wheels. As the flaps come out, the nose rises slightly with the increased lift and the increased drag that also comes along resulting in that gurgling sound. As speed lowers, we lower more flaps. All the arriving aircraft land on runways 12 Left. We also fall into the queue and are ‘No 3’ in the sequence. The ’KLM Jumbo’ is about to land while the ‘ Thai Cargo’ is on the ‘Final Approach’ and then it is our turn. At 10 miles, the ‘localizer’ needle moves to the left. We are in line with the runway. The autopilot dutifully turns the aircraft to 120 heading in line with the runway. We level off at 1,500 feet and maintain the level because we are still below the glide slope. Auto throttle inches up the throttles to maintain speed. Dubai harbor is in front with the ships lit brightly. The runways is right in front looking pretty with the bright flashers deliciously pointing towards the touch down point. Our speed is now 180 knots gradually reducing. At 5 miles to touchdown, we hit the glide slope and the aircraft’s nose drops down initiating the final approach. The throttles move back to get 140 knots, our final approach speed. The ‘Final Cockpits Checks’ are read out and the wheels are lowered. We get the ‘clearance’ to land and are all set for landing.

At Dubai, it is the final approach. The runway lighting is superb and it is long 12,000 feet runway which every pilot welcomes. We are going down nicely at the rate of 650 feet per minute, the speed is locked at 140 knots thanks to the technology and automation. There is just a slight 2-3 knots of headwind. The scattered lights in the gulf waters below us are the ships anchored at the outer anchorage. Dubai airport gets maximum flights at night and is busy. We fly low over the harbor and enter the UAE territory. We cross low over runway threshold, enter the runway and reach our flare out height of 30 feet. A little check at 30 feet and the aircraft rides in to the cushion of air pressure of the ground effect from below. The ‘throttles’ are slowly retarded back to the ‘Idle’ as the aircraft keeps gently descending down to just a few feet of the runway. We touch down between 1,000 – 1,500 feet down the runway. The nose is lowered as the reverse thrust noisily comes up decelerating the aircraft further. We are at Dubai.

It is a whole new world with Urdu speaking Arabs; and the Europeans and the Asians very well mixed up and integrated into a harmonious working environment. The road to our hotel, on the banks of Dubai creek, has sparse traffic. It is brightly lit up with neon signs. There are just few solitary jeeps of the police shurtaas. The hotel lobby is empty and the German receptionist tries to cheer us up with her small talk. The late-nighters, returning from the bar on the roof, called ‘Up on the Tenth’, roll out of the lifts straggling, talking noisily and horse playing. It is early morning hours. Tomorrow we shall wake up into a new world – far far different from Germany’s Frankfurt.

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