Flying in the coronavirus sky—a freight pilot’s perspective

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Nothing but silence.

I watch the N1 fluctuate between 89.1 and 89.2. The fuel flow indicates 5700 lbs an hour per engine. All is well. All within the airplane seems normal. And yet, the silence is unnerving—almost unbelievable—as we approach a longitude of 30 West.

I am flying across the North Atlantic in a Boeing 767-300 aircraft today. I’m a 767 captain with an international freight company and have flown to six of the seven continents, experienced the cold Siberian winters and the heat and humidity of the Congo from the flight deck of the Boeing 747 and 767. Yet today is a completely new experience.

The desert down there is awfully quiet—but so are the skies right now.

Today, there is no global terrorist threat or war keeping airplanes out of the sky. The threat is a microscopic organism, silent but still deadly as it spreads around the world. On the ground, people’s lives have been disrupted, in ways small and large. But from 33,000 feet, the silence gives the feeling of a much more dramatic shift: like a Twilight Zone episode, in which everyone below me has disappeared.

Normally even with the use of CPDLC (Controller Pilot Data Link Communication, a two-way text based digital communication system between pilots and controllers) and ACARS it can be a struggle to check in on HF when making the transition from Gander, in Canada, to Shanwick, in Ireland. This is normally the busiest oceanic airspace in the world, with about 1,500 flights a day. But today, I hear nothing but an eerie silence.

At the same time, there are other, more tangible, signs that the world below me has changed.

The North Atlantic Tracks, usually referred to as NAT Tracks, are a series of routes that change daily for the vast amount of traffic typically crossing the Atlantic. But today, and every day now that I fly, the routes are changing in different ways.

On this trip, for example, we are flying to Germany, where I will spend the next week flying between Europe and the Mideast. We have 30 hours of rest in Germany before heading to Dubai’s Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC), in the UAE.

We take off and, after flying across Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, we head toward Egyptian airspace, en route to Dubai. A lot of countries require you to make contact before entering their airspace, and Egypt happens to be one of them. Normally, those calls aren’t any big thing. But in this eerie, locked-down world, nothing is routine.

Before crossing into Egypt, you really want to make contact with ATC.

As we get close, the first officer is monitoring com one while I start trying to call Cairo Control. Despite the lack of traffic on the frequency, and repeated calls, I can’t seem to get a response from Cairo. Finally, just as we enter Egyptian airspace, I make contact. It’s a sign of what’s to come.

We make our way through Egyptian airspace and head toward Saudi Arabian airspace and Jeddah control. ATC hands us off from Jeddah center to Bahrain center only about 40 minutes out from DWC, and when I check in with Bahrain, the controller requests our CON number.

We are a augmented crew of one captain and three first officers, and none of us have ever heard of a CON number. We are now fast approaching DWC—an incredibly high workload period of the flight—and we are searching madly to find this number in the 100 pages of paperwork that makes up our flight plan. Bahrain tells us this is something new the UAE has just started requesting. I use the satcom to call dispatch. Even they are unsure what the CON number is, but after a brief conference call, a number is provided to us. We still have no idea what a CON number is, but evidently the number we give them works, because we are cleared into UAE airspace.

As we approach DWC on short final, I look down and see rows upon rows of idle, parked heavy jets lining the taxiways and ramps. The majority of Emirates A380s and 777s are nose to tail, covering most of the concrete at the airport. We are the only aircraft on final and as we land on runway 30 the tower instructs us to exit at V6, the last high speed taxiway. Tower switches us over to ground and, once again, there is nothing but silence. DWC is one of the busiest airports in the Mideast, and it’s the middle of the afternoon, and we are the only aircraft moving at the airport. Just like the silence in the air, the utter stillness on the ground has the eerie feel of something out of the Twilight Zone.

Life soon appears, however. A requirement for entry to the UAE is a health check. This is a new requirement that a lot of countries have started since the pandemic has begun. The vans soon show up to transport us to the health center for our mandatory health check. This involves completing several pages of paperwork, and then a temperature check and a nasal Covid-19 test. Next we are taken to a security screening and immigration. The time, from opening the aircraft door to our arrival at the hotel door, is four hours.

All those airplanes aren’t waiting to take off, they’re parked.

The next morning, we taxi out between the rows of parked aircraft amid the same surreal silence and stillness, as if we are the only active aircraft and crew left in the world. Our next destination is Kuwait International Airport (KWI), and after the challenges of yesterday, we are hoping for a relatively smooth day of flying today. But in this new normal, nothing is going smoothly.

As we enter Kuwait airspace and begin the STAR (Standard Terminal Arrival Route) for KWI, Kuwait ATC asks for our destination. We confirm our destination as KWI. Kuwait Control informs us that KWI is closed to incoming flights, takes us off the arrival, and gives us vectors away from the city. It’s only a two hour flight from Dubai, and we’ve been following our filed flight plan—which includes landing permits for KWI. We relay the landing permits again to the Kuwait controllers, who tell us to stand by. After couple more vectors and a descent to 12,000 feet, I call ATC again, and I’m told again to stand by.

In the 767, when the calculated fuel burn to the destination and alternate drops below our reserve fuel level, we get an “Insufficient Fuel” message on the FMS. It’s one of those messages you never like to see. As the Insufficient Fuel message appears on the FMS, I query KWI ATC once again. And once again, the only answer is, “Stand by.” Most captains tend to add a bit more fuel to the minimum reserve fuel level for a bit of comfort, but I’m fast approaching the edge of my comfort zone. Once again, we pass our landing permit numbers to ATC, and I tell them that if we don’t get vectors towards the airport, I will be declaring a fuel emergency and will be coming in to land. Once again, their only response is, “Stand by.”

In some parts of the world, approaching fuel minimums for one airport wouldn’t make me overly concerned, because there would be countless other airports we would have access to. In the Mideast, however, that’s not the case. I’m pretty sure Iran would not be happy with us dropping in for a bit of fuel unannounced. Fortunately, I don’t have to find out. ATC finally gives us vectors and we are cleared to land. While the Kuwait airport does not have as many jets parked around the airport as Dubai—perhaps because Dubai is such an international hub—there’s still a significant number of empty, idle airplanes lining the taxiways and ramps.

After a relatively quick turn, we head back to Germany. The only other aircraft I hear on frequency during the seven-hour return flight is one lonely FedEx freighter.

In all my years of flying I’ve never experienced anything like this. Even after 9/11, the airlines returned to the sky more quickly, and in larger numbers. Before the pandemic, it was easy to complain about crowded frequencies and long wait times before takeoff. But to experience a complete absence of traffic, silent frequencies, unnerved controllers and health inspectors, and major international hubs looking more like the aircraft boneyards at Davis-Monthan AFB, is a sobering and surreal experience that puts all those old irritations in a whole new perspective.

Flying across Europe last week, I noticed more traffic in the skies. I hope that continues, and things are able to return to normal soon. Believe it or not, I actually miss trying to break in on HF to give a position report.

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