LX 40 – From Zurich to Los Angeles aboard the SWISS Boeing 777-300ER! // If you think of the term dream job, you immediately think of numerous buzz words, right? Fireman. Police. Vet. Or PILOT! Sales Wick is one of the few people that can honestly say that he fulfilled his childhood dream. He earns a living as SWISS Senior First Officer on the Boeing 777-300ER, the largest twin-engined jet of our time, and flies thousands of passengers to far away countries and continents and back home every month.
I met Sales in Zurich a while ago. Since we share a passion for aviation (just like me, Sales also runs an aviation blog and also shares his photos on Instagram @sky_trotter), he recently suggested that I accompany him for a weekend while he works. This is how my childhood dream came true. I was able to look over his shoulder in the cockpit for a whole weekend, on board off SWISS flight LX 40.
On the jump seat of the mighty Triple Seven, we were ready to fly all the way Westwards for some 11.5 hours, until we reach the city of angels right beneath the Californian coast. After approximately 50 hours under the Californian sun, we will head back to the Swiss metropolis. Those three days were jam packed with unique impressions that brought me a step closer to seeing what it’s like to be a pilot as well as the unique operation on a long-haul flight across the Atlantic. Breathtaking landscapes, the skyline of down town Los Angeles, Long Beach at night and even a flight into the desert! I am dedicating the first part of this series to our outbound flight – LX 40. Get ready! Fasten your seat belt, we will shortly be “cleared for take-off”!
Hour Zero – Start the day with…Birchermüesli!
A very basic principle of life also holds true to pilots: Start your day right! So, before we start our long journey, we strengthen ourselves with a good amount of sleep, a large Swiss breakfast and a huge cup of that certain essential fuel that reliably drives most pilots forward: Coffee.
Before we leave the airport, Sales puts on his uniform, and we pack the last of our belongings. Cameras? Checked! Batteries? Equipped and charged! SD-Cards? Empty and stored! Let’s go, shall we?
1:25H before take off – time for the briefing!
Sales lives close to the airport, so he enjoys a rather short commute. One hour and 15 minutes before take-off, the briefing takes place at the SWISS Operation Center. This is where Sales meets the rest of the cockpit crew. Due to the size of the airline, it is not often the case that the same crew
flies together. This is deliberate because this avoids running the risk of pilots “blindly” relying on one another during their routine.
The captain of today’s flight LX 40 is Patrick Widmer. The crew is supported by Thierry Schwank, who’s also a Senior First Officer, just like Sales. Thierry and Sales already know each from their their type rating for the Boeing 777. But: why’s there a need for three pilots, if modern aeroplanes can easily be operated by two? At SWISS, it is common that three pilots are taken on very long flights. This ensures that each crew member can get enough rest in order to be able to fully concentrate on the critical phases of the flight, i.e. take-off and landing. No time to relax now, however. There’s a flight ready to be planned. 😉
First, we obtain our planned route for LX 40 from the flight dispatch centre. Due to the wind blowing in high altitudes, our route is taking us far up north. From Switzerland, across Germany and Denmark, Southwards past Norway, and right across the heart of Greenland. We go up, all the way to 73° North! Once we pass Greenland, we continue to fly over water until we eventually pass Canada to reach the American mainland. After that, we continue our journey to the South-West. We will reach the United States while crossing Idaho and the Rocky Mountains, as well as the Yosemite National Park in California. As we fly along the Pacific coast, we subsequently reach the greater area of Los Angeles via Santa Monica.
We have all the documents set up – now we can head to the actual briefing. At the briefing, the cockpit crew first discusses the whole flight. What does today’s route look like and what are the weather conditions along the way? What are the winds like? And what do the “Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs)” look like today? NOTAMs are short and important information for crews that is crucial for the flight as supplementary information. Is a runway or a taxiway at the destination temporarily closed? Are some navigation aids inoperable?
All these factors play a vital role and it also helps with the decision on how much fuel is “taken along”. An important part of the briefing is to also gather information about the situation on all alternative airports for all stages of the route with the help of the aforementioned NOTAMs. A diversion to an airport other than the destination airport can be caused by many things, for example a medical emergency, a technical fault or simply (too) bad weather at the destination. Preparation is the most important thing in aviation.
The cockpit crew now heads to speak to the cabin crew in order to discuss the flight of the day with them. Since I am a normal passenger, I am going through security and passport control. While both of the first officers prepare the cockpit and start up the aircraft, Patrick is on his way to the airport’s ramp. Another place where plenty of things take place prior to the boarding of passengers.
While our Boeing 777-300ER is filled with cargo, equipped with catering and equipment and the passenger’s luggage is loaded, the so-called pre-flight check is carried out by a specifically trained and qualified mechanic. In doing so, he walks around the aircraft and examines critical points of the aircraft to test its airworthiness. After that, the captain visually inspects the triple seven during his round and approves the aircraft. Everything is perfect today for our upcoming flight LX 40.
LX 40 – Start-up – Into the Flight Deck
73.9m long and a wing span of 64.8m. A maximum take-off weight of more than 351 tonnes with a range of 13,649km. Space for 340 passengers. This is the Boeing 777-300ER, the SWISS flagship. Now it is time for me to enter the aircraft.
After a short introduction to the members of the cabin crew under the management of the Maître de Cabine, I sit on the jump seat, i.e. observer’s seat in the striking Boeing-brown cockpit of the Triple Seven. An incredible feeling.
Once more, in his role as the Mission Commander, Patrick discusses the pending take-off procedure with the crew. Thierry will be Pilot Flying for take-off, Sales will take over the landing in Los Angeles 11 hours and 25 minutes later. As Pilot Monitoring, captain Patrick will support the flying pilots during this leg of the journey and take-over radio communication. The roles will be reversed on the inbound flight, hence the captain will be at the controls during take-off and landing while his first officers support him as Pilot Monitoring.
It is common for the Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring roles to be taken in turns. Now it is time to obtain route clearance from Zurich delivery, the planning unit of air traffic control. As soon as the board computer has been fed all the information and the cockpit is prepared, we are “ready for push-back”. Now it is getting serious.
While the pushback truck pushes us back, Patrick fires up the two powerful GE90 engines, Thierry sets the flaps, i.e. to 15, while the caption tests the function of all control surfaces. A few minutes later we are given the clearance to taxi, i.e. rolling to our departure runway, in this case runway 16, in the south-east direction.
We queue up behind a few other machines waiting to take off before us. Then we get a message from the tower: “SWISS 40 heavy, line-up and wait runway 16”. Captain Patrick carefully moves the approximately 345 tonne heavy triple seven onto the runway.
“SWISS 40 Heavy, cleared for take-off runway 16!”
This is followed by a magical quietness where we eagerly wait for the words of the air traffic controllers. “SWISS 40 Heavy, cleared for take-off runway 16”. Patrick pushes the thrust levers forward and the two GE90 engines begin to roar and provide the necessary power with a sonorous humming sound in order to accelerate our Boeing 777-300ER to the previously calculated safe climb speed of 178 knots. “80 Knots! V1, Rotate, V2” – Approximately 45 seconds later, 345 tonnes move seemingly effortlessly into the Zurich afternoon sky. Directly after take-off, Thierry takes a left turn to the east. This maneuver reduces noise for the residents of the airport.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean
Pilots manually fly the aircraft for just seven to eight minutes per flight. However, once autopilot takes over the flight, the crew still has to work. A lot! Lean back and look out of the window for eleven hours? Wrong. Even mechanical aids such as the autopilot need to be monitored continuously. Rather than flying, the pilots now “manage” the aircraft.
For example, a fuel check is carried out every hour, where the actual fuel burn is compared to the planned “target values” upon the reaching of specific waypoints. Just like humans, the instruments and board computers can also make mistakes. Therefore, the crew continuously analyses all values and critically examines them.
We are climbing to our initial cruising altitude of 32,000 feet. Sales will take the first break today. After approximately the first half of the route, captain Patrick prepares himself for the first break. As the Senior First Officer, Sales will covers for him during the next three and a half hours as commander of the aircraft and will “take over” the left seat. Special additional training authorises experienced first officers to take on that role.
Obviously, we are not the only guys intending on flying across the North Atlantic Today. No other airspace in the world is so densely crowded. At the same time, radar coverage is weaker over the ocean. This makes an accurate staggering of traffic absolutely essential. Therefore, long before entering this airspace, we receive our “North Atlantic Clearance”.
Today we are following a “random route”. Other flights are assigned a specific North Atlantic Track. These tracks are reissued every day and adapted to the current weather conditions. Within these tracks, it is necessary to only operate in a specific heading and altitude. Start and end points of these tracks are usually waypoints in Western Europe and North America. Approximately 90 minutes before approaching the North Atlantic airspace, we obtain the necessary Oceanic Clearance from the responsible ground station, Shanwick Oceanic.
Each time we pass a new coordinate on our track, the aircraft uses CPDLC to automatically report to Shanwick Oceanic and provides information on the time of the flyover, our altitude, air speed in mach and the estimated time of arrival at the next coordinate.
While the first four hours of today’s flight LX 40 were accompanied by thick clouds, the grey/white shroud finally lifts above Greenland and we were offered a breathtaking view on the never-ending ice of the glacier.
LX 40 – Approaching SoCal
Shortly before reaching Canada, I leave the cockpit to catch some sleep. I wake up just in time for the flyover into the US-American airspace. Unfortunately, the Yosemite National Park was covered in thick clouds. We have now completed most of our route.
In around 40 minutes, Sales will land the almost 74 meter long Boeing Triple Seven in Los Angeles and LX 40 will touch down on American soil. However, prior to approaching the Californian metropolis, the Senior First Officer addresses the passengers once more to tell them something about the current flight and the weather conditions at the destination.
Air traffic control, SoCal Approach, directs us to the so-called IRNMN TWO standard terminal arrival route. This “Iron Man” first takes us straight-on, until we reach the Pacific coast. At 9000 feet, i.e. a height of three kilometres, we fly over Santa Monica and turn to a 071 degrees heading that takes us parallel past LAX airport.
This provides us with a spectacular view of the Hollywood sign and down town Los Angeles, and we then turn into our final approach on runway 24R. Although this view is so beautiful: landing is a critical phase of each flight which involves a particularly high workload for the entire crew. Particularly when attempting to land in Los Angeles with a densely populated airspace. I’ve got the best place on my jump seat – I have time to wholeheartedly enjoy the spectacular panorama during the last moments of flight LX 40.
The crew intercepted the instrument landing system, which is used to determine the perfect glideslope down to the runway. Sales switches off auto-pilot and takes over the control of the aircraft. During the final approach, a distinctive computer voice counts down the distance to the ground in feet. Shortly after “Twenty-Five-Hundred” Sales instructs Patrick with “Gear Down” to extend the landing gear and then completely extend the flaps in order to guarantee sufficient lift despite the drop in speed.
«Three hundred,… two hundred MINIMUMs». Minimums refers to the so-called decision height. If the runway would not be visible at this point, we would have to perform a go-around. However, we have perfect visibility, thanks to the Californian sun. “Continue” Sales replies while his eyes constantly move from this instruments to the outside to examine the runway in order to reach the perfect touchdown of 300m after the runway threshold. This enables Sales to perform a gentle landing. After 11 hours and 26 minutes, we reach American soil and Los Angeles welcomes us with fantastic weather. Now we’re off to the crew hotel – time for a good meal in Long Beach and an exciting layover in the Golden State. LX 40 out.
After LX 40 it is time for a proper lay over, and the flight back, of course. Click here to read the second part of our journey!
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- One Day in the life of a Lufthansa Boeing 747 pilot
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Have a great day,