Jumpseat: A Brazilian Turnaround
By Les Abend
Almost at the halfway point, air traffic control pitched a curveball. We were given holding instructions. My fingers danced across the FMC keypad as I entered the hold parameters. With the entries complete, I designated supervision of the airplane and the autopilot to my copilot. I had fuel numbers to crunch. My rough crunching indicated that we had only about 15 minutes to make circles before we would have to change course for our alternate, which just happened to be São Paulo.
As the digital display of fuel on the EICAS screen counted down to lower numbers, air traffic control indicated that three more turns would be necessary. Three more turns would bring us to the fuel limit that I had calculated. I directed my copilot to just say no. He cringed, knowing that communication of nonstandard requests that are off the script can sometimes be difficult in Brazil. A few moments of long silence permeated the frequency. And then we were directed to proceed back on the arrival to Rio. Cool. My strategy had worked.
As we continued the untypical theme of the trip, we were faced with a new challenge … well, maybe a new-old challenge. In the States, ATC uses specific clearance verbiage for an arrival that contains step-down crossing altitudes. The clearance language is something to the effect of "cleared to descend via the such and such arrival." In Brazil, that instruction is not always stated. Often, ATC will simply offer an instruction to descend to a specific altitude. The altitude may or may not correspond to the altitude printed on the chart.
As we navigated the STAR into Rio, we were given descent clearances to specific altitudes, which left us unclear as to the authorization for continuing lower. I stuck with the conservative tack and descended no lower than the last clearance. At the moment in time when a descent would be conducive to not being high for the initial approach, ATC took the opportunity to have a long conversation with another airplane. Of course, the conversation was in Portuguese. And the conversation seemed to be a chat rather than a function of controlling air traffic.
When a language foreign to a pilot's ear is utilized, situational awareness all but disappears except for activity in the cockpit. Many countries speak to their national airlines in the local tongue, but Brazil seems to do so more frequently. The ICAO standard is, of course, English.
Once the chat ended, we were given an approach clearance almost immediately. Better late than never. Considering the fact that the weather was 800/1 in light rain, I had thought it best to reduce our speed even before the rambling conversation began. It's a good strategy on the 777. The airplane is almost impossible to descend and slow simultaneously.
When we were changed to tower frequency, the controller issued a warning for birds at various altitudes on the final approach course. The bird warning is not unusual for Rio, nor is it unusual for any airport near open water. We all heed the advice, but other than awareness, not much is operationally changed.
Once we descended into visual conditions, I realized just how accurate the bird report really was. Black dots peppered the space between us and the runway. Great. Why would an animal 1/100th the size of a jumbo jet consider competing in the same airspace? Suicide perhaps …?
In any case, I did my best to roll and duck with gentle movements. Luck or skill prevailed. No evidence of my winged friends was found on the aluminum later. We landed without incident.
Prior to the landing, my copilot had briefed the typical taxi route, but on par with the trip, it was not meant to be. The normal entrance to the ramp was blocked ‐ not stated, of course, anywhere within the appropriate notam messages. It didn't matter. We found the gate despite the obstacles.
The time between the scheduled arrival and the scheduled departure from Rio is just over six hours. Normally we walk through the concourse to the layover hotel located just inside the terminal, but our tardy day had condensed the time. The consensus from the crew was a desire to remain on the airplane. The agents were initially resistant because of local security procedures, but they relented when I agreed that we would vacate the airplane in order for the ground crew to complete its cleaning.
The plan worked right up until the time that the agents left the scene. They apparently forgot about us and locked the door to the jet bridge. Attempting to negotiate with other airport personnel in allowing my crew access to the airplane that we had just parked became an effort in futility. A young agent that was boarding an Air France flight at another gate considered our request to utilize his jet bridge to gain access to the ramp tantamount to an act of terrorism.
The copilot and I prevailed however. We found an unlocked jet bridge at an adjacent gate and descended the stairs to the ramp. Once on our airplane, we had to beg private security personnel to allow the flight attendants entrance from the other side of the door at our gate.
When the trip ended that evening with a frosty beverage in my mitt, I smiled. Not everybody is given the opportunity to fly a 650,000-pound jet around Brazil. Easy turnaround? Sure … but it might just be a little less stressful with another couple of 777 hours in my logbook.