Flying the length of Africa: London to Johannesburg from the pilot’s perspective

Apr 18, 2020

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The flight from London to Johannesburg races through the African night sky covering nearly 6,000 miles, crossing 14 countries and taking nearly 11 hours. It gives passengers a great opportunity to sleep, waking up the following morning with just a one-hour time zone change, negligible jetlag and ready to attack the day ahead.

However, for the pilots keeping you safe whilst you sleep, it’s quite different. Flying through Africa is very different from crossing the Atlantic or traversing Europe. With limited ATC coverage, few diversion options and some of the most volatile weather in the world, it’s a long but rewarding night out of bed.

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Flight preparation begins the day before

The preparation for an overnight flight begins the day before. The key to long-haul flying is being alert when you need to be awake and being tired when you need to sleep. This may sound obvious but it takes practice to get the hang of it, something many pilots never manage to master.

Due to the length of the flight, there are three pilots — one captain and two first officers. One of the first officers will operate the outbound flight and the other will act as the “relief” pilot. They will then swap for the flight home.

If I’m operating the flight out, the night before I will aim to go to bed a little later than normal, maybe around midnight. I’ll then wake up earlier, around 6 a.m. I’ll make sure that I have a busy morning… take the dog for a walk, run some errands, go to the gym, have some lunch and then pack my case.

(Photo courtesy of Tetra Images/Unsplash)
Sleep management before the flight is key. (Photo courtesy of Tetra Images/Unsplash)

By 2 p.m. I’ll have been on the go for eight hours on just six hours sleep and I’ll have achieved what I suggested above — being tired when I need to sleep. That said, even when tired, sleeping during the day isn’t always easy. Depending on where you live there could be a busy street outside your window or a school playground next door.

To improve your sleep quality you’ll need a good pair of earplugs (no need to buy fancy ones, the yellow 3M ones are the best in my opinion) and a dark room. If your curtains don’t close properly, use a clothes peg, bulldog clip or the clip on a clothes hanger to keep them shut.

After a few hours of sleep, I’m refreshed and ready to head into work for a 12.5 hour night shift.

Departure: 90 minutes — report for duty

We report for duty 90 minutes before the scheduled departure time. This gives us enough time to print the paperwork, conduct a briefing and have a chat with the cabin crew before heading out to the aircraft.

Between the three of us, we will discuss the route, the altitudes we expect to fly at and the fuel required. We’ll also study the weather not only for Joburg but also for airports along the way should we need to divert for a technical or passenger problem.

Read more: How a small Canadian town is integral to your transatlantic flight

Captains Release of Flight Plan
The pre-flight briefing is an important part of the flight planning process. (Photo by David Brown/Getty Images)

You may be aware that flying across the Atlantic in a twin-engine aircraft like the 787 is an ETOPS (Extended-range twin-engine operation) route, but some routes over land are also ETOPS routes. Flying through Africa to Joburg is one of them.

An ETOPS route isn’t just a route over water, it’s a route where at any point during the flight you will be more than one hour flying time from a suitable diversion airfield. As there are very few well-equipped airports in Central Africa, this route becomes an ETOPS route. As part of the brief, we must confirm that the weather at our ETOPS alternates is valid.

With the brief complete, it’s time to head to the aircraft.

Departure: 60 minutes — arrive at aircraft

Once onboard the aircraft, the two operating pilots set up the flight computers and check that all the switches and buttons are in the correct positions. Whilst they’re doing this, the relief pilot heads outside to perform the pre-flight walk-round check.

As we approach the departure time, we conduct a safety briefing before we push back and taxi out to the runway just before 7 p.m. Around 20 minutes later we are retracting the landing gear and our 10-hour and 30-minute hour flight to the southern hemisphere has begun.

Sleeping arrangements

With the aircraft away from the busy airspace of Heathrow and climbing safely towards the cruising altitude over France, it’s time for the relief pilot to slip away to bed.

On the 787 Dreamliner, the rest area for the pilots is hidden away above first class, accessed by a hidden door. Once upstairs, there is a seat for watching the inflight entertainment and two beds. I use the word bed lightly because it is effectively just a thin mattress on the floor. Depending on the airline, these are furnished with anything from a thin blanket and pillow to bedding from the first class cabin.

The OFCR on the 787. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

There is a control panel to control the temperature of the OFCR and a curtain to close off the foot end of each bed. The major benefit of the rest area is that once the lights are off, it really is quite dark and surprisingly quiet.

That said, there is no bed like your own, and there are very few beds that will throw you around because of turbulence as you try to sleep. If you’ve managed your sleep well before the flight, hopefully, you’ll drop off to sleep pretty quickly. If you weren’t able to manage your sleep, it’s going to be a long flight.

African comms

One of the main aspects of flying over Africa is the lack of radar coverage and reliable communications in certain areas. As we head south over Algeria and down towards Niger, the communications become less reliable. Fortunately, we have a number of tools available to us to maintain flight safety.

CPDLC

Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) is a modern system that uses radio and satellite signals to create a form of text messaging between pilots and controllers on the ground. CPDLC is great when it works, but it is only available when flying over countries that have it fitted on the ground. Traditional radio frequencies are also limited by distance and the quality of the signal. As a result, there may be times when we’re not in contact with anyone on the ground either via CPDLC or radio.

Read more: The pilot’s view on the London Heathrow final approach

The CPDLC control panel on the 787 Dreamliner. (Image by Charlie Page/The Points Guy)
The CPDLC control panel on the 787 Dreamliner. (Image by Charlie Page/The Points Guy)

Inflight broadcast

To add an extra layer of safety to the flight, all aircraft flying between Algeria and Zambia must adhere to the IATA inflight broadcast procedure. This entails us tuning one of our three radios to a certain frequency and keeping a listening watch. At certain points along the route, roughly at 20-minute intervals, pilots must broadcast information about their flight to inform other pilots of their whereabouts and intentions.

This broadcast must include:

  • The call sign
  • The area aircraft is flying over
  • The flight level
  • The direction of flight
  • The airway
  • The estimate for the next waypoint

Each time another aircraft broadcasts their position, we write it down to determine if their route conflicts with ours. If any potential conflict exists, it must be sorted with the air traffic control unit on the ground. If it is not possible to contact them, we must come to a solution directly with the other crew. As dramatic as this sounds, it rarely happens.

Avoiding weather

One of the most interesting aspects to flying across Africa is how changeable the terrain and thus the weather is. As we leave the vast Sahara Desert expanses of Algeria and Niger behind, the route takes us towards Central Africa and it’s volatile weather.

Sitting roughly around the equator is the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone — the ITCZ. When hot, dry stable air collides with hot, moist unstable air, the only place for it to go is up. In June, July and August when the sun is over the Tropic of Cancer, massive thunderstorms form, sometimes rising up to 50,000 feet — much higher than any commercial aircraft can fly.

Bands of huge thunderstorms can form across the ITCZ (Image by Charlie Page/The Points Guy)
Bands of huge thunderstorms can form across the ITCZ. (Image by Charlie Page/The Points Guy)

To keep the flight smooth, we use the aircraft’s radar display to identify thunderstorms in the distance and plot a safe route around them.

When the thunderstorms form on their own, they are easy to identify and fly around. On a clear night, we can often do this by looking out of the window. However, more often than not in the ITCZ, storms join up to form a line. To avoid these we sometimes have to fly hundreds of miles off course.

Diversion airfields

At all times of a flight, a good crew will always be thinking, “What if?” What if an engine was to fail right now? What if we develop a fuel leak? What if a passenger gets ill? We will always have a plan of action up our sleeve.

Part of this plan of action is always knowing where the most suitable diversion airport is. I use the phrase most suitable, as the closest airport may not necessarily be the best option. One of the biggest challenges when flying through Africa is the availability of suitable diversion airfields.

Whilst there are plenty of runways long enough, the facilities on the ground may not be sufficient. There’s no point in diverting to offload a sick passenger if the airport doesn’t have steps tall enough to reach the aircraft door.

The route from London to Johannesburg with ETOPS alternates and diversion options (Image Charlie Page/The Points Guy)
The route from London to Johannesburg with ETOPS alternates and diversion options. (Image Charlie Page/The Points Guy)

As a result, we have to think carefully about where we would go in the event of an emergency.

The weather can also play a part in what is available to us. With frequent heavy thunderstorms, an airport which may normally be ideal could very quickly become unusable.

The map above shows what would be an ideal set of diversion airports along the way. The green airports are the nominated ETOPS alternates of Ghardaia (Algeria) and Douala, (Cameroon). The blue airports in order are Barcelona (Spain), Tamanrasset (Algeria), Abuja (Nigeria), Luanda (Angola) and Lusaka (Zambia).

Johannesburg approach and landing

With just an hour to go till landing, all three of us will be back in the flight deck in preparation for landing. It’s now around 5:30 a.m. in the UK and 6:30 a.m. in Johannesburg. The sun is already above the horizon out to our left and it’s time for us to brief for the approach.

Joburg provides a number of elements that require a bit of extra thought, the main factor being the elevation and temperature. The airport sits at 5,600 feet on the Highveld, the broad grassy plateau which covers the South African interior and in the summer temperatures can reach 25 degrees Celsius.

The combination of the high elevation and temperature increases what’s known as the density altitude of the airport. As air density affects how well an aircraft performs, on a 32 degree Celsius day in Joburg it’s the equivalent to flying at 9,000 feet.

Read more: 8 of the most challenging airport approaches for pilots

(Photo by 
Arkadiusz Warguła/Getty Images)
(Photo by Arkadiusz Warguła/Getty Images)

When landing at any airport with a high-density altitude, the air is much thinner so we have to fly faster over the ground to generate the same lift. This means that when we make the approach, we are carrying a lot more energy than normal and effective energy management is key to a safe approach.

Not only are we carrying more energy, but the thinner air also means that it takes longer to slow down and lose this energy. A double-edged sword. To counter this, we have to slow up much sooner, normally allowing 50% more time, than we would for an approach into a sea-level airport.

On touch down, the increased energy also means that the brakes will work harder. Fortunately, the runway at Joburg is nearly 4,500 metres long, so we are able to use lighter braking and utilise the extra runway length.

As the clock ticks round to 7:30 a.m. Joburg time, we pull onto our parking stand 30 minutes ahead of schedule. With 200 passengers safely delivered to their destination, it’s time for us to head to the city centre hotel and get some sleep.

Bottom line

Flying the length of Africa is a rewarding experience for pilots. With a variety of weather, ATC cover and limited diversion options, we’re working hard every minute we’re at the controls.

It’s a long night out of bed but the challenge of the flight and the lure of some of the best red wine and steak in the world are always cause for excitement when “JNB” appears on your roster.

Featured photo by THEGIFT777/Getty Images

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