November 7, 2011
My last trip in October included a lot of firsts for me. The trip began in New York and stopped in Amsterdam, Mumbai, Amsterdam again, then back to New York. We had approximately 24 hours at each destination. I’ve been to Amsterdam several times, and it’s a nice trip. The departure from New York is in the afternoon, and arrival is just after midnight eastern time (a little after 6 a.m. and still dark in Amsterdam). As international flights go, it’s not too hard on the sleep schedule.
We departed Amsterdam at 10 a.m. for Mumbai. This was my first flight as an airline pilot completely outside the U.S. (I had done some flying in Japan in light aircraft many years ago). As the relief pilot for this leg, I went on break about 30 minutes after takeoff. When I returned to the cockpit a little over two hours later, we were over northern Turkey, just south of the Caspian Sea. Another first. Up to this time, I had never flown farther east than Istanbul. I took over the flying duties as the guy flying this leg went on his break. The next couple of hours were very busy in the cockpit due to the terrain we were overflying. When we’re over a wide area of high elevation, we always have to plan an escape route in case of a sudden loss of pressurization.
The oxygen masks that drop from the overhead panel will only last about 15 minutes, so we would have to descend quickly to where the air is breathable — about 10,000 feet. But for long periods on this flight we were over areas with a minimum safe altitude much higher than this. In one case, I saw a Grid MORA of 21,000 feet. (Grid MORA is the Minimum Off Route Altitude within each grid on the map). This was another first for me: highest terrain I’ve flown over.
Each flight segment had an associated diversion plan, which the company very thoughtfully included in our Airway Manual. All we had to do is load the appropriate emergency route for each segment as we proceeded eastbound, then make sure we were both aware of the planned escape route.
To top it all off, we landed in Mumbai at about 10 p.m. local time on the first day of Diwali, or Festival of Lights, one of the most important festivals of the year for Hindus. Every populated area we saw in India had continuous fireworks going off. It was mesmerizing; I’ve never seen such a display of non-stop, widespread fireworks. On final approach, we could see them going off between us and the airport. I’m not sure anyone was actually trying to hit us, but one rocket burst above and to the left of us. The celebration was still going strong an hour later when we arrived at our layover hotel.
One final first for me in Mumbai: the time zone was a half hour off, i.e. it was Zulu+5.5 hours (EDT+9.5).