September 01, 2012
By David Esler firstname.lastname@example.org
“Oh, Lord, thy sky is so big and my airplane is so small.” — An aviator's prayer
And when your airplane is over the high seas far from a suitable alternate and something breaks — especially at night or in bad weather — the elements grow to seem immeasurably large and hostile.
But knowing exactly what to do in the oceanic airspace in which you're flying — to have trained for it as well as knowing the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) procedures by rote — will go a long way toward bringing things back into perspective and getting you and your passengers through. Implicit in this, especially in congested airspace like the North Atlantic, is executing the relevant contingency procedure while not endangering other aircraft with hundreds of souls aboard coursing alongside or below you.
That mandate comes with the territory, so to speak, and tends to represent more of a challenge to business and general aviation operators than to the airlines, which ply the oceanic routes and organized track systems on a routine basis and are backed up by significant company infrastructure. Except for the rare flight department that fields its aircraft internationally at least once a month, continuously reinforcing crew knowledge and proficiency in oceanic procedures, the majority of operators of long-range business jets may make an oceanic crossing only a few times a year.
Thus it is incumbent on these cockpit crews to not only be versed in procedural knowledge specific to the area of operation, communications, position reporting protocols and flight plotting, but also be committed to thorough preflight preparation for each mission abroad. When one also considers all the prerequisites ancillary to the flight — required documents, overflight and landing permits, customs and immigration requirements, destination aviation regulations, airport information, noise and curfew ordinances, handling agency coordination, aircraft parking and servicing, security, catering, hotel and ground transportation arrangements, etc. — it's a lot of work for a small operation. While the airlines and big business aviation operations have dedicated dispatching personnel to handle the workload, smaller departments do much of that heavy lifting on their own.
The importance of getting it right comes into focus when one considers that flight crews are responsible for their own surveillance in the non-radar environment that characterizes much of oceanic operations throughout the world. Because air traffic controllers cannot see aircraft when they're 200 sm from shore, a crew's navigation must be precise and the oceanic clearance, flight level and Mach number flown exactly as assigned to assure separation from other aircraft. And if an emergency occurs — say a worst-case scenario like a loss of cabin pressurization or the increasingly rare event of an engine failure — and the aircraft cannot maintain altitude, then the offset from assigned heading and subsequent descent must be flown exactly as stipulated in ICAO oceanic procedures (or the course of action specific to the relevant region or track system).
If cruising in an organized track system or on a diagonal published or random route above a track system, the importance of knowing the location of the tracks is critical in the event the aircraft must descend (or turn around and go back). This situational awareness and the necessity of informing oceanic ATC if a contingency must be executed are mandatory for maintaining safe operations.