Our flight into CAN was one of those nights. Our course up from SYD crosses some very interesting terrain: slantwise up over East and central Australia, South of Papua New Guinea, over Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines to the East and Vietnam to the West, then, as we descend, over Hong Kong (with Taiwan to the North) and across the border into China--its vastness extending off to the West. The flight covers a big chunk of the world, almost 10 hours' worth. The controllers over Australia are competent and easily-understood, but as we leave them we leave natively-spoken English. As we depart Aussie airspace we are logged into CPDLC, which is a system that allows ATC by a kind of text messaging. This minimizes communication issues and lets us trade stock, ICAO phrases for the business of ATC--climbs and descents, changes in speed, weather deviations, etc.. And it keeps us from having to maintain a constant listening watch on the crackling HF radios. We also have SELCAL, which is a kind of airborne telephone system. This gives the controllers another means to contact us directly if they need anything; they dial the aircraft's specific phone number into the SELCAL system and a chime is received in the cockpit. Very slick. (The old DC-8s used to ply these airways, but there was little of the whiz-bang stuff on that airplane. They had the SELCAL, but no CPDLC or ADS, and these 10 hour crossings required someone to man the HF radios all the time. Ugh.) But Manila radio does not have CPDLC, and at that point we're back to struggling to understand. Some controllers are much easier to understand than others, and the individual radios are highly variable in the clarity of the transmissions. It really is a whole different world from domestic ATC communication.
I've only been here twice, but it seems that China is always murky. The guys I'm flying with confirm that visibility is always down, a function of the humidity coupled with the rampant air pollution. Whatever the cause, as we approach China the visibility goes steadily down to a kind of three-mile pea soup and stays down until touchdown (and throughout most of our layover). The airport is advertising ILS and visual approaches, and we do in fact pick up the visual, but they start us on the ILS just in case. (This is just as well, since, we are told, the Chinese military owns all the country's airspace except the designated corridors; so it's best to know where you are at all times). We're moving over the ground substantially faster than an Indy Car, yet there's little noise or sense of movement and no visual sense of what is upcoming. There seems to be little contemporary development out near the airport, so we fly suspended in the gray, with a brief flash of night-colored ground barely visible below us now and then, like the ocean floor beneath a submarine. In fact, this analogy seems apt on this night; a submarine has no windows to look out, and our windows here are availing us about as much. We fly blind, rushing headlong at 240 knots into a uniform dull gray nothingness; that occasional dim glimpse of the ground rushing past four or five thousand feet below is the only discernible feature out the window until, a couple miles out, the airport begins to take shape out of the fog.
The captain has the controls, I'm on radio duty. The ATIS broadcast at the Chinese airports is surreal, with the information given first in Chinese and then in English. The two versions of the same information could not be more different, with the Chinese--spoken slowly and deliberately--sounding so foreign that it's shocking to think this is the native tongue of billions. It sounds in turns like one of Ben Burt's synthesized pesudo-languages and like a toddler imitating a cat. I vow next time I'm in the airplane to make an iPhone recording of the sound. But now I must get the info and write it down while also handling the calls from ATC. The task of understanding the controllers is tough enough that we're all three listening in and we make a kind of democratic vote on what instruction has been given us, and then I read that interpretation back to the controller as clearly as possible. If we all three manage to hear the wrong thing (which is surprisingly easy when the names of numerous fixes and procedures seem almost identical to us) the controller will correct us. Meanwhile, the airplane plunges ahead into the dark gray, with the blue TV glow from our radar and ground-mapping and TCAS telling us what is out in front of us. The captain monitors his distance to touchdown and manipulates the aircraft configuration to reach the several points on the approach at the desired speed. We translate our everyday procedures to the unfamiliar setting; this is what airline safety relies on. Speed brakes out in the descent, slats extend, then brakes back in, flaps to 15 and 28, gear down, autobrakes min, flaps 35, landing checklist. Then the standard callouts from me: a thousand feet, instruments cross-checked, no flags; five hundred feet, on speed, sink 800. Touchdown, 80 knots, 60 knots, contact ground. Look for the "follow me" car in the murky night.
Then begins the well-choreographed customs dance. A uniformed policeman meets the airplane and simply stands watch. I see him speak to no one, and he is not in charge of the customs agent or the health inspector, who come and do their thing. The health person, wearing the ubiquitous SARS mask, comes up and points a temperature gun at our foreheads to make sure we have no fever. The customs person checks the usual things: Anything to declare? Been on a farm lately? How long are you staying? A company representative also arrives with sheets telling us who to contact, and how, if we should have any issues during layover. The time of our pre-arranged transportation from the hotel after our layover is specified. Meal orders are taken for the outbound leg. Everybody understands that I am flying out in three days' time with another crew, so all my paperwork is separate from the other two guys'. It's all very well organized. There is a van waiting for us as we descend the stairs, with a "handler" who will marshal us through the customs procedure. At 4:30 a.m. the lines are already beginning to form in the airport terminal (which is strangely non air-conditioned), but we are taken to special lines and glide through quite quickly. Out to the curb to a waiting Buick minivan, and off to the city, to sleep.