Flying over the Pacific Ocean

By: Alon Pereg

Many turn to us before a long overwater flight and ask about the dangers involved.

In the article on a long flight over water, we learned about the issue of a long flight in general, and in this article I will introduce you to a part of the world where you have to cross a very large ocean to reach your destination – a flight between the west coast of the United States and Australia.
To prepare the article, I turned to my dear friend, Tim, a pilot of a US airline who flies the line between Los Angeles and Australia regularly.

Always remember how safe flying really is

A passenger plane is a wonderful machine, built to provide us with a unparalleled level of safety. It is important to remember that even in twin-engine aircraft, where each engine is completely independent and has no effect on the other engine, one engine is sufficient for us to reach a safe landing, and even in very rare cases pilots managed to reach a landing without any engines running.

Other malfunctions that may occur in the aircraft systems are less severe, as all important systems in the aircraft have several backups. The electrical system of the Boeing 787, for example, includes six powerful generators, another battery that provides electricity in case of emergency, an air turbine that is deployed if necessary and provides electricity, in addition to small and independent generators that provide power to the steering systems. There are similar redundancies for fuel, air and other systems.  Therefore, a case where it is required to land immediately due to a technical failure is extremely rare.

And what happens if you need medical help

Most passenger aircraft today have large first aid kits that include a defibrillator and many other lifesaving tools, and aircraft crews receive basic training in operating the systems. In many cases a doctor can also be found among the many passengers of the plane. In such case,
the doctor can use a special Doctor’s Kit and use other means that exist there.

While in the air, we can use the plane’s communication systems and get help from dedicated medical centers. In some planes we have a wearable remote sensing system that the patient wears and the data is transmitted to the remote centers, which in turn advise the crew of the
preferred course of action.

Indeed, an airplane is not a hospital, and in case of a medical emergency we seek to land at a suitable airport.

What happens on the flight between Australia and the United States?

At first glance it seems to be a huge distance of about 6000 nautical miles (about 11000 kilometers), or close to 14 flight hours above the ocean. What can we do if a problem arises?

But you all understand that on a 14-hour flight you’re not 14 hours away from an airport, your maximal time to either the origin or destination if half of it, but there are closer enroute alternates

An in-depth look at the Pacific Ocean map shows us an abundance of inhabited islands, most of which have an airport, allowing passenger planes to land there if needed.

Some of the islands are very well known, like the Hawaiian Islands, and some are less well known to the public, but are well known to flight planners and pilots, and we check before each flight the status of the airports in these islands to make sure they are available to us in case of need.

In the article on long flights, we talked about the international standard that requires a flight at a maximum distance from an airport. We said that in the Atlantic Ocean, between Europe and America, there are always airports within a maximum of an hour and a half away from any location along the route. The map in front of us shows an approximate route of flight between the west coast of the USA and Australia, and some of the islands where you can land if necessary. The inner circle around each such airport indicates a flight of up to two hours and the larger circle – three hours. You are not three hours away from the airport, and in the vast majority you are even less than two hours from the airport

What is there at airports at such islands

As in any field of aviation, the requirements from airports have been defined in international documents and standards. For an airport to be recognized as one that can be planned to land in an emergency, it must meet certain requirements, which include the usability of the means of landing, lighting in the runways and the emergency crews located in it. Before each flight the pilots check the pilot notification files (NOTAM) for each airport enroute, to make sure we are relying on airports that are suitable in case we need them in an emergency.

Summary

We have seen then that a long flight is not problematic for the aircraft and its systems. Flying over large sea areas is an issue that is addressed in the flight planning and execution process, however even on a long flight in the Pacific area you can find islands with airports suitable for landing if necessary.