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Crossing The Atlantic: ETOPS and Oceanic Procedures (Part 1)

Crossing The Atlantic: ETOPS and Oceanic Procedures (Part 1)

What is ETOPS?

ETOPS, as all of you reading this probably know, stands for Extended-range Twin Operations. It is nothing more than a set of rules that allow twin-engine aircraft to fly long distance in routes where at any given time they might be more than 60 minutes away from an adequate airport in case something goes wrong a diversion is needed. These rules and procedures affect the design and operation of ETOPS certified aircraft. As we fly from our origin to our destination, we have a good handful of alternate airports to divert to in case of a decompression or engine failure... unless there are no more adequate airports to handle us within a short distance. So what is an adequate airport? An adequate airport is one that can handle you safely. It should have long enough runways, airport lighting, ATC, have at least one approach aid available to assist with the landing (do not read ILS here). Forecast weather at the time of its expected use is not part of the definition for an adequate airport. When flying in remote areas and/or over oceans, sooner or later that list of adequate airports within 60 minutes reach gets smaller and smaller and eventually you will have no adequate airport reachable in that distance.

How far are 60 minutes anyways?

Now that is a good question and I will not go into the math of it at all. It may also vary between operators. Typically the 777 will have a single-engine diversion speed of M.84/329KIAS and how that results in the answer to the above question, which is 453nm, is out of the scope of this guide. The reason why it is out of the scope of this guide is, as you might have guessed, that I have no clue about it and I am damn too lazy to make the calculations myself. However, since people smarter than I write this in the actual operator manuals for the 777, than I take that figure for granted and live happily with my ignorance on the details. Basically, where you see times you have to read distances when it comes to ETOPS, and that distance is based on single-engine performance at ISA conditions. ISA conditions mean that the actual conditions are not of relevance as the folks who build planes and make the rules have no intention of changing said rules as weather changes. Makes sense to me.

Are you flying where no adequate airport is within 60 minutes / 453 nm? If you are crossing the Atlantic more often than not you are.

To fly past that, the operator needs an ETOPS certification for the airplane flying that route, depending on how far it is deemed safe to fly from an adequate airport that is suitable to be used when the need arises. As before, in the ETOPS club, how far is defined in minutes. The tables for the 777 time/distance relation at M.84/329KIAS are found in the table below.

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There you have your distances to play with intersecting circles. I surely loved doing it when I was a kid and still do. I guess the most common ETOPS certifications for the 777 would be the 180, the 207 which is actually an extension of the 180 and the 240. If you fly for VA that operates the 777, you will easily find the ETOPS rules it operates by reading through the documentation or asking fellow pilots. Let's have a look at a typical ETOPS flight and get an overview of what is what in ETOPS lingo.

ETOPS Anatomy 101

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Some introductions are in order. Getting to a party and not knowing the host and other guests might be an uncomfortable situation.

ADEQUATE AIRPORTS

We talked about this earlier. An airport that can handle you in terms of infrastructure and ATC services and it can do so safely. It has adequate lighting, communication facilities, and at least an approach aid to assist you in your landing. There are 60 minutes circles around each adequate airport, which correspond to a 453nm distance in our case. As long as your flight path is within the area defined by successive and intersecting adequate airport circles, ETOPS is not applicable. When you run out of them and are 60 minutes/453nm away from the last adequate outbound, you have reached your EEP.

ETOPS ENTRY POINT

or EEP, which referenced in the PFPX map as (ENTRY). This is the point where you are 60 minutes away from the last adequate airport in your outbound leg. It defines the entry into the ETOPS segment of your flight. Its position is calculated by PFPX and is part of the OFP.

Welcome to the big circles club!

As you might have guessed or known, those 60min circles don’t cut it anymore. You need some bigger ones and how big those are is defined by how the operator’s 777 is certified. In this guide, I will assume we are operating under ETOPS180. Those big circles are drawn around your suitable airports.

SUITABLE AIRPORTS

Suitable airports are adequate airports that during the time you would use them, should need arise, have weather minima that are at or above the specified minima. So you can build bigger circles around them to intersect your 60min circles around the adequate airports, but there is a glitch: Unlike adequates, suitable airports have to meet ETOPS weather minima as well. Remember I said “during the time you would use them”, which means it can all be nice and shiny now, but if visibility and ceiling drop below minima during the time you would use them, you would not consider them as suitable for dispatch. The current METAR of the airport is of little importance. The forecast weather is, which means you will be after Terminal Area Forecasts (TAFs) more than after METARs when it comes to ETOPS suitable alternates.

Minima and then some

Knowing ETOPS weather minima required for dispatch is essential in selecting suitable airports. Keep in mind though, ETOPS minima apply only at dispatch and not when airborne. ETOPS minima are higher than the charted minima. Different agencies have these fine-tuned differently, but they are pretty much the same. The CAA minima requirements are shown below.

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There are some things to keep in mind. The above table is based on the Civil Aviation Authority (UK) regulations. Tables with minima as specified by other agencies are specified at the end of this guide. They do have small differences among them, which means that a British Airways flight is subject to slightly different dispatch minima from a Delta flight etc. However, the most important things to note about minima are:

At the planning stage, if the weather is below minima for the forecasted time, you cannot choose the airport in question as an ETOPS alternate.

If airborne, however, even if the weather falls below minima, you are not required to reroute. The above are planning minima. They define whether a flight can be dispatched with the selected alternates or not. Let’s take an example so that we do not spend lots of time explaining something that is easier understood by doing. Let’s get our dispatch minima figures for Keflavik (BIKF), ILS Runway 02.

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Ceiling minima calculation

200ft from the chart + 400ft ETOPS regulations = 600ft

Visibility minima calculation

1200ft from the chart + 1500ft ETOPS regulations = 2700ft

As long as we have suitable airports to cover our route, we are good to go. We will have the 60min circles of our adequate airports intersecting 180 min circles of our ETOPS alternates, which in turn intersect each other... How cool is that? With a greater distance available to fly from with our ETOPS alternates in place, we can build routes that keep us at all times within 180 minutes of safe ground. If you are en route from London (EGLL) to New York (KJFK) and your dispatch ETOPS alternates are Shannon (EINN) and Stephenville (CYJT), you will eventually reach a point where your diversion time/distance to Shannon, equals that to Stephenville. There are some different scenarios for this diversion such as one engine out, a simultaneous one engine out and decompression, or just a decompression. Because aviation folks are a lot into drama, calculations are made on the worst-case scenario of the three (you can safely guess which). Now when you reach this point you have reached your critical point.

This where you know you are the same distance from Shannon and Stephenville considering the example above, but the real sweet part is that this where you are the furthest away from any dispatched alternate in that segment of your route. ETOPS fuel calculations, suitability time for weather consideration are dependent on this special point. If you are like me and do not enjoy much of math doing these days, PFPX will calculate this and more for you so no worries and we’ll get to that sooner or later in this guide as well. In the ETOPS section of the OFP PFPX generates, the fuel requirements at the critical point(s) (CRP) are presented, alongside the CRP(s) coordinates and other information of use to the crew. Three scenarios are analyzed and fuel data is given for all of them. Past that critical point, you are closer to your second ETOPS alternate, and because all good things come to an end, sooner or later you will be within 60 minutes of at least one adequate airport again and your ETOPS segment ends.

ETOPS EXIT POINT

EEP, which is referenced in the PFPX map as (EXIT) and is part of the OFP as well, with its coordinates, etc. You might have more than one ETOPS segment in your flight, more than two ETOPS alternates, two or more critical points depending on the number of alternates. All of the above apply the same.

Flight planning and ETOPS in PFPX and the PMDG 777

The reason why you probably downloaded this for starts here. I do hope that you read the above in order to make more sense of what PFPX is calculating and the information it is presenting you with. PFPX is an amazing piece of software, introducing unprecedented realism in flight planning for desktop flight simulation. The manual it ships with assumes you knew how to do it properly in the first place, which is not usually the case (guilty as charged!). The manual explains how PFPX works without much detail into actually learning how to approach flight planning using it. Here is how I do it, covering the process planning to integrate that information into that shiny CDU of your brand new 777.

General flight information

FLIGHT # BA215 CALLSIGN BAW21G DEPARTURE EGLL SCHEDULED AT 1700Z DESTINATION KBOS ESTIMATED ARRIVAL AT 0005Z

The map below is an overview of the great circle direct path from EGLL to KBOS showing the 60 minutes, 120 minutes, and 180 minutes areas for the 777. We will be operating under ETOPS 180 and as you can see we can probably take our pick among the North Atlantic Tracks because chances are we’ll be well within our limits with any them, which would not be the case if we were on ETOPS120.

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The map is generated by Great Circle Mapper. You do not need to do this. The reason I put it here is mainly to give an overview of the area we’ll be flying over. I do however advise yuo to visit their website and play around if you are not familiar with the area you will be flying to.

Let’s fire up PFPX and start building our route to Boston.

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On the left is my flight schedule. It includes flights operated by British Airways in the 747 and 777. It shows me upcoming departures to be scheduled. Our flight today is part of that schedule. It is not required for you to add a schedule to plan a flight. You can just as well plan a nonscheduled flight by clicking on the *New button in the ribbon.

Click on Plan Flight

We are now required to enter information about our flight.

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I have toggled westbound tracks and winds aloft to show on the map here to get an idea of the general situation in terms of winds. We will go through each section and explain what is what.

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These are pretty much self-explanatory. It is important to get the runway right as per the runway in use. PFPX might choose the wrong runway in the box. You make your best judgment. As for the landing runway, you do the same. If I would depart at the shown time, I would arrive in Boston with night noise abatement procedures in place, and 33L would be the preferred runway. Again, this info might change during your flight and is not of real importance other than indicating you what to expect. Taxi out and taxi in time might be important. If you have a slot in the middle of Cross the Pond, you can expect some longer taxi-out times than the 10 minutes. You adjust accordingly and again make your best judgment. It will influence fuel predictions for taxi fuel. Check your STA (Scheduled Arrival Time) so that you can have that information at hand when looking at weather forecast or as it is the case with Boston if special noise abatement procedures apply during the time frame of your arrival etc.

Enter aircraft information

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Choose your aircraft from the drop-down box. The rest of the fields will fill automatically with the information you have in your aircraft database entry. Nothing else to add here.

Enter payload information

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I click "random" until it comes up with a payload that is not too light. This is a question of preference. You can put the numbers manually etc. This is not something I do. I just go with a random payload. In this case, my ZFW is 204480Kg. I take note of this so that I later load the same weight in the payload section of the PMDG 777LR FS Actions menu in the FMC.

Enter fuel information

etopsoca pfpx 6}

Make sure the fuel policy is the one applicable to you. In my case it is. If flying for a popular event on VATSIM make entries for extra fuel, hold time, etc. by using your best judgment on what the situation might be in terms of traffic at your departure and destination.

Make sure the fuel policy is the one applicable to you. In my case it is. If flying for a popular event on VATSIM make entries for extra fuel, hold time, etc. by using your best judgment on what the situation might be in terms of traffic at your departure and destination.

Build your route

You can choose the drop-down list and click Find. It will get you a route in a blink of an eye, although it may not be the best one. Here is what it came up with for me:

CPT3G CPT UL9 GAVGO UL18 DIKAS UL9 SLANY DCT GISTI DCT MALOT NATD VIXUN N114C ALLEX DCT ENE OOSHN2

You can skip on the following, but for the route to be more realistic and not just go with what PFPX comes up with, I would suggest you read on.

Question 1: Is it routing through one of the current North Atlantic tracks? Answer: Yes. It doesn't always do that, so it is good to check. Question 2: Is it using one of the standard routes from EGLL to the track entry point? The track entry point is MALOT. Departing from EGLL, the Standard Route Document (SRD) for the UK & Ireland the following routes are available: CPT UL9 KENET UN14 PEMOB UN24 SLANY DCT MALOT UL9 KENET UN14 PEMOB UN30 BANBA DCT Answer: No. Needs correction. Question 3: Is it using one of the North American Routes when exiting the track? Answer: Yes. N114C (VIXUN DCT ALLEX). Question 3: Is this route wind optimized?

etopsoca pfpx 7}

Maybe, but it looks on the map like I am chasing the strongest headwinds. I would normally try each of the tracks individually and compute to see what they give me in terms of fuel and time en route. In this case, I will just go with D. I suggest you experiment with different routes/tracks. It gives you a good idea of how the software works and makes you better and faster in using it. We will correct the route on our next page and proceed with setting up the rest in PFPX.

Correct your route

Click on the drop-down arrow in the route block, and choose Edit:

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You will be presented with the following:

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You edit the route in the bottom for the section from EGLL to KBOS as shown to comply with the SRD:

CPT3G CPT UL9 KENET UN14 PEMOB UN24 SLANY DCT MALOT NATD VIXUN N114C ALLEX DCT ENE OOSHN2

PFPX will notify you that the routes as been manually modified and you need to build it. Click the Build button in the ribbon, and then click apply. We are not going to proceed with setting up the take-off, en-route and destination alternate. We will tackle a wind optimized route a little later on because we cannot compute a flight without our alternates and ETOPS set up.

Alternates

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Alternates required are 1 for this flight priority stays at Min Fuel but since I only have selected 1 alternate, it not really applicable. The same goes for the 1st and 2nd alternate boxes. Take-Off Altn We need one if the conditions at our departure airport allow for a safe take-off, but not a safe landing. In this case, I have filled it just as an example. We do not really need one on this flight. Enroute Altn You can leave this blank. If left blank, a standard 5% contingency fuel will be applied to your flight. If you click on it, the map will focus on an area with a red circle around it. Select an airport within that area, and your contingency fuel will drop to 3% for this flight. Destination Altn It is what it says it is. In my case it is KJFK. If something goes wrong at KBOS, this where I will be heading. The route box requires you to generate a route from your destination to your alternate. We will put it in our RTE 2 page on FMC.

ETOPS Planning

On the background, PFPX created am adequate airport list for you. Note that it has not created a list for suitable airports. Go ahead and select the ETOPS rule time that will define your flight. On the drop-down box, select ETOPS 180. If it is not there, go to your aircraft database, edit your 777LR so that ETOP180 is available for it (or your set of ETOPS rule time). When editing your aircraft just change the ETOPS scenario name to ETOPS 180, diversion time to 180 minutes, and distance to 1320nm. If it is already there, just select it from the drop-down menu. Now then, back those adequate airports PFPX came up with:

EGLL EIKY [ETOPS SEGMENT] CYYT CYTN KSFM

I will go ahead and exchange Kerry (EIKY) with Shannon (EINN). The reason being I am going to use EINN as an ETOPS alternate as well, and I like to keep my flight plan clean from unnecessary clutter. The weather is fine there and so is for St. John's (CYYT). With ETOPS 180 they cover my route nicely.

EGLL EINN [ETOPS SEGMENT] CYYT CYTN KSFM

Put EINN in the first box of ETP Airports 1 / Put CYYT in the second box of ETP Airports 1 It should look like below, and ETOPS has turned green informing you that the section is complete.

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PFPX has drawn a 60 minute circle around EINN (Shannon, Ireland). That is our last adequate in our outbound leg. Where that 60 minute circles intersects with our path, we are 60 minutes away from any of the adequate airports in our list. This is our ETOPS Entry Point. You see it in the map as (ENTRY). Because EINN was also chosen as an ETOPS suitable airport in this flight, a 180 minutes circle has been drawn around it as well. The same goes for St. John's. We have a 60 minutes circle around it as well as a 180 minutes circle. You will notice that EINN alone would suffice to cover our route in terms of being no more than 180 minutes away from a suitable. Even if we do not have CYYT as an ETOPS alternate, the 180 minutes circle around EINN intersects the 60 minutes circle around CYYT. However, it is safer and logical to have at least two ETOPS alternates and our critical point will be closer to the middle of our route. We can compute our flight now, however, we need to visit the Speed/Altitude block as well. When cleared on North Atlantic Tracks, it will usually be at a specified Mach and altitude, and you might not get clearance to step climb during busy VATSIM events.

etopsoca pfpx 14}

I put in constraints so that PFPX doesn't build a plan with the assumption that I will step climb along the track.

At this point, you can export the flight plan, file it on VATSIM, and get on your cockpit.

Some info on the North Atlantic Tracks

Flights from Europe to North America will usually route over the North Atlantic region. There is a lot of action going on in the area in the real-world. There is even more traffic on VATSIM during the biannual Cross The Pond event.

What makes the North Atlantic region different?

  • No radar coverage to assist with separation.

  • No nearby radio navigation aids to assist with... well, navigation.

  • Communications are done via HF radio (because you are out of VHF communications range)

Since the area is busy, that lack of radar coverage is an issue that is addressed by creating specific tracks connecting the two sides of the pond. Traffic is then directed in those tracks, at specified flight levels and speeds depending on the flight plan and the clearance you receive. I will outline some general NAT information below:

  • Shanwick Center (EGGX) and Gander Center (CZQX) publish the North Atlantic Track message with the currently available tracks.

  • Tracks are published twice a day.

  • Their exact routing is dictated mainly by the jet stream. The purpose is to have tracks that minimize headwind when flying Westbound and maximize tailwind when flying Eastbound.

  • They have validity periods, and for Westbound (Europe to North America) tracks that is: 11:30z-19:00z

  • The validity period for Eastbound (North America to Europe) tracks is: 01:00z-08:00z

  • The validity period is related to the time you cross 030W. This is also where you switch from Shanwick to Gander and vice versa.

  • Vertically the NAT area is from FL285 to FL420. This is important to note because, in case of an emergency or deviation beyond specified limits, you will descend to FL280 or below to avoid this altitude band.

  • Besides the tracks themselves, standard routes to and from the tracks are generally published to assist with the traffic flow. In the UK and Ireland, these are part of the Standard Route Document (SRD). We mentioned this as we planned our flight earlier. In North America, they part of the North American Routes system (NARs). Information on where to get them can be found at the end of this document in the Resources and Useful Links section.

On Part 2 we will set up the PMDG 777 for our Atlantic crossing.

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