A compilation of best practices for oceanic flight ops.
By David Bjellos
ATP/Helo. Gulfstream G650
Due to latency and lack of volumetric penetration, EFBs should never be used for primary tactical routing decisions based on weather, but they can supplement onboard tools like weather radar. Here is an example of our Florida–Middle East routing with significant weather south of the NAT-HLA. Using CPDLC, we requested a deviation from the first buildup, then requested (and received) a deviation to 36°N/50°W (to the south of both major buildups) before returning to our original route. New York Oceanic approved the route, and we avoided significant turbulence and convective weather.
Post-pandemic international flying has increased dramatically, with many first-time owners buying large-cabin, ultra-long-range aircraft. Collectively, this has put significant pressure on manufacturers, training providers, and especially flightcrews who may lack significant international experience.
This article is intended to provide helpful guidance and best practices, assisted by experts who belong to a Gulfstream G650 pilot forum whose 100-plus members have deep and extensive global experience. The goal is to highlight a collection of best practices and recommendations from experts. Their comments and suggestions are valid for novice and veteran alike – we can all learn something new in this very complex and dynamic environment.
Getting started: research
The rules of the air from Canada down through the Caribbean are pretty similar, and pilots with enough experience in these types of “international” operations could be forgiven for assuming they possess the knowledge required to operate in oceanic, European, Middle East, or Asian airspace.
In fact, the differences are vast, and learning these distinctions requires some time and effort. Where we need that knowledge is during contingencies and emergencies. Understanding the airspace is key here – and a great first stop should be Jeppesen.
Numerous electronic flight bag (EFB) options exist, and it seems like the most popular and efficient EFB for corporate aviation is the iPad, with ForeFlight as the primary application for data plotting and record keeping, and Jeppesen aeronautical charts. For simplicity, we’ll reference these primarily.
Let’s consider a recent flight from Florida to the Middle East, which we’ll reference throughout the article.
The trip was approximately 7200 mi long (13.5 hrs), with routing through WATRS, NAT-HLA, Europe, Greece, Egypt, then across Saudi Arabia, and finally landing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Preparations for this trip began a week prior by reviewing the appropriate Jeppesen publications/airway manuals – both general and those specific to Europe and the Middle East.
• Flight PRO International
• Intl Trip Planning Services (ITPS)
Services range from self-assistance to total trip support. There are à la carte options for more sophisticated and seasoned flight departments. Research each of them to find the best fit for your needs.
Oceanic electronic plotting options
Assess your comfort level and experience using an EFB, and evaluate each of the above to determine which works best within your organization.
These can be found in ForeFlight: Documents > Jeppesen. Download them all and they will update automatically. For the NAT-HLA portion of the flight, you’ll need to reference ICAO Doc 007 (operational requirements), Doc 006 (contingencies), and Doc 4444 (special procedures for inflight contingencies). A review of AC 91-70B, Oceanic and Remote Continental Airspace Operations, is also necessary.
The expert consensus for new operators in building standard operating procedures (SOPs) and manuals is to enlist the help of any of the numerous vendors available who specialize in international operations.
The guidance in AC 91-70B is a great start for constructing an oceanic checklist, from strategic planning through tactical execution to post-flight record keeping.
In addition, agreement was unanimous that operators seek guidance and mentoring from a trusted and experienced colleague in helping to set up a structure for all personnel, including maintenance staff, because knowing where the service centers for your OEM are throughout the world, and providing your team with their contact details, can often make a downline component failure a non-issue.
Handler. The term “FBO” is a US-coined word meant to differentiate between mobile-based operators and fixed-based operators (FBOs).
• Picture ID (passport, driver license).
• Ensure flightcrew members have a good cellphone plan with international dialing options.
• Bring the correct electrical connectors/ converters.
• Check all medication has a prescription on the package.
• Bring less than $10,000 or equivalent for each crew member.
• Check aircraft database expirations. (You may need to complete a download if you are on a long trip or during a subscription cycle change.)
• Charts must be current for regions to be flown.
• Be familiar with your data/comm system in the event of lock-up or CMF failure. Review the operating manual and abnormal procedures during the strategic planning phase.
• Review aircraft parking/handler communications/security.
• Check Notams for destination and alternate airports.
• Don’t get too comfortable if everything is going well. It may not last!
• Use proper AIM terminology when communicating with ATC. For many, English is not their primary language and they appreciate it greatly when your radio comm is professional and concise.
• Be aware of numerous transition levels throughout the world. They are not standardized and
can even vary within the same country! Departure briefs should always include transition altitude, and approach briefs should include transition level. Don’t forget to input these into your FMS for further awareness. Know how to change your display from inches of mercury to
millibars, and feet to meters.
• Long distance east-west travel will affect your circadian rhythm, so stay hydrated, rest properly before your flight, and moderate your alcohol and caffeine intake.
• Hotels should be chosen for security, 24-hr food availability, and services like laundry and catering.
Early mobile-based operators were usually fuel companies that worked from a vehicle and serviced itinerant aircraft, while FBOs became more common as airfields grew in numbers after WWI.
Internationally, the FBO is called the handler, and you will see familiar US names among them in many locations. Same services, different moniker.
Parking. Your handler and trip planner are the key players here. We cannot stress enough the importance of securing parking early, especially around the Mediterranean during the summer. You must also be aware of special events, such as the World Cup recently celebrated in the Middle East.
Communications. Contact your handler early and often. Use e-mail to keep records – and to assist them with language barriers. Be clear, concise, and specific as to services required and dates/times, and expect the unexpected. If you have inflight connectivity, e-mail them enroute.
Notams. Read them all carefully, especially for runway and airport operating hours. Many popular destinations do not operate 24/7, so avoid certain trauma by ensuring the remote airfield the boss wants to visit can accommodate you at 2300 local, with customs, immigration, fuel, and other desired services.
Passenger transportation should be a shared duty, since this is so critical to success. Establish a working relationship with your executive personal assistants early to ensure achieving your objectives.
Perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming portion of your preparation is understanding the geopolitical situations of the countries you intend to overfly, and the stability of the populace and economy at your destination.
Aviation-specific subscriptions include the exceptional OpsGroup – an online, annual fee membership forum of international pilots who share information about the world (visit ops.group for more info).
It is extremely comprehensive, and worth the modest fee for joining.
Contributing pilots have very comprehensive information that can assist you greatly in your planning. Likewise, the online Flight Safety Information (fsinfo.org) publishes a daily recap of global events that are extremely timely and pertinent. This service is free to subscribers.
As an example, on the Florida–Middle East trip, we were able to deal with a planned French ATC strike that would have affected our routing (and made it impossible to complete the flight nonstop if rerouted around French airspace).
Contingencies were made for fuel stops at both PMI (Palma de Mallorca, Spain) and ATH (Athens, Greece), depending on the reroute.
OpsGroup reported the day prior to the flight that the strike had been called off, but we elected to keep the fuel options open. The flight was completed nonstop with 13 hr 10 min flight time.
Only recently did China eliminate its Covid-19 protocols. Many operators have avoided overflying China for this very reason, fearing the need to make an emergency diversion and being subject to punitive measures.
OpsGroup has been excellent at reporting this progress (or lack thereof) during the entire pandemic. Read everything you can and try to make it a daily habit. It will pay off huge dividends.
Since trip success most certainly depends on comprehensive preparation, pre-departure briefings 2–3 days prior to the flight should be conducted. Reducing your variables and unknowns as low as reasonably practical is the last step as you transition to tactical operations.
Best practices should include having all pilots involved independently review Notams, weather patterns, and alternates for flight routing, and then conduct a briefing to review the entire trip from start to finish. If all crew members do their diligence and review things thoroughly, the entire briefing should last less than 30 minutes.
On our representative Florida–Middle East trip, careful attention was paid to the Canadian maritime alternates at YQX (Gander NL), YJT (Stephenville NL), and YYT (St John’s NL); in the Azores at TER (Lajes), PDL (Ponta Delgada), and SMA (Vila do Porto); and other diversion alternates on the French coast.
Since these 3 regions have the propensity to harbor foul weather during the fall and winter months, careful coordination with your trip planner is recommended. Do not hesitate to direct your trip planner with alternates you may prefer, as opposed to those they have chosen.
You will need to plot your NAT-HLA route and the guidelines. For this purpose, best practices can be found in AC 91-70B. There are 2 basic options – paper or electronic. Jeppesen can provide paper charts for a fee. Do record the data required as per the AC, and retain the plot and completed flight plan for 6 months. If you choose the electronic option, there are 3 choices currently available – ARINC, ScottPlot, and PlotNG. Record-retention timeline still applies.
Integrating best practices
There is great satisfaction in long-range flying, and much of that can be derived from planning and preparation for medical or equipment emergencies, weather, and the unknowns that await. Take pride in your integrity and professionalism by learning as much as reasonably practical, and your confidence level will be the highest possible, with odds for trip execution success greatly enhanced.
Without exception, every airman who has contributed to this article said the same thing independently from each other – find a competent and trusted colleague who has significant oceanic and global flight experience, enlist their assistance during the planning phase, and arrange for them to accompany you on your first NAT-HLA flight.
Without question, the busiest airspace in the world is the North Atlantic, and knowing the ICAO Doc 4444 by memory is just the beginning. Many permutations exist (eg, descending/course reversal while above or crossing the OTS), and having a seasoned airman on board for your first (and possibly second) crossing is critical. True professionalism also includes knowing when to ask for help.
David Bjellos is a senior contributor to PP and has written for the magazine since 2004. He is an active pilot flying a Gulfstream G650 out of PBI (Intl, West Palm Beach FL).