Weather forecasting particularly en-route can be poor and unreliable. Often we rely on other aircraft ahead to report CB’s and turbulence.
Weather can become extremely developed especially close to the ITCZ where I have seen CB’s in excess of 100 mile circumferences reaching heights in excess of 45,000ft.
I took this picture a few nights ago and you can see how difficult it can be to identify and avoid huge areas of CB activity. We are just 20 miles away from this cell with the sunrising out to the east and we are cruising at 38,000ft.
In some areas Air Traffic control is poor with limited facilities, however on some of the main airways (north / south) through FIR’s (flight information region – an Air Traffic Control area which can span several countries) that cover countries such as Algeria, Niger, and Chad, Air Traffic Control have become CPDLC (Controller Pilot Datalink Communications) enabled.
This system is effectively a method of controlling aircraft through text messages that are sent via aircraft ACARS systems which use VHF signals and satellite.
I can make requests from ATC just as I would via voice, these can include lateral deviations, climb and descents and position reporting. ATC can send me instructions and I can accept or reject them just as I would via voice.
VHF communications in Africa is fairly unreliable due to limited coverage and facilities. Primary communication in many FIR’s is via HF which is largely unreliable. We often rely on other aircraft who are in range to relay messages.
It is very difficult sometimes to get hold of an Air Traffic Controller and on previous occasions I have flown through a whole FIR without managing to raise ATC. In certain areas within Africa with the poorest communications we have an In-Flight Broadcast Procedure (IFBP). See photo right.
All airlines follow this and it involves having another radio frequency – 126.900 where we provide position reports to other aircraft and if required resolve conflicts between ourselves.
Some airlines follow an IATA recommendation to fly 1 nautical mile right of the airway track, the objective of this is to try and further minimise conflicts with other aircraft.
Most areas do not have radar coverage so they rely on aircraft position reports to maintain separation from other aircraft. This is similar to crossing the Atlantic.
Some Airfield facilities are limited and unreliable although main airports will normally have radar control and ILS systems on at least one runway. Airfield lighting can be poor.
Particularly when operating flights from North Africa (From Europe) to South Africa there are areas where alternate airports are not advisable to operate into. Due to this we can often be several hundreds of miles away from a suitable airport to divert to in the event of an emergency.
This is normally to do with a lack of facilities, immigration, customs, hotels and transport, but can also be due to perceived dangerous areas where there could be political un-rest, terrorism, corrupt governments, high levels of crime or other issues.
Some areas are deemed to be so dangerous with no public order that if an aircraft was to divert into an airport in one of these areas then it is likely the airline would lose the aircraft, it would be commandeered. These airports are only to be diverted to if loss of life is imminent for example an uncontrolled fire onboard.
In many African airports there is a risk of stowaways. This is where members of the public break through the airport perimeter to try and get onto an aircraft, normally in cargo holds or landing gear bays to seek asylum or residency in a more developed country.
To avoid this there are sometimes security patrols that follow the aircraft on its taxi out and in, further patrols are deployed around departure and arrival times to the airport perimeter fence. Aircraft try to remain moving at a reasonable speed when taxiing in or out and have all their lights on to try and spot any intruders.
Flight plans also have to be constructed to avoid certain countries airspaces, in Africa this currently includes Libya and just to the east of Africa – Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Some countries in Africa we can fly over but it is recommended to remain above 25,000ft to mitigate missed attacks from the ground.
In most other areas in the world flight plans are constructed to give aircraft the shortest route (taking into account winds), In Africa we fly the safest routes even if the routing is significantly longer.
In summary, there have been big improvements made, particularly in communication with the introduction of CPDLC in some areas but it is still very different to flying in Europe or North America.