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Flying over the North Pole: Well-planned is half done

On 9 March 2022, flight AY073 from Helsinki to Tokyo Narita departed at 17:30 local time. However, instead of heading east, the flight headed towards the North Pole. With this flight, Finnair resumed its service to Tokyo Narita, skirting around Russian airspace that closed on 28 February.

Back in 1983, Finnair was the first airline to fly non-stop from Europe to Japan, flying over the North Pole – so operating in the polar region is not new to Finnair. But after a break of almost 30 years, there were a lot of details that needed to be carefully planned. 

“Well-planned is half done”, says Aleksi Kuosmanen, Finnair A350 captain and deputy fleet chief, who was one of the four pilots on the flight. “Hours and hours of careful planning preceded this flight, to ensure a smooth and safe journey.”  

By coincidence, Aleksi was not the first pilot in his family to fly over the North Pole. His father, Ismo Kuosmanen was in the Flight Deck as part of Finnair’s first ever non-stop flight over the North Pole in 1983. “Flying over the North Pole is probably a part of every long-haul pilot’s bucket list, and for me this flight had an extra personal significance.”

The flight deck crew for the 9 March HEL-NRT flight: Captain Kari Holopainen (commander of the flight), captain Tuomas Kukkonen, captain Aleksi Kuosmanen and co-pilot Juha-Pekka Nykänen.

Planning every step

The planning of the new routing was started by Riku Kohvakka and his colleagues in Finnair flight planning. Riku and the flight planning teams plan flight routes for all of Finnair’s services, using Lufthansa Systems’ Lido flight planning system.

“I started by closing Russia from the system so that the system can calculate the next best routes from Helsinki to Tokyo,” Riku says. “While airspace closures for various reasons are a part of the everyday life of flight planners, this change – closing the entire Russian airspace – was so exceptional, that the system actually needed some manual guidance in the form of alternative waypoints, to get started and create an alternative routing.”

The northern route to Japan goes from Finland to Norway over Svalbard and the North Pole towards Alaska and then across the sea to Japan.

Riku’s team calculated the basic data for the new routings: the flight time, payload, fuel consumption and navigation fees to arrive at the cost of the flight for Finnair’s traffic planning’s use. There was also detailed planning required for the terrain en-route. “We worked with the flight operations engineer to check if escape procedures and charts need to be updated for the crew when flying over high terrain,” Riku explain.

One of the technical requirements involved alternative airports en-route, should the flight need to divert. “There were airports along the polar route – in Scandinavia, Northern Canada, Alaska and Northern Japan – that we had not used before, so a lot of information gathering was done to ensure our defined alternative airports are feasible for use,” says Aleksi.

A350 is well suited for the polar route

Flying the polar route also meant extending the so-called ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) times, i.e. the maximum distance the route has to a suitable en-route alternate airport, if, for example, one aircraft engine experiences a technical fault.

“Our latest ten A350 aircraft are certified for ETOPS 300 minutes and adopting that required certain regulatory work and updating related maintenance procedures,” explains Aleksi.

Aleksi notes that the Airbus A350 is an excellent aircraft for the polar route. “The A350 is very resilient against cold air masses. For example, the fuel system is built in a way so that cold air masses rarely restrict our operations.”

Careful preparations also included documenting all the details that are needed for the pilots flying the new route. “We prepared a detailed route briefing document for the polar route, and my job on the first flight was to validate this document, so that all of our pilots know exactly what to expect,” Aleksi explains.

An uneventful flight, as planned

The planned flight time for the first HEL-NRT route was 12 hours 52 minutes, while the actual flight time was 12 hours 54 minutes – just two minutes longer. “With this kind of excellent flight planning, the actual flying was just like a regular day in the office,” says Aleksi.

Aleksi notes that actually flying over the North Pole was very uneventful. “The only noticeable difference was that the good old magnetic compass that we have in the flight deck went a bit haywire,” he says. The magnetic compass is for backup use only, and there are other navigation systems on the aircraft that maintain navigation accuracy also when flying over the North Pole.

Back in 1983, passengers on Finnair’s Tokyo flights received a certificate for flying over the North Pole. A certificate is available also now, along with some cute Moomin stickers.

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