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Russian Airspace Closure Challenges Flight Planners

In addition to hindering direct overflights, airspace closures following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine continue to pose challenges when flight planning for diversion airports and tech stops, requiring business aircraft operators to be creative when making trips from Europe and Asia.

“Without question, not being able to fly over Russia and Ukraine has certainly affected our operations over those continents,” said Steve Thorpe, a Gulfstream captain based in the Northeast and former chair of the NBAA International Operators Committee (IOC).

While U.S. Part 91 operators are not held legally to extended-range twin-engine operational performance regulations, Thorpe noted that most of them consider these standards when planning long-range flights.

Thorpe recalled a recent trip from Kolkata, India (VECC) to Anchorage, AK (PANC).

“If we lost an engine at the ETP [equal time point], the time to either Chitose, Japan (RJCC) or Anchorage was four hours and 46 minutes,” he said. “A pressurization event at the ETP would have led to 5+24 enroute.”

Fortunately, good weather over the Aleutian Islands made Eareckson Air Station (PASY) on the island of Shemya available, Thorpe added, reducing diversion times to less than three hours.

PASY was also an option for Gulfstream G650 Captain Chris Duffek on a recent flight between Anchorage and the Philippines.

“If Shemya wasn’t available, our other option would be Cold Bay Airport (PACD) in Alaska,” he said. “It was weird flying so close to Petropavlovsk (UHPP, a former diversion point in Russia) knowing we couldn’t go there anymore.”

“Without question, not being able to fly over Russia and Ukraine has certainly affected our operations over Europe and Asia. ”

STEVE THORPE Northeast-based Gulfstream Captain

Even these choices may not be available once winter hits and jetstreams move south, noted NBAA IOC member Nat Iyengar, a G650 captain.

“We won’t be able to fly north of the strongest winds and over Russian airspace, or flight plan normal diversion airports in that country,” said Iyengar. “If Shemya has bad weather, flight planners must look farther south, bringing Wake Island (PWAK) and Hawaii into play, but at a cost of increased time, fuel burn and emissions.”

Operations across Europe to the Middle East and Asia are also problematic, with closure of Ukraine and Russian airspace restricting many once-common flight routes. For an upcoming trip from Saudi Arabia to Japan, Duffek noted, “we can’t go north or east, which leaves us flying southeast to India.

“Overflying China risks a possible quarantine should an emergency force a diversion enroute,” he continued. “The option is to go over Burma and Vietnam and up to Japan, which could add almost two hours per flight leg.”

For other eastward flights from Europe, “flying over Iraq may save some time,” Thorpe said. “Similarly, the G500 airway is exempt from the FAA NOTAM prohibiting flights over Afghanistan, but are you willing to accept MOCAs (minimum obstacle clearance altitudes) over the Hindu Kush region between 22,400 and 27,600 feet?

“The question comes down to how much risk you’re willing to take on,” Thorpe concluded. “Do you have any self-imposed limitations on how long you would be willing to spend with one engine windmilling, or at low level to get to that alternate? Your flight department must set those procedures to be your guide.”

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