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What Do Pilots Do When Flying The Long Cruise Section?

Summary When flying over water, pilots need to assess diversion options in case of an engine failure or depressurization.
Pilots flying over high terrain must be aware of escape routes to safer airspace with maximum terrain heights below 10,000 feet.
Pilots flying internationally consider geopolitical realities when determining safe and legal diversion airports, considering restricted airspace and recent conflicts, and must fly at minimum altitudes for terrain separation.
Any flight over a few hundred miles spends most of its time in the air in level cruise. This part of the flight generally provides a lower workload for pilots, but plenty of tasks still need to be done. Here are some things pilots do during the cruise portion of a flight when flying over water, high terrain, and internationally.
Assess diversion options
When over water for an extended duration, a flight operates under Extended-range Twin-Engine Operations Performance Standards, or ETOPS. These flights all have contingencies built into their flight plans for engine failure-induced drift downs or depressurizations that require an emergency descent to 10,000 feet. If the latter happens close to the flight’s equal time point to land, the pilots must decide whether they will continue flying straight ahead, turn back, or alter course toward an en-route diversion. This decision can only be made quickly if the pilots have kept up with the fuel status, winds aloft, and weather at their potential alternates.
Mountainous terrain
Pilots make similar calculations when they fly over high terrain, though the stakes are arguably made higher by mountain peaks. A depressurization generally requires an immediate descent to 10,000 feet. Quick donning masks in the passenger cabin will provide oxygen for only a few minutes (the pilots’ supply lasts a bit longer), so it’s imperative to get the plane to a suitable altitude for human respiration quickly.
Photo: nadotchly I Shutterstock
When flying over Mexico, South America, the Himalayas, and other mountainous areas, pilots are generally required to remain aware of “escape routes” in the event of an emergency descent. In these areas, the terrain rises well above 10,000 feet, and an emergency descent would need to be accompanied by a turn towards safer airspace with maximum terrain heights below 10,000 feet. Airlines have gone to such lengths as to create escape routing along the flight corridors in these parts of the world, and pilots have to be ready to deviate along them should the situation dictate.
Want to read more about what pilots do in cruise? Check out this article.
International diversions
One more consideration for pilots flying internationally is where they can safely and legally divert en route. Geopolitical realities make this calculation more nuanced than simply landing at the nearest airport with a runway long enough to land the airplane on. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, many airlines no longer fly over the once-busy Siberian air corridor. Instead, flight plans now have to pick around the southern end of Ukraine through northern Turkey before crossing the Caspian Sea into Kazakhstan’s airspace. Likewise, flights from Europe to India remain south of Ukraine before making sharp turns over northern Afghanistan and Pakistan to stay in approved airspace.
Photo: Vincenzo Pace I Simple Flying
Flight planning through the Middle East and Central Asia is one of many examples of airspace that is less than straightforward to negotiate. Though dispatchers take care of the heavy lifting of determining en route alternates for these flights, pilots are responsible for knowing where their nearest safe and legal diversion airports are. In this region, it’s also incumbent on pilots to fly at minimum altitudes for terrain separation if a single-engine drift-down scenario comes into play. Though the autopilot does the flying, pilots constantly revise their contingency plans based on where they fly on international routes.
No two flights are the same, and pilots accordingly adjust to the conditions and parameters that they encounter. Though long fights spend more time in cruise, long-haul pilots have more contingencies to think about compared to continental flying over low terrain within a single country’s airspace. Pilots are trained to analyze every potential outcome and contingency, and the cruise part of a flight is prime time for this analysis.



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