By Chris York
Although Storms Ciara and Dennis have brought miserable weather to the skies, anger and frustration to our travel hubs and treacherous conditions to our roads, they’ve had one positive outcome we can all agree on.
We all get a buzz out of watching planes trying to land at Heathrow.
Last weekend a live stream of the runway filmed by one very passionate plane enthusiast racked up more than 1.2m views.
Which got HuffPost UK thinking – it might be fun to watch from the sofa in your storm-resistant living room, but what it’s like for the person trying to actually land one of those beasts?
So we asked one. Meet Jim, or to give him his full title, British Airways Training Captain James Shepard.
Now, Captain Shepard knows a thing or two about flying, having started at the age of 14. He has a massive 18,000 hours’ flying experience in Boeing 757s, 767s and 777s, and currently flies the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, one of which he landed at Heathrow on February 8.
In fact, he’s so good that British Airways lets him teach and examine its pilots. So who better to fire a few questions at?
Those planes are moving sideways – what’s that about?
Captain Shepard: “Let me use the analogy of a boat. If you can, imagine taking a ferry across a river that’s fast flowing.
“To get from one side of the river to a landing point directly across on the opposite side, if you pointed straight at it as you set off the current would sweep the boat sideways and down the river. So you would need to angle the boat into the current to offset for this, and to somebody on the bank watching it would look like you are crossing the river sideways.
“It’s exactly the same in the air, but the “current” in our case is the wind. So to maintain a track down the centreline of the runway we have to point the aircraft into the wind to ensure our track across the ground is in line with this.
“Most of the wobbling around on approach you may have seen on the videos on Sunday was the pilot making small corrections for changing wind speeds to ensure this ground track was down the middle of the runway.”
What’s the most… uncomfortable part for the passengers?
“Just before we touch down on the runway we carry out a manoeuvre called ‘flaring’ which can feel odd for customers in the cabin.
“Ideally we want to land with the aircraft pointing down the runway rather than the sideways configuration we have had to maintain on approach, so just prior to touchdown the pilot applies the rudder with their feet to swing the nose round to face down the runway.
“The pilot simultaneously has to pitch the nose up to reduce the rate of descent, and then lower the upwind wing slightly to ensure that they don’t get blown sideways off the centreline.
“This all happens over about two or three seconds and can feel uncomfortable and a bit weird in strong winds but is perfectly normal. It’s a busy few seconds for the pilot and takes a lot of practice in the simulator to get right.”
How much more difficult is it to land a plane in a storm?
“Storm Ciara was some of the worst weather we’ve seen for quite a few years so was a challenge for every airline.
“The sort of weather we faced on approach to land on Sunday morning was challenging in that it was constantly changing and extremely gusty.
“Steady crosswinds are easier to handle but Storm Ciara on Sunday had strong gusting winds, all whilst blowing straight across the runway. It’s this variability that makes it challenging for our pilots and exactly why we train regularly for such conditions.”
Is it fun for a pilot?
“I hesitate to use the word ‘fun’ but it is immensely rewarding and satisfying to bring your aircraft in safely during blustery conditions.
“Interestingly, the general public generally think that we as professional pilots gauge how good our landing is by how smooth it feels in the cabin, but it’s considerably more complex than that.
“We have to ensure that the aircraft touches down at the correct point on the runway – called the touchdown zone and painted with white markings – to enable us to stop the aircraft fully in the landing distance we have available.
“This accuracy becomes more critical the shorter a runway is. Our pilots are taught to prioritise safely landing in the correct place on the runway over a smooth touchdown, and that is why you sometimes see, as we did on Sunday, pilots rejecting the landing and going around even after they’ve touched down if the wind has taken them outside this touchdown area.
“If we can do both then obviously we get more plaudits from our customers!”
What’s the latest point at which you can abort a landing?
“We can abort a landing at any point, even after we have touched down on the runway, up to the point that we have engaged the thrust reversers to stop the aircraft. You’ll see these as the back of the engine moves rearwards and this redirects the thrust towards the front of the aircraft and assists in braking the aircraft.
“We have two buttons on the front of the thrust levers called TO/GA (Takeoff/Go-Around) buttons, which we use to initiate a ‘go-around’. These apply thrust and give pitch guidance to help us on our head up displays in the 787 that I fly.
“As the thrust increases, if the aircraft is on the ground, the speed brakes – panels that pop up on the wings after touchdown to help slow the aircraft – auto-retract to allow the aircraft to get airborne again.
“A go-around is quite a dynamic but perfectly safe and standard manoeuvre, and while it can feel quite exciting in the cabin, in reality is something that has been practised literally hundreds of times over the years by each pilot.
“The reason the pilot doesn’t immediately come on the PA to talk and explain what has happened is that they are extremely busy reconfiguring the aircraft, retracting the landing gear, talking to air traffic control and assessing fuel levels to see if they have enough for another landing attempt. It’s a very busy period for us immediately following a go-around.”
How much training do you dedicate to this?
“A huge amount over the years. All of our pilots in British Airways have to participate in a check flight with an instructor in a full motion simulator every six months, which gives us the chance to practise dealing with emergencies, engine failures and all sorts of other ‘non-normals’ as they are referred to.
“Part of this is a chance to regularly practise crosswind landings in challenging conditions, similar to the ones we encountered with Storm Ciara. The simulators are incredibly realistic and it’s easy to forget you’re in a white box sat in a building just outside Heathrow Airport!
“The fact that they are so realistic makes it easier to cope with difficult landing conditions when they occur, and allows us to practise beforehand the required techniques and hone our skills in a non-jeopardy environment.”
When should people actually worry?
“I would say ‘never’, in all honesty. As pilots our absolute focus is getting our aircraft safely on the ground, and if we are not happy then we would divert to somewhere with better weather conditions. We carry fuel to enable at least two goes at landing or to hold and await improving conditions, and then enough extra fuel to divert to a nominated alternate airfield, and still land with emergency reserves remaining in the tanks. In the end we managed to land on our first attempt [on Saturday last week] so we used very little of it but we had it if required.
“The main thing that is drilled into our pilots in British Airways over many years of training, and every six months in the simulator, is the ability to continuously assess the safety of the aircraft in challenging conditions.
“That to me is the key difference that makes a professional pilot and in my view puts you in extremely safe hands.”