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London City: a spectacular approach

by Captain Chris Langley Flybe

Runway 27. 10 miles out. 3,000 feet and initial configuration set. Flap five, IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) and it’s nighttime. Eight miles out. ‘Ice detected’ flashes up on the engine display and the de-icing boots are inflated. Seven miles out, and the normal procedures to prepare for the steep approach commence – half scale deflection, landing flap is selected, auto pilot is disengaged, and flight director removed.

A quick glance down shows the aircraft heading 30 degrees away from the inbound track and yet somehow it is still sitting on the localiser. A cheeky look outside is futile – we’re still in IMC, and still in ice. Five miles out, we’re at the top of our descent and down we go. At this point my mind starts racing. What is going on – how can we be facing this direction but still on the localiser? I resist the urge to centre the heading. I look down again in search of a clue as to what is going on. My eyes hit the wind vector and bingo! 60 knots straight across, and I’m back in the loop.

A quick glance at my speed bug and it’s sat on the enhanced speed for ice as I approach four miles. What if I don’t get out of ice soon? I can’t land with ice on the airframe. When do I bin it and climb away? What if I go-around, what speeds would I need to fly? I focus again on the instruments. I was still within half scale on the localiser and glide path, just! Mercifully, I broke cloud at 2,500 feet – the point we’d decided was going to be our own minima for icing. Any later and the airframe de-ice boots wouldn’t have enough time to complete two full cycles before touchdown. VMC (visual meteorological conditions) had been achieved and not a moment too soon. The sense of relief was tangible.

Another glance at the speed and the next problem glares me in the face – now I’m too fast. The speed needs to be reduced whilst maintaining the glide and not destabilising the approach. At 1,200 feet, our speed is back to plus five, and we’re no longer accumulating ice and visual with the lights. All that’s left is to touch the main wheels down before the chicken lights and then the job is done. Wind check from the tower – 350 at 25 knots. We’re on our crosswind limit, a seemingly perfect way to end a perfect approach.

As I considered the sense of discomfort of that approach shortly afterwards, I couldn’t help but feel I had been unaware of the hidden challenges that come from operating into London City Airport. The first six months of the operation had gone by for me without event, and a sense of comfort had begun to set in. Although some ice had been expected and the first officer and I had briefed a plan for a potentially icy approach, I certainly hadn’t considered the full impact the ‘ice detected’ message on the engine display may have had on our landing that evening.

For the first time in a number of years, I had a brief moment of confusion I hadn’t felt since some of the very first ‘screens up’ lessons in a Warrior and I didn’t like it. It taught me though that operating into London City, as spectacular as it can be at times, will bite you without a moment’s notice. Keeping your wits about you, thorough consideration of the day’s threats and accepting the assistance of your colleague is essential every day we operate into one of the most challenging airfields in our network.

Completing the London City training in our company is not a case of whether you’d like to do it or not – it shows up on your roster when it’s your turn and off you go. A comprehensive briefing package is available before your simulator training which covers everything from the ATC environment to parking procedures on what is a very tight apron. The profile is regimented, it has to be to fly the aircraft without any assistance from the automatics. Both captains and first officers alike go through the simulator training, practicing the raw data flying and the potentially tricky go-around procedures. Engine failures are practiced to help raise awareness of the large buildings in the vicinity.

The operational environment is naturally very busy. Heathrow traffic can sometimes be only 1,000 feet above your cleared level, and when you’re climbing away from a 1,400m runway you generally have a large amount of energy at your disposal. This energy needs to be managed carefully to avoid a cascade of transport collision events in the skies over London. Helicopters are a frequent threat too, often operating within only a few hundred feet of your aircraft as you make an approach. The weather plays a huge role in the complexity of the operation too. Steep approaches need enhanced minima, so when the fog rolls in or the cloud base drops the operation becomes even more challenging. Surrounding airfields including London Southend Airport fill up quickly, making flight planning and diversion awareness crucial before departing.

Even with all of these challenges, quirks, and threats I am extremely proud to be able to operate into such an incredible airfield. I often have to question the reality of what I am seeing out of the panoramic view from the flight deck. The sight of The Shard passing underneath my right wing only 1,000 feet below while being circled by a pair of Chinook Helicopters, and seeing the lights of the big screens in Piccadilly Circus and the dome of St Pauls is incredible. Flying at 2,000 feet over the heart of the capital is a privilege that few get to experience, I am glad to be one of them and will never grow tired of it.