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Difficult landings part 1

by Nancy Jackson Media & Communications Officer

We spoke to a number of pilots about some of the trickier landings in the world. While difficult, each has its own quirks that offer pilots a chance to really put their skills to use.

1. Gibraltar (Alun Evans, Monarch)

Where on earth would you find a 1,800 metre-long runway with water at each end, frequent tailwinds, political meddling and numerous large birds? Gibraltar of course.

Clinging to the edge of the Iberian Peninsula lies Gibraltar. Shoehorned between ‘the rock’ (a 426-metre-high limestone outcrop) and the Spanish border lies the airport. The rock not only produces regular tailwinds at both ends of the runway, but indeed its own unique microclimate. The relatively short runway has little in the way of overrun (unless you’re a good swimmer) and is frequented by the biggest seagulls I’ve ever seen. There are two SRA approaches available, one for each end. With the eastern one terminating at 3NM at 90-degrees to the runway, visual maneuvering is then required to align the aircraft to the runway whilst avoiding the oil tankers in the bay.

Tailwinds are not the only wind issue at Gibraltar, strict limits are enforced for crosswinds too, and for good reason, as relatively light winds from the ‘wrong’ direction can produce nasty turbulence with strong up and down draughts. Frequent visitors learn how to ‘read’ the wave tops on the sea, as they offer a valuable clue as to the worst of the turbulence. The microclimate is also responsible for the one and only cloud in the area being situated right over the approach to the runway on many days of the year.

Because of politics, Gibraltar has a very small control zone which is frequently ‘transited’ by aircraft not in contact with anyone. Once again, the MK1 eyeball is a valuable ally!

So, having painted a pretty bleak picture, Gibraltar offers a fantastic opportunity to fly somewhere a little different, with challenging approaches and one unique feature – a main road (in fact the only road from the frontier) that crosses the runway. Fortunately, the cars, lorries and buses are under air traffic control using barriers. The road section of the runway is then swept before any aircraft movements.

No piece on Gibraltar would be complete without mentioning the excellent air traffic control and meteorology staff at Gibraltar who provide an expert service under sometimes difficult conditions.

2. San Diego, Dave Fielding, British Airways

Of all the places to take a large jet into, the one I think which has the most distractions which (euphemistically speaking) take the pilot out of their comfort zone is San Diego in southern California. For a start, the last few thousand feet parallel the terrain as you transit the mountains down towards the coast, leading to a weird perspective of where the aircraft is in relation to the ‘profile’. The airfield itself is nestled near the heart of the city, which in this day and age is unusual. The effect of the buildings and hills all around is magnified by the sloping terrain which makes them a lot closer than they would normally be. A ridge some five miles before the runway reduces vertical separation to less than 200ft, so everything is flashing by a lot faster than usual, an effect compounded by the steeper than normal approach path (3.5 degrees).

A stunning example of planning genius allowed a nine-storey car park to be built just before the runway itself. It is a really hard job to concentrate on the landing point with this large building just off your left wingtip in the final stages of the approach. Because of this, the runway threshold is displaced, which means that it’s not the longest runway in the world. If you don’t put it down in exactly the right place, the decision to continue or go-around has to be made very quickly indeed.

Fabulous city if you get past that little lot, mind…

3. London City, Bryan Gale, BA CityFlyer

The views are dramatic, particularly at sunset, and the approach over London at 2,000 feet is something I never tire of. London’s airspace is congested; add a 5.5-degree approach on to a short and narrow runway with water either side, and you start to see the gravity of the challenge. Trust me, London City Airport can bite!

London City requires mandatory steep approach training in both the classroom and simulator. But, on any given day, the actual approach starts long before you are in London airspace. In fact, it starts when you leave your place of rest. Your day may be planned in your head, but a quick glance at Aero Weather will give you an insight into what LCY has planned for you…

The pre-flight briefing is not dissimilar to that for any other airfield. But at London City, certain risks and threats are discussed more often. Wind shear tops the list due to the topography around the approach and even apparently benign winds can produce a challenging approach and landing. Low cloud and poor visibility – especially in spring and autumn – can reduce flow rates and the resulting delays add further challenges. The big question though at the pre-flight stage is, “How much fuel do we want?”

Once in the air it is easy to be lured into a false sense of security. “Standard brief for City?” might slip out easily. But what is a standard brief for City when there are so many threats? Whatever you do, expect the unexpected. There’s lots to take into account and expect a late landing clearance as standard.

Preparation is the key to safely navigating London City. As one of our examiners likes to say, “Knowledge breeds capacity.”

Part two of our difficult landings blog will appear next week. See if you can guess which appraoch might make the cut.