Brussels – London Heathrow. The most exciting flight of my whole life! And I flew a lot.
The airline doesn’t matter, as my experience has been of pure aviation. Leaving from Brussels we hear the captain’s voice through the speaker: “…the outside temperature is +12°, we will be flying at 32.000 feet, and the weather is actually quit bad: we have very strong winds, and we’ll go through heavy turbulence. Enjoy your flight, and thank you for choosing Virgin Express.” He must have been a psychologist before being an aeroplane pilot…
I am not worried at all, as I feel quite comfortable into turbulence, as being a pilot myself, I know that turbulence is not dangerous and it’s within the ordinary… actually on large airliners I fall asleep much easier when the plane shakes rather than when it goes smoothly.
In Great Britain the sky is “alive”. Clouds move fast and beautifully. The sky never looks the same for too long, especially up in Scotland. It looks like clouds are dancing in all directions, composing incredible scenarios and playing with the light the sun offers. This is due to the jet stream that undulates over Northern Great Britain.
Back to our flight, as we get closer to the “island” I decide to start looking outside, as a way of greeting the country on sight. Suddenly the pilot pulls back on the engines of the small Boeing 737, and we start descending with quit a drop, and the ears clog slightly. The sky is scattered, so I can see here and there and I can spot Leigh-on-Sea, where my Granny lives. I love spotting places and things from the plane, it makes me feel like I am flying the plane myself.
We get through some clouds, and I can see more of what is below. I can spot a small airport at the horizon, but I don’t know which one that is. The plane starts turning left and right here and there, suggesting that we entered the extra busy “class B” airspace of London Heathrow; one of the world’s busiest airspace. It’s late in the afternoon, and the sun is kind of low giving that great yellow/orange light over everything. I try to look what’s underneath the plane, and with my great surprise and curiosity I see a big Boeing 747 flagged “Pakistan Airlines”, flying in our same direction slightly slower, and at just 1000 feet below us. It’s fantastic to see this kind of “life” in the sky. When flying on a big airliner, one has always the impression of being alone in the sky, because there are not that many chances of spotting other aircraft as a passenger. Seeing two big airliners flying in formation (sort of) is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen. It’s like seeing two buildings flying together. The 747 then banks to the left and I lose sight of it.
Meanwhile we arrived over London. The pilot slowly extends the flaps, that in an airliner look more like if a robot from a Japanese cartoon was transforming itself into a prehistoric beast in slow motion or vice versa. At this point I try my best to spot the places I know, convinced of the fact that the plane will never fly right over central London, and that if it ever did we would have had everything covered by clouds. Well, time goes by, and I suddenly spot the Themes river. “Fantastic!” I said. Now I am looking for the City, then for Tower Bridge. Many bridges go by, but I can’t see the one I am looking for. We are very low over the city, maybe 3000 feet. Everything is so clear, and the light is superb. There it is! Tower Bridge! Then after that as in a chain reaction, I immediately spot everything else. As I am scanning the ground with great interest, the pilot banks to the right (luckily my side) to enters a “360”. This is what I had been waiting for, just over London, and I could have never imagined that it was going to happen. The “right 360” was probably ordered by “Heathrow Tower” for spacing to let the Pakistan Airlines 747 land before us. At this point I really begin to enjoy the view. While we turn, the light inside the plane changes as if the sun was moving instead of us. Everything is so clear, and I can spot right away whatever I am looking for. Damn! I don’t have my camera handy, this is really worth some shots. The sun reflected over the Thames river backlights the buildings, and the fast moving clouds that touch our wings and the once farther away, tell us that we are moving and not just looking at a postcard. It looks like a dream; I feel like Peter Pan flying over London in the famous Disney’s cartoon.
Once we got back to the correct heading I see Richmond Park that from the sky, and with that particular light it looked simply fantastic, followed by Richmond Golf Course. After that we can only see houses, and the view becomes more ordinary; sign that we are arriving at Heathrow airport.
Once talking to a British Military pilot, I asked him how it feels to fly around London, and he told me without thinking twice about it, that… “it can give you pretty big headaches. You have to be fast and precise on the radio, because there is no room for mistakes… it’s just too busy”.
The plane gets lower to the ground, and the wind seams to be stronger, sign that our speed has decrease of a great deal. It’s clear that as we get closer to the airport (judging from the altitude, probably at about 5 miles out) I can tell the pilot has a very hard time keeping the plane lined up with the centreline of the runway. Strong gusts of wind firmly push the large tail in one side moving the plane off the vertical axis; the pilot flies the plane inclined in one side, to keep it from being pushed away off course. I can “feel” the wind shaking the aircraft: the plane moves everywhere, up and down, left and right, a guy behind me vomits his lunch in a bag, and I feel so excited about what I am experiencing. I don’t feel sick at all, I am having the time of my life!
Since I was a student pilot I realised that the most beautiful moment of a flight is the landing. When you take off the plane mostly goes by itself; you just have to give full power and pull on the yoke. During a flight it’s even more boring. The fun comes all at once when you have to bring the aircraft to the ground. The transition from air to ground gives you an incredible feeling of power over the aircraft, the power of controlling every single movement; nothing is left to chance as it could easily happen during takeoff. Everything is strictly related: speed, altitude, rate of descent, bank angle, flaps, descent path, centreline, pitch, power, temperature. You have to physically control all of these elements, and when you see that as a result of a tiny action on the controls something important happens to the plane’s attitude, then you consciously gain full control. Every tiny movement applied to the yoke and the pedals mean something major happening to the airplane’s attitude in the air.
This is the reason why I am enjoying so much this landing. I can “feel” that in spite of the very strong winds, the pilot is keeping the plane right where he wants it, on the imaginary straight line that ends at the beginning of the runway. No matter how strong the gusts of wind are, the pilot corrects immediately the effects of what nature sends, and the plane stays right there where it’s supposed to be. It’s a fantastic feeling that I believe only a pilot can fully appreciate. I am wondering if what I am writing here will ever mean something to non-pilots.
I spot three Concorde quietly lying down next to an hangar, probably full of more Concords… too bad they don’t fly anymore… they really were something…
As the wind blows stronger than ever we get over the runway, and I suddenly got petrified remembering a very bad landing I once had done with a small Cessna 172 back in 1995. I was just scared that the same thing could have happened to the 737.
I was flying as pilot in command, taking some friends around California. Strong gusty winds were blowing over the small Santa Ynez airport (20 minutes flight distance from Santa Barbara), so I was descending at a slight higher speed. That Cessna was supposed to land at 55 Knots, and I was on “final” for landing at 500 feet out, at 70 Knots. I had in mind to get over the runway, and then decrease the speed once I was safely low, just in case the gusty wind would have suddenly stopped. It was the first time I flew as pilot in command with passengers on that type of aeroplane, and it was also the first (and last) time that a very good friend of mine flew with me. I brought the plane over the runway at 30 feet of altitude; speed 70 Knots, pitch OK, flaps fully extended at 40° as per manual. Everything looked fine, when suddenly several terrible things happened all at once: the needle of the speed dramatically dropped from 70 to 40 Knots! I felt as if my heart stopped beating. The stall warning started screaming, the nose of the plane begun dropping… I was crashing… and with three passengers on board. I knew that 30 feet of altitude were not enough to do anything at all, I could just try manoeuvring to crash better. Without thinking twice about it I applied full power to compensate for the great loss of speed and pulled on the yoke, so that if we had to crash, at least we would have crashed flat on the wheels instead of nose down. Regardless of what would have happened, for me it was an aborted landing, and I was doing all I could to try to take off again, hoping not to crash on the runway.
The nose was dropping down more, when it suddenly stopped. The speed was back to 60 Knots… the wind just started blowing again out of nowhere. This absence of wind lasted no more than 2 or 3 seconds, but it seamed like a lifetime to me. Before I knew it the plane gently touched the runway, and I was still applying full power – the headwind was very strong. As an immediate reaction to the problem I was still going to take off again, because it would have been safer to approach a new landing instead of adjusting a bad one; the plane just touched the ground, but the engine was still at full power, and nothing made me think it was over yet. But I realised that the runway I had left in front of me was not enough to take off again, and what if the wind kept playing with me? Short after the runway there were houses; I couldn’t risk, so I pulled back on the power and firmly applied pressure on the brakes to stop the plane and at the same time keeping a careful wind correction. The plane stopped in the middle of the runway, and for a moment I contemplated the just past horrifying 10 seconds. I didn’t know who to thank for that day. While I was taxing the plane to the parking area, the stress showed all at once: my hands were shaking and sweating, my mind was stacked on those 10 seconds and I was not paying enough attention to my wings that nearly hit another plane parked on the left. My friends were happy and joked over that “bumpy” landing… I was shocked, speechless, they didn’t know what almost happened to us. My passengers never knew anything, and they still don’t know. To this day they think it was just a windy day.
Flying is a science, but there is a point where science must meet nature. I had been damn close to that point. From this experience I have learned that with gusty winds (on a Cessna 172) you should never use full flaps on landing; instead it would be much better not to exceed 30 degrees extension, even though the operations handbook says to deploy full flaps. Had I had only 30 degrees flap extension instead of 40, I would have recovered much better just by applying full power and instead I nearly crashed. The full flaps extended were not only acting as brakes, but they were also physically preventing me to climb. The operations handbook is written by engineers that do not fly; they solve mathematic problems at a desk in a logical way, while pilots do most of their training up in the air, where they can see with their own eyes the advantages of applying common sense.
Back on the 737, I just hoped that nothing similar to that didn’t happen again… I see the runway… power off… touchdown! The pilot brakes heavily with the engines, the airbrakes, and the wheel brakes all together, confirming he was as eager as I was to loose speed quickly, to get out of the danger of those strong and unpredictable winds.
Arriving at Heathrow is an incredible experience that summarizes what London is all about: a big melting pot. There are hundreds of colorful airplanes from all over the world. You name the country… chances are it’s being represented there by an airplane, many of them moving. You see colorful tails moving everywhere on the ground. I spot a huge tail moving behind a building as if it was a shark in the sea. I see the Pakistan Airline 747 that we “met” earlier in the sky, going to the terminal area. When the plane turns right to leave the runway and heading to the terminal, I see the long line of planes lined up in the sky for landing with their headlight on; even more of them lined up for takeoff.
On the magazine they gave us on the plane, I was reading that there is a Boeing 737 taking off somewhere in the world every 10 seconds, and that there are 700 of them flying at any one time of the day or night… and this refers only to one type of plane. Imagine how many there are in total… think that from every major airport in the world an airplane takes off every 30 seconds. Considering the very limited number of plane crashes, flying is still the safest mean of transportation.
This flight is over, but I will never forget it (just like the one where I had nearly crashed) and I am looking forward to landing again at Heathrow.