As We Intercepted the Glideslope for Heathrow, the Runway Crosswind was 80 knots – Double the Aircraft’s Landing Limit…

As We Intercepted the Glideslope for Heathrow, the Runway Crosswind was 80 knots – Double the Aircraft’s Landing Limit...

The question was, after a long night-flight from Miami, would we have enough fuel if we had to go-around and divert…..?

It started a couple of days earlier. 

A sunny February day, and I was positioning to Miami to fly the service back to London the next evening. 

I was sitting by the bar in the aircraft, trying to get a signal to call my wife on my mobile.

My peripheral vision caught sight of someone who was clearly very agitated. 

I grabbed the attention of the crew member who was dealing with the passenger and asked what was going on. 

They explained that the passenger wanted to disembark. 

I looked at the passenger.  They were really distressed.

I gently asked, “Hi, my name’s Barry, can I help?” (time was tight and I wanted to understand exactly what the problem was).

The passenger replied, “I’ve got to get off”.  

I asked “why”.  

He looked up, clearly upset.  “I’m really anxious, I just have to get off”, now, but I can’t, I have a really, really, important meeting in the States”. 

“What’s your name”, I asked. 

“Oliver*” he replied. 

“Oliver, I know a little bit about this stuff, shall we sit down and have a chat about what’s going on?”, I explained that I was a positioning captain and asked what was troubling him. 

It became clear that it was anxiety about the flight. 

“I’m a regular flyer” he said, “but I have this really important meeting and this overwhelming urge to get off has just come over me”.

We’d seen this before and covered it often in our crew resource management (CRM) training.  The stress/arousal inverted “U” curve.  

Stress on the “X” axis, Performance on the “Y” axis.

Your performance improves as you become more stressed/aroused/stimulated on the left-hand side of the curve. 

Your performance peaks as you hit the top of it, but then even the smallest bit of stress/arousal causes it to drop off down the right-hand side (dramatically), as stress increases.

I also understood panic attacks 

We’d seen it often flying with nervous passengers and the same dynamics apply.

I spoke gently.  

“Oliver, I’m sitting right opposite you.  I’ve flown millions of miles and many thousands of hours, and wouldn’t be sitting on this aeroplane unless I felt safe.  I have absolutely no reason to take risks.  I’m too old for that.  If you feel anxious, look at me, because I’ll be watching you.  Anything that troubles you, let me know and I’ll talk you down.  Happy?”. 

“Happy!” he replied, looking like a little bit of the angst was peeling away.

We took our seats.  We maintained eye contact.  All was well.

Once in the cruise, I went over to him, and we agreed to go to the bar to have a drink.  “Coke for me, please Oliver, I’m flying tomorrow” I said. 

He smiled and then looked pensive. 

“So am I!” he retorted. 

“Which flight?” I asked. 

He gave me the flight number 

“I’m flying that, Oliver!”…..”great” he replied.  At that moment, the operating captain came over to say hello. 

“Have you seen the weather tomorrow?”, he queried. 

“Horrendous, gale force winds back in London!” he exclaimed. 

I looked towards Oliver.  This was not what he was hoping to hear.

“Oliver, I’m flying that aeroplane”, I interjected.  “Here’s my phone number and WhatsApp.  Give me yours and we’ll touch base any time we need to tomorrow.  Don’t hesitate to contact me”. 

We spoke for ages and after landing, cleared through immigration together, and said our goodbyes until our next flight, the following evening.

I monitored the terminal area forecasts (TAFs) and significant weather charts (SIGWX) throughout the next day and evolved a plan, speaking regularly with Operations Control back at base in the UK. 

The weather was, indeed looking “challenging”. 

Principally a southerly wind at 60+ knots blowing at the surface at Heathrow (LHR) for our arrival time. 

With the runways there aligned westerly, this would put the forecast crosswind out of aircraft limits for our estimated arrival time.

Note the use of the terms “forecast” and “estimated”.

What would you do?

I repeatedly spoke to my colleague who was flying with me that night, the lead cabin crew member, the local base station and operations as we developed a plan and then repeatedly modified it, as the weather data was updated.

By call-time for the flight, we had a very up-to-date plan.

We had concluded that at our “estimated” arrival time, based upon “forecast” winds, we had a very small window of opportunity to land at Heathrow.  

We aligned Ops, the local base, the crew, and air traffic (ATC) with our plan and what would be required to achieve it.  

We had to leave Miami as far ahead of a specific time to make that weather window. 

Remember, with airline operations you have many constraints

Crew duty time is one of them. 

Fuel is another.

Aircraft landing limits is yet another, and the destination and alternate airfields’ facilities and runway directions present yet more limitations. 

Absolute safety is the non-negotiable.

Once on board, I went back into the cabin and met Oliver and his colleagues. I explained “the plan”. 

He told me that several of his colleagues were very nervous flyers. 

I spoke to and reassured them, and then asked them all if they were ‘happy?’. 

They said they were.

I then made a PA to the cabin and explained the plan to the rest of the passengers and checked with the senior cabin crew member that the passengers, too, were content.  They were.

We departed, just in time to make the weather window.

The image at the top of this article gives the Navigation Display on that flight. 

Note the ground speed (GS) indication (top left) 681 knots (783 MPH) versus the true airspeed indication (TAS) of 475 knots (546 MPH). 

We had a tailwind of 206 knots (236 MPH)

You can see the wind speed indicator showing that it’s from 231 degrees (south westerly) at 210 knots (242 MPH).

As we flew close to LHR, the TAF was looking increasingly “unpleasant”, as was the actual weather (the Actual). 

The weather window was closing but threshold wind was still reported as being within limits, but it was going to be very bumpy on the approach. 

Not pleasant for the passengers (or crew).

This was going to be an “interesting” arrival.

We’d been checking the weather via the auto-reporting on the ACARS (our on-board text facility). 

I made a totally honest PA to the passengers giving them the update (remember, they also knew the outline “plan” before we departed Miami).

We took radar vectors on to the instrument landing system for LHR runway 27R – lap straps tightly secured.

As we turned on to the instrument landing system (ILS) glideslope for Heathrow, the crosswind was 80 knots across the runway – double the aircraft’s landing limit.

We cross-conferred on the flight deck and with ATC for the threshold wind and Actual. 

It was very bumpy, and because of the wind the runway’s visual aspect was well to the right in the windscreen, due to the “crabbing” of the aircraft to maintain the runway extended centreline.

Airbus A330 flight deck taken at dawn above clouds. Showing the aircraft electronic instrumentation

We crossed-checked the fuel 

We continued toward the threshold. 

It was dark outside, but a clear sky and the lights of London sparkled brightly as we bounced down the ILS. 

As we approach around 1,000 feet, we rechecked the surface wind with the tower controller.  It was still just within limits.  We continued. 

The turbulence became worse the closer to the ground we came. 

The tower controller gave us regular threshold wind checks as we continued our final approach to land. 

The turbulence increased at we neared the threshold, as the wind kicked off the hangars to the south of the runway.

Focussed now on the landing and manually flying, we flared, kicked off the drift and put into-wind aileron in to stop wing lift on the runway rollout. 

We rolled down the centreline of the runway

My colleague cancelled the ground spoilers as we turned off on to the taxi way. 

I felt the adrenalin flow.

We parked on stand. 

I spoke to and thanked the passengers.

Six hours thirty-four minutes flight time from Miami to London.  Amazing.

After we’d completed our shutdown checks, I wandered back into the cabin and spoke to Oliver.

“How was it?  How are you all?” I asked

“Slept the whole way” replied a chirpy and well-rested Oliver.

“Yep, it’s nice to have a plan and enough fuel to hold in the air at Heathrow, fly an approach, go-around, go back to the hold, fly another approach, divert to Stansted [which was more in to wind], enter the hold, fly an approach, go-around, then divert to Frankfurt [where there was lovely weather no significant wind], hold and land”, said I.

“I was never worried after you told us all the plan, Barry” replied Oliver.

“Neither were we, Oliver, neither were we”, I said with a smile.

And now I’ve retired from airline flying, I can view the events through a different lens

  • Take the time to understand our clients at a personal level.  We’re human, we communicate on a human level.
  • Take the time to understand concerns and needs and do all that can be done address these.
  • Be prepared to show and share vulnerability; be supportive. We’re all vulnerable.
  • Trust is the great bridge to communication, insight and understanding.
  • When faced with a significant challenge (change, for example), create a strategic vision, and then work with as many stakeholders as is practically possible to work-it-up and then work out how to deliver it. 
  • In the case above it was the entire crew (flight-deck and cabin crew), engineering, operations, ATC, the US and UK meteorological agencies, the local base manager and their teams, the ground crew at Miami and the people who had trained us all and those who had written the manuals and the regulations too.  They were all part of “the team”.
  • Even in a highly constrained and regulated environment, create an agile, open culture where innovation thrives and can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to execution.
  • Review the plan/vision regularly and modify strategy based on what also emerges.  The “emergent approach to strategy” (Peter Compo)
  • Keep communicating with your team and stakeholders throughout the process.  Their input and buy-in is critical.  Keep them involved and engaged.
  • Always have a genuine and usable backup options.
  • Ensure you have more than enough reserves (fuel, cash/balance sheet, systems, energy, enthusiasm) to carry the plan. 
  • When we turned on to the ILS at LHR the “question” about fuel had already been answered – in Miami!
  • Measure before, during and upon completion (we cross-checked throughout the flight that our remaining fuel at would be as planned, and that the weather on arrival would be acceptable).  Think OKRs and KPIs.
  • Celebrate wins.  We did (thank you, Oliver!). 

Sometime, I’ll tell you about the flight to Hong Kong with the TAF forecasting a typhoon…….but that’s one for another day………

Barry Eustance CMgr MCMI  

Kotter Change Leader Program Certified

Principal Change & Transformation Consultant – The Sixsess Consultancy

#change #transformation #kotter #competitiveadvantage #dualstructure #leadership #changeleadership #strategy #emergentapproachtostrategy

 (*Oliver is not the passenger’s real name, but used here to protect identity and privacy)

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