Fall keeps not only the pharmacies busy – also we pilots get challenged quite frequently. As summer enjoys some time off on the southern side of the globe, some impressive weather systems keep moving in and across Europe. These frontal systems are quite likely accompanied by gusting winds, dropping temperatures and gusty winds. The closer we get to the ground, the smaller our margins for errors get and gusty winds are among those factors not likely to ease a landing.
I’ve been flying in and out of London Heathrow many times during my time on shorthaul. My logbook totals some 98 landings at LHR performed by me as pilot flying. Arriving across the Channel we usually pick up a BIG3B arrival into EGLL – as the airport is also know in the world of abbreviations. Quite frankly the airport is operating at its capacity limit resulting in us having to be a little patient before commencing our approach and landing. Each and every airport has some holding areas where the planes queue for their turn. This so called holding pattern normally consists of a 180° turn followed by a one-minute straight flight before doing another turn.
Today LHR is very busy again, resulting in some twenty minutes delay for our flight. Will circling over the Biggin Hill Airport southeast of the metropolis the Captain and I are going through the approach ahead of us. The latest weather report indicates some strong southerly winds and a low cloud ceiling. My job will be to select the proper commands at the autopilot to intercept the final approach path and stabilize the Airbus for it’s landing on runway 27L. As we go through our briefing I mention the important steps and my intentions. My focus is put on the specials we are soon going to face, or one could also call it the challenge. The main hub of British Airways and the gateway of London to the world is equipped with two parallel runways, facing east west. To accommodate the impressive amount of traffic one runway is mainly used for landings while the other handles the departing planes. In between the two runways are the terminal concourses as well as the maintenance area with its huge hangars. They are sitting right next to the runway heads of 27L/R and are well know to cause some nice wind rotors right by the time we are about to settle the aluminum bird softly onto the concrete. Among the dense traffic situation this is one special LHR offers us during weather as this day.
“SWISS THREE ONE EIGHT complete the orbit over BIG and leave heading 260 degrees, speed 220 knots”, a precise instruction by the ATC calls and end to the almost 15 minutes waiting in the queue. Shortly there after we will be instructed to continue our descent and after a series of heading changes will be intercepting the localizer of the ILS (instrument landing system). I will fast forward these remaining 10 minutes to landing and focus on the last seconds before touchdown.
The autopilot did a hell of a job, getting us properly established on the approach path. Our gear has been lowered, the flaps set and all the checklists completed. A few minutes earlier we started to feel the wind. It has been giving us some nice shakes and bumps as we are making our way towards the runway. My captain acknowledges the landing clearance the last puzzle piece completing all our preparations for the landing. My brain is fully focused and the ringing sound of me disconnecting the autopilot and thus taking manual control of the aircraft just adds a boost to it. We are going faster as usually to compensate for the gusting winds, racing for the runway at a mere fifty meters per second. I get some nice bumps of the wind and gently correcting our flight path to meet the touchdown zone. “One hundred”, the plane talks to me, saying that I am getting roughly 30m above the ground still focusing on maintaining the descending flight path. Soon I will start to compensate for the wind. In order not to be put off by the crosswind I keep veering the airplane into the wind, something I need to correct by the time we touchdown. This is done turning the nose of the aircraft towards the runway and applying some aileron into the wind. So I am basically flying with crossed controls going some one hundred and forty something knots. “Fifty”, we are now over the runway and I shift my focus into the infinite. This helps me to catch my vertical approach towards the runway. “Thirty”, the airplane is almost aligned with the runway banking slightly into the wind, while I gently starting to pull on the side stick slowing that descent. “Twenty, Ten”, Mr. Jean-Paul Airbus (as we use to call the airplane) tells me that we are about to touchdown and only a few meters are between our gear and the 4000 meters of concrete ahead of us. I pull back the thrust lever, cutting the thrust of the engines down to idle and keep adding some backpressure to keep that nose up where it should be. Here we are, certainly not the gentlest one, but a safe one for sure. Our Airbus has firm contact with the ground and I apply the reverse thrust and start braking to slow these 63 tones of pure engineering down. A few moments later we are vacating the runway, making our way to the gate just in time.