Behind the Image: Automatic Landing

 Most of the time, pilots fly the landing manually, except in low-visibility conditions, as seen here aboard this Airbus A220, seconds from the touchdown at Munich Airport. The pilots are fully focused on monitoring the autopilot, and the aircraft systems, as the airplane is about to perform an automatic landing in as little as 200m visibility.

 

Thankfully flying is an outdoor activity that allows us to witness breathtaking weather phenomenon from a unique vantage point. Luckily, my home base Zurich Airport is located within the moderate latitudes, offering the chance to see all the beauty the four seasons have to offer. But with the beauty come some challenges too: Winter calls for contaminated runways and lengthy de-icing, spring and fall often have far-reaching blankets of thick fog in store for us. Generally, flying within these conditions is safe as long as we follow the supplementary procedures closely. Still, it's fair to say that they create an additional workload for all involved too.

 

Without diving too deep into technical facts and operational regulations, an airliner can generally be manually landed (flown by the pilot) with a visibility of 550m or more. We can distinguish today's approach types between precision and non-precision approaches. They differentiate mainly by the technology involved. A Non-Precision Approach is based on two-dimensional guidance, while a precision approach is three-dimensional. The recent years have brought a giant leap forward in technology, and navigation tends more and more towards satellite-based navigation. However, all current approach types of operating in low visibility conditions are still ground-based. The most common one is the ILS or instrument landing system. Its lateral and vertical radio signals guide the aircraft from a defined final approach point (FAP) to the runway.

Depending on the installed components and level of certification, an approach gets assigned a particular approach category. The most basic one for an ILS is a CAT1 (requiring 550m visibility or more), and the most advanced one, CAT3c, allows a landing with no visibility at all. As the latter needs significantly constricting back-up systems and comprehensive calibration and certification, no airport has implemented it to my knowledge. And from a practical standpoint, where would you go once you land in zero visibility and stop your aircraft on the runway if you can't see anything? Even if there's a follow-me vehicle to guide you, none of you can see each other to understand which way to take. As a result, you'll be stuck on the runway until and unless the visibility improves. Therefore most bigger airports offer CAT3b approaches that require visibility of at least 75m. It is essential to understand that one needs to distinguish between an automatic landing and low visibility procedures. While the latter is something the concerns operational and procedural aspects on the ground and in the airplane, the first one is purely a matter of installed technology on the aircraft.

Simply put, we could automatically land (let the autopilot do the work) on many runways (of course still with some restrictions) with at least a CAT2 ILS installed as long as all the required airplane systems are functional. But once the visibility reduces below 550m, things start to get complicated. Now the so-called "low visibility procedures" are in force (called-out by the airport/air traffic control), putting a whole set of regulations and requirements in place. They include technical aspects of the ground equipment (a malfunction of individual runway lights or transmitters could cause a downgrade). The aircraft systems require all involved parties (pilots and air traffic controllers) to be trained qualified for the specific level. And above all, the pilot's low-visibility operation is exclusively performed in Command (Of course, with the autopilot engaged).

To put it into a nutshell: Flying in foggy weather is safe but certainly very complex and requires a thorough preparation in the flight deck.

 

A new day dawns on the horizon as we fly east above the lake of Constance, preparing our approach to runway 26R at Munich Airport. A little over an hour back, we started duty in Geneva and reviewed the briefing package. This pile of information tells us, pilots, what the upcoming day might have in store for us. The information cover weather aspects, just as much as operational information about the assigned aircraft or the airport we will operate from or to and is coded into an aviation-slang that originates back in the day when the communication technology was far from digital. We streak-through the briefing package in a pre-defined order looking for extra-ordinary facts and condensate them into specials and hazards. At first, this might sound "critical," but it is our approach to distinguish between the ordinary and those factors that might call for extra attention. While neither the aircraft nor the airports have any significant deficiencies, the Munich Airport weather forecast predicts thick fog in the morning. We expect that there will be so-called "low visibility procedures" in force calling for a reduced traffic flow rate.

Flying in such reduced visibility is among the primary things we train in every simulator session, while it is rather seldom in real life. It is the moment the autopilot takes over for the landing, and we pilots become spectators in a very complex system.

The thick layer of fog only covers the ground, making it is surreal to slowly descend into this sea of clouds knowing that we are only a few hundred meters above the ground. "Five hundred", the radio altimeter calls out our height above the ground. A few moments ago, we were cleared to land, and we received the final information about the current visibility. It is just over 250m along the whole runway.

Both pilots continuously monitor the systems and navigation indications. Any excessive deviation (could be caused by another airplane taxiing too close to the runway) or a technical deficiency would require a Go-Around. As almost all landings are manually flown, it takes some time to get used to that feeling of "handing over control" to the autopilot. We are diving into the fog, and soon the system will call out "Approaching minimums" as we are coming over the runway. I start to see some faint lights ahead. They gradually become more intense, and I can associate them with the runway light system. To proceed with the landing, I need to acquire specific visual cues. In the case of a CAT3a approach, at least three consecutive lights of the touchdown zone light, the runway edge lights, the runway centerline lights, or the combination thereof. Please take a look at the picture above and try it yourself. "Minimums" - What's your verdict? Are we allowed to land?


About "Behind the Image"

In my photo calendar "Up in the Sky" I get to share my favorite aviation pictures with you. This blog series will complement the product and will tell the story about the moment the picture was taken. It will also share comprehensive information about what happend on the flight deck.

Behind the Image: Alpine Wingmen

The Lauberhorn Ski Race is the longest downhill run of the World Cup circuit and Switzerland's biggest annual winter sports event. As an established attraction, the Patrouille Suisse, Swiss Air Forces aerobatic demonstration team, performs a spectacular airshow set against the breathtaking alpine backdrop, often joined by an airliner.

Have you ever imagined how it must feel like to precisely navigate between the tight gates while racing down a steep, icy slope at up to 150km/h? Surely the adrenaline levels spike at times of slight irregularities, but maybe that's just the needed satisfaction for those doing it. A ski racer has quite a lot in common with an airline pilot: Everything boils down to a short period of absolute focus and skills, where failure is not an option. While both need an excellent team in the background, paving their path to success, their preparation needs to be meticulous. That couldn't be any more true as for the crews of the display pilots of the flights at the Lauberhorn Ski Race, and I had the privilege to accompany them on several occasions and document the extraordinary flights.

 

After countless hours of planning and briefing, individual preparation, and joint simulator sessions, they are ready for the real flight. The F5E Tiger pilots are certainly "within" their comfort zone while performing such a display flight with an airliner is not only a career highlight but a big challenge too. Imagine flying a closely clocked program in an airliner within an arena of 3500m high peaks that probably create the most spectacular scenery in the Alps while being trailed by six fighter jets in tight formation at up to 400km/h. I would say everything needs to be flawless, and just as for the ski racer: Errors are not an option.

 

We fly somewhere over rural Switzerland just north of the Alps and wait until we get joined by the Patrouille Suisse. It was an exciting experience to watch my colleagues prepare for today's flight. They are excited yet fully focussed and know the display program by heart. Soon the fighter jets join us, and after a couple of sweeping turns to get in the flow, we start to head for the Lauberhorn venue. While the past days offered some dull and grey weather, they also made sure the Alps were freshly-powdered. On the race day, a perfect winter wonderland awaits us, and the stage was set for a successful ski race and a breathtaking display flight in front of thousands of spectators on the ground.

 

The Alps never cease to take our breath away and cast a spell on many of us. Those routes that take me across the rugged peaks and twisted valleys are among my favorite ones, and I call it a vast privilege to have such beautiful scenery just at my doorstep. Flights in and out of Zurich or Geneva offer stunning sights, and even for us "frequent flyer" flying the "scenic" routes amazes us over and over again. But flying so close to those peaks and feeling the perfect line we were flying certainly got me some tears of joy in the eyes. We zoomed across spectacular ridges, and freshly powdered treelines climbed along the race tracks and did tight turns in front of the famous mountain formation "Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau." It was a blast to feel the pilots' precision and skills and see the pictures shot from the ground; I am confident the spectators certainly felt the same way. Inbetween our fly-pasts, the Patrouille Suisse performed their program before joining us again for a final flyby. It was time to hand the flag over to the ski racers and heading back to our bases. And the show continued as the Swiss ski racers certainly didn't fail to amaze by securing the victory at one of the most challenging and longest downhill ski race in the world cup circus.

 

Back in 2015 I got the chance to create and tell the story about the similarities of the ski racers and the display pilots.


About "Behind the Image"

In my photo calendar "Up in the Sky" I get to share my favorite aviation pictures with you. This blog series will complement the product and will tell the story about the moment the picture was taken. It will also share comprehensive information about what happend on the flight deck.

Behind the Scene: Photo Calender "Up in the Sky 2021"

Take a closer Look

 

It is this time of the year again!

Quoting a famous movie, they say, "same procedure as every year!"

Welcome to a look behind the scenes of my latest photo calendar, which is now available to pre-order.

 

For many of us, flying has become ordinary. Fortunately, it still inspires many of us and creates lots of emotions. May it be the excitement to travel to a far distant place, or the joy to soar above the clouds and watch the world pass by underneath, or last but not least, the thrill it creates if the airways are a bit bumpier than expected. What does flying mean to you?

 

My daily life in the flight deck takes me above the clouds and across the globe. One of my constant travel companions is my camera. I have carefully curated some of my favorite views and would like to share the most extraordinary and awe-inspiring moments in this calendar with you. I am glad to have you join me on the flight deck or the airport's tarmac and experience the beauty of flight from a pilot's perspective. For more insights into my daily adventures above the clouds, make sure to follow my Instagram account «@sky_trotter» and read my blog.

 

I want to take this opportunity to thank all involved in making this project possible. A special appreciation goes out to my fellow pilots, internal departments for their support and permission to use the images. All pictures were taken during the non-sterile phase, on the ground, or as an observer in the third seat.

I am honored that my creative work was selected as a winner at the International Photography Awards 2018.

 

Because we care

I am very proud to inform you that you support a cause for good by purchasing this photo calendar. For every copy sold, I donate CHF 5.- to the children's foundation of the SWISS employees (Stiftung Kinderhilfe des SWISS Personals). Visit their website for further information. Thank you very much for your support.

 

This project is produced entirely in Switzerland and promotes an effort for the global climate issue. All arising CO2 emissions are compensated by donations towards projects of MyClimate, making this project carbon neutral. From wood processing to the finished print, the production takes place per FSC-standards. Therefore, the used paper originates from environmentally-friendly and socially acceptable managed forests.

 

Let's take a closer look.

Read the picture description down below. These are the pictures of my 2020 photo calendar with some very different insights into my daily life as an airline pilot. Head over to my shop to get your copy today. Click here to get to the store>

Cover

Good Morning, ZRH

A serene morning welcomes us home, and the glowing lights of runway 14 guide us towards our landing at Zurich Airport. Most of the arriving flights are touching down on the 3300-meter-long runway, making it the gateway to Switzerland and the homebase to the 5’700 crew members at SWISS.

 

 

January

Alpine Wingmen

 The Lauberhorn Ski Race is the longest downhill run of the World Cup circuit and Switzerland's biggest annual winter sports event. As an established attraction, the Swiss Air Force’s aerobatic demonstration team Patrouille Suisse performs its spectacular display together with an airliner in front of the breathtaking alpine scenery of the famous Bernese Alps.

 

 

 

February

Automatic Landing

Most of the time, pilots fly the landing manually, except in low-visibility conditions, as seen here aboard this Airbus A220, seconds from touchdown at Munich Airport. The pilots are fully focused on monitoring the autopilot, and the aircraft systems, as the airplane is about to perform an automatic landing in as little as 200m visibility.

March

Picturesque Spring

Spring is in full bloom as this Airbus A340 soars over the colorful fields at Zurich Airport. In a few moments, a smooth touchdown will draw an end to an almost twelve-hour long journey home from Shanghai, China. Its cargo holds are full of urgently needed medical supplies to help battle the pandemic in Switzerland.

 


April

Challenging Weather

A passing cold front causes challenging conditions with moderate precipitation mixed with gusty westerly winds. It requires landings on runway 28, the shortest one at Zurich Airport. The crew of this Boeing 777 inbound from São Paulo, Brazil, is about to crown the long flight with a great landing after flying through the night and across the South Atlantic Ocean.

 

 

May

A Misty Morning

With the Alps as a backdrop, flying into Zurich Airport offers breathtaking views, especially when approaching from the north. We are nicely established on approach to runway 14 during the golden hour on one of the first summer days. The dissipating morning mist creates a mystical scene as it gets illuminated by the warm sunrays.

 

 

June

Cleared for Take-Off

In just over one hour, this early morning departure will take 170 passengers to London Heathrow. The Airbus A320neo is new to the fleet and one of the most efficient airliners on the market. Thanks to improved aerodynamics and a new engine technology, it is much quieter than comparable aircraft of the previous generation and emits about 15% less CO2.

 

 


July

Mother Earth’s Light Show

We pass through the belt of convective weather over the Indian subcontinent en route to Bangkok. While circumnavigating the thunderstorm cells, we get to admire an impressive show of St. Elmo's fire. While looking spectacular, it is no hazard at all. It is caused by the clouds electrically charging the atmosphere and becomes visible as a luminous electrical discharge once the electrical charge becomes sufficiently intense.

 

 

August

Tropical Sunset

After an 11-hour long-haul flight halfway around the globe, this B777 is about to touchdown on runway 24R at Los Angeles Intl. Airport. A tropical scene with palm trees swaying in the warm sea breeze and a colorful sunset welcome LX40 to California and the third-largest airport in the world.

 

 

September

Sunset with a View

The state-of-the-art flight cockpit of our Airbus A220 offers us an excellent situational overview. We are preparing our approach to Geneva Airport after a short flight from Frankfurt, Germany. The arrival route to the second largest airport in Switzerland offers scenic views over Lake Geneva and the French Alps, the background in a colorful evening mood.

 

 


October

Colorful Rush Hour

Busy moments at Zurich Airport as the morning rush hour is in full swing in typical grey fall weather. The colorful Indian summer creates a vibrant background for this Airbus 330 arriving from Tel Aviv, Israel, and the two Airbus A220 following closely behind. They have just landed from their short-haul flights from Belgrade, Serbia, and Berlin, Germany, respectively.

 

 

November

Otherworldly scenery

We are soaring high above a world so far from ours: The unique landscape of Afghanistan. The beauty of this harsh and hostile corner of the world is hard to comprehend. Deep canyons cut into the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountain range that rises into an almost endless cobalt-blue sky. The breathtaking scene gets interrupted only by the infrequent passing of other airplanes.

 

 

 

December

The Magic of the Arctic

Bright Aurora Borealis are dancing in the blistering cold Arctic night sky above us. We have dimmed the lights on the flight deck to fully enjoy the otherworldly spectacle as we are gliding into a new day somewhere over the frozen Saint Lawrence River in Eastern Canada. Only occasional radio chatter fill the otherwise quiet airwaves as we prepare for the crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean.

 

 


 

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"Challenge Accepted" - A Windy Landing

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.

Behind the Scene: Photo Calender "Up in the Sky 2020" now available

Take a closer Look

Welcome on board

As an airline pilot, I get to meet a great deal of people, explore cities, and landscapes around the world. One of my constant travel companions is my camera. These photographs in this calendar were taken during my flights this past year. In this manner, I can to invite you to take a seat in the cockpit and experience the world from a pilot’s perspective.

 

For more insights into my daily adventures above the clouds, make sure to follow my Instagram account «@sky_trotter» and read my blog www.beyondclouds.ch

 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all involved in making this project possible. A special appreciation goes out to my fellow pilots, internal departments for their support, and permission to use the images. All pictures were either taken during the non-sterile phase of the flight, on the ground, or as an observer in the third seat.

It's an honour that my creative work was selected among the winners at the International Photography Awards 2018.

 

 

Because we care

I am very proud to inform you, that by purchasing this photo calendar you are supporting a cause for good. For every copy sold, I donate CHF 5.- to the children foundation of the SWISS employees (Stiftung Kinderhilfe des SWISS Personals). Visit swiss-kinderstiftung.ch for further information. Thank you very much for your support.

 

This project is produced entirely in Switzerland and promotes an effort for the global climate issue. To be carbon-neutral, all arising CO2 emissions are compensated by donations towards projects of MyClimate. From wood processing to the finished print, the production takes place in accordance with FSC-standards. Therefore, the used paper originates from environmentally-friendly and socially acceptable managed forests.

 

Lets take a closer look

Read the picture description down below. These are the pictures of my 2020 photo calendar with some very different insights into my daily life as an airline pilot. Head over to my shop to get your copy today. Click here to get to the store>

Cover

Transatlantic Twilight

 

A new day dawns on the horizon as we are flying east along the busy North Atlantic Track System. The sky ahead of us is about to display the colorful spectacle as the night slowly dissipates and the sun rises.

 

January

Otherworldly

We are reaching the coast of Eastern Greenland where the frozen Atlantic Ocean meets the rocky, snow-covered mountains of the Arctic. The surreal landscape spreads as far as the eye can see and we have to remind ourselves that we are passing over one of the most remote and unforgiving sceneries on earth. We are glad to have LX38 bound for San Francisco as our wingmen.

 

February

Night Landing

A short evening flight takes the crew of this Airbus A220 to the busy hub of Frankfurt International Airport (EDDF). All checklists have been completed and the landing clearance has been received. They are nicely established on the final approach and in a few moments they will land one of the most modern airliners on runway 25R.

 

March

Into a New Day

We have departed Geneva Airport at night with thick fog. A few minutes later mother nature shows all her glory as we are climbing into the new day. The first rays of a serene morning are casting a warm light across the stunning landscape to our left as we are passing by Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and other tall peaks of the Alps.

 

 


April

Alpen Glow

On days of good visibility, the impressive Swiss Alps provide a scenic background at Zurich Airport. While the first light enfolds the Alps with their warm glow, this Airbus A220 is on final approach to runway 14. The airport springs into life connecting the gateway of Switzerland with its 185 destinations in 66 countries around the world.

 

 

May

Sunrise Atlantico

A long night flight is taking us across the Southern Atlantic Ocean to the Brazilian Metropolis of Sao Paolo. Sunrises and sunsets around the equator are among the most beautiful. Mother nature is putting on an impressive and colorful show, as we are heading southwest circumnavigating some dissipating thunderstorm cells along the coast line.

 

June

Finding our Way

Many people think that navigating in-flight is more challenging, than finding our way on the ground. However, getting from the runway to our gate takes us through countless taxiways, while paying attention to busy ground traffic. This can be more tricky than finding our way up in the sky, especially when experiencing reduced visibility or intense precipitation.

 


July

Coming Home

The warm sun rays of a serene morning are welcoming this Airbus A340 back home after flying through the night. Its journey started twelve hours ago when the four-engine aircraft departed from Johannesburg, South Africa. There are only a few meters left and arriving at the gate also marks the end of a great career of the Captain, who will retire after this flight.

 

August

Stormy Rushhour

The evening rush hour is in full swing as an impressive thunderstorm is building up to the east of Zurich Airport. A common sight after a hot summer’s day in Switzerland. Soon, the flights in and out of our home base will be busy circumnavigating the impressive convective weather as they journey to all corners of Europe.

 

September

Sunset Landing

Despite having all the support from the autopilot, the majority of the landings are performed manually by the pilots. It requires great teamwork, a fully-focused concentration and a great set of skills to precisely maneuver the airplane on to the runway and to crown the flight with a great landing. This crew of an Airbus A220 is about to land on runway 26L at Leipzig Airport during the golden hour.

 


October

Not much to see

Thanks to sophisticated autopilots most modern airliners can land in as little as 75 meters of visibility. This is especially impressive considering that an airplane is flying at around 140kts or 260km/h during a landing thus covering about 70 meters every second. This not only calls for impeccable systems onboard and on the ground, but also for extensive and flawless training of the crews.

 

November

Winter Wonderland

A scenic flight takes us across Switzerland and the freshly powdered peaks of the Alps. The pilots of the Airbus A220 get treated with the latest technology and the Head-Up Display (HUD) displays, all relevant flight parameters and autopilot modes within their field of view while they are keeping a good lookout.

 

December

A Pilot's Christmas Tree

Airline crews are out and about on all of the 365 days of the year. Sometimes we spend time up in the sky, even on Christmas, away from our loved ones. That’s why we have our own little Christmas tree, shaped by the approach and runway lights as we are closing-in to land.

 


 

Get your copy today

Did you enjoy these impressions from my daily life as an airline pilot? Head over to my shop to get your copy today.

Click here to get to the store>

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Behind the Image: Automatic Landing

 Most of the time, pilots fly the landing manually, except in low-visibility conditions, as seen here aboard this Airbus A220, seconds from the touchdown at Munich Airport. The pilots are fully focused on monitoring the autopilot, and the aircraft systems, as the airplane is about to perform an automatic landing in as little as 200m visibility.

 

Thankfully flying is an outdoor activity that allows us to witness breathtaking weather phenomenon from a unique vantage point. Luckily, my home base Zurich Airport is located within the moderate latitudes, offering the chance to see all the beauty the four seasons have to offer. But with the beauty come some challenges too: Winter calls for contaminated runways and lengthy de-icing, spring and fall often have far-reaching blankets of thick fog in store for us. Generally, flying within these conditions is safe as long as we follow the supplementary procedures closely. Still, it's fair to say that they create an additional workload for all involved too.

 

Without diving too deep into technical facts and operational regulations, an airliner can generally be manually landed (flown by the pilot) with a visibility of 550m or more. We can distinguish today's approach types between precision and non-precision approaches. They differentiate mainly by the technology involved. A Non-Precision Approach is based on two-dimensional guidance, while a precision approach is three-dimensional. The recent years have brought a giant leap forward in technology, and navigation tends more and more towards satellite-based navigation. However, all current approach types of operating in low visibility conditions are still ground-based. The most common one is the ILS or instrument landing system. Its lateral and vertical radio signals guide the aircraft from a defined final approach point (FAP) to the runway.

Depending on the installed components and level of certification, an approach gets assigned a particular approach category. The most basic one for an ILS is a CAT1 (requiring 550m visibility or more), and the most advanced one, CAT3c, allows a landing with no visibility at all. As the latter needs significantly constricting back-up systems and comprehensive calibration and certification, no airport has implemented it to my knowledge. And from a practical standpoint, where would you go once you land in zero visibility and stop your aircraft on the runway if you can't see anything? Even if there's a follow-me vehicle to guide you, none of you can see each other to understand which way to take. As a result, you'll be stuck on the runway until and unless the visibility improves. Therefore most bigger airports offer CAT3b approaches that require visibility of at least 75m. It is essential to understand that one needs to distinguish between an automatic landing and low visibility procedures. While the latter is something the concerns operational and procedural aspects on the ground and in the airplane, the first one is purely a matter of installed technology on the aircraft.

Simply put, we could automatically land (let the autopilot do the work) on many runways (of course still with some restrictions) with at least a CAT2 ILS installed as long as all the required airplane systems are functional. But once the visibility reduces below 550m, things start to get complicated. Now the so-called "low visibility procedures" are in force (called-out by the airport/air traffic control), putting a whole set of regulations and requirements in place. They include technical aspects of the ground equipment (a malfunction of individual runway lights or transmitters could cause a downgrade). The aircraft systems require all involved parties (pilots and air traffic controllers) to be trained qualified for the specific level. And above all, the pilot's low-visibility operation is exclusively performed in Command (Of course, with the autopilot engaged).

To put it into a nutshell: Flying in foggy weather is safe but certainly very complex and requires a thorough preparation in the flight deck.

 

A new day dawns on the horizon as we fly east above the lake of Constance, preparing our approach to runway 26R at Munich Airport. A little over an hour back, we started duty in Geneva and reviewed the briefing package. This pile of information tells us, pilots, what the upcoming day might have in store for us. The information cover weather aspects, just as much as operational information about the assigned aircraft or the airport we will operate from or to and is coded into an aviation-slang that originates back in the day when the communication technology was far from digital. We streak-through the briefing package in a pre-defined order looking for extra-ordinary facts and condensate them into specials and hazards. At first, this might sound "critical," but it is our approach to distinguish between the ordinary and those factors that might call for extra attention. While neither the aircraft nor the airports have any significant deficiencies, the Munich Airport weather forecast predicts thick fog in the morning. We expect that there will be so-called "low visibility procedures" in force calling for a reduced traffic flow rate.

Flying in such reduced visibility is among the primary things we train in every simulator session, while it is rather seldom in real life. It is the moment the autopilot takes over for the landing, and we pilots become spectators in a very complex system.

The thick layer of fog only covers the ground, making it is surreal to slowly descend into this sea of clouds knowing that we are only a few hundred meters above the ground. "Five hundred", the radio altimeter calls out our height above the ground. A few moments ago, we were cleared to land, and we received the final information about the current visibility. It is just over 250m along the whole runway.

Both pilots continuously monitor the systems and navigation indications. Any excessive deviation (could be caused by another airplane taxiing too close to the runway) or a technical deficiency would require a Go-Around. As almost all landings are manually flown, it takes some time to get used to that feeling of "handing over control" to the autopilot. We are diving into the fog, and soon the system will call out "Approaching minimums" as we are coming over the runway. I start to see some faint lights ahead. They gradually become more intense, and I can associate them with the runway light system. To proceed with the landing, I need to acquire specific visual cues. In the case of a CAT3a approach, at least three consecutive lights of the touchdown zone light, the runway edge lights, the runway centerline lights, or the combination thereof. Please take a look at the picture above and try it yourself. "Minimums" - What's your verdict? Are we allowed to land?


About "Behind the Image"

In my photo calendar "Up in the Sky" I get to share my favorite aviation pictures with you. This blog series will complement the product and will tell the story about the moment the picture was taken. It will also share comprehensive information about what happend on the flight deck.

Behind the Image: Alpine Wingmen

The Lauberhorn Ski Race is the longest downhill run of the World Cup circuit and Switzerland's biggest annual winter sports event. As an established attraction, the Patrouille Suisse, Swiss Air Forces aerobatic demonstration team, performs a spectacular airshow set against the breathtaking alpine backdrop, often joined by an airliner.

Have you ever imagined how it must feel like to precisely navigate between the tight gates while racing down a steep, icy slope at up to 150km/h? Surely the adrenaline levels spike at times of slight irregularities, but maybe that's just the needed satisfaction for those doing it. A ski racer has quite a lot in common with an airline pilot: Everything boils down to a short period of absolute focus and skills, where failure is not an option. While both need an excellent team in the background, paving their path to success, their preparation needs to be meticulous. That couldn't be any more true as for the crews of the display pilots of the flights at the Lauberhorn Ski Race, and I had the privilege to accompany them on several occasions and document the extraordinary flights.

 

After countless hours of planning and briefing, individual preparation, and joint simulator sessions, they are ready for the real flight. The F5E Tiger pilots are certainly "within" their comfort zone while performing such a display flight with an airliner is not only a career highlight but a big challenge too. Imagine flying a closely clocked program in an airliner within an arena of 3500m high peaks that probably create the most spectacular scenery in the Alps while being trailed by six fighter jets in tight formation at up to 400km/h. I would say everything needs to be flawless, and just as for the ski racer: Errors are not an option.

 

We fly somewhere over rural Switzerland just north of the Alps and wait until we get joined by the Patrouille Suisse. It was an exciting experience to watch my colleagues prepare for today's flight. They are excited yet fully focussed and know the display program by heart. Soon the fighter jets join us, and after a couple of sweeping turns to get in the flow, we start to head for the Lauberhorn venue. While the past days offered some dull and grey weather, they also made sure the Alps were freshly-powdered. On the race day, a perfect winter wonderland awaits us, and the stage was set for a successful ski race and a breathtaking display flight in front of thousands of spectators on the ground.

 

The Alps never cease to take our breath away and cast a spell on many of us. Those routes that take me across the rugged peaks and twisted valleys are among my favorite ones, and I call it a vast privilege to have such beautiful scenery just at my doorstep. Flights in and out of Zurich or Geneva offer stunning sights, and even for us "frequent flyer" flying the "scenic" routes amazes us over and over again. But flying so close to those peaks and feeling the perfect line we were flying certainly got me some tears of joy in the eyes. We zoomed across spectacular ridges, and freshly powdered treelines climbed along the race tracks and did tight turns in front of the famous mountain formation "Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau." It was a blast to feel the pilots' precision and skills and see the pictures shot from the ground; I am confident the spectators certainly felt the same way. Inbetween our fly-pasts, the Patrouille Suisse performed their program before joining us again for a final flyby. It was time to hand the flag over to the ski racers and heading back to our bases. And the show continued as the Swiss ski racers certainly didn't fail to amaze by securing the victory at one of the most challenging and longest downhill ski race in the world cup circus.

 

Back in 2015 I got the chance to create and tell the story about the similarities of the ski racers and the display pilots.


About "Behind the Image"

In my photo calendar "Up in the Sky" I get to share my favorite aviation pictures with you. This blog series will complement the product and will tell the story about the moment the picture was taken. It will also share comprehensive information about what happend on the flight deck.

Behind the Scene: Photo Calender "Up in the Sky 2021"

Take a closer Look

 

It is this time of the year again!

Quoting a famous movie, they say, "same procedure as every year!"

Welcome to a look behind the scenes of my latest photo calendar, which is now available to pre-order.

 

For many of us, flying has become ordinary. Fortunately, it still inspires many of us and creates lots of emotions. May it be the excitement to travel to a far distant place, or the joy to soar above the clouds and watch the world pass by underneath, or last but not least, the thrill it creates if the airways are a bit bumpier than expected. What does flying mean to you?

 

My daily life in the flight deck takes me above the clouds and across the globe. One of my constant travel companions is my camera. I have carefully curated some of my favorite views and would like to share the most extraordinary and awe-inspiring moments in this calendar with you. I am glad to have you join me on the flight deck or the airport's tarmac and experience the beauty of flight from a pilot's perspective. For more insights into my daily adventures above the clouds, make sure to follow my Instagram account «@sky_trotter» and read my blog.

 

I want to take this opportunity to thank all involved in making this project possible. A special appreciation goes out to my fellow pilots, internal departments for their support and permission to use the images. All pictures were taken during the non-sterile phase, on the ground, or as an observer in the third seat.

I am honored that my creative work was selected as a winner at the International Photography Awards 2018.

 

Because we care

I am very proud to inform you that you support a cause for good by purchasing this photo calendar. For every copy sold, I donate CHF 5.- to the children's foundation of the SWISS employees (Stiftung Kinderhilfe des SWISS Personals). Visit their website for further information. Thank you very much for your support.

 

This project is produced entirely in Switzerland and promotes an effort for the global climate issue. All arising CO2 emissions are compensated by donations towards projects of MyClimate, making this project carbon neutral. From wood processing to the finished print, the production takes place per FSC-standards. Therefore, the used paper originates from environmentally-friendly and socially acceptable managed forests.

 

Let's take a closer look.

Read the picture description down below. These are the pictures of my 2020 photo calendar with some very different insights into my daily life as an airline pilot. Head over to my shop to get your copy today. Click here to get to the store>

Cover

Good Morning, ZRH

A serene morning welcomes us home, and the glowing lights of runway 14 guide us towards our landing at Zurich Airport. Most of the arriving flights are touching down on the 3300-meter-long runway, making it the gateway to Switzerland and the homebase to the 5’700 crew members at SWISS.

 

 

January

Alpine Wingmen

 The Lauberhorn Ski Race is the longest downhill run of the World Cup circuit and Switzerland's biggest annual winter sports event. As an established attraction, the Swiss Air Force’s aerobatic demonstration team Patrouille Suisse performs its spectacular display together with an airliner in front of the breathtaking alpine scenery of the famous Bernese Alps.

 

 

 

February

Automatic Landing

Most of the time, pilots fly the landing manually, except in low-visibility conditions, as seen here aboard this Airbus A220, seconds from touchdown at Munich Airport. The pilots are fully focused on monitoring the autopilot, and the aircraft systems, as the airplane is about to perform an automatic landing in as little as 200m visibility.

March

Picturesque Spring

Spring is in full bloom as this Airbus A340 soars over the colorful fields at Zurich Airport. In a few moments, a smooth touchdown will draw an end to an almost twelve-hour long journey home from Shanghai, China. Its cargo holds are full of urgently needed medical supplies to help battle the pandemic in Switzerland.

 


April

Challenging Weather

A passing cold front causes challenging conditions with moderate precipitation mixed with gusty westerly winds. It requires landings on runway 28, the shortest one at Zurich Airport. The crew of this Boeing 777 inbound from São Paulo, Brazil, is about to crown the long flight with a great landing after flying through the night and across the South Atlantic Ocean.

 

 

May

A Misty Morning

With the Alps as a backdrop, flying into Zurich Airport offers breathtaking views, especially when approaching from the north. We are nicely established on approach to runway 14 during the golden hour on one of the first summer days. The dissipating morning mist creates a mystical scene as it gets illuminated by the warm sunrays.

 

 

June

Cleared for Take-Off

In just over one hour, this early morning departure will take 170 passengers to London Heathrow. The Airbus A320neo is new to the fleet and one of the most efficient airliners on the market. Thanks to improved aerodynamics and a new engine technology, it is much quieter than comparable aircraft of the previous generation and emits about 15% less CO2.

 

 


July

Mother Earth’s Light Show

We pass through the belt of convective weather over the Indian subcontinent en route to Bangkok. While circumnavigating the thunderstorm cells, we get to admire an impressive show of St. Elmo's fire. While looking spectacular, it is no hazard at all. It is caused by the clouds electrically charging the atmosphere and becomes visible as a luminous electrical discharge once the electrical charge becomes sufficiently intense.

 

 

August

Tropical Sunset

After an 11-hour long-haul flight halfway around the globe, this B777 is about to touchdown on runway 24R at Los Angeles Intl. Airport. A tropical scene with palm trees swaying in the warm sea breeze and a colorful sunset welcome LX40 to California and the third-largest airport in the world.

 

 

September

Sunset with a View

The state-of-the-art flight cockpit of our Airbus A220 offers us an excellent situational overview. We are preparing our approach to Geneva Airport after a short flight from Frankfurt, Germany. The arrival route to the second largest airport in Switzerland offers scenic views over Lake Geneva and the French Alps, the background in a colorful evening mood.

 

 


October

Colorful Rush Hour

Busy moments at Zurich Airport as the morning rush hour is in full swing in typical grey fall weather. The colorful Indian summer creates a vibrant background for this Airbus 330 arriving from Tel Aviv, Israel, and the two Airbus A220 following closely behind. They have just landed from their short-haul flights from Belgrade, Serbia, and Berlin, Germany, respectively.

 

 

November

Otherworldly scenery

We are soaring high above a world so far from ours: The unique landscape of Afghanistan. The beauty of this harsh and hostile corner of the world is hard to comprehend. Deep canyons cut into the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountain range that rises into an almost endless cobalt-blue sky. The breathtaking scene gets interrupted only by the infrequent passing of other airplanes.

 

 

 

December

The Magic of the Arctic

Bright Aurora Borealis are dancing in the blistering cold Arctic night sky above us. We have dimmed the lights on the flight deck to fully enjoy the otherworldly spectacle as we are gliding into a new day somewhere over the frozen Saint Lawrence River in Eastern Canada. Only occasional radio chatter fill the otherwise quiet airwaves as we prepare for the crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean.

 

 


 

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Did you enjoy these impressions from my daily life as an airline pilot? Head over to my shop to get your copy today.

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"Challenge Accepted" - A Windy Landing

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.

Behind the Scene: Photo Calender "Up in the Sky 2020" now available

Take a closer Look

Welcome on board

As an airline pilot, I get to meet a great deal of people, explore cities, and landscapes around the world. One of my constant travel companions is my camera. These photographs in this calendar were taken during my flights this past year. In this manner, I can to invite you to take a seat in the cockpit and experience the world from a pilot’s perspective.

 

For more insights into my daily adventures above the clouds, make sure to follow my Instagram account «@sky_trotter» and read my blog www.beyondclouds.ch

 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all involved in making this project possible. A special appreciation goes out to my fellow pilots, internal departments for their support, and permission to use the images. All pictures were either taken during the non-sterile phase of the flight, on the ground, or as an observer in the third seat.

It's an honour that my creative work was selected among the winners at the International Photography Awards 2018.

 

 

Because we care

I am very proud to inform you, that by purchasing this photo calendar you are supporting a cause for good. For every copy sold, I donate CHF 5.- to the children foundation of the SWISS employees (Stiftung Kinderhilfe des SWISS Personals). Visit swiss-kinderstiftung.ch for further information. Thank you very much for your support.

 

This project is produced entirely in Switzerland and promotes an effort for the global climate issue. To be carbon-neutral, all arising CO2 emissions are compensated by donations towards projects of MyClimate. From wood processing to the finished print, the production takes place in accordance with FSC-standards. Therefore, the used paper originates from environmentally-friendly and socially acceptable managed forests.

 

Lets take a closer look

Read the picture description down below. These are the pictures of my 2020 photo calendar with some very different insights into my daily life as an airline pilot. Head over to my shop to get your copy today. Click here to get to the store>

Cover

Transatlantic Twilight

 

A new day dawns on the horizon as we are flying east along the busy North Atlantic Track System. The sky ahead of us is about to display the colorful spectacle as the night slowly dissipates and the sun rises.

 

January

Otherworldly

We are reaching the coast of Eastern Greenland where the frozen Atlantic Ocean meets the rocky, snow-covered mountains of the Arctic. The surreal landscape spreads as far as the eye can see and we have to remind ourselves that we are passing over one of the most remote and unforgiving sceneries on earth. We are glad to have LX38 bound for San Francisco as our wingmen.

 

February

Night Landing

A short evening flight takes the crew of this Airbus A220 to the busy hub of Frankfurt International Airport (EDDF). All checklists have been completed and the landing clearance has been received. They are nicely established on the final approach and in a few moments they will land one of the most modern airliners on runway 25R.

 

March

Into a New Day

We have departed Geneva Airport at night with thick fog. A few minutes later mother nature shows all her glory as we are climbing into the new day. The first rays of a serene morning are casting a warm light across the stunning landscape to our left as we are passing by Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and other tall peaks of the Alps.

 

 


April

Alpen Glow

On days of good visibility, the impressive Swiss Alps provide a scenic background at Zurich Airport. While the first light enfolds the Alps with their warm glow, this Airbus A220 is on final approach to runway 14. The airport springs into life connecting the gateway of Switzerland with its 185 destinations in 66 countries around the world.

 

 

May

Sunrise Atlantico

A long night flight is taking us across the Southern Atlantic Ocean to the Brazilian Metropolis of Sao Paolo. Sunrises and sunsets around the equator are among the most beautiful. Mother nature is putting on an impressive and colorful show, as we are heading southwest circumnavigating some dissipating thunderstorm cells along the coast line.

 

June

Finding our Way

Many people think that navigating in-flight is more challenging, than finding our way on the ground. However, getting from the runway to our gate takes us through countless taxiways, while paying attention to busy ground traffic. This can be more tricky than finding our way up in the sky, especially when experiencing reduced visibility or intense precipitation.

 


July

Coming Home

The warm sun rays of a serene morning are welcoming this Airbus A340 back home after flying through the night. Its journey started twelve hours ago when the four-engine aircraft departed from Johannesburg, South Africa. There are only a few meters left and arriving at the gate also marks the end of a great career of the Captain, who will retire after this flight.

 

August

Stormy Rushhour

The evening rush hour is in full swing as an impressive thunderstorm is building up to the east of Zurich Airport. A common sight after a hot summer’s day in Switzerland. Soon, the flights in and out of our home base will be busy circumnavigating the impressive convective weather as they journey to all corners of Europe.

 

September

Sunset Landing

Despite having all the support from the autopilot, the majority of the landings are performed manually by the pilots. It requires great teamwork, a fully-focused concentration and a great set of skills to precisely maneuver the airplane on to the runway and to crown the flight with a great landing. This crew of an Airbus A220 is about to land on runway 26L at Leipzig Airport during the golden hour.

 


October

Not much to see

Thanks to sophisticated autopilots most modern airliners can land in as little as 75 meters of visibility. This is especially impressive considering that an airplane is flying at around 140kts or 260km/h during a landing thus covering about 70 meters every second. This not only calls for impeccable systems onboard and on the ground, but also for extensive and flawless training of the crews.

 

November

Winter Wonderland

A scenic flight takes us across Switzerland and the freshly powdered peaks of the Alps. The pilots of the Airbus A220 get treated with the latest technology and the Head-Up Display (HUD) displays, all relevant flight parameters and autopilot modes within their field of view while they are keeping a good lookout.

 

December

A Pilot's Christmas Tree

Airline crews are out and about on all of the 365 days of the year. Sometimes we spend time up in the sky, even on Christmas, away from our loved ones. That’s why we have our own little Christmas tree, shaped by the approach and runway lights as we are closing-in to land.

 


 

Get your copy today

Did you enjoy these impressions from my daily life as an airline pilot? Head over to my shop to get your copy today.

Click here to get to the store>

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