Risky Landing or Storm in a Teacup?
A video of an Airbus A380 landing in what appeared to be impossibly stormy and windy conditions at London's Heathrow Airport has done the rounds across the internet, bringing hundreds of comments. Gatechecked.com's Bradley Wint highlights the footage.
As Storm Dennis brought heavy showers and flooding to parts of the United Kingdom and surrounding regions, one aviation video captured the attention of many enthusiasts and media outlets. The video shows an Etihad Airbus A380 performing a crosswind landing at London Heathrow (LHR) in winds gusting up to 80mph. With most other pilots deciding to execute a go-around, the Etihad crew managed to bring the aircraft down in one piece. Commentators seemed to have equally mixed reviews about the landing, with most negative reviews highlighting how much lateral strain may have been placed on the main gear.
From the video, their actions seem rather dramatic, mainly because of the camera lens’ depth of field exaggerating the pilot’s input as they tried to correct the aircraft’s deviation to maintain the runway’s centre line.
It seems that Etihad’s pilot training department was not pleased by what they saw, as highlighted in a leaked memo issued to what I suspect are the chief or senior training pilots at the airline.
“You may have seen a video this week of one of our A380s landing in a strong crosswind in London,” the memo from Etihad’s manager of flight crew training starts off. “Initially the landing was seen by some as a ‘masterful landing’
“This official view from the Training Department is a simple one – THIS IS NOT WHAT WE WANT TO SEE. There is a time to give an approach away in the interest of safety.
“If you see such a thing in the sim (aircraft simulator) that would be a grade 1 for both pilots… Please gentlemen, let’s teach our pilots to operate safely even that means changing the mission.”
As I don’t have my stripes, I am not here to give a qualified opinion on the landing, but I will still give the pilots some credit as another video that surfaced later shows the landing from the aircraft’s tail cam. Shortly before the aircraft landed, the pilots do appear to re-align the A380 with the runway’s center line just before the loud thud when the main gear wheels touched down. However there is a bit of drift after that, maybe from over correction or gusting winds, but as I was not piloting the aircraft, I would never really know.
KJM Today Opinion
As Wint rightly points out, 'the camera lens’ depth of field exaggerating the pilot’s input', has a significant bearing on this landing.
This is something that most people (except for seasoned and knowledgeable photographers and camera users) don't know. The result is that the deluge of comments seen on social media are, at best, uninformed, and at worst, untrue.
The same might possibly be said of the comments from the airline's training department; extraordinarily good pilots they undoubtedly are but that doesn't make them good photographers. They may well have been fooled by the distance from the camera of the far end of runway 27 Left at Heathrow - as have almost all the commentators on social media.
Let's look at it logically and follow the rule book;
First of all there is a limit on operating conditions for both airport and aircraft. Was Heathrow above the limit at the time? Yes - otherwise the airport would not have been open. Is there a limit for wind conditions on an aircraft landing? Again yes. The airline's flight crew will have been well aware of both the A380's limits as well as that of the airport.
If both limits have not been exceeded, then it is safe to try and land.
All pilots have the option of abandoning an approach and landing if they are not satisfied with any of the conditions surrounding it and this applies whatever the weather. Pilots have the option of diverting to another airport if they believe - at any time - that the safety of the aircraft and those on board, are in danger.
Clearly this was not the case here - basic airmanship requires pilots to be able to land in strong crosswinds and even though it may look dramatic to an untrained eye, landings such as the one in the video, are not as hazardous as they appear to be.
Most airports today, including Heathrow, do not have runways pointing in every direction to cater for whatever way the wind is blowing - they are usually aligned towards the direction the wind is usually from. In Heathrow's case west to east (which is why approaches are often made over London itself).
Now let's look at the photography aspect;
Heathrow's runway 27 Left, the one used in the video, is 2.29 miles long. The camera is positioned at the far end of it from the landing, or at least very close to that. To 'zoom in' that distance requires a very powerful lens and one of the disadvantages is the distance distorts what the viewer sees. In other words, everything is exaggerated - including the apparent swinging of the A380 as it landed.
The reality is that this landing was no different to many others. Yes, the winds were stronger than usual for London and required that basic airmanship already mentioned and yes, the crew would have been working harder that they might in calm wind-free conditions.
But it was still not the massive drama it has been made out to be. Don't be fooled by exaggerated camera distance distortion, or for that matter, by the rather sensationalist tone of voice heard from the camera operator or somebody standing next to it. Don't be fooled by uninformed and equally sensationalist news media either.
And remember also that as well as the lives of passengers, it is the flight crew's lives too.
Image - Kevan James
Read the true story of Heathrow and why it has only two runways where once there were six, and why two new runways are needed and not just the one proposed
Heathrow Airport 70 Years and Counting by Kevan James reveals the truth and the legends around the airport - details on the home page.