The weather recently has been truly terrible for some. Down here in the south of England it’s not been too bad, but in the north of Britain I understand that the storms have been really bad, with very high winds – so high that even a wind turbine exploded because of it and there is a fabulous picture showing an aircraft making a landing where each wheel touched the ground one after another; left wheel, right wheel and then nose wheels…rather than the more standard main gear and then nose gear. It certainly makes for a bumpy landing, AND it certainly takes a lot of skill on the pilots behalf to do.
I saw this sort of landing for myself once, but done by a much smaller aircraft – the Tornado F3 jet. It was back in my days working on 29(F) Squadron and we were undertaking a ‘trail’ back home from a deployment out in America. I was lucky enough to be selected to be on the ‘Trail’ rather than on the main body of transport home.
The trail is the route that the aircraft take to come home, particularly if it is a long journey. It normally consists of an ‘Advance Party’ sent on a Herc C-130 or C-17, the ‘Main’ consisting of the majority of the squadron being deployed and the aircraft themselves, and then a ‘Rear’ or ‘Sweeper’ party following along. Generally the Main Party of ground crew fly straight home in one go and the Advance and Sweeper look after the aircraft on route.
I was on the Advance and we’d flown ahead of the F3’s to arrive and set up a servicing team for when they arrived at each stage of the route home. We’d been in Vegas for 6 weeks (OH! the hardship!) and the trail back was a mission. Vegas to Little Rock in Arkansas for a refuelling stop, Little Rock to Bermuda for an overnighter (It’s a tough life!) and then Bermuda to Larges in the Azores for another overnighter, with the final hop being the Azores back to the UK and the base at Coningsby.
We arrived at Larges airport and found it to be…well…the best way to describe it was as just a massive flat expanse of tarmac. The ‘pan’ was just about the biggest concrete area I had ever seen, with pretty much nothing for what seemed like miles in every direction. It was a bit…desolate. The C-130 had parked itself where it had been directed and we waited for the jets.
It was already breezy.
As the afternoon wore on and we made the preparations for the aircraft to arrive (unloading a few boxes from the pallet on the Herc containing earthing leads for the aircraft, chocks and a few tool kits) the wind slowly picked up. We then received news that not all the aircraft had taken off from Bermuda. One had gone unserviceable there due to an engine fault and was being worked on by the rear party. That would follow along with the Rear Party aircraft (which luckily was capable of air-to-air refuelling (AAR) it as it went along). The rest – 5 aircraft were inbound along with the VC-10 tanker that had done their AAR.
Well, actually given a twist of fate, the VC-10 is actually FASTER than the F3’s were. The VC-10 has a ‘Super-cruise’ that means it can fly faster and higher than an F3 when cruising long distances. It basically meant that it had done it’s job of re-fuelling the smaller jets in flight, and then had left them behind and flown on to the Azores. It landed a good hour before the F3’s were due.
But this itself, had created a problem. The wind that I had talked about had also picked up out in the Atlantic and it was a head wind. It meant that the jets were fighting against the wind and were using more fuel to make progress against it. A LOT of fuel. And it transpired that they were using more fuel than they had thought and that the only place they could make it to with the fuel load they had left was the Azores. They couldn’t divert. Which was now a real problem, as the wind on the ground at Larges airport was now dangerously strong.
And it was a cross wind. The one runway at Larges was roughly at 90 degrees to the direction of the now very strong – almost gale force winds. The storm clouds were gathering, and looking really nasty and menacing, like they were planning to do some serious storming about. We, on the ground, decided to hide inside the Herc. Whilst it wasn’t raining yet, it was clear that within a very short time it was going to rain. A LOT.
People anxiously looked at the sky. And then at their watches. They looked out towards the west to see if there was any sign of the gaggle of jets. Nothing. Then the rain began. A short sharp shower. Thankfully we stayed dry on the ‘Fat Albert’ as it pelted down, and it was just a short shower. A precursor of what was to come.
And then a vehicle turned up. It was the ‘Follow Me’ van that would direct the jets to he parking slots next to us. I asked if I could sit in (I was only a young Junior Technician back in those days) and was told I could have a ride along to bring the jets back. I could also be on hand should there be any problems with the jets between landing and taxiing their parking slot.
With the Portuguese driver and a liaison officer we drove to the end of the runway and awaited the jets. He turned to me and said that the jets had a serious problem. The air traffic control were going to shut the runway! It was considered to be too dangerous for aircraft to land given the stormy conditions and the cross wind.
The only problem was that there was no-where else for the jets still airborne to go to. They were now on the vapours of their fuel tanks and given the Azores location in, pretty much the middle of no-where in the Atlantic, they had no fuel to go anywhere else. ATC couldn’t shut the airfield. The F3’s would simply HAVE to land there. Wind or no wind.
And then there they were. Five small dots on the horizon. Getting slowly larger. They wouldn’t even have enough fuel to fly over the airport and get an idea of the conditions. They would just have to come in and land. Or try to. From my viewpoint at the end of the runway I could see how they were being buffeted by the wind and how the gusts were blowing them off their landing course.
And how the pilots were having to correct for this by flying as much into the wind as they could.
Take a look up from the screen you are reading on for a second. Imagine a straight line along the floor stretching out in front of you. That’s your 12 o’clock. That’s the runway. Stick your hand out and imagine that it’s an aircraft about to land there. Normally the aircraft glides down in the straight line on top of the runway – called a glide-path – and lands on it. An imaginary line coming out of the front of you hand (itself an imaginary aircraft) lines up with the OTHER imaginary line that is the runway.
But the wind was blowing from the side, meaning that the aircraft was being blown by the wind to the side, so the lines no longer match up. To over come this the aircraft flies into the wind to correct for being blown sideways. Still with your hand out in front of you (don’t worry people around WON’T think you are mad in the slightest) imagine that the wind is blowing from your left.
So like the aircraft did, fly your hand into the wind and turn it to the left. Now imagine that the wind is really strong…really, really strong, and you’ll have to turn your hand quite a lot to the left to overcome it.
This is what the aircraft were doing. As well as being blown sideways they were now also descending, AND being hit by gusts of wind and turbulence that also pushed them up and down.
Like on a rollercoaster they flew in and down…crabbing their way through the sky at, from my view point, what looked like about 30-45 degrees to the runway. This was now really dangerous…because this angle was too much for the runway. If they touched the ground at this angle then they runway simply wasn’t wide enough for the aircraft to be able to touch it’s main gear down and then drop the nose and then steer to the right to get back in line with the runway…they’d simply shoot off the side of the narrow strip of tarmac…and crash!
A really. bad. thing.
So as they came down, one at a time, I saw quite simply the very best bit of flying I have ever seen (well, ok second best – that belonged to a Flt Lt Lee Fox who beat up the pan at Cyprus once), but was repeated five times by five different pilots.
Each one came in like the first, crabbing through the air, buffeted and blown and battered by the wind. At what looked to be terrible angle to the runway…but just at the very last minute…hell, last second…the pilot, just as the mail wheels were about to hit the floor slung the aircraft around into line with the runway.
Quickly the nose wheel came down and the aircraft decelerated down the runway to where we were waiting.
Each jet came in and did the same, each one making the best landing possible given the atrocious conditions. I marvelled at them. It must have been a hell of a ride…but not one I would particularly like to have taken. And by the faces of the pilots who, to a man, looked completely wiped out from the experience, not one they wanted to repeat.
You can keep your Red Arrows. Flying into an airport on reserve fuel, into a crosswind, after flying for hours across the Atlantic…and landing into the beginnings of a storm. Those guys were the real deal. For once, as we carried out the servicings of the aircraft as the crews were driven off to find a beer somewhere, I didn’t begrudge them that beer whilst I was still working. They’d bloody deserved it.