This morning you might have seen British Airways’ last two Heathrow based B747s head off to retirement including a stunning low-level go-around over the airport.
The original plan was for both aircraft to take off simultaneously on each runway, something that requires us to apply visual separation – ie being able to see both departing aircraft until they are 3 nautical miles apart laterally or 1000ft vertically. Sadly, the weather just wasn’t good enough so we went with Plan B with them going one at a time.
Saying goodbye has evoked mixed emotions for those of us with a great deal of fondness for the The Queen of the Skies, especially as BA (or BOAC) was among Boeing’s first 747 customers.
Naturally technology has moved on enormously over the past 50 years, and while the venerable jumbo has of course been updated and revised many times, it has now been superseded by more modern, quieter and fuel-efficient alternatives.
The retirement of BA’s 747 fleet had been planned for some time, but the impact of COVID on the aviation industry saw those plans brought forward earlier this year. But despite that accelerated timetable, it wouldn’t have been right to allow such an iconic aircraft to disappear from Heathrow without a send-off, so when BA approached us with an idea we were happy to help.
Video by air traffic controller, Ady Dolan.
The first question we needed to answer was whether the idea was theoretically possible from an operational perspective. The airport may be quieter than normal at the moment but dual runway take-offs are very unusual here, so making sure it could be done safely was our first consideration, followed closely by assessing the impact on the rest of the day’s operation, something we can model using our Demand Capacity Balancer tool.
Once we’d decided it was feasible and Heathrow Airport had given approval, we had to set out our respective responsibilities. Something like this doesn’t just happen. It takes teamwork and coordination from right across the operational community and it can also have knock-on impacts that aren’t always immediately obvious. A change to normal operations might disturb people living locally, while it can also impact other airlines at the airport. All those things need to be taken into account and managed.
It was our responsibility to do a safety assessment to ensure the risks were properly understood and could be mitigated against. Part of that included a briefing with the crews of each aircraft on Tuesday this week, while separately a very detailed Temporary Operating Instruction was produced for the controllers in both the tower and Terminal Control so everyone was clear on both Plan A and Plan B for the day.
At around 0800 local, this morning, the team at Terminal Control created a 30 mile gap in arrivals in order to give both aircraft plenty of time to make their grand exit. While we didn’t get the dual take off we all hoped for, it was still special to see them head off one after the other. Once airborne, BAW400 headed straight to Kemble, while BAW747 was vectored by Terminal Control back around in order to make a pass of the airfield at around 500ft. Given that’s not even twice the height of the tower, it really was a magnificent moment despite the low visibility.
This has been an incredibly difficult year for anyone connected with aviation, but one of the things I love most about working here is the incredible teamwork and camaraderie that something like today demonstrates in abundance.
I’m sure whatever the future holds that will endure.
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