Earlier this morning, we celebrated the reopening of the US to UK travellers with a spectacular synchronised, parallel take-off from Heathrow, something that’s extremely rare.
But why exactly is it so uncommon, and what does it take operationally to pull it off?
Discussions between NATS, Heathrow, British Airways and Virgin started way back in May of this year in the hope of a US reopening sometime over the summer. While that didn’t happen, we kept the plans on ice until last month once it became clear things were moving in a positive direction.
For us there were two priorities – making sure it could be done safety (which is always paramount) and working out how to do it in perfect sync, with both aircraft starting their roll down the runway and ‘rotating’ – i.e. lifting off – at the same time.
Working with the airline flight planning teams, we started by looking at the required take off time and working back from there. How long would passengers need to get through security? When would the baggage and catering be loaded? Which gates were being used? What was the likely taxi time? The weight of each aircraft? What runway entry point would work best? All those factors had to be calculated and taken into account.
With the plan calling for a 08.50 departure, we agreed that push back needed to take place no later than 08.20 to allow time for both aircraft to be lined up and ready to go.
Typically, each runway is looked after by one of two ‘Air Controllers’, with one handling arrivals and the other departures. With a seven-minute gap in arrivals expertly created by the team in Terminal Control at Swanwick, both Air Controllers assumed departure responsibilities; one for BAW1 on runway 27R, the other for VIR3 on 27L.
Once both aircraft were lined up, the pilots were given the standard take off clearance but with one very unusual addition. Both were told to ‘standby for roll command’… before the final instruction of ‘3, 2, 1, Now’ was given simultaneously.
Heathrow’s runways are ‘only’ 1,414 metres apart, which is too close to be able to do parallel departures outside of very specific weather and visual conditions. The controllers must rely on what’s called ‘Reduced Separation in the Vicinity of an Aerodrome’ to ensure the aircraft remain safely apart as they climb out of the airport, and thankfully today the Great British weather was playing ball.
Once both flights were climbing, at least 3 nautical miles apart and on clearly diverging routes, the pilots were handed over to the team at Swanwick to continue their journey off to the Atlantic and ultimately, New York JFK airport.
In the end it all went entirely to plan – testament to the amazing teamwork of everyone involved – and that’s without even mentioning that the tower was also working with a media helicopter flying around the airfield at the same time.
While I’m sure there may still be some turbulence to come, today felt like a real milestone in the industry’s recovery from the Covid crisis. The transatlantic routes are important not just to UK airports and the airlines, but also to us at NATS. The UK handles over 80% of all transatlantic traffic, with the team up at Prestwick Centre doing an incredible job overseeing a huge swathe of airspace.
It’s very good to have it back.
Please respect our commenting policy and guidelines when posting on this website.