In its early days, the business of flying was fun. Flying boats could land anywhere there was water and planes with wheels only needed a mowed field. And the terminal (an unfortunate word, when allied to flying) was generally a Nissan Hut.
After the war, it got serious. However, because of the security dimension, airlines were generally state-owned and prices were kept HIGH – thus passengers were still treated like royalty.
But in the Seventies, that all changed. Thanks to entrepreneurs like Freddie Laker and Richard Branson, air travel became affordable for the plebs. And being just plebs, passengers were now treated like crap.
Finally – inspired by Tom Clancy – came 9/11. This enabled the pencil-necked airport staff – and some airlines – to REALLY crap on passengers, safe in the knowledge that should one object, they only had to scream SECURITY and they could harass, humiliate and abuse them at will.
However, this piece is about a lesser-known peril of flying today – the CROSS-WIND.
The thing is, back in the Art Deco era, in the corner of every airfield hung the Wind-sock. This primitive but effective device allowed a pilot to land STRAIGHT INTO the wind.
But when grass fields gave way to concrete runways, pilots could no longer choose the direction of their landing. They were stuck with whatever the tower gave them. And that choice was limited.
You see, airports have runways that line up with the direction the local winds USUALLY come from. But in a storm, violent circular wind-patterns veer through 180 degrees as they pass. At this time, you need a runway that is positioned at RIGHT-ANGLES to the usual one.
But few airports HAVE them.
London Heathrow USED to. But when planes got bigger, they did away with them and lengthened the main ones. Their argument was that big planes were unaffected by cross-winds and modern technology enabled traffic to land and take off with much tighter margins.
But while the second statement is true, the first one is BOLLOCKS.
Oh sure, big planes are affected LESS by cross-winds and those little flutes at the wing-tips help too – but get a SERIOUS cross-wind and all of that means nothing. For proof, check out the pieces on YouTube where pilots are fighting cross-winds while trying to land.
Back in the early days, pilots often had to land on roads and in fields, to do MAINTENANCE. Hairy stuff, but even THEY would soil themselves watching the manœuvers modern pilots are forced to perform.
Insane “crab-fashion” landings and take-offs are now ROUTINE – and wing-tip scrapes, frequent.
THIS reporter once landed at LHR during a violent storm that had flooded parts of London and it was only through a bit of luck and a LOT OF SKILL demonstrated by the pilot that he is able to type this now. (For more on THAT, see elsewhere in these chronicles).
So what can be done? Well, there are really only two options – build airports that have runways in at least TWO directions or allow pilots to land elsewhere when the wind-shear exceeds SAFE limits. But neither of these options are easy.
Airports EVOLVE and rarely keep up with the requirements of the aircraft.
LHR has “The Tens” – two parallel runways with a compass heading of one hundred degrees, known officially as One-Zero-Left and One-Zero-Right. When the wind is in the opposite direction, they become Two-Eight-Right and Two-Eight-Left (LOOK at a compass and all will become clear).
And the runways that used to cross them now have TERMINALS built on them and use what is left for taxi-ing. Meaning that LHR now has FIVE terminals to its original ONE and only TWO runways to its original FOUR.
And the same story exists World-wide. People expect air-safety, but when an airport asks for more space, it is like trying to get permission to open a pole-dancing club next to a church. The NIMBYs take over.
As for option two, should a pilot takes his plane anywhere other than its intended destination, he is in deep sh*t. Not only does his aircraft – and maybe three hundred passengers – have to be ferried on to the original destination, but there are ANOTHER three hundred people waiting for the plane THERE.
The end result is chaos and a SERIOUS financial setback for the airline, thus pilots are subjected to MAJOR pressure to land at the scheduled airport, resulting in landings like those featured on YouTube – and once experienced by this writer.
And if the pilot is not CAPABLE of such crazy antics, the aircraft – with its unfortunate passengers – ends up splashed all over the runway.
This chronicler made about two dozen flights between the mid-Seventies and September 1st, 2002 – but has not flown since.
And if he never straps on another aeroplane during the rest of his LIFE, he will be more than happy…