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Coffee House

Why the plan for Heathrow Hub is bananas

12 July 2013

5:01 PM

12 July 2013

5:01 PM

Heathrow wants to expand. Originally this was to be done by building a third or even fourth runway north of, and parallel to, the existing runways. The fourth runway would be fitted in by reducing slightly the horizontal separation between runways. The separation at Heathrow is generous, or very generous compared to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Now, apparently, Heathrow wants to expand by building one or two runways facing southwest. When LHR was built it had not only the two remaining west facing runways, but also two facing south west (and indeed also two facing north west). These other runways have been consumed by taxiways and terminals, but one southwest facing runway called 23L was in use until fairly recently. Runways are named by their magnetic direction reduced to two significant figures. The L or R suffix is added where there are parallel runways. So rebuilding a south west facing runway would appear to be reasonable.

We now have a group called Heathrow Hub, which reasonably seeks to expand Heathrow, but has also come up with a ‘double length’ idea, which Jock Lowe explained on Coffee House earlier this week.

The innovative idea of building double length runways is innovative for a reason. It is simply bananas. No one else in the world has ever considered such a scheme. Why? Because it is fundamentally mad and dangerous.

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Heathrow has several (average three?) ‘go-arounds’ per day; i.e. the landing aircraft aborts its landing just before it lands. This could be for any number of reasons – too high, too low, runway occupied, can’t see the runway, technical fault and so on.

With this double length runway, this aircraft which ‘goes around’ will be a missile pointing directly at the aircraft taking off in front of it, with the obvious serious danger of catastrophe.

OK, you can tell me that the landing aircraft should be planned to turn to the right (or was it left?) to avoid the imminent collision, but have you tried this with 400 tons of aircraft and 400 passengers at 200 miles an hour, in the fog and cloud, after a 12 hour flight in the dark, while raising the undercarriage, and moving the flaps, in a foreign language, doing something you have not done for real for four years… or maybe ever?

The concept has been drawn up by a desk pilot, with little flying experience. It reminds me of staying in a beachside hotel in Queensland. When I asked the proprietor when someone was last attacked by a shark, she replied, ‘Gosh, nay, that was over 30 years ago. No one has been so stupid as to swim there’.

As they say, ‘there are bold pilots, and old pilots, but no old, bold pilots’.

Come down my road and I will show you the traffic lights that have been pushed over, the wall that has been demolished, the fence that has been bent, all by errant cars. That sort of thing should obviously never happen, but it does. Aviation is safe because stupid ideas like this never see the light of day.

Brian Swift retired after 34 years as a British Airways Captain from Trident, TriStars, and Boeing 737, 757, 767 and 747s. 

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