Pilot's view: What it's like to land a plane in stormy weather

Bad weather can be hair-raising for passengers, but pilots take it in their stride

Planes struggle to land in the UK after being battered by storm Isha and Jocelyn

Planes struggle to land in the UK after being battered by storm Isha and Jocelyn
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Many passengers will recognise that stomach-churning feeling as their plane approaches the runway in bad weather and they brace for a bumpy descent and landing.

There have been 10 named storms in the UK since the start of September, with three in January – Henk, Isha and Jocelyn – resulting in dozens of flight cancellations, diversions and many more dramatic landings.

But while passengers may be gripping their armrests or saying their prayers, pilots say landing a plane during strong winds is all in a day's work because they are so well prepared.

The situation causes a pilot to think a bit more, and they are always rehearsing for what might happen if it goes wrong.

“It goes with the job really. You have to land,” Chris Hammond, a retired British Airways and easyJet pilot told The National.

But it's not that different from any other landing.

“You probably do it a bit slower. You probably get the airplane into the landing position with the wheels down and the flaps down a little bit early; just allow things to settle down a bit more than they would do normally.”

Stay relaxed

The one thing you definitely do not do is wrestle with the controls, he said. Over-controlling is something inexperienced pilots are prone to.

“It can be a problem because sometimes you're never quite sure whether it's your control input that’s causing the airplane to [move] or whether it's the winds.”

Relaxing a little, allowing the airplane to take the punishment it is designed for, and making adjustments gradually – rather than all at the same time – is the “best way to do it”, he said.

Mr Hammond said there are very few air control towers in the world which would tell a pilot to call off their approach to a runway.

If a pilot decides against it, the plane may have sounded a wind shear warning, when the air over the wings changes direction, which could cause a dangerous drop or a lift in altitude.

“If the plane comes up with wind shear warnings you think: 'That’s it, where else can we go? Where else is there a runway that’s facing more into the wind?' Into the wind is always better than crosswind,” he said.

Worst airports to land at

This is something Mr Hammond has done in Gibraltar, which requires a special licence to fly into because the winds around the rock render the airspace unflyable at times.

“It is written down about how much crosswind you can take,” he said. “Places like Dubrovnik are pretty rough because it’s a lot to do with the mountainous terrain around there.

“Nice can sometimes be pretty rough. And you sort of know when that’s going to happen because of the forecast.”

If the forecast shows the weather is likely to be rough, pilots usually take more fuel on board to give them options in case they have to divert.

“The places you often think about going first include Stansted, because it’s a south-westerly runway, or Manchester because they have a south-westerly one as well.

“They get full of diversions because everyone is doing it. Then you get pushed further and further south. There was one flight that was diverted from Dublin to Paris [during storm Isha].

“If you have enough fuel to go to Paris, you go to Paris, because that just happens to be the first one that will accept you without delay.

“There’s no point hanging around in the skies for two hours using up your spare fuel. You are better off going to, say, Paris and getting straight on the ground.”

That funny feeling

Another reason for a pilot to call off an approach is because they have bad feeling about the conditions.

Sometimes it feels “dodgy”, said Mr Hammond. “Basically it’s a feeling.

“The captains are usually flying [the plane] themselves in this kind of weather because there’s a limit to what [the autopilot] can do.

“And some weather is just captain’s weather. The captain obviously has the experience. That’s why he’s in the left-hand seat [in the cockpit], not the right-hand seat. You build that experience over the years.”

Pilots often decide to circle round and try again because wind directions and speeds can change, and in the 20 minutes between approaches the conditions may be totally different.

“It will still feel rough but it just depends which direction the wind is coming from and how fast the direction is changing,” he said.

Storm Jocelyn hits the UK – in pictures

But pilots would never usually make more than two, or a maximum of three, approaches to land, he said.

“After two it’s generally better to go somewhere else, because you have done your best,” added Mr Hammond.

“You have given it time to sort itself out. You can actually get into a mindset where you must get in and that can be a very bad mindset because you start losing options in your own head.”

Pilots often treat landing in stormy weather as a challenge, he said.

“You’re professionals. You don’t shy away from it. It’s part of the job.

“In actual fact I quite enjoyed some of it, believe it or not. Because it proves to yourself that you can do it and your skills are as sharp as they ever were.

“You practise them often enough in the simulator. But the crosswind conditions are really best seen for real.”

Explaining the situation to the passengers is also a skill.

Some of them do not want to know anything about it, while some panic instantly and others would rather know what is happening, he said.

“I would just warn them and say: 'Look we are trying to get you in. Believe you me, this airplane is strapped to me as much as it is to you. There won’t be anything dangerous going on here.'

“It might just be a little uncomfortable. But we’re all on the same airplane.”

Updated: January 24, 2024, 6:36 PM