The passengers flying in to Innsbruck today on British Airways, easyJet or Monarch are fortunate indeed. They will enjoy the most dramatic approach to any airport in Europe, as the aircraft descends through a deep mountain valley. Those on the right-hand side of the plane may enjoy a close-up of the pretty church whose spire soars heavenwards in the Tyrolean village of Axams, just west of Innsbruck. They will touch down just a couple of miles from the centre of one of the most historic and welcoming cities in Europe – described in more detail on pages 12 and 13 – and be close to Austria's finest ski resorts. And they can be confident that the pilots looking after them on the flight deck have been trained especially intensively to operate safely to and from this most exciting of airports.
How safe are our skies? Well, during the past 22 years (in which 15 million people have been born in the UK) there has been no accident involving a British passenger jet. The astonishingly good safety record reflects the preparation and training that goes into every flight– in particular the focus on what are known as "Cat C" airports.
Jaded travellers may grumble that "all airports are the same", but from the pilot's perspective some are more challenging than the rest. The vast majority of the airports that you or I are likely ever to fly into are classed as "Category A", for which no special procedures are necessary.
Category B translates roughly as "slightly out of the ordinary". A good example, according to Captain Martin Dudley, A300 fleet manager for Monarch, is Lanzarote: "There's a little bit of ground on the extended centre line that just comes into play in terms of our performance calculations for take-offs, and that makes it a 'Cat B'. There are a fair number of those."
The UK's biggest airline in terms of passenger numbers, easyJet, classifies Corfu, Dubrovnik, Heraklion, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Rome's second airport, Ciampino, as Category B.
What really concentrates the mind of the flying community, though, is the "Cat C" airport, of which the prime example is Innsbruck. Only experienced pilots who have undergone simulator training and sat in the jump-seat for landing and take-off at the Tyrolean airport are deployed on flights there. The team responsible is headed up by Dave Prior, director of safety and security for easyJet.
While the passenger may be thinking "beautiful mountains, lovely church, ooh, look, we've landed", the pilot is facing what Captain Prior describes as "challenging visual manoeuvring within the valley," made trickier by "low-level wind shear and turbulence associated with high winds and the terrain".
Using a video display, he talked me through the remarkable approach to the airport. Anyone lucky enough to have sipped a coffee while enjoying the panoramic view from the café at Innsbruck airport will be aware that the runway is beautifully located at the foot of a long Alpine valley. What you may not know is that the approach is fraught with challenges for the captain – only he or she is allowed to fly the plane, not the first officer.
For a start, there's a mountain peak nearly 8,000ft high to avoid. Then, because the Inn Valley is far from straight, the flight crew can latch on to the centre line only late in the descent. One of the more amazing sights on the simulated approach is the sequence of strobe lights on the roofs of buildings in central Innsbruck that mark the correct approach, known as "the rabbit".
At the western end, Foehn winds blowing in from the south across the Brenner Pass can create turbulence; and depending on the wind direction, the pilot may need to make a tight turn ("minimum bank angle of 25 degrees," specifies the easyJet manual). That pretty church at Axams comes in handy for the manoeuvre: "Visual aids are very important".
Captain Martin Dudley of Monarch has flown into Innsbruck many times – and loves the place.
"On a bright blue day with that snow all around you and the Alpine air so crystal clear, it's a wonderful place to operate into. If the aircraft's fine, you've got oodles of spare performance and really it is no big deal. All the training for Innsbruck is based around critical engine failure."
Airline safety is focused on worst-case scenarios – which, for the twin-jets used in Europe, means one engine failing at the most critical moment – for example, when the pilot is about to touch down but needs to abort the landing, or on take-off just beyond the decision point.
Despite the absence of Alps in south-east England, one of London's leading airports is rated Cat C: City airport, in Docklands. Dave Thomas, chief training pilot for BA, says the location is complicated.
"It's a relatively short runway in a very tight area, surrounded by buildings – it's got Canary Wharf at one end. With the buildings being so close to the airport you have a steeper-than-normal approach. So we do additional training over what we would do for a normal airport."
BA's other Cat C airports are both Austrian: our old pal, Innbsruck, plus Salzburg. But Captain Thomas keeps a watchful eye across the network, with extra attention on airports such as Mexico City: "Quite busy, at very high altitude, and there's quite a bit of high ground around."
Surely all these challenges are enough to make a pilot divert to the nearest "normal" airport and apply for a ground-based job?
"Pilots love Cat C airports," says Captain Prior. "It's what we're paid to do."
The C-list: easyJet's assessment
Valley location with high terrain on all sides. Complex non-standard instrument approaches with performance-limited missed approach procedures. Challenging visual manoeuvring within the valley. Low-level wind shear and turbulence associated with high winds and the terrain, notably in Foehn conditions.
Performance-limited landing and take-off weights due to short runway. Abnormal wind effects, turbulence and wind shear due to "rock". Critical, non-standard visual approaches due to proximity of terrain.
High terrain, particularly in the missed approach area. Performance-limited missed approach procedures. Critical, non-standard visual approaches due to the proximity of terrain.
Proximity of the airfield to high terrain leads to potentially severe turbulence and wind shear up to and including the final stages of the approach. Complex wind limitations. Critical, non-standard visual approaches due to proximity of terrain. Critical missed approach procedures due to proximity of terrain. Critical, non-standard departure procedures due to the proximity of terrain.
A terrain-rich island environment. Performance-limited missed approach procedures. Critical, non-standard visual approaches due to proximity of terrain. Night-time restrictions. Turbulence due to terrain, particularly in Mistral conditions.
A short and narrow runway. A terrain-rich island environment. Limited/basic instrument approach procedures. Some reliance on visual procedures. Wind shear and turbulence due to terrain and high summer temperatures.
A narrow, sloped runway. A terrain-rich island environment. Limited/basic instrument approach procedures. Some reliance on visual procedures. Wind shear and turbulence due to terrain and high temperatures.
View from the flight deck: This is your captain speaking
When an anxious passenger hears words like "unusual", "challenging" or "critical" in the context of airports, they might think "danger". But Captain Martin Dudley of Monarch says: "The categorisation of Cat C is a method of introducing training and procedures in order to reduce the risk right back down to our normal levels."
For British Airways, Captain Dave Thomas (pictured) adds: "If we have an airport that is more challenging, we put in additional training and procedures in order to run a safe operation and tackle whatever the threats are."
Captain Dave Prior of easyJet concludes: "A challenging airport has a lot more going for it from a pilot perspective. The aeroplanes are superbly designed, the crew are trained to the very highest standards. Relax and enjoy yourself – it's a great and safe experience."
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