It was a normal morning in the tower at Belfast International Airport. A long night shift was coming to an end and the team was looking forward to clocking off and heading home for some well-earned rest. It was still dark, but warming tinges of light were beginning to appear in the eastern sky.
Just the early morning rush of arrivals and departures to manage and they’d be able to hang up their headsets and handover to the day shift. Little did they know it was going to anything but a normal day. Like most airports in the UK, Belfast International has peaks of traffic, with surges in the early morning and evening.
“Most of the airport’s traffic is made up of passenger services,” says Michael Cockcroft of NATS, the man charged with managing the air traffic operation at the airport. “The early morning period full of arriving and departing EasyJet, Jet2, Thomas Cook and Ryanair flights, but the airport also handles cargo flights too, bringing in everything from mail to aircraft parts and everything in between!”
It was just before 0600 local time that a Boeing 737 TNT cargo flight touched down. It was obvious during the landing roll that something was very wrong and the aircraft came to a sudden stop.
“We suddenly had the captain on the radio saying he couldn’t move. The aircraft was totally stuck.”
A fault with the aircraft’s undercarriage – which had somehow become twisted – meant it was totally paralysed right at the runways intersection which meant that both runways were now blocked.
It was the worst possible place for it to happen at the worst possible time of day, just before the first wave of departures.
The tower team immediately jumped into action. Michael continues: “We immediately put a stop on all arrivals and departures. That means coordinating with our colleagues at Prestwick Centre to relay the news to any inbound aircraft, while speaking to the airport operations team to work out how we were going to manage the rest of the operation on the ground once it became clear there thankfully weren’t any injuries.”
It very soon became apparent that there wasn’t an easy quick fix. The twisted undercarriage meant the aircraft couldn’t simply be towed away and in all likelihood was going to be stuck there for several hours.
So it was time to come up with Plan B.
Alan Whiteside, the airport’s Operations Director, picks up the story: “I think a lot of other air traffic control providers might have just said there was nothing to be done and effectively shut up shop for the day, but there was a fantastic willingness from NATS to find a way to minimise the disruption.”
“It was really time to throw out the normal operating rule book and start again,” says Michael. “Safety will always be our first priority, but we were determined to also find a way of getting people moving. So we sat down and got to work.”
With both runways now blocked, it was going to take some imaginative thinking to save hundreds of passengers from travel misery. In consultation with the Airport Duty Manager, Tommy Coulter, it was decided that Runway 07, could be used for departures, but only with a reduced take-off distance. The weather conditions at least were favourable, so Tommy was able to supply enough distance for all the airlines to depart safely and away from the stricken aircraft.
This enabled all first wave departures to become airborne by 0730 local time.
Michael continues: “That was the first hurdle, but there was no safe way for us to use Runway 07 for arrivals as well, so in consultation with the airport management we decided to open Runway 25, but only with reduced landing distances available and building in critical safety margins. The team were well versed in this procedure as a similar operation had been used during the replacement of the airport’s Instrument Landing System. This plan was communicated to crews and the zero rate on arrivals was able to be lifted.”
For the rest of the day, operations continued on a mix of Runway 07 departures with Runway 25 arrivals, making for an extremely complex operation. Departures and arrivals were on conflicting headings but the team ensured that safety margins were maintained at all times.
The aircraft was finally moved at 1810 and the runway returned to full operational service. Remarkably, only five planned arrivals and departures were lost in the day’s flying schedule when it could easily have otherwise shut the airport for most of the day.
“It was superb teamwork,” Alan concludes. “It’s what we know comes from working with NATS and extremely pleased with the outcome; we all pulled together when we needed to most.”