Aircraft vs airfield How Scotland welcomed the world’s largest passenger plane

In April 2014 Glasgow International Airport celebrated its ten year anniversary with Emirates, marking its prominence as the long-haul gateway for Scottish tourism.

To honour the special occasion, Glasgow Airport wanted to do something ground-breaking so they asked NATS to facilitate the arrival of an Airbus A380 into the region for the first time in history.

Because of the size of Glasgow Airport's airfield, NATS knew this was going to be a major logistical challenge, but one they was excited to take on.

The famous Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger plane, and not only is it's wingspan nearly 40-metres wider than Glasgow Airport's runway, but it also requires advanced air traffic control capabilities to help it land and depart safely.

Facts about the A380:

  • Weighs 580 tonnes – that’s about the same as 165 elephants
  • Holds around 3000 suitcases – equalling five suitcases per person
  • Burns 17% less fuel per passenger compared to other large aircraft
  • As high as a ten-storey building – that's pretty tall!
  • Requires 3,600 litres of paint to cover its exterior
A380 length
A380 height
A380 Wingspan
"I can’t underestimate the size of the aircraft when you see it against some of the others who operate daily out of Glasgow – it really did look like David and Goliath!"

- Gary Dixon, General Manager, Glasgow Control Tower 2014.

Research began a year before the big day to establish how NATS could facilitate the movement of the aircraft.

“Glasgow Airport has a relatively small airfield with several restrictions, so making space for such a large aircraft was challenging. Our main objective was to ensure ‘business as usual’ services were unaffected.”

- Ally Stewart, Deputy Watch Manager at Glasgow Airport control tower.

In order to utilise the airport's existing infrastructure, the NATS' Safeguarding Team spent six months running a series of simulated exercises to better their understanding of how the aircraft might affect ground operations, such as holding and taxiing.

These tests also involved an assessment of the airfield to work out which parts could be used without damaging the runway, and a look at how the airport’s Instrument Landing System (ILS) would safely satisfy the approach procedure.

NATS discovered that a number of extra measures were needed for the event to run smoothly both on the ground and in the air, so they spent four months working with the airport to make sure everything was in place.

Our airfield operations team worked closely with air traffic control in the lead up to the event to ensure the smooth arrival and departure of the A380.

- Amanda McMillan, Managing Director of Glasgow Airport.

The size of the A380's tail meant that NATS had to stop using the ILS whilst the aircraft was positioning in and out of the airport, which slowed things down a little. This is necessary for some of the other aircraft at Glasgow (Boeing-747 for example) but had a greater effect on the A380.

Using their experience of handling A380s at various other airports around the UK, NATS was able to predict the size and scale of the event and brace themselves for the challenge that was to come...

“Glasgow Airport were brilliant and provided amazing access for the controllers to speak with the technical operations team at Emirates. It really seemed as though everyone wanted to make it work.”

The biggest task for NATS was working out how to physically accommodate such a large aircraft at this relatively small airport.

Not only was the A380 much wider than the runway itself, but it was also too large for the airport’s stands; towering six metres taller and 19-metres wider than the Boeing 777 (which was Glasgow’s largest plane at the time).

Relative aircraft sizes
"It was like trying to fit a double-decker bus in a standard sized car park space."

- Gary Dixon, General Manager, Glasgow Control Tower 2014.

The only way to fit the A380 in without physically expanding the tarmac was to conduct rigorous inspections of the runway, making sure important features hadn’t been damaged by the extra force during take-off and landing.

The taxiway route also had to be moved because of the A380's huge wingspan, several end-pier stands had to be closed, and other scheduled flights parked elsewhere for the entire day.

“The Airfield Operations Team were especially worried about the spot-lighting which outlines the runway because of the outer engines and where the aircraft’s wheels would hit the ground, so we facilitated extra runway inspections for them.”

- Ally Stewart, Deputy Watch Manager at Glasgow Airport control tower.

The airport comprises of a 15-metre tall control tower, two taxiways, one main terminal building and a 2,658-metre long runway.

Because the A380's wingspan was larger than the Boeing 777, Stand 29 had to be closed for the duration of the visit. The A380 used Stand 30 as it was the largest and had the easiest access to the runway.

The pushback was also different from usual. Instead of a standard L-shaped push into the apron, the A380 was pushed onto Taxiway G and a special tug was shipped over from Dublin as the airport's own were not powerful enough.

Photo credit: Emirates

It wasn't only the flight schedule that needed around the clock attention; so did the airport's security team and local emergency services. Glasgow Airport and NATS worked closely with Renfrewshire Council and Police Scotland to make sure everything went smoothly on the day.

Thousands of spectators from across the country turned out to catch a glimpse of the giant aircraft, gathering at the airport’s perimeter and other vantage points.

“This was a significant milestone for Glasgow and Scottish aviation, and we were honoured that Emirates chose to mark its 10th anniversary at Glasgow Airport by operating Scotland’s first commercial A380 service.
Photo credit: Emirates

These photographs were taken by spectator and aviation enthusiast, Stewart Marshall.

Photo credit: Stewart Marshall

Dealing with an ever-changing flight schedule is no easy feat, especially during such a high-profile event, but NATS worked around the clock to ensure that this exciting day was conducted successfully. The team showed tremendous flexibility and everyone played their part.

"The day was a huge success thanks to the collaborative approach of the airport staff, Emirates and NATS.”

- Amanda McMillan, Managing Director of Glasgow Airport.


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