Well it has been a while since I’ve put a blog post together. Sorry about that. I have been very busy with various projects including the videos which I hope you have seen and enjoyed. I have previously discussed how we get the A380 into the air, now comes the tricky bit….landing it.

A typical landing weight for the A380 is a quite remarkable 365-370 tonnes! To put that into context, that is only 30 or so tonnes below the maximum takeoff weight of a 747-400! However, due to the quite brilliant wing design, the final approach and landing speed of the A380 is actually quite low. Lower, in fact, than the 747, 767, 777, and 787. In a recently published notice by Air Traffic Control at Heathrow, they state their typical approach speed of an A380 to be 133 knots. By comparison the 777-300 approach speed is   stated as 143 knots and the 747-400 as 144 knots. This only adds to the appearance of the A380 flying so slowly near the ground.

We will start our approach around 20 miles from the runway. At this point we would normally be flying at 220 knots. The wing is designed for optimum performance at high speed. If we want to fly slower than around 200 knots we have to change the shape to make it more curved and add extra lift using slats on the leading edge and flaps on the trailing edge. These are the large surfaces you will see moving as we slow down to final approach speeds. There are 8 slat surfaces and 3 flap surfaces on each wing. In addition, the three ailerons also act as flaps in what is termed a droop function.

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At this point we would typically reduce our speed to 180 knots. In order to do this we check the airspeed is below the maximum speed for Flap 1, then move the flap lever on the centre console to the Flap 1 position. Unlike Boeing aircraft, which have flap settings which correspond to the angle of flap deployment, Airbus have gone with a simpler nomenclature of Flap 1, 2, 3, and Full. There is also a Flap 1+F position, but this cannot be directly selected. When we first reduce speed and select Flap 1, only the leading edge slats extend. When the speed drops below 205 knots the first stage of flaps automatically extends, resulting in the 1+F (flap) setting. This setting actually gives 20° of slats, 8° of flaps, and 5° of aileron droop. The table below gives the surface positions for each flap lever position.

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The speed of 180 knots is a typical speed at which we start down the glideslope to the runway. At busier airports, Air Traffic Control have to ensure aircraft do not get too close together on the approach, but also need to maintain a high flow rate for landing, so accurate speed control is essential. The next speed reduction will be to 160 knots. This requires further flap extension to configuration 2. We will typically hold this speed until 5 miles from the runway, at which time we will select the landing gear down, Flap 3, and start reducing to our final approach speed. The majority of landings are conducted at Flap FULL position, in order to minimise the approach speed. However, there are certain situations where we may wish to land using Flap 3 instead. This results in a slightly higher approach speed, but may be preferable if we are landing, for example, on a day where significant windshear has been reported on final approach and there is an increased possibility of having to perform a go-around. Flap 3 produces significantly less aerodynamic drag than Flap FULL, so the aircraft performance in a go-around would be better.

By 1000 feet above the airfield we will be established on the final approach with the undercarriage locked down, the flaps at landing position, at our final approach speed of around 135 knots. This is a mandatory requirement for safety reasons. We have to be fully set up for landing by 1000 feet above the runway. Now the fun part…Putting 370 tonnes of aircraft onto the runway in exactly the right place. Each runway has a touchdown zone. We MUST land within this touchdown zone. If it becomes obvious we are not going to land by the end of the touchdown zone we have to fly a go-around. This is because our landing performance is calculated based on us landing within the touchdown zone. If we were to land beyond the end of it there is a chance we would not have enough runway left to stop the aircraft. Unfortunately, over the years, there have been a number of accidents which have been caused by pilots not flying a go-around when they have ‘floated’ too far down the runway. Therefore, the British Airways Safe Landing Policy is explicit in allowing either pilot to call go-around if they consider the aircraft will not land in the right place. As always, safety is our number one concern.

But let’s get on with the practicalities of actually landing the aircraft. We will assume this is to be a manual landing, not an automatic one. The vast majority of landings are flown manually. Automatic landings are normally only carried out in foggy conditions. The landing pilot will have taken control of the aircraft just below 1000 feet. They will concentrating on keeping the aircraft flying down the extended centreline of the runway.  This is done by imagining the painted line running down the centre of the runway extending beyond the runway itself and coming straight at you. The idea is you keep that pointing straight at you by moving the aircraft left or right as appropriate. It is also essential to keep descending at the correct rate and following the 3 degree glideslope to the runway. This is done partly by reference to the flight instruments, but also by looking outside at the runway. All pilots have a mental image in their mind of how a runway should look, the perspective, and the angle. Over time it becomes automatic to manoeuvre the aircraft on the approach to maintain this visual image. The closer you get to the runway, the more time is spent looking out at it, with just the odd flick of the eyes back inside to look at the instruments to make sure all is ok.

This is the view from the flight deck at 500 feet above the landing runway….

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Continuing down the approach to 200 feet above the runway….

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The PAPIs (Precision Approach Path Indicator) lights are visible to the left of the runway. We should touch down next to these. If we are on the correct glideslope we will see two red lights and two white lights. More reds than white mean we are too low, and more white than red mean we are too high.

 

Now just 100 feet above the runway. PAPIs very clear. On the glideslope. Centreline of the runway pointing straight at us.

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At 100 feet above the runway the flight control laws change. Pitch trim is no longer automatic, and the previous pitch flight control law changes to a landing ‘flare’ law. This is a modified pitch law which provides smoother control, allowing precise control of vertical speed and touchdown point.

Now only 50 feet above the runway….

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At 50 feet above the runway, the flare law introduces an effect which produces a slight nose down tendency. This means the pilot has to start moving the control stick back during the landing manoeuvre, which is known as the flare. In normal conditions the flare height is 40 feet above the runway, but varies slightly due to operational conditions such as wind speed and direction. As we go into the landing the sequence of events is as follows:-

  • Start the flare with positive back pressure on the sidestick, raising the nose of the aircraft a couple of degrees, then hold the pitch attitude as you look down the end of the runway
  • Wait
  • At around 20 feet close the thrust levers. The aircraft has an automatic call out of ‘RETARD’ as a reminder. It may be necessary to close the thrust levers earlier or later than this depending on the weather conditions.
  • Keep looking down the end of the runway. Do not allow the aircraft to roll and if necessary use rudder to bring the nose of the aircraft left or right to point directly down the runway just before touchdown. This is called the ‘crabbing’ technique when there is a crosswind.
  • Wait for touchdown, making very minor corrections if required. DO NOT over-control.
  • At touchdown the ground spoilers extend to ‘dump’ the majority of the lift, putting weight onto the wheels as the automatic brakes activate.
  • Select reverse thrust as required, always a minimum of idle. The A380 only has reverse thrust on the inner engines.
  • Use the rudder pedals to keep the aircraft tracking the centreline of the runway.
  • Lower the nose gently without delaying touchdown. It must be flown onto the runway and there may be a slight pitch up tendency as the ground spoilers deploy.

 

Just before touchdown…….

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Congratulations! You have just landed 370 tonnes of A380 in Vancouver!

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I hope this has been an interesting introduction in how to land an A380. If you have any comments or questions please ask…..

 

Below is the video of our landing at Vancouver on runway 08L on 11th September 2017, from which the above still photos were extracted. I hope now you have read the above description you can see exactly what First Officer Jon Leggett was doing as he performed this perfect landing.

24 Comments

  1. I retired from USAir in 2007 flying Boeing 727 and Boeing 737 300/400 aircraft… Except for the flap settings and Airbus laws (majic) near the ground everything was the same including compatible speeds based on weight of course. I prefer landing Boeing aircraft because they don’t take away vital control that you need during gusty crosswind landings. I commuted to work on the jumpseat quite a few times and whenever encountering large crosswinds the pilots would always have a problem getting the wing down on the side of the crosswind allowing the rudder inputs to keep the nose straight down the runway and ended up landing in a crab thus slightly sideways causing a slight prang after touchdown. In the Boeing I would use and was able to use as much cross control as I needed along with some differential power on the up wind engine to make a smooth landing most of the time…

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    1. Fair comment. However, having flown Airbus and Boeing aircraft I have found it is possible to land both well in 40 knot crosswinds, just using slightly different techniques. And on longhaul I much prefer the Airbus because you don’t have a control column in the way the whole flight! Now when Boeing decide to design a system where the control column can be retracted in the cruise…….

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  2. Well explained to say the least! I think the sculpting of A380 wings make them a superb work of art that are immensely practical as well as great to look at.

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  3. Thank you for a great read. And the video is wonderful. A quick question, which I am sure you are asked the time. Why manually fly the landing most of the time when there is an automatic option? What are the advantages beyond keeping your skill levels up?

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    1. Because we can! Because we enjoy it. And because in order to fly automatic landings various protections and taxiing restrictions have to be put in place on the airfield in order to guarantee the integrity of the ILS signal to the aircraft. These procedures are termed Low Visibility Operations, or similar such terms, and are used during foggy weather when automatic landings are essential. We are still able to perform automatic landings on good weather days when these protections are not in place, but have to be mindful that the signals from the systems on the runway may suffer from interference and we may have to disconnect the automatics and land the aircraft at short notice. Also, for most aircraft, the maximum wind speeds the automatic landing systems can deal with are lower than those for manual landings.

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  4. Great job ! Very informative. Thanks to you and your team for allowing us the opportunity to have a glimpse of the complex job of flying these awesome aircrafts.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for that capt Dave, just the right balance of description and information as always. I have read your other blogs which are just as excellent, I can hear a further calling for you, when they drag you out of the cockpit, kicking and screaming for retirement, and thats as an author, get yourself a publisher sorted!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Awesome article and video. Curious, do tower communications ever become distracting while trying to focus on a so many things during a normal landing?

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    1. Thank you. Good question! Pilots actually develop the ability to listen to multiple conversations at once and filter out the non-essentials. This technique can be very useful at other times away from flying!

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  7. Great video and the landing seemed to go well so not sure why the R word was used at 20 feet or so – unacceptable these day to use such a word, no matter how stressful the situation.

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  8. Really interesting. You have the best job in the world so thanks for sharing it with us.
    Fly LHR/JNB with BA a couple of times a year, hope to be on one of your flights one day.
    Thanks again – more please!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great suff. Have flown in the A380 on 3 occasions and have admired the technology and the comfort in this aircraft. One pity about the approach and landing video, showing the actual flaps and ailerons prior to and during landing would have added a bit more interest in this magnificent flying machine.

    Cheers from Western Australia.

    Norm Jackson

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is something we are hoping to do in future videos. It is actually quite hard to set up cameras to show the displays properly without them interfering with the pilots and/or being affected by reflections, so we are thinking of filming something in the simulator to show this. Keep watching!

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    1. Not sure quite what you mean by this. We normally cruise in Flight Levels, which are referenced to a standard atmospheric pressure. Closer to airports we fly on QNH, which will give an altimeter reading of height above sea level. Below 2500 feet we also receive information from a radio altimeter which bounces a signal off the ground in order to give us a precise height above the terrain. This will show 0 when we land whereas our pressure altimeters will show our height above sea level. Does that answer your question?

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