I currently fly the best airliner in the world! The amazing A380, for British Airways.

My career with British Airways started in 1989 when I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Cadet Pilot scheme. Having completed my degree in Applied Chemistry at Cardiff, I started my flying training at the British Aerospace Flying College in Prestwick, Scotland, in November 1989. Below is the promotional video produced while I was there. You may recognise some people looking far younger than today!

 

The course was fantastic, interesting, hard work and introduced me to a great set of people who are still good friends. Each course comprised sixteen people from a wide variety of backgrounds. It was a busy time for pilot recruitment in British Airways. A new course was starting each month, so the atmosphere at the flying college was busy, exciting, and extremely friendly, as everyone was there for the same reason. It was the kind of place where you knew you were making lifelong friends.

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Course 8911 British Aerospace Flying College

Our course graduated in March 1991. However, the Gulf War was then underway, and a few weeks before our graduation all the cadets were summoned to a meeting hosted by British Airways management at which we were told the effect the war was having on the industry, and that there were no longer any flying vacancies. The silence in the room, containing over 100 people, was deafening. Many of my friends took up positions as cabin crew. I was fortunate enough to be offered a position within a chemical company called Ciba-Geigy, with whom I had worked during my degree. Looking back on it now, although this was not the ideal start to my flying career, it did allow me to work in another industry and learn lots of skills I still use today. For part of the time I worked for Ciba-Geigy I was posted to the Philippines working on a geothermal power station. This was an amazing experience and only cemented my desire to travel and see the world.

I formally joined British Airways as a pilot in January 1993, and being from Manchester, I was overjoyed to be offered a position flying the Boeing 737-200 from the Manchester base. This proved to be a great place to start. There was a real family atmosphere generated by some lovely people, and the fact there were only around 50 or so pilots stationed there.

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Boeing 737-200

I spent almost five years at Manchester, and can quite honestly say I loved every minute of it. Again, I made some lifelong friends, and am still in contact with some of the captains I flew with then. My last flight from Manchester was in December 1997. I started my command course in January 1998, simultaneously training on to the Boeing 737-400 series. This was similar in many ways to the -200 series, but there were also some major differences. The -400 had a ‘glass cockpit’ and was far more computerised than the earlier -200. My command also required a move to Gatwick.

I spent just over three very happy years at Gatwick, flying to a much wider variety of airports than the smaller Manchester base. The Gatwick base also had numerous night stop destinations which gave the opportunity to explore various European towns and cities. My particular favourites tended to be in Italy. I have a soft spot for the people and atmosphere there, in addition to being a fan of the food and wine!

My next move was to Heathrow and change of aircraft type to the Airbus A320. Roughly the same size as the Boeing 737-400, but built and operated with a different philosophy. I found the sidestick controls very intuitive, and I loved the fact I now had a table from which I could eat my in flight meal! Heathrow presented a new set of challenges. Gatwick is still the busiest single-runway airport in the world. But Heathrow felt a different level altogether. Two runways, very busy, new destinations, and a much larger operation than that at Gatwick.

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Airbus A320

A few years later and British Airways announced the plan to buy two Airbus A318 aircraft which would be operated from London City airport and fly twice daily to New York. The aircraft would be configured with just 32 Club World seats. This sounded like a return to my favoured environment of a small, friendly base, so I immediately applied. Fortunately, a few months later I found myself on a training course learning how to fly the A318 down the steep approach into London CIty airport. Most airports have an approach path angle of 3°. However, in order to minimise noise the approach angle to London City is almost twice that at 5.5°. This required Airbus to make various modifications to the A318 in order to allow it to fly this profile. The runway at London City is also very short and narrow. Flying the approach and landing was never boring!

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Airbus A318 at London City Airport

In 2013 British Airways introduced the enormous Airbus A380. This was an aircraft I just had to fly. The A380 is without doubt the most amazing aircraft I have ever flown. The numbers are incredible. It can weigh 560 tonnes at takeoff. Compare that to the still very large Boeing 747-400 which has a maximum takeoff weight of around 397 tonnes. The horizontal section of the tail is about the same size as the A320 wing. It can hold 254 tonnes of fuel. Yet it is the quietest and in many ways easiest aircraft to fly of all those I have flown. The systems are incredibly well designed, with data and checklists presented to you on a ‘need to know’ basis. This is essential as there is an awful lot going on when this very complex aircraft is in the sky. It also makes me smile every time go to fly it, and again when I get off it when I look back. If you haven’t experienced an A380 flight, get one booked!

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The A380 and A318. Quite a size difference!

 

I feel like I am lucky enough to have just about the best job in the world. It certainly has the best office window! I love the challenge of flying an aircraft to the best of my ability. As a captain I enjoy setting a working tone and environment which, hopefully, means the people I fly with enjoy their trip, but also want to give their very best and operate in a professional, relaxed manner. Flying for British Airways has been a pleasure and a privilege. I was very fortunate to be selected for the cadet scheme, so I do feel a sense of loyalty to the company. The job has allowed me to see many countries and cities around the world I would never have visited on holiday, meet and work with some exceptional people, and still feel like a big kid every time I come to work to fly the largest airliner in the world. There is still no feeling better than sitting in the flight deck of an A380, pushing the thrust levers forward, feeling the power of the engines, and taking to the skies! It really is an incredible feeling.

 

33 Comments

  1. Hi there Dave:
    First of all, congrats for a great career and thanks for the interesting posting online.
    Question on the 3 vs 5.5 degree approach angle at LCY: would 5.5 be too ‘sporty’ for bigger planes, at regular airports? For example, would your A380 handle 5.5?
    I see lotsa engine thrust applied during those long, flat 3 degree slopes, with full flaps.
    Why burn all that fuel, and generate all that noise, way close to the ground? Is 5.5 really that bad?
    How about a GPS-based, on-autopilot-only transition from 5.5 to 3, say, 30 seconds before threshold crossing?
    Cheers,
    Paulo AF

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    1. Hi. Thanks. Some good questions! Aircraft have to be able to fly down a slope 2 degrees steeper than the steepest they are expected to fly. At a push, I would imagine an A380 may just get away with a 5.5 degree approach, but the problem would be the engines would be at or nearly at idle thrust. This leads into the next question about engine thrust/noise. If a jet engine is at idle thrust, it takes several seconds to accelerate to a point where it is producing a useful amount of thrust. This can be as long as 8-10 seconds for a large jet engine such as those used in commercial aviation. This would have serious implications if we had to perform a go-around, and would also mean if the aircraft were to slow down on the approach due to something like a change in the wind direction or speed, there would be no thrust available for 8-10 seconds to counteract that. That just isn’t acceptable or safe. Therefore, aircraft are set up in such a way that the engines are running at a speed which gives a rapid response to any changes in thrust requirement. This is what is known as a stable approach. Our procedures in BA dictate that we must be in a stable condition at 1000 feet above the airport. This ensures we have the aircraft flying in a condition where we can react instantly to any changes and the aircraft will respond immediately. I hope that answers you question.
      Regarding changing from one angle to another, it may be that with advances in the use of GPS something along these lines may become possible in future. We shall have to wait and see!
      Best wishes, and thanks for the excellent questions.

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  2. What a fantastic blog. I remember with affection the 737-200 which I caught regularly from BHX and one particularly memorable cockpit flight from DUS after wining an onboard Red Nose Day raffle ( all pre 9/11 of course). I remember with excitement the arrival of the first A319 G-EUPA and the thrill of flying on that to Paris and other places before the 319 fillet was redeployed to LHR & BAE 146 aircraft took over the routes.

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  3. As a resident of New Hampshire an hour north of Boston, my only realistic hope for the A380 is on the BOS-LHR or LHR-BOS leg. I have occasional trips to Europe so hopefully I can schedule one during the summer when BA puts the 380 on the route. Thanks so much for sharing your world with us!

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  4. Hi Dave, just come across your website and have to say its a real fascinating read. Keep up the great work on Twitter and look forward to your next video.

    All the best
    Justin

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  5. Thanks for a great blog and covering all the nuances we humble passengers are so intrigued with. Just sitting in the seat and enjoying the view has never been enough for me, need to know and why !!!
    Having been on the A380 it’s the quietness that is striking.
    All the best.

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  6. What a wonderful blog … so nicely written and informative! Having flown into City on a few occasions I appreciate the cockpit video. And having flown the A380 a few times I enjoyed the technical descriptions … so much going on while we are sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the flight!

    I just had a quick question on the A380 trim tank … presumably there are actually two, one in each horizontal stabiliser, but to all intents and purposes acting as one tank when it comes to balancing?

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  7. Fantastic Blog Dave. I am not a pilot but your blog is a great read, and gives many insights into complex activities that go on in the front of the aircraft that we passengers usually don’t think about. Thanks for explaining things in plain English! I have always wondered how the runways are labeled. I see all the cryptic little signs planted on the grass with letters and numbers that we see out the window during taxiing. Are the signs and their interpretations standardized, or do you refer to an electronic map for every airport that you land or take-off from?

    Hope to be on an aircraft that you are piloting soon.

    Regards,
    Kiran

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  8. Hi Dave – some great posts here and I hope you don’t mind if I tweet a link or two!
    I managed a trip on the LCY – JFK route in October 2009, sat on the last row (8th!) it was an impresive take-off out of LCY. I’ve still to get on a BA A380 flight but my visit to Toulose to see the A380 assembly line a few years ago. The trip certainly changed my mind about the A380 and showed how much Airbus are pro the passenger.
    Keep up the good work – online and in the air!
    Richard

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  9. Your love of flying is very obvious – thanks for taking the time to explain the particulars of flying these large aircraft, especially your A380 Johannesburg videos this year!

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  10. “My next move was to Heathrow and change of aircraft type to the Airbus A320. Roughly the same size as the Boeing 737-400, but built and operated with a different philosophy”

    hi there, just a passenger in love with planes and flying, not a pilot. What did you mean by your last sentence above? As a passenger I always thought the 737 and a320 are pretty much the same. Single aisle, short and medium distance planes. Could you also please comment on the differences between various planes like the 787 and a350 for example? Also how come neither airbus and Boeing have a plane that can go London to Sydney direct without stopping? I was reading that the a350_900 VIP configuration can fly these sort of distances non stop so how come the same planes operated by commercial carriers can’t? Thank you

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    1. Hi. The main difference between the 737 and the A320 is the Airbus operates using fly-by-wire, where the movement of the control surfaces is performed via a sidestick and electrical signals via flight computers whereas the 737 is more conventional, using mechanical cables with hydraulic assistance. They achieve pretty much the same result from a passenger perspective, but are different to fly from the pilot’s point of view. In many ways the 787 and A350 are far more similar than the 737 vs A320. Both are fly-by-wire aircraft, but the 787 retains a centre control column whereas the A350 uses a similar sidestick to the A320. In terms of an aircraft which can fly London to Sydney direct, I am sure both Airbus and Boeing could produce such an aircraft if there was demand from the airlines. The fact they haven’t done that suggests the demand doesn’t justify the expense. Specialised VIP aircraft tend to be one-off orders, so the customer can specify pretty much anything they are prepared to pay for, including this extra long range. Also remember a VIP aircraft will be carrying far fewer people than a conventional passenger aircraft, so will be quite a bit lighter, and hence have longer range.

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  11. Hi David I like the big stuff and what id give to be in your shoes ,my ex next neighbor is a pilot, let me sit in the jump seat in a Tristar Manchester to Tenerefe and back also another pilot let me sit in A[b 320 auto land into Manchester before 9/11 quite privileged, i loved Concorde used to get goose pimples when it took off fantastic very sad to see it go, If you had the choice of flying Concorde or 380 which one would you have chosen, I’m a flight simmer and was looking for info on the 380 thanks brilliant read

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  12. Wonderful blog Dave – perfect mix of important detail and being nicely accessible for the non-expert. Great to hear you were flying 737-200s from MAN in the 1990s. I had many 737 flights from Manchester to Milan Linate between ’94-’97 (I worked in Italy for a while) so a good chance you were driving one – nice thought!
    Very, very excited for my first A380 flight in March, BA31 to HK…

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  13. Captain Dave. My husband is so happy you tweet regularly. It keeps me quiet.I am a BIG fan.
    I just LOVE the A380. Flew BA to Lax and YVR last year and this year have managed to get my friend to agree to SFO. (My husband is fly phobic. Sadly only ever flies to the Isle of Man, his loss.)So May 4th out and return 14th May please try to be driving one way IF NOT BOTH. I think of all the aircraft I’ve been over the pond in the A380 is THE VERY BEST. One day I WILL do 1st class. As a passenger I feel I arrive more rested and somehow READY for the West coast. I am totally fascinated by the video’s you have posted. Thank you for your dedication to your office job. Keep up the postings. PLEASE.

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  14. A brilliant blog. So enjoyed reading the comments. Would love to fly the A380 sometime in the near future – a beautiful looking aircraft

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  15. Hi Dave,
    Great blog! I wanted to ask about A340. It seems odd to me that so few were produced, and a relatively small amount of airlines actually purchased them. What was the thinking behind the A340 project when it was unveiled? Was it introduced to be a direct competitor to the 747? Or the 777? And why, in your opinion, has the A340 not proliferated throughout the industry like other models? Bad timing based on the market? My flight on the A340 was very comfortable, and the landing was one of the softest I’ve ever experienced.

    Cheers, keep up the great work!

    Like

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