THE GURU • December 2021
Air traffic controller Adrian Dolan gives the lowdown on what it was like conducting the parallel runway take-off at Heathrow, which saw British Airways and Virgin planes take flight simultaneously to celebrate the reopening of the USA
What does your typical day at work look like, and how was the BA001 departure different to a ‘normal day’?
Sadly we haven’t had many ‘typical’ days recently, but essentially our job in the tower is to make sure aircraft move around the airport and arrive and depart as safely and efficiently as possible. Normally that means using one runway for arrivals and the other for departures, but in this case a gap in arrivals was created to give us just enough time for the dual runway take-off.
What would you say are the three core skills needed to pull off a dual take-off?
Beyond the technical know-how, I’d say teamwork, problem solving and adaptability. Teamwork really was key, though. Having so many organisations working together showed UK aviation at its best.
How much planning does this require? Has it ever been done before, and will it be done again?
Using both runways for departures is extremely rare. Discussions between NATS air traffic control services, Heathrow, British Airways and Virgin started back in May 2021 in the hope of a US reopening some time over the summer. While that didn’t happen, we kept the plans on ice until October once it became clear things were moving in a positive direction. As to whether it will happen again, we all hope Heathrow will be back to its usual busy self very soon but, of course, the busier it gets the harder it would be to deliver something like this again. It may never be repeated.
“It was fantastic to play a part in something that brought a little joy to people”
How important was the weather in making this work?
Simply put, if the weather hadn’t played ball it couldn’t have happened. Heathrow’s runways are ‘only’ 1,414m apart, which is too close to be able to do parallel departures outside of very specific weather and visual conditions. The controllers must rely on what’s called ‘reduced separation in the vicinity of an aerodrome’ to ensure the aircraft remain safely apart as they climb out of the airport. If the visibility had been too low, then the whole show would have been off. We were very lucky!
If we did that 100 times, I’m not sure we could have got that any closer. https://t.co/bcIFomRKXu— Ady Dolan (@adydolan) November 8, 2021
How did you feel when the flights took off?
It’s definitely one of my career highlights. I’m incredibly proud to be a NATS Heathrow controller and when our customers come to us with an unusual request like this, we will do whatever we can to make it happen. Given how incredibly difficult the last 18 months have been for everyone, it was fantastic to be able to play our part in something that I hope brought a little joy to people.