01 Nov 2017 16:43 IST

Landing a plane — it’s a purely technical task

Mark Vanhoenacker, a Senior First Officer for British Airways and a bestselling author, talks about his new book

Your second book, How to Land a Plane, was just published. How is it different from your first book, Skyfaring?

While it’s written for everyone, How to Land a Plane definitely focuses more on the technical side of flying, and a little less on the sheer wonder of it.

Together I hope the books make clear that flying itself is a wonderful mix of poetry and precision, of the romantic and the technical sides of human nature.

Can I actually learn how to land a plane from a book?

The answer to that, sadly, is a definite no. However, I do think that whether you’re a regular high-flier, an aspiring pilot, or an armchair traveller, the wonder of flight is enhanced by knowing just a little more about the details that make it all possible.

How much of landing is science and how much, an art?

For pilots, landing a plane is a purely technical task, one that’s based entirely on science.

For example, the landing distance that’s required varies greatly depending on a variety of factors, including the wind, the elevation of the airfield, the air temperature and the slope of the runway. That total required distance is something we calculate before every approach and landing.

Taking-off looks much easier than landing. Is it right?

When I take visitors and corporate guests into the flight simulator, I can usually talk them through a take-off (in calm winds, at least) without adding too many inputs to the controls myself. That generally doesn’t work for landings. There are all sorts of analogies, but you could think about cars. It’s a lot easier to pull out of a parking space than to park the car in it.

Which has been your favourite landing strip?

I suppose my favourite is runway 27L at London’s Heathrow Airport. Heathrow is my home base, so it’s always a pleasure for me to return there. For passengers, especially on the right side of the aircraft, the views as you come in to land can be extraordinary, as long as London’s fickle weather is cooperating. You can see every old and new landmarks of London— the Shard, the Tower, Buckingham Palace and the extraordinary green chain of parks.

Why does the Boeing 747 tell its pilots to ‘Decide!’?

Imagine a plane descending through clouds, toward the runway. But there’s an altitude or height below which we cannot descend further unless we can see the runway or its lights with our own eyes. That’s called the ‘decision altitude’ or ‘decision height.’ As we near that level, the plane announces ‘Decide!’ to us out loud in a clear voice.

Before you became a pilot, you were a management consultant. Are there parallels between the two worlds?

One of the greatest things about being a pilot is that our task for each day is so clearly defined. We have a starting point, a destination, and a precise route between the two. Things may change, of course, but in terms of job satisfaction I think that such clear paths and goals are a blessing.

Writing a book, on the other hand, may have none of those advantages!

The business world is somewhere in between the two.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)