Athens Adventure: Navigating Thunderstorms, Runway Closures, and High-Pressure Diversion Decisions

"Dodging thunderstorms and managing a divert situation at 1am. this was an evening that really tested my pilot capacity...."

Gatwick Departure

I started the day off already reasonably tired….I’d been on 4 consecutive early starts in the days immediately preceding today (getting up between 4-5am everyday), and today had been put on a late flight to Athens which was due to finish late into the evening.

As I rock up to the airport around midday, I see the flight already has a slot due to ATC capacity at Gatwick that will add around an hour delay onto the already lengthy duty. It’s frustrating as It’s just means we’ll end the day later than planned, but this Summer we’ve come to start taking our scheduled end times with a pinch of salt.  

The departure ends up being no real dramas, 30 minutes waiting on stand once all the passengers are boarded, then we push back and have an uneventful flight to Athens. We note quite a few thunderstorms building over The Alps on our flight down, but as it’s daytime they’re easy to see and avoid.

Athens Airport

It’s a lovely evening in Greek airspace so I take all the automatics out and fly the A320 manually for the last 10 minutes of the approach as the sun sets. Quite the backdrop!

The real fun starts on the ground, when I’m told by the crew as I board from my walkaround that we’d just been given a 2+ hour slot for the way back. I thought they were joking until I saw the slip of paper myself. It tells us the slot is caused by weather en route and ATC capacity in LGW.

Decision time; Board passengers and hope for a slot improvement, or leave them in the terminal whilst we wait out the first hour or so?

That slot also means I’ll be landing back into Gatwick at past midnight. Obviously, that’s initially a slight safety concern for myself, seeing as my body is on an early pattern. It also means me and a few of the crew will be operating into our day off. I have to check that everyone’s happy to do this in order to get these passengers home. Whilst everyone is totally entitled to say no, all the crew today are willing to do it.

Although slots due to ATC capacity and weather don’t tend to improve (unless the weather does!), we decide to be optimistic and board the passengers, during which time I message our operations department asking if there’s anything they can do to help our slot. Once all onboard, we get a ready message in but unfortunately the slot doesn’t improve (See post here for details on what ready messages & slots are). As usual, I do a PA offering both my sincere apologies to the second plane full of passengers today, along with the invitation for customers to come and visit the flightdeck during the delay. This always seems to go down well and today was no different. We had a queue going most of the way down the plane with passengers looking to come and have a seat, ask questions and take photos. It’s a great way for them to kill time and also gives us a rare chance to interact with the people we’re flying!

Once airborne, the way back was spent dodging extremely active thunderstorms up the coast of Croatia and over the Alps. Often we can just fly over the top of storms, but these were colossal cells that were topping out above our altitude, up to 40,000ft i.e very, very high!

See a videe of one of them here

We had a slight issue here in that our weather radar that day was awful. We’d noted it on the way down to Athens in the daytime, that massive cells we were flying past and could see with our eyes, weren’t showing up on the radar at all, whilst it was also showing returns for things that simply weren’t there. Our fleet are getting new weather radars installed but we had a very old one today.

We now find ourselves at night, without the luxury of being able to see weather cells with our eyes, so we’re even more reliant on our radar. We turned all the lights down in the cockpit and were quite literally eyeing up what we thought looked like a cell and trying to navigate around it. This proved extremely hard at times as it was a dark night with not much moonlight. It became neigh on impossible when we started entering light cloud layers.

We could hear aircraft above and below us requesting headings to avoid cells, and this often lined up with what we thought we could make out from looking out into the abyss, so we followed them.

pilot bible track
Our track deviating around thunderstorms over The Alps



Gatwick Arrival

Managing to avoid the worst of it, we commenced our descent into Gatwick overhead Paris just after midnight.

As we approached the South coast of the UK, we could visibly see a gigantic cell infront of us, this time it was also painting on the radar, strongly. It was at this point we were advised Gatwick has just closed their runway…..they were transitioning onto their smaller runway, but during this transition, both runways were closing. This had been planned to happen a few hours before our arrival, for regular maintenance work on the main runway, but as we had just found out, they’d delayed the closure of the main runway by a few hours tonight due to a high capacity of aircraft landing when they had planned to change runway.

They told us to take up the airborne hold, which happened to be right in the middle of where the cell was. The ATC frequency was chaos and we were heading rapidly towards this immense cell, now towering over our aircraft. When we finally got a word in edgeways, we let them know that we’re unable to hold there and want to hold 2 miles South of the hold point, which is where we were now, and would be unable to travel any further North.

By the time it was approved and we began our hold, we were a little closer to the cell than I’d have liked due to that communication delay, but about to turn away from the cell onto our outbound hold leg. We noticed a British Airways aircraft continuing overhead to the usual hold point, which made us query both our weather radar, our intuition, and our eyes. Sure enough, 30 seconds later there was a frantic voice on the radio asking to leave that hold and join the one we had created. We now had 2 other aircraft that had since requested to join our makeshift holding pattern, which filled me with some confidence that I’d done the right thing. Either that or it was the blind leading the blind…

In the hold we look at our fuel and work out we have around 10 minutes of holding fuel before we’d need to make a decision whether to commit to Gatwick, or head to our alternate airport, which in this case it was Luton. Committing means doing away with our alternate of Luton, and allowing us to burn into the fuel we’d need to get us there, whilst still in the hold at Gatwick.

To commit however, according to our company rules, we need ATC to give us a time we’d be able to start our approach (Estimated Approach Time – EAT). This is usually not a problem as we’re often told exactly how long our delay will be as we enter the hold. The issue this evening is that Gatwick cannot provide us an EAT, despite me asking, as the airport is totally closed during this runway transition.

Upon our second lap round the hold and whilst having these fuel discussions with the First Officer, I notice the cell is being blown towards us as a rate of knots (35kts to be precise) and now our current holding pattern would take us right into it. I request an early turn in the hold to essentially move our hold even further South, which is approved. The aircraft above follow suit.

We now have 5 minutes of fuel left before we’d need to commit or divert. That’s one lap of the hold. I once again ask ATC if they can give us an EAT yet, or even an estimate of how long the ‘transition’ period will take. They reply unable to both.

It’s now almost 1am at the end of a 12 hour duty day. We’re sat going round in circles in the sky in total darkness, being pushed South by a thunderstorm, and having to make complexed fuel decisions under heavy time pressure whilst my body clock is also totally out of whack. It’s at times like this that although you have a great team around you (& on this occasion a very helpful team!), things can feel very, very lonely as a Captain, and you feel the weight of responsibility on your shoulders.

In terms of the decision, if we are going by the book here….If we cannot get an EAT by the end of this lap of the hold, we need to divert to Luton. However, we know almost for sure, that Gatwick’s runway would be open again before we even arrived in Luton. These runway transitions don’t usually last more than 15 minutes tops. It seems crazy to end up diverting, likely going out of hours and getting the plane, passengers and crew all stuck there. I have safety as my number one priority, but am also aware the above  would cost the company a hell of a lot of money and cause carnage to the operation.

I also have to also ask myself, what if we get to Luton and their only runway gets blocked as we’re making an approach? Would we be asked why we didn’t just wait at Gatwick another 5 minutes for the runway to re-open, rather than end up overhead a now closed Luton having burnt all our alternate fuel and dipping into our emergency reserve to get us elsewhere?

On the flip side, what if Gatwick had an issue re-opening….the question would be ‘why did we hang around a closed airport and burn into our diversion fuel when we weren’t given an EAT?’

On this occasion, it seems insane, but after mulling it over with the FO, we agree that we will follow our fuel policy and regulations, with the plan to head to Luton if we are not given an EAT in the next 2 minutes. We are on the onbound leg of our last hold we can make now, so essentially one minute to go until we need to turn towards Luton for the divert. As I’m waiting to get a word in edgeways on the radio and let ATC know the above information, we’re told the runway is now open, we’re number 3 and given a heading towards the runway.

This is a huge relief! Although now the heading they’ve given us takes us straight through the cell, so we once again take an orbit to the right and go the long way round the cell. Luckily we can now do away with Luton as an alternate and commit to Gatwick, so we can afford to use the fuel to go this long way around.

Flight radar tracker
Pushing our orbits further & further South as the storm cell approaches

At around 1500ft on our approach, we hear an instruction for a Tui Boeing 787 on the ground to line up and be ready for an immediate takeoff infront of us. This is slightly odd that they’re squeezing aircraft in this tightly at this time in the morning. We immediately slow our aircraft to it’s slowest speed by getting all of our flaps out, in an effort to reduce the chance of a go-around. A few moments later we’re told by ATC to slow to minimum speed and expect a late landing clearance….good to know our situational awareness got us slightly ahead of the game.

At around 800ft we hear the tower once again asking the Tui aircraft to ensure they’re ready immediately when they’re cleared for takeoff. 500ft now and we can see the strobes of the aircraft Infront just finishing their turn to line up onto the runway.

At this point what’s going through my head is…

‘If that aircraft stopped on the runway during it’s takeoff roll, and we actually had to go around here, what do we do?

Options;

  • Divert straight to our alternate – Luton – we’ve already burnt into our alternate fuel with the long winded vectors around the storm cell for the approach, so we’ll get there by burning into our ‘final reserve fuel’, fuel that should never get touched. There will be lots of questions asked as to how we got into this position, but at least we’d be on the ground.

    However, what If we headed straight to Luton, then the runway became clear at LGW? Even worse, if it then became blocked in Luton and we find ourselves over central London running on our Final Reserve Fuel? (Final reserve fuel – 30 minutes worth of fuel we should never, ever be going in to. BIG questions will be asked if we ever touch this).

  • Request a circuit at Gatwick for another approach whilst trying to see why the Tui stopped on the runway and how long it will take to clear. This will burn another 500kg of fuel as a minimum. That storm cell is right in the way of the final go-around point, so we’ll also have to be requesting an alternative go-around procedure too. The workload would be crazy and we’d be burning into very precious fuel.

    What if we do this but cannot ascertain the reason that the Tui stopped, or they don’t immediately move off the runway. How long do we hang around for? Would we have just wasted precious fuel that we can’t afford to lose?

    Could we request that they clear the main runway of all the works vehicles that are now doing their nightly maintenance work? How long would this take?

  • Dive into London Heathrow. It’s not an alternate for us, but it is a lot closer than Luton, so we’d be able to land there without touching our final reserves. As of yet, nobody from our company has ended up having to do this. Whilst there’s no shame in being the first, to me it’s a very last resort option.

As pilots we are thought to think worst case and always have a plan, hence having these thoughts running through my head at gone 01:30am whilst at 500ft on approach. I will do another piece at some stage on this mindset, as we’re taught to think this way to be good pilots, but unfortunately if you’re not careful it can have real negative knock on effects if you bring that always thinking worst case mindset into your personal life.

The Tui got wheels up just as we were passing the threshold and got our very late landing clearance. Another big relief!

In all honesty, I never did have a set decision on the above options for what my plan would have been if the TUI had stopped or aborted their take-off. At 500ft I didn’t want to overload the FO who was doing a grand job of flying the aircraft, by verbalizing my thoughts.  I think it would have been hugely situationally dependant, with massive emphasis on what the reason was for the aircraft stopping on the runway, and whether we could ascertain this from their initial call, or by immediately asking the tower.

I’d be interested to hear thoughts & suggestions from others!

All in all, a very stressful final 30 minutes of what had been a totally exhausting block. I drive home in the knowledge that my body clock is highly likely going to wake me up around 5 hours after I get to sleep due to the week of earlies that preceded tonight. It’ll be a fun start to my 3 days off before I have to be back up at 4:30 am again for my next duty.

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