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From The Tower looking Back – The FALCON (50) vs the seagulls

By Rob Russell

It was a typical winter’s afternoon, in May, when the call went out and like a true officer and gentleman, I was obligated to answer, comply and participate.

21 Squadron were in town for a night, with a Falcon 50, with a newly qualified co-pilot and it was deemed appropriate that a few celebratory drinks were needed. Not too many, though (um er yes um, you know what is meant) as the crew had a 6 O clock take off the next morning.

Being a truly miserable day, the commander decided that the pub at Ysterplaat would be suitable and suitably attired in jacket and tie, I duly arrived and partook in the necessarily required drinks. But it was rather subdued and the copilot spent a lot of time telling me how much better the Falcon was compared to the HS125 and how good the training, which was done in France, was. He mentioned that the training was of the highest standard and he was prepared for any incident that might arise. Little did he know he was about to experience something they don’t teach you in the sim!

What we did not know was that the Ysterplaat seagulls had been planning a welcoming party for the next morning. The seagulls had been a problem for many years, at Ysterplaat, especially in the winter and rainy periods. It was well known that Ysterplaat, with its vicinity to the wetlands at Brooklyn and the Atlantic Ocean, had a bird problem, predominantly seagulls and maritime birds.

In their true traditions, they were getting ready for the next morning. Admittedly a lot weren’t going to survive, but that is the nature of seagull formation flying when big metal birds are flying too! And they are pretty expendable and quickly replaced!

The next morning duly arrived and my approach colleague and I arrived at the Centre, just before 6, to commence our shift. My colleague was in his usual pristine condition, but I must admit I have felt better! It was a typical winter’s day. Cold, overcast, howling wind and rain showers passing through. In fact, just a typical Cape cold front. Hint – should be a quiet day!

We ambled up to the tower – in those days, it wasn’t really busy and we did tower and approach from one position early morning. There were the usual couple of SAA schedules that left at 6, the daily visit from the Namaqualand Lugdiens pilots and the techs popping in to say hello.

It was just after 6 when the Ysterplaat hotline rang and disturbed the usual daily routine. Ah, ZS-CAS was starting – the usual clearance was issued from runway 02– climb straight ahead and contact approach at 2000ft. Nothing out of the usual. A few minutes later we observed the target getting airborne on the radar. Little did we know what was about to happen.

The approach frequency came alive and all we could hear was sirens, bells and everything else that could make a noise in a cockpit. We knew there was a problem and it required our immediate and utter attention. The commander, in his calm demeanour, said he had a problem and would like to return to Cape Town and land as soon as possible. I remember Ysterplaat phoned and said ZS-CAS had hit a lot of birds and might have to return to Cape Town!

Returning to Ysterplaat was not an option. The weather there was 3000m vis with a 500ft cloud-base in rain. Ysterplaat had no instrument approaches available, so the return to Ysterplaat was never an option. Cape Town was always used as a take-off alternate – bearing in mind all the instrument approaches and a 10500ft runway available, compared to the 5500ft runway at Ysterplaat. Some decisions in flying were pretty simple and this was one!

I looked at my colleague and he looked at me. The old “Houston we have a problem!” sprung into our minds. No time to sit and think – urgent action was called for. The first thing we did was press the crash alarm and disturb the fire station. The usual quick response – it was always like that in those days and within the minute they were all heading off to the runway.

We had similar weather at Ysterplaat and I can remember the wind was about 25knots from the northwest, so we were using runway 01. With the weather, it was no chance of a visual approach and with all those bells and sirens, it would be a vector to the ILS and we knew we had to make it short and sweet.

Luckily I can remember having many a discussion with a few Falcon pilots – there was a large operator on the airfield and we spent many an hour discussing the jets and their performance. The Falcon 50 really is an amazing jet. Three engines, the middle one has a thrust reverser fitted as standard and a really good anti-skid braking system. So to land it at Cape Town was never a problem. So I had a fair idea of the basic performance of the jet.

I said to my colleague, let's offer them runway 19 – to hell with the wind and a wet runway. My rationale was if you cant land it with a 25kt tailwind on a wet runway and not stop it. they shouldn’t be flying it! I mean what did I know?

By this stage the aircraft was still a few miles northwest of Cape Town and passing 2000 odd feet, so they were managing fine. At least it looked like it! We offered them runway 19, which they accepted without any hesitation and left my colleague to do the vectoring, whilst I turned all the lights and ILS around to runway 19. Luckily in those days, the ILS, when switched around, was pretty quick and worked straight away. So within a minute, it started to radiate on runway 19. I remember my colleague giving them one right turn onto a heading of 160 degrees (or something like that) and cleared for the approach. So simple!

They were soon established on the ILS, the emergency crews were briefed it was landing on runway 19 and not 01, much to their confusion. That was the last thing they expected – the aircraft usually land into the wind, but this was not a usual situation.

A few minutes later, the aircraft emerged out of the cloud and landed, albeit, a bit fast on runway 19, without any further incident. They safely came to a stop, turned left at Lima and taxied off to the military apron, also known as the farm, to regular operators at Cape Town.

The emergency crews stood down, we turned the ILS back to runway 01 and peace and calm returned to the tower. I think my colleague was more worried about the poor seagulls than anything else and I needed another strong coffee. I think the jet was in the air for less than 10 minutes.

I convinced my colleague I needed to go across and see the crew and chat with them. I drove around the airfield – in those days you could and duly met the crew at 35 Squadron. The new copilot was sitting on the door stairs shaking like I don’t know what and looking whiter than white. The commander and the flight engineer were on the other side of the jet inspecting the damage.

Having a debrief with the crew, it transpired they had a number 2 engine compressor stall at V1, continued the departure and as they rotated, those seagulls got airborne. They took a whole lot through the number 3 engine, as well as suffering multiple bird strikes to various parts of the right-hand side airframe and wing. If my memory serves me correct, there were about 27 birdstrikes. The commander, wisely, decided not to shut down any of the engines, and was quite happy to take runway 19. In fact, it never entered his mind to land on that runway.

One of the things we also discussed, was the Commander saying it also made a big difference knowing the controller. The relationship in such situations is so much better knowing its not a voice on the other side but a mate and someone who understands the situation and cares. I remember those words still – the importance of knowing the basic operating parameters of the various aircraft that use the airfield and also getting to know as many pilots as possible. Nothing beats a friendship in difficult times.

Just goes to show how much one can learn from “bartalk” and “hangartalk”. He also said stopping that jet on runway 19 was no problem at all. You can't buy experience and common sense, as the old expression goes!

I returned to the tower, filled in the paperwork and carried on with the shift. Little did I know what was about to happen in the passages of headquarters. I was subsequently called in and asked why we let the jet land on runway 19 with a tailwind! I really did not see the problem and made perfect sense to me. But not for the jamstealers in Forum Gebou, Pretoria. Remember in those days, we were still part of the CAA and that was where the CAA Head Office was. I can remember for weeks after the incident, we were in trouble because it was not a wise decision to let the jet land on runway 19 and “what if it went off the end of the runway?”. Of course, they did not like my reasoning that if they could not land on a 10500ft runway, they should not be flying! And after all, this was an abnormal situation, We were instructed to refresh ourselves on the factors one must consider when picking a runway for landing and the dangers of landing with a tailwind.

To my colleague and myself, it was just a normal day at the office, disturbed by an emergency, which was quickly and safely handled! At least it had a happy and unexpected ending a few months later, when we were both presented with a Golden Award from the Chief of the SAAF, for outstanding contribution to flying safety. It was not expected and we just saw it as doing our work. That quickly shut up the Forum Gebou !!

In conclusion and interestingly, the SAAF used to do their Falcon 50, and subsequently their Flacon 900, training at Flight Safety, in Paris. The scenario was replayed in the simulators and many pilots, who were given the scenario, struggled to recover and land safely. Just shows the exceptionally high standard of our Air Force pilots.



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