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From the Tower looking Back – The Real Reason for 747-400 Winglets

By Rob Russell


When Boeing unveiled their 400 version of the 747, I remember the shock and horror of the aviation community. Firstly it came with a two-man cockpit and did away with the Flight Engineer. The aviation community almost went into a complete meltdown. How could such a big aircraft ever fly without an engineer? They were an integral part of the cockpit and Boeing was asking for trouble. Workload, safety any excuse. Even those pilots that flew it, said you could never fly such a big aircraft without an engineer. It was an accident waiting to happen! No matter what Boeing said, or did, they were shot down in every single way. Well, we know now that it was a massive success. The demise of the flight engineer was unfortunate, but modern technology allowed for it and Boeing survived and went on to make a fantastic aircraft.

But never mind that, and secondly, it came with winglets. Shock, horror and even more terrible comments. Boeing provided facts and figures as to why the winglets were there and the purists were not interested. “You don’t build aircraft that big and send it out with winglets”, said the purists. It was apparently about economics, less fuel burn and lesser operating costs.

But was it?

Well, now it can finally be revealed why the aircraft came with them. Let me dispel any rumours about lower operating costs, less fuel burn and and and………

When Lufthansa and KLM started to operate into Cape Town, it was with a 747-400 and was an extension of their Johannesburg flight. Upon landing at Joburg, there was a crew change and the fresh crew operated to Cape Town and later that afternoon took the aircraft back to Joburg, where another crew climbed on and took it back to the home base.

In those days, traffic numbers at Cape Town were nowhere near where they were pre-Covid and even VFR traffic was not really that busy. There were no special rules areas and not much flying around the Peninsula. So with these flights, it was inevitable that some of them were crewed by ex-South Africans and it was only a matter of time before they asked about routing around the Peninsula. We, as controllers were only too happy to assist and oblige. After all, is there any better arrival in the world, than flying around Table Mountain and down the west side of the Peninsula? I doubt it.

Traffic numbers allowed for it and more and more flights made the request to fly around the Mountain. Initially, it was just a quick turn around the Table Bay area, but with time, more and more requests were made to fly around the Peninsula. At the same time, there was a gradual increase in traffic numbers, so it necessitated us doing some planning and coming up with routes the controllers were familiar with, could handle, and allow the aircraft to fly around the Peninsula and then complete their arrival without any delays.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before the crews realised you could do it twice in a day!! On departure too and we were only happy to oblige there too!

In fact, we got so many requests, it became the norm! Even when they started flying direct into Cape Town, the two airlines requested to fly around the Peninsula both on arrival and departure. As we gained more international operators, so many of them also requested to do it, Swiss and later, Edelweiss, Air France every now and then, Austrian Airlines too. And the odd Virgin too! The Austrian crews loved the flights and often used to appear in the tower with a gaggle of air hostesses and lots of Austrian chocolates! Those were the days!

I know for passengers many of them expected to route on arrival, or departure, around the Peninsula, so they could see it from the air and crews spared no effort to route around the Peninsula

But enough, I digress.

In the early days, with not much traffic we worked out routes for runways 01 and 19. If 01 was in use – for those non-aviation types, a northerly wind blowing and an approach from the south, we routed the aircraft to Robben Island – or as many people called it – Jail-house Rock and then the crews did their own thing around the Peninsula and when completed they were vectored onto final for runway 01.

The opposite happened for runway 19 – again for the non-aviation types, if we had a southerly wind and landing from the north, we sent them over the airfield, they did their own thing west of the airfield, and once they were at Robben Island, we vectored them onto final runway 19.

Easy, no problem and the crews loved it. Traffic was not really a problem and often crews descended down to 1000ft, sometimes even lower, west of the Peninsula. It became a problem for us, as we could not see them on the radar and often wondered where they were and when they would pop up!

With these routes, we had two options. There was the R5 tour, where we encouraged the crews to route via the Fish Hoek valley, and some loved going through there, make no mistake and then we had the full Cooks tour, which included going all the way to Cape Point!

How these two terms came about, was the aircraft would request the routing on first contact with the Cape Town area controllers, who passed the request onto the approach controllers. When planning was being done the approach controllers asked the area controllers how the crews would like to route. In order to cut down liaison between the controllers, we came up with these two routes. The R5 or the full Cooks tour!!!


For departure, it was just the other way around. Departing to the South, they could either route via the Fish Hoek valley, the R5 departure, or go all the way down to Cape Point, the Full Monty departure. Easy no problem at all to handle.

Runway 01 was a little bit more complicated, as they had to make a left turn and then fly around the Peninsula, so many crews just headed off to Robben Island, down to Hout Bay and then turned around and flew back to Robben Island, Once they got back to Robben Island they were vectored to their flight planned route and off they went.

There was one problem that started to develop was with an increase in traffic, and it became more and more of a safety hazard to have these large aircraft flying around the Peninsula at low altitudes. It became a bit of a problem for us, as we could not speak to them when they were behind the Mountain and we could not see them on radar. With time we were forced to review our procedures.

Safety first, remember fun second.

There was an urban legend of a hang glider operating from Lions Head, sneaking into controlled airspace and taking a picture of a 747 passing below him. That woke us up and we needed to prevent such things from happening. Could you imagine the press, if they found out that scheduled carriers were flying so low around the mountain that hang-gliders were above them!

The final nail in the coffin came one Christmas morning, when one of the 747s went around the Peninsula and using runway 01 for landing, got so low that we could not speak to them for quite a few minutes. Imagine our horror, when he popped up at Cape Point doing about 210 knots at 800ft AGL. Enough of that and it was just too stressful for us and a big safety hazard.

We were forced into taking drastic action. Not because of the crew’s faults, but because we were a bit naughty in allowing them to fly so low. We then decided amongst ourselves, before the head office people and other people in management put a stop to them, to keep all the flights in controlled airspace and that is why they started to fly around the Peninsula at 5000ft. The lower limit of controlled airspace, to the west of the Peninsula, was 4500ft. We also found out, albeit later, that there were legal implications for such operators flying in uncontrolled airspace, so we were glad we got it sorted out. Safety first remember! The crews were understandably not that happy about it, but they saw our point and appreciated our concern for them and they were eventually happy and the flights continued unabated! Some clever person from Head Office proposed that we publish Standard arrival and departure routes. But we, as approach controllers, batted that silly request into touch. The crews were having fun and the last thing they needed was formal arrival and departure routes. Actually us as well.

One of my colleagues, the legendary Uncle Paul was well known for his ability to speak German and used to enjoy telling all the Lufthansa crews where they were flying and what to point out to the passengers. I think most of those crews enjoyed it, until one day one crew said to him that “ he spoke the accent without a trace of the language”! Meant in jest, but Uncle Paul was not impressed. Mutter, mutter and groan from the approach controller and words seldom heard in the radar room were heard!

The drawback of flying around the Peninsula was, of course, only half the passengers got to see the view, until it was pointed out to us, by one crew, that they don’t fly around the Peninsula for the passengers! Crews used to pop into the centre, after all, they were only here for the day and tell us how they loved flying, as they had a chance to manually fly the 400 and this was one of the few places, anywhere in the world they could do that. It just didn’t get any better than that, said many crews!

And as controllers, we were always happy to oblige with their requests and show off the Peninsula. Especially on a calm, clear and windless day.

To this day, it remains a popular request from many operators, even local ones and charter flights too – a routing around the Peninsula. And we did our bit to promote the Peninsula and tourism.

So I end with the real reason why the 747-400 came out with winglets, and despite what anyone tells you, this was the real reason! Because without the winglets, the 400 would not have been able to get through the Fish Hoek valley! Plain and simple!

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