Toby Hillier, a Monarch employee and aviation enthusiast, guides us through last Friday’s inaugural Enthusiasts’ Day.
Ten to six on a chilly Luton morning, and as I turned in to Prospect Way, the silhouettes of several aviation enthusiasts could be made out against the backdrop of Monarch Airlines’ main reception. These sixteen hardy travellers, arriving from all over the country, from Plymouth to Newcastle, North Wales to Hemel Hempstead, some having driven through the night, were to be the first to sample a Monarch Enthusiasts’ Day. It was nice to welcome such a diverse group; some were there for the love of aviation, others were budding pilots or cabin crew, one was even there to cure his fear of flying so that he could support his 10-year old son in his ambitions to fly the planes that his dad rode in.
At our first stop we were greeted at the door of the Integrated Operations Centre (IOC) by Operations Duty Manager, Buzz MacKinnon, who briefed us on the roles of his team and demonstrated the specialised flight management software that is so essential to Monarch maintaining a smooth operation. We watched the first couple of departures climb away from Birmingham on the Flight Watch screen and went through the specific flight plan for our upcoming departure to Gibraltar, which was fascinating to see.
Next stop, Luton Airport, where our Airbus A320, registered G-OZBK sat waiting in the dark ready for our flight to Gibraltar. Once welcomed onboard by the wonderfully helpful cabin crew, the enthusiasts among us were easily identifiable as most had camera lenses trained against the windows. As we approached Gibraltar, Captain Baldwin announced that that heavy cloud and fog was persisting but he would do his best to get the aircraft safely on to Runway 9. As we approached from the east, we couldn’t see the runway at all, and we had a nervous few minutes while we banked around the Rock, hoping that the weather conditions didn’t prevent our arrival. Eventually the fluffy blanket of cloud cleared and thankfully the runway appeared through the mist. A smooth landing, and a sharp stop later and we were on stand.
Entering the terminal building we met with Daniel Wahnon, Deputy Station Manager for our handling agent, Gibair. He whisked us off on a whistle-stop tour of the current terminal building in Gibraltar, showing us the VIP lounge, and the behind-the-scenes baggage sort area before allowing us to watch the departure of our inbound aircraft from the apron. With the new terminal building due for completion within a matter of days, it was great to see the original and quaint old building in all its 1950s glory.
Next on our busy itinerary was a visit to the air traffic control building, escorted by Sgt. Kev O’Flynn, the Operations Sergeant at RAF Gibraltar. The radar room was surprisingly “Second World War” in style, with banks of very solid looking grey equipment. The guys assured me though that while the hardware rarely needs to change, the software is bang up to date.
Representatives from National Air Traffic Service (NATS) were extremely accommodating in explaining the intricacies and quirks of air traffic control (ATC) in Gibraltar with all of the strange circumstances that exist there. Wind speeds are measured at both ends of the runway, and at its mid point, and often with three very different readings; landing directions are often left to the discretion of the pilots flying in there, and is as much based on their experience of the airport as it is on traditional flying practices.
Looking over the airfield and the Rock through sparkling new tower windows, we had a great view of the road which bisects the runway. It looks strangely like the starting grid of a Formula 1 race as cars jostle for position ready to speed across the airfield when the barriers lift! Sgt. O’Flynn explained that Gibraltar’s runway is the busiest in the world, a fact which was greeted with some scepticism by our group. When he explained that the handful or aircraft movements are supplemented by 12,000 pedestrians and 10,000 motor vehicles each day, we no longer doubted him!
The second tour group enjoyed a run through of the procedures required for stopping traffic in advance of an aircraft arrival. Pedestrians are stopped from crossing the runway when aircraft are 12 miles out, whilst motor vehicles are stopped at the 8 mile marker. We were also given demonstrations of “the Voice of God” and “the Voice of Neptune”, the loud speaker systems that the tower controllers use to keep not only pedestrians in order, but also sailing vessels passing close by the ends of the runway. A “small” cruise ship was cleared for departure shortly before the inbound Monarch flight from Luton arrived, and it simply blocked out the horizon – pilots have to be vary wary of these hazards on their approach, and Gibraltar ATC are in regular communication with the marine authorities to ensure that there are no comings together.
Returning to Luton, we continued on to Hangar 127 where we were greeted by Paul Green, Maintenance Controller. After a safety briefing, the group took turns exploring an aircraft interior and the hangar itself.
The day was a fantastic team effort, and thanks must go to Buzz MacKinnon and all of those in the IOC on Friday morning, Julie Clark and both of the fantastic crews on ZB068 and ZB063, Gibair, NATS and RAF Gibraltar for their kind assistance and to Paul Green who all contributed to put together a fantastic package for sixteen very appreciative enthusiasts. Thank you all.
Would you like to take part in a future Monarch Enthusiasts’ Day? Please let us know in the comments below where you’d like to go and what you’d like to see!