How do you draw a giant heart in the sky?

Flight VS850P took off from Gatwick at 11am this morning, flew down to Land’s End and then drew a giant 60-mile-wide heart in the sky over the Irish Sea. How did we make that happen, and why? Well the why is easy. It’s Valentine’s Day and we love flying, so why not combine the two? But the ‘how’ is a bit more technical.

This first came about with a fortuitously timed test flight. As part of the entry into service programme for the four Airbus A330-200 aircraft we’ve recently acquired, we needed to operate a number of proving flights. These are a normal part of the certification process of bringing any new aircraft into the fleet. And it just so happens that we had a two-hour flight planned for the 14 February. It was the perfect opportunity to do something different and our Flight Operations team took on the challenge…

Karl plans the heart flight

Planning the heart flight

A couple of days ago the job of drawing a heart in the sky dropped on the desk of Karl Corcoran, who works as an Officer – Navigation Services in our Aircraft Performance & Efficiency team. Having recently joined us from Monarch Airlines this was a first for him in his new role. Karl is used to planning flights across the globe using waypoints and navigational beacons. These allow aircraft to find their way across the world safely every day but are of no use whatsoever if you’re trying to draw a heart in the sky.

The first problem for Karl was working out where to do it. He knew we had a flight of around two hours and it was flying out of Gatwick. Three possible areas around the UK have no waypoints and very little traffic. Scotland was ruled out straight away as it didn’t fit the two hour time frame to get there, draw the heart and get back. The next choice was a large block of airspace out over the North Sea controlled by the Royal Air Force.  We couldn’t fly there due to fast jet activity on the day. The RAF then suggested another piece of their airspace in the Irish Sea off the coast of Land’s End. There was nothing going on down there and more importantly, with a shorter flight time from Gatwick it meant we could draw a bigger heart!

The flight plan

Karl’s next job was to work out where to start. There’s a beacon at Land’s End which was a great starting point for the heart. He then had to draw the shape of the heart, build the coordinates into our flight planning system and then get his plan approved by the RAF. It was then over to the pilots.

Flying the heart

Captain JJ Burrows with his heart near his sleeve!

The aircraft departed Gatwick under the control of NATS (the National Air Traffic Control Service) as far as Bournemouth where it was handed over to RAF control down to the VOR at Land’s End. That’s where our Director Aircraft Operations Captain JJ Burrows and First Officer Drew Waite started flying the heart. Knowing their every move was being watched on the aviation website flightradar24.com, the pressure was on. But of course they did a magnificent job which you can see here on this screenshot.

Job done! As seen on our favourite #avgeek website

Despite the fun nature of the flight there was a lot of work to be done by the 34 passengers onboard. People from different departments each checked that their work on the new aircraft type was ready for entry into service. The six cabin crew were busy running through some of the equipment and making sure things like the ovens and coffee machines were all working properly. Among them was design and development engineer Caroline Kirkby-Taylor who is responsible for all the onboard safety equipment. She’s been working on making sure the crew are happy with everything and that where possible it matches the equipment and stowage positions of our existing Airbus aircraft.

The Cabin Crew on the flight. Nicola Ashley (FSM), Jonathan Potts, Ryan McMahon, Tanya Mathias, Rebecca Whitehouse and Elen Jones.

Up at the front, JJ and Drew were giving the aircraft a thorough inspection. The new Airbus A330-200 is slightly shorter than our existing -300 models and the pilots had to check any differences between the operation and handling of the two models. It was a busy couple of hours but the aircraft performed superbly, and everyone departed happy.

JJ with First Officer Drew Waite

The flight was operated by G-VMIK, Honkytonk Woman, the second of our A330-200 aircraft and the second aircraft we’ve named after a Rolling Stones song – the first being Ruby Tuesday, one of our Boeing 747-400s.

We’d like to say a huge thank you to NATS who looked after us and published this super cool animation of the flight.

G-VMIK Honkytonk Woman gets ready to go painting in the sky.

About Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.
Bookmark the permalink.