March 21, 2021
World Meteorological Day on the 23rd March celebrates the day in 1950 when the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) was created. As part of the United Nations, they’re devoted to international cooperation on everything to do with the weather. Heady stuff. As an airline, weather plays a significant part in our day-to-day operation. So to mark the day, we popped into our Operations Control Centre (OCC). We spoke to one of our duty directors, Simon Belmont. We talked about his job, his career and asked a few probing questions about flying and the weather. It’s fascinating stuff.
As you relax onboard any of our flights, you can be sure that you’re in the hands of the very best pilot and cabin crew professionals. But they’re not the only ones looking after you. Back in West Sussex, in a room full of computer screens, a team of experts have also got your back. This is our OCC, it’s the heart of the airline, and their job is to make sure that every flight is safe, efficient and compliant. In times of disruption, they get the flying programme back on track as soon as possible with minimum disruption to our customers. They monitor every moment of your flight and keep a close eye on the countless things that can change when you’re in the air. That’s anything from the weather to global events such as changes to Covid-19 travel restrictions. They really can deal with anything from a volcano (just last week) to a minor technical issue on the aircraft. Together, this awesome team use their experience and expertise to ensure our flights are optimally planned, dispatched on time and operated with minimal disruption to our customers. Leading the OCC are our team of Duty Directors; Brian Steer, Darryl McPhearson, Dave Knight, Jon Hilton, Kate Puttock and Simon Belmont. Simon, who had a distinguished flying career as well as experience in operations control in both the Royal Air Force and Virgin Atlantic, is perfectly placed to talk to us about flying and the weather.
I joined the RAF as a fighter jet propulsion engineer fixing jet engines and went on to become a pilot in 2000. For the next five years, I flew Hawk and Tornado F3 fighter jets. My final ten years in the RAF were spent flying the Boeing C17 Globemaster as a Training Captain (the highlight being captaining Prime Minister David Cameron’s first flight into Afghanistan). I also served as the Duty Director for my squadron, a role that was to serve me in good stead for my current position. After leaving the RAF, I landed my dream job flying the Airbus A330 and A340 for Virgin Atlantic and working in their pilot recruitment team.
When Covid-19 hit last year, I was made redundant alongside other colleagues. I then applied for my current job as Duty Director, Operations Control Centre for Virgin Atlantic. I felt I could use a lot of the skills I’d learned as a squadron duty director in the RAF and was delighted to be successful. I feel very privileged to play a part in Virgin Atlantic’s recovery and it will be fantastic when lots of my old colleagues within all Virgin Atlantic teams, both pilots and cabin crew re-join when we welcome back our customers and take to the skies once again.
Personally, it’s been challenging but very rewarding. My fiancée (I proposed during Covid!) is cabin crew for us. We had our baby boy Carter just two weeks before the first lockdown so to say it’s been an interesting year is an understatement. The stress and uncertainty of both working for the same airline was turbulent and stormy (see what I did there) but I think we both had no doubt that the airline would pull through. Leigh returned to flying a few weeks ago after maternity and has already flown an Ultra Long Haul cargo flight to Johannesburg and back, as well as stay in one of our new cargo locations San Juan in Puerto Rico. The airline has had to adapt, but there’s an increasingly positive feel week on week which is a huge relief.
The OCC focuses on the tactical flying programme; the here and now; ensuring it’s robust, efficient, safe, and compliant. In times of disruption, we focus on recovering our flights and minimising the impact to our customers and people. The OCC itself is made up of subject matter experts from right across the company including engineering, crewing, operations, customer care (including global ticketing solutions), and flight planning. Then there’s a strategic team overseeing the OCC who manage our longer-term flying, training, planning, compliance and analytics and set the direction and pace at which we operate. This team works closely in collaboration with the wider Commercial, Digital, Technology, People and Finance teams.
The OCC has to be ready to deal with the unexpected at any time. During Covid-19 this has been happening on a daily basis and our team has strengthened their already considerable skill set even further, making us a force to be reckoned with, prepared for any issues that our industry will face.
On the ground or in the air, when trouble or uncertainty rears its ugly head, the OCC is generally the first point of contact for the pilots and flight service manager’s (FSM’s), turnaround coordinators and airport teams. The OCC team are one step ahead at all times so they can free up our pilots, cabin crew and airport staff to do what they do best: look after our customers, deliver the outstanding Virgin service and get you to your destination in a safe, enjoyable and timely manner.
The weather can be a funny one to judge and predict. Take snow, for example, a few inches in freezing temperatures in the UK and you could potentially severely delay or even cancel most of your planned departures and arrivals. Yet a few feet of heavy snow in some outstations such as Chicago and Boston can have very little impact on our flights, so we operate as normal because they’re used to dealing with it year on year. Likewise, fog and wind can have surprising impacts that aren’t that obvious. For instance, take fog where visibility is severely reduced to the point of not being able to see the runway; that doesn’t always stop us landing. Our aircraft can carry out an ILS CAT IIIB landing where all that’s usually required is 75m visibility and the aircraft will land itself, steer down the runway and even brake until stopped with the pilots carefully monitoring the systems. However, even on a beautiful sunny day, a constant strong wind blowing across the runway will make a landing impossible if it’s above the limits of the aircraft! So, you see, judging the weather isn’t as simple as it seems. It takes years of training for a met forecaster to become a master, and the same goes for operations staff and pilots to be able to judge what that forecast means for the airport they’re departing from, the route they’re flying and the airport they’re arriving too.
Those strips of paper with secret weather code!! We look at 2 main types of weather, a forecast (TAF) and the actual weather encountered recently (METAR). It’s basically shorthand for weather information, so rather than have a page of writing fully explaining the weather we shorten it all. So, airport names like ‘Lagos Murtala Muhammed International airport’ become DNMM, Freezing Rain (FZRA) and small hail and snow pellets (GS). So, you get a paragraph or more of weather information into a line of coded weather, including wind strength and direction, temperature and dew point, cloud base and cover, air pressure, visibility, and weather type etc. When we look at a flight from Heathrow to LA, we may have to look at weather for 15-20 airfields, you can imagine how hard this would be if there was a half-page on each!
Instead, we have:
DNMM 190100Z 090/05KT 5000 OVC020 RA+ 25/24 Q1010 – Decoded, Lagos, 19th March time 0100z, 5 Kt wind from East, 5000m visibility, solid cloud cover at 2000ft, Heavy Rain, 25’C, pressure 1010 Hectopascals… and that’s a very simple short weather report!
We use several different sources and data to predict and assess the weather. At the planning stage, we use TAFs (terminal aerodrome forecasts) and METARS (meteorological reports), we also use computer modelling of weather systems and look at significant weather charts for a big picture view. Once onboard the aircraft, pilots and ground radar stations communicate the weather encountered and found on radar to each other. PIREPs (Pilot Reports) are often used to tell other pilots which flight levels have turbulence, icing or a ‘smooth ride’ so we can fly at the most comfortable altitudes and routings. Each aircraft also acts as a ‘weather balloon’ reporting back wind, temps and pressures and that data is then fed into the computer models to keep them all updated and super accurate.
Storms can be very hazardous to aircraft so we avoid them at all cost. At the planning stage, our Flight Planners will route aircraft around known storms. In the event, this can’t happen the Pilots will negotiate the best way around storms using radar, air traffic control and reports from other aircraft. Flying under, over or through storms is not recommended! Rain, snow, hail, and lightening tend to rather like sitting inside storms and are best avoided, so that takes away the through option. Very active storm cells can outclimb most aircraft so going over isn’t always the best idea either. I think going under a storm is best left to ships only! So, we give storms a wide berth – normally between 10 and 20 miles if possible!
Generally, very high winds, very heavy rain or snow and freezing conditions and big storms. It’s important to mention that it’s not just the aircraft taking off and landing that’s important, its what our customers experience once the aircraft has landed, operating a commercial flight has many other factors when dealing with severe weather. Take, for instance, a large dump of snow in freezing conditions that we encountered recently on the east coast of the USA. Once the snow had stopped, we could have landed Virgin Atlantic aircraft into JFK. However, that’s not much use if the taxiways and parking bays are covered in ice, snowbanks and are impassable. Likewise, even if you can get the aircraft to the gate, what’s the point if passengers can’t get to and from Manhattan due to snow-blocked roads? Or when they arrive at the airport, the staff couldn’t get in to work and open up security or the ATC Tower? If it’s a cargo flight, it’s not much use if the cargo equipment can’t offload the cargo or the cargo hangar can’t be accessed… you get the picture. Sometimes, it’s best to delay the flight by a few extra hours to allow the airport and surrounding area to recover. There are other weather conditions that affect on-time departures. For example lightning. Did you know you can’t refuel when there is lightning in and around the airport due to the fire hazard and danger to ground personnel? This can prevent immediate fuelling and so delay the aircraft’s departure.
99% of the time turbulence is unavoidable and nothing to worry about. Our pilots and cabin crew experience turbulence regularly and still fly with a smile on their faces. They know that so long as precautions are taken it’s nothing to be too concerned about. The best thing to do is don’t walk around the cabin and wear your seat belt when the seat belt sign is on. Surprisingly, sometimes a little bit of turbulence is intentional. Occasionally the pilots are trying to enter a very fast flowing tube of air called a Jetstream to increase speed and reduce journey time to destination. The transition from normal air to fast-flowing air causes the bumps we feel as turbulence. Try to relax and enjoy the marvel that is flight!
There’s no doubt that I have learned a huge amount since joining the OCC, and continue to learn every day. I think the biggest thing I’ll take away is there is a whole other side to running an airline than just flying planes. The Virgin spirit runs through the whole company. Our medical teams have done an outstanding job keeping us safe and negotiating the everchanging health environment due to COVID19. They’ve really have kept us flying. The Cargo team must have a crystal ball somewhere because they’ve been one step ahead of the market demand since this all started. Our Engineers have helped change the role of our aircraft to carry cargo and ensure they’re in tip-top condition even when parked up for months on end. We have the best people in the aviation industry and if I’m lucky enough to return to flying I’ll be singing the praises of all those on the ground, and especially the OCC to all of our crews.
So, what next for Simon? Right now, he’s got his work cut out with his new job and a young family. But one day he hopes to get back to flying and will no doubt do so with a newfound respect for the teams back on the ground keeping an eye on his flight, the world around him and, of course, the weather.
We’re be learning more about the OCC and the incredible job they do in more Ruby blogs in the coming months. Visit the World Meteorological Organization website to find out more about their work and about World Meteorological Day