An ode to London City Airport


I travel a lot these days and as exhausting as it can be, my inner plane nerd still revels in the opportunity to experience new planes, new airports, and new new flying experiences. Recently I got a chance to do something I've wanted to do for a long time - land at London City Airport.

Now hold on you non-plane nerds, hear me me out before you close that browser tab. This is pretty neat.

So London City Airport is relatively new  (first flight in 1987) and it's located in the Docklands area of London ostensibly to serve London's financial district. It's a small, functional airport with a single runway built on a causeway just next to the Thames.

Now here's the challenge; the airport has a short 4900ft runway (that's shorter than Livermore's runway, for my local peeps) and is surrounded by buildings. And due to the proximity to Central London, there are super strict noise abatement regulations. On the fact of it, it sounds totally impractical but the engineers came up with a solution; make the landing approach steep as hell to minimise noise.

The average approach angle (or glideslope) to a normal airport is around 2-3 degrees. London City, when it first opened, was a stomach dropping 7.5 degrees, an unheard of angle for a European airport.  Couple that steep approach with the short runway and you are in for quite a ride. In fact only certain types of airplanes can operate at LCY and pilots have to be specially trained to shoot the approach.

Anyway, enough back story, let me share my experience with you:

I was flying in from Frankfurt on a Lufthansa E-190, the perfect plane for LCY. To make things even more interesting, we were arriving at night. Our approach took us down the Thames Estuary right over Central London at a very low altitude giving us the most spectacular view of the capital. We banked hard into a 180 degree turn right over the London Eye and then back down the Thames. At this point, the pilot gets the plane in the "dirtiest" configuration possible, i.e. the airplane is fully configured for landing at the slowest possible speed; flaps fully extended, speed brakes deployed, gear down. By now, the plane is on dat glideslope and dropping agressively. The speed brakes disrupt the lift over the wing creating turbulent air and the aircraft begins to shake, as though it's really struggling to stay in the air.* Airspeed and altitude continue to bleed away quickly as you approach the runway. The plane hits the runway hard as the last remaining lift being generated by the wings ebbs away. The (auto) pilot engages the thrust reverses and hits the brakes hard; remember you're on a short runway with a whole lot of water at the end of it, and the planes shudders to a halt.

Now that, THAT, is real flying. I was grinning like a moron for the entire landing while my fellow passengers never lifted their noses from their worn copies of the FT. They have no idea what they were missing.

* Let's be clear, the plane IS shaking but it's not struggling to stay in the air. The e-190 revels in this type of approach and while it's not exactly "normal" it's entirely safe.