Runways, large and small
The majestic Opera House in Sydney Harbour should have attracted my total gaze but I was more interested in catching a glimpse of the nighttime runway lights at Charles Kingsford Smith Airport as our Ansett Airbus banked steeply for its final approach. The bright lights welcomed our arrival and my jump seat (two months before 9/11) offered a fabulous view of our final approach. Try to explain that to someone not involved in flying!
I will never forget the sights of Sydney, but the excitement of “finals” always gives a powerful thrill. Two weeks later the sight of a DH Beaver taxing towards me on the sand of Airlie Beach in the Great Barrier Reef was another sight to behold, as it slipped onto the runway of the watery inlet in the Whitsunday Islands and took off into the glaring sunlight. Runways can appear in strange places!
Some days later I had the pleasure of taking off at Cairns International Airport behind a Qantas 747 to gaze down on that reef from a Cessna 152. Having enjoyed that awe-inspiring view, we turned for home and there ahead lay the inviting sight of runway 15 as we turned finals and joined the queue for final approach. Moments later I did a decent landing on another continent. Magic!
My home airfield at Coonagh (EICN) has a short tarmac runway and on my first solo it was even shorter. The landing was average but it was my first one and that never leaves you. A few months later I arrived at a proper airport and confused the controllers and myself by lining up on the wrong runway! But I survived the embarrassment to fly another day. Was it the layout or the vast expanse of concrete?
Some years later a friend and I almost missed Ronaldsway on the Isle of Man, UK, and the sight of their runway was almost a beautiful experience. The weather is often frustrating but when it behaves it reveals that sometimes long or short level strip of land, be it concrete, grass, or other as it announces our arrival at another distant place not visited before, always a secret thrill.
Runways have been marked out on beaches, deserts, mountains and on water. Many companies still operate out of impossible airstrips perched on mountain tops at high elevations, while others fly out of jungle airstrips in remote areas. These are often the only way in which people have access to the outside world, like in Alaska and Canada. I live not far from the former seaplane base at Foynes in the Shannon Estuary, Ireland, where the great seaplanes used the port as their base for crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Just across the estuary, Shannon Airport was established to cater for the new but limited endurance piston-engined airliners that welcomed the sight of that airport’s runways after the long transatlantic flight. Many still do.
The view from Concorde’s tiny windows was most disappointing on a fast and furious circuit at Shannon as Air France rushed around the circuit back in 1984. A few weeks later, the contrast could not have been greater as I throttled back in a Rallye 150 on finals to the Aran Islands off Ireland’s West Coast, their runway’s edge meeting the Atlantic. This was followed a few days later by a first for me at a brand new regional airport, which offered a superb new runway. A few years ago I had the great pleasure of receiving priority clearance to land on a golf course in the UK while the golfers stood aside. Not too often do you receive that kind of permission!
Malta’s airport won the award in recent times as the most scenic in the world and some years ago I taxied out and lined up on runway 06 at Luqa International. In my mind, thoughts of the heroic defense of this vital island in World War II came to the fore as I lifted off and mixed with the holiday traffic as we headed out towards Gozo, another island nearby. I had explored the war rooms and aviation museum the day before, and I tried to imagine the bombed out runway below as Spitfires struggled to retain control of the skies back then. But now I was turning finals and there ahead lay another unfamiliar piece of land that beckoned in the glorious sunshine and as I throttled back I was about to add a new place to my collection of airports visited.
The cross country flights we do are not always idyllic and are quite often a combination of anxiety mixed with elation at arriving safely at our destination. The weather is the dominant factor in our decision to go. It deserves great respect and needs to be treated with caution. That day, though, in 1987 when the forecaster told me that there was “a possible front due next week—you will have no problems this weekend,” I somehow felt a slight unease as we headed off into perfect flying conditions.
But the next morning when I saw the disturbed grey sky overhead Donegal Airport, I urged my colleagues to return south instead of north and I endured their wrath as we just barely made it onto that welcoming runway at Sligo (EISG) we had left that morning, as the totally unexpected storm hit Ireland and the UK. The forecasters had a lot of explaining to do on that one, as the damage was horrendous.
A few days later we experienced a very bumpy flight home and as we approached the circuit I was more than relieved to see our short, black “defined rectangular area” as it welcomed us back, looking almost beautiful as we landed after an eventful flight. It might not be a thing of beauty, but to me it’s our place and as they say there is no place like home!