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Landing in Bad Visibility



Phil was a highly experienced ex-BOAC Captain who worked for Singapore Airlines (SIA). Having retired from SIA at the mandatory age of 60, he was recruited by Air Lanka as Sri Lanka had extended their mandatory retirement age for Captains to 62 years. This enabled Phil to add two more years to his working life. As a Captain with SIA he ran a tight ship, while his ‘short fuse’ temper and no-nonsense attitude earned him the nickname ‘Smiling Tiger’ from his First Officers.

Phil was no different in Air Lanka. Some First Officers preferred to avoid unpleasantness by reporting sick and staying at home when teamed up with him on the flying roster. Perhaps, tigers don’t change their stripes. But more accommodating pilots like me could not only get on with him but appreciate the constructive criticism he gave with a smile. Hence his nickname. After all, we, First Officers, had worked with even worse Captains in Air Ceylon.

Lockheed Tri Star L1011

Early one cold and foggy morning Phil and I were parked at Zurich Airport, Switzerland (ZRH), waiting to depart for Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris (CDG). We had just flown all night, ‘red eyed’, from Dubai in our Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, and had yet to complete the second leg. As Paris was reporting low cloud base and visibility, and the flight time between ZRH and CDG was short, the wisest thing to do was to stay parked on ground until the observed ceiling and visibility improved when the sun got hotter. Although no extra fuel was uplifted, the minimum fuel was over and above what was needed for the ZRH – CDG leg.

Even though we were operating a so-called ‘state-of-the-art’ TriStar capable of flying to lower limits of altitude and visibility, as our airline (Air Lanka) was still relatively new and ‘wet behind their ears’, the French authorities permitted us to descend to only 200 feet on the Instrument Landing System (ILS) during the final landing approach to CDG. So, that further influenced our decision to wait on ground until observed cloud ceiling had increased to 200 ft or higher.

As a matter of interest, there are three elements that must be satisfied before an airline is allowed to fly to a lower prescribed altitude: (1) the airport ILS must have the accuracy to provide guidance to a lower altitude; (2) the pilots have to be properly certified and capable of demonstrating their ability to fly to lower altitude in low visibility; (3) the aircraft should have the proper instrumentation and capability.

As we waited at ZRH, every half-hour our Flight Engineer was monitoring CDG’s observed weather on the radio. The usual trick was not to make a hasty decision to depart based on one observed report, but to wait for at least two consecutive good reports, as weather was often fickle when close to minimum permissible values.

Suddenly, our radio crackled to life and the Zurich Ground Controller asked us when we would be leaving for CDG. We told him that we were waiting for the weather to improve in CDG. He then informed us that there was another aircraft needing the parking stand we were occupying, and asked whether we could vacate it. All they needed us to do was to push back, get towed to a remote stand, and continue waiting. At this request, Phil became agitated and decided to depart without waiting. Perhaps, at times like this a good First Officer would step in and remind the Captain that the weather in CDG was still below acceptable levels, while persuading him to wait on ground a little longer. Unfortunately, to maintain peace and harmony on the flight deck, I went along with the Captain’s decision.

Our subsequent departure was normal, apart from the fact that we had to select engine anti-ice early on the climb-out as we were ascending through freezing levels. However, when we reached Paris there was a large number of aircraft waiting to land. On days like these, airplanes are usually ‘stacked’, to wait their turn to land, at 1,000 ft intervals, at various holding points.

We were sent to an imaginary point overhead a Very High Frequency (VHF) Radio Station located in the town of Boursonne, France There were over ten aircraft in a ‘racetrack’ holding pattern, literally going in circles. Each circle takes exactly 4 minutes to complete.

The last aircraft to arrive is put on top of the ‘stack’ and they are cleared in stages until the bottom is reached. In clear weather it is an awesome sight to watch all the aircraft circling, above and below, over one place. But on that day it was very cloudy, and we couldn’t see a thing over Boursonne.

After entering the holding pattern we had some time to think. As the Captain, Phil was evaluating his decision, and realised that he had been pressured into leaving Zurich early. From his voice, we could feel the strain he was under. To his credit, Phil was most apologetic to his flight crew for getting us into this messy situation.

Air Traffic Control usually gives crews an expected approach time. That is the time the flight is planned to commence the approach for a landing. Every minute we were up in the air we were burning precious fuel. The question was whether the weather would be above our limits at the time of landing. The redeeming factor was that in Paris we were allowed to come down and have a look to ascertain what the actual visibility is like.

When we started our landing approach the weather was just at our limits. Our approach was stable with the wind calm and no turbulence, as it was early in the morning. Phil kept the aircraft on both automatic pilots. As dictated by procedure, I (as F/O) called “one thousand feet”, at which point Phil was expected to also look outside. With the radio altimeter reading 300 ft, I called “hundred above” (minimums), which was acknowledged by Phil with “Roger”.

The next call was “minimums”, before which point Captain Phil had to announce “Runway lights in sight”, or “No contact”. That day there was no contact, but he didn’t respond. It was my duty to give a second call, and if there was still no response from Phil I would have to take over the controls and go around – just in case Phil had become incapacitated in some way.

Yet, instead of deciding to go around, Phil chose to continue the descent for one second more (before I could give the second call). Suddenly, we broke through the cloud and sighted the runway lights, in the haze. Disconnecting the autopilots we landed manually.

During the long taxi to the parking stand at CDG Phil declared, “Gentlemen, for all practical purposes we saw the runway lights at 200 feet!” He explained that in our situation it made sense to delay the decision to go around by just one second because if we did go around we would have had to join the holding stack at the top and start the approach procedure all over again. That would have cost us a further delay of 40 minutes or more!

 Today, certain European airports have cameras facing upward on the final approach, at the 200ft point. If the camera can’t see the aircraft when it passes overhead, then it proves that the aircraft was still in cloud.

 In the scheme of things in airline operations, an essential part of the First Officer’s job is to understudy the Captain and observe not only what to do but also what not to do. In retrospect, I should have cautioned Phil to not be in a hurry. The relationship between two pilots on a flight deck is not unlike that between a medical specialist doctor and a junior House Officer, to use a medical analogy. The Captain must set the tone and make it ‘OK’ for the F/O to give feedback on critical information which could save lives in a potentially dangerous situation. The essential difference is that medical doctors get to bury their mistakes; but a pilot’s mistakes might bury him – and everyone else on board his airplane!

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Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security



The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!



Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community



by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”


The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.


An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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