Approximation [Noun, -]: something that is similar to another thing but not exactly the same.

Hello dear friends, and welcome to the next installment of our weekly blog.

A few years ago, I was working as an air traffic controller at a regional airport, namely in Charleroi, Belgium. Now, Charleroi has the peculiarity of bearing a commercial name that may confuse more than its lot, as “Charleroi Brussels South Airport”, but we had only heard stories about a few isolated passengers of commercial flights who once in their life went to the wrong airport, thinking they were at Brussels International Airport whilst they were in Charleroi, or vice versa. It was quite obvious for pilots that we were a different aerodrome. Or was it?

Well, on a nice weekday, I was busy working the tower and approach sectors in Charleroi, when the military controller responsible for the sector just to our South called over the phone to pass me an arriving traffic.

  • MIL: “Do you see the aircraft squawking 7000 south east of your field, 4000 feet, about 20 miles out?”
  • Me: “Affirm”
  • MIL: “Ok, well, he is for you, I’m passing him over to your frequency. Is it ok like this?”
  • Me:” Sure, no problem.
  • MIL:” Right. Good luck”
  • Me:”Wait, what do you mean…”

… and the line clicked and went dead. What did he mean by that? Well, I was soon to find out.

The pilot of the light aircraft called in just a few seconds later, and seemed perfectly ok, albeit the very thick German accent, when he announced verbatim “VFR flight from Stuttgart to your field” and requested landing instruction. The doubts only started appearing a couple of minutes later when, at about 5 miles from the airport, the pilot requested “RADAR vectors” and reported not having the aerodrome in sight.

Now, for those of you who don’t know it, in class D airspace, even if RADAR equipment is available, controllers are not supposed to provide visual flights with vectors as it may interfere too much with the pilot’s navigation, and eventually get them so far out of their way that they become lost, so I was at first a little surprised by the request, and somehow disturbed by the fact that in spite of it being a beautiful day, blue skies and virtually unlimited visibility, that pilot could not see the runway where he wanted to land.

What we can do, however, is to offer VHF direction finding, such as QDM, to help people find their way, so that is what I initially did, but even though that was bringing him closer and closer to me, it did not help his finding the aerodrome.

So, after repeated attempts, all of which were unsuccessful at making the pilot acquire visual contact with the runway, I finally gave in and advised him of two or three successive headings to help him see it. And it finally worked, in the end. Well, sort of…

  • TWR: “Runway is at your 12 o’clock, straight ahead, distance half a mile. Report runway in sight”
  • ACFT: “Ah yes, I do see the runway now, but I see only one.”

A few seconds of silence followed as surprise overcame me for a while, but I quickly caught my focus back, and issued a landing clearance, inviting him to get it over with and finally put his airplane down. There is only one runway in Charleroi, end of the story. I really didn’t understand his surprise.

The pilot then taxied to the General Aviation apron, and to be honest, my colleagues were a little bit giggling about my experience, telling me things like: “Ha, you should have told him we haven’t finished building the second runway yet”… but, as Frank Sinatra said, the best was yet to come… clever thought.

After parking, the pilot exited his aircraft, and looked around himself. Then, promptly stepped back in and came back on the frequency with a question that flabbergasted the whole ATC team:

  • “Ehhhm, Tower, could you confirm that this is the main airport for Brussels?”

Now, the coin dropped and I finally understood why he expected to see more than one runway. Brussels International airport has three.

But, wait. The story did not finish here, of course. I replied:

  • Me: “Sir, negative! The main airport for Brussels is about 40 miles further North. Didn’t you see it on your charts?
  • ACFT:” Ah, I am sorry sir, but I do not have a chart with me”

Ehm. Seriously? You fly a good 4 hours to a place you obviously do not know and do not take a chart with you?

Well, ok. So, after a few minutes of discussion, the pilot insisted to fly to Brussels (the main one, this time…), but unfortunately, they could not accept him due to performance reasons, so the pilot was very clear and very quick to make a decision:

  • ACFT:” Ah, ok, then. In this case, I am going back to Stuttgart.”

All right, well, the end of the story is that he did eventually came to the office to pay his landing fee, refueled, and headed back home without having laid eyes on “the main airport for Brussels”, much to his dismay.

Besides the funny misapprehension, here, I would like to emphasize a few things here. And obviously, the main and first thought that came to me is that before setting off for any kind of flight, I would recommend you to get thoroughly prepared. There are many ways to prepare a flight, but my advice here is: use them all. Do every single thing you can.

That of course includes preparing (and taking with you, need I point it out) the charts for your flight. And also, read the AIP! This gentleman would have discovered that there are two airport called “Brussels”, although the tower callsign is different. And that Brussels International airport does not accept VFR flight at certain hours of the day.

Then, if in spite of all that preparation, something happens in flight that doesn’t look or feel right, say it. Explain to the controller or flight information what is going on. 99% of these problems take us less than a minute to sort out. Do yourself a favor. Use all the tools at your disposal!

See you next week my friends, with the exciting story of a communication incident between two airliners. Until then, fly safe, and prepare your flights! A flight well prepared is a guarantee of a safe and enjoyable moment.