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Florence Airport from a pilot’s view

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“Look at those huge displays!” That’s always one of my first thoughts whenever I look into the cockpit of the C Series. The C Series has been reliably serving with SWISS since 2016: I already had the honour of flying with this beautiful piece of engineering quite a few times – and now finally once again: from seat “0C”, the observer’s seat in the cockpit.

First Officer Sascha D’Angelo takes me – and you – on a very special flight. It takes less than an hour to get to Florence today. In this short time, we will not only enjoy a breathtaking view of the Alps, but also gain insights into a demanding operation. The airport of the largest city in Tuscany has it all. So: Strap on and enjoy the view!

First Officer Sascha D’Angelo in the cockpit of the C Series to Florence.

Florence: Short runway, surrounded by mountains

Florence’s “Amerigo Vespucci” airport has a few unique peculiarities that make it a challenge. The most noticeable feature is the fairly short and not very wide runway. The airport is also surrounded by high mountains, which is why you can only approach it in one direction, namely north east, and leave it in one other direction, which is south west. This means that FLR pretty much lies in a “basin”.

Not only does the terrain bring this challenge with it, but it also effectuates in a very unusual microclimate. Due to this, accurate forecasts aren’t possible, so instead, air traffic control must provide the exact wind parameters every two minutes. As we’ll soon see, this is particularly important, since it’s often necessary to approach the airport with a tailwind component due to the specified landing direction.

For these reasons, SWISS allows only captains to take off from and land in Florence. Captains flying to this airport must also complete a so-called airport familiarization training. Initially, this involves practicing take-offs and landings in Florence in a simulator, after which four “real-life” take-offs and landings are performed under the supervision of an instructor. Only after successfully completing this training, the captain is allowed to fly to Florence without an instructor’s supervision.

Meeting the Crew

It’s good that our captain Thomas Bieri has already completed this training. Today, he and Sascha will fly us over the Alps to Florence. The vagaries of the weather in Florence mentioned above have an impact in both, the briefing and the related weather planning.

In all probability we’ll have to land with a tailwind. This results in a faster approach speed which further increases the braking distance on the already short runway. At the same time, we want to carry enough spare fuel so that, we’ll be able to go around for another approach or, if the conditions demand it, divert to another airport – safety first! However, more fuel in turn means more weight and an even longer stopping distance. Here, it’s all about finding the right balance. Thomas and Sascha have prepared everything so that we can safely land with a maximum tailwind of 12 knots in the final approach. Now, all we have to do is hope that the weather turns out to be in our favour.

After the cockpit crew has prepared the flight thoroughly, we meet the cabin crew for the briefing. Shortly after that, we head for the bus that will bring us to the aircraft. Our aircraft, Bravo Hotel delivered in May 2017, is waiting for us on the apron. And now we’re off into the cockpit!

Captain Thomas Bieri in the cockpit of the C Series

Thomas will be pilot flying for the entire outward leg, or in other words, he will be in control of the plane. At the same time, Sascha will act as pilot monitoring, and will, among other things, communicate with air traffic control. So for the return flight Thomas and Sascha will simply swap round, right? Almost right. As mentioned earlier, only captains are allowed to take off in Florence. That means that Thomas will handle the take-off, before handing over control to First Officer Sascha at an altitude of 10,000 feet. We have been cleared to start the engines and to taxi, which means rolling to our runway 28.

“SWISS ONE ONE NINER NOVEMBER, CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF RUNWAY 28!”

After a pleasantly short roll time the moment has come that makes the hearts of every aviation fan beat faster. The tower gives us the take-off clearance: “SWISS ONE ONE NINER NOVEMBER, CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF RUNWAY 28!”. Captain Thomas pushes the thrust levers of his CS100 slightly forward first and unleashes the power of the two PW1524G engines a few seconds later. These fall quite strong for a plane of this size and so we accelerate quickly until we have reached the take-off speed of 130 knots, i.e. around 240 km / h.

Only a little later we climb into the Zurich afternoon sky in the direction of Italy. This is when I notice once again how quiet the C Series is compared to other aircraft. We fortify ourselves with a small espresso and a snack as we approach the cruising altitude. During this, the Swiss Alps are once again showing their stunning beauty.

However, the crew does not have much time left to sit back and enjoy the panorama. Since today’s flight is relatively short, Thomas and Sascha prepare for the upcoming approach early before leaving the cruising altitude. Our approach route takes us from the north west into the centre of the country. In doing so, we initially maintain a height of at least 11,000 feet so as not to get too close to the mountains. A little later we will turn off to the right towards the south east and continuously drop to 3000 feet, i.e. about one kilometre, before turning into Runway 05 on the final approach in another left turn. On the picture below you can see the route very well.

We pass 10,000 feet. Now it’s time to fasten your seatbelt and concentrate on the approach. While the two guys work in front of me, I enjoy the view of the typical Tuscan architecture. This is my first time in Florence. Unfortunately, I will not have time for a little exploration tour – maybe next time! Our runway 05 is now clearly visible in front of us. Just like on the photos, it looks very small. The computerised voice of the radio altimeter continuously counts down the altitude as we approach the airport.

“50, 40, 30, 20,…10!” Captain Thomas Bieri lands his plane. Because of the very short runway, the flare stage is not very long – a somewhat firmer touchdown is better than wasting valuable metres for braking. Benvenuto a Firenze!

The passengers gradually de-board, and the plane empties. Now it is time to prepare the return flight to Zurich. First Officer Sascha takes me outside for a bit. Not (only) to enjoy the Italian sun, but to inspect the plane during the walk-around.

After a good hour, we make our way to our runway 23. There is a small peculiarity: Since there is no taxiway that runs parallel to the runway, we do a so-called “backtrack”. This means, that we roll down the runway in the direction of 05 to the very end and then turn 180 degrees to take-off. Let’s go to Zurich.

After just under an hour’s flight, Sascha lands Hotel Bravo gently on runway 14.

About the author: Aaron Püttmann (@pilotstories), 25, studied aviation management in Bad Honnef and now works for a large global airline. In his spare time, he runs Pilotstories an aviation blog in which he shares his passion for flying with his readers.

All cockpit pictures were taken in the observer’s seat.