Behind the scenes of Storm Eunice and landing aircraft safely

Storm Eunice impacted southern England and Wales on 18 February 2022, with widespread disruption and damage for much of the UK in what was the most severe and damaging storm to affect southern areas since February 2014.  

However, although the storm brought significant disruption for many, some of the most striking images from the day were of aircraft landing at Heathrow Airport, wrestling with the wind to get down safely in tricky conditions. 

It was down to the air traffic control service, NATS, working behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly in this challenging environment.  

With wind gusts widely around 80mph and even a 122mph gust recorded at an exposed site on the Isle of Wight (a new England gust record), it was a busy day towards the end of a demanding week for NATS, but one that was helped by an early and accurate warning from the Met Office.

Accurate, early forecasts

Deputy General Manager Brian Wheeler was part of the team leading the response from NATS. He said: “We knew from fairly early on that disruptive weather was on the way. We have a Met Office forecaster embedded within our team and we could see the signals from a while away that stormy weather would be the theme for the week, with a likely sting in the tail towards the end. 

“The early warning from the Met Office enabled us to manage our team and ensure we had suitable cover on days that would be the most disruptive in terms of the weather. This was crucial in managing our response and keeping people safe.” 

The Met Office named three storms in a week for the first time since storm naming was introduced in 2015, as Storm Dudley, Eunice and then Franklin impacted the UK. Storm Eunice triggered two Red Weather Warnings from the Met Office as there was a significant danger to life.  

Help managing the skies

NATS manages airspace to ensure that pilots have the space to land safely, and on days where there’s disruptive weather, that management can be quite a complex task. As witnessed on Big Jet TV, when aircraft make a landing attempt but aren’t able to successfully put the plane down, they will choose to ‘go-around’, where they climb to a safe altitude and, in most cases, attempt another approach and landing. It’s NATS’ job to make sure that’s facilitated safely.  

On an average day, Heathrow might expect one ‘go-around’ a day. For Storm Eunice, they had 40 from just 7am to 2pm.  

Video showing flight paths at Heathrow for Storm Eunice. Video courtesy of NATS

Brian continued: “When a pilot initiates a go-around, as happened fairly frequently with Storm Eunice, our job is to manage the airspace and ensure that aircraft can have space in the queue to make another landing attempt, or perhaps redirect them elsewhere if a safe landing isn’t possible.  

“Because of the accurate early forecasting from the Met Office, we were able to manage our team’s time to ensure we could take on the increased workload for Storm Eunice, but it also meant that on the day we could be confident about how the weather was going to play out, in terms of wind speeds and when they would ease off.”  

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