At the time I worked in ATC and had good knowledge of aircraft, SIDS, STARS and routes in the London Control Zone. A knowledge which was sufficient to deliberately purchase a house situated in a quiet little traffic hole close to Heathrow.
A VC10 was, apart from Concorde, the noisiest aircraft of those days so it shocked me to experience one wearing Gulf Air colours roar overhead so low and so off course with gear down.
Totally convinced that I was witnessing an aircraft about to crash, I rushed indoors and phoned Heathrow.
I spoke to the Approach Assistant who assured me that they knew and that it was inbound to Brooklands. I was amazed because apart from Brooklands not being a licensed aerodrome, I didn’t think it had a runway anywhere near long enough for such a beast. The approach over a built up area also seemed completely illegal to me. He told me that CAA had issued a “chitty” and it was OK.
I think the “chitty” consisted of a handshake between a few old boys of aviation and probably was illegal but it arrived safely and was an exciting highlight of that day so it won’t be me who bothers about a few bent rules. Also for British aviation enthusiasts a VC10 flying into its birthplace is special.
I’d forgotten about that incident until witness reports of MH370 began to surface. My experience of sitting in airliners and chatting to passengers is that many haven’t a clue what type of aircraft they’re sitting in. Some of them wouldn’t know the difference between a jet and a turbo prop. Not their fault, I’m the one with aviation knowledge and their knowledge of other subjects no doubt exceeds mine. Then we have people who’ve never even been in an aeroplane, the chance of them recognizing a triple seven from a "minibus" is remote. There have been witness sightings all over the place, from Kota Bharu to the Maldives. Many sightings have been in proximity to an airport and to an untrained observer, a missed approach can seem unusual. In areas with regular prevailing winds,a runway change can route aircraft in directions they hadn't previously noticed and sometimes (dare I say it) ATC can screw up a runway change resulting in aircraft doing lots of strange things.
The Maldives have 767’s and I defy most people to tell me the difference between a 76 and a 77. Then we have the average copper at the receiving end of these reports. Is he qualified to really determine what they saw? Cop tips his buddies in the press with possibly some baksheesh changing hands and bingo, we have a MH370 sighting. The question which has to be asked is; how many of these reports happened with hindsight? In my view only a report which happens BEFORE the plane was reported missing has any significance.
I thought a low level VC10 was something unique but it didn’t even make it into the local newspapers. The skies around Heathrow are so full of aircraft that unless there’s actually a crash, only anoraks notice anything unusual.