The West

The pilots of a Virgin passenger airliner dangerously low on fuel considered landing at Rottnest Island or Jandakot after freak high winds forced them to abort a landing at Perth Airport.

The air drama, captured on audio transcript of conversations between Virgin Flight 697 and air traffic control obtained from, shows the 167-seat Boeing 737 was minutes from running out of fuel as pilots struggled to land the jet because of severe turbulence and cross winds at Perth Airport on January 3.

On his second approach to land that evening, the captain was asked by air traffic control of his intentions if unsuccessful.

He replied: "Er, we have to get on the ground on this approach."

Virgin Australia Flight 697 from Melbourne had been circling, unable to land, for at least 45 minutes.

Airservices Australia said pilots of many planes were forced to abort landing attempts that day because winds rolling off the hills from the east-south-east were gusting up to 158km/h just 80m above the ground and 60km/h on the runway.

Some planes were diverted to Geraldton.

Air traffic controllers offered the Virgin pilots Gingin, Pearce, Jandakot or Rottnest as options, because their runways were better aligned to the wind direction.

Because of the severe cross-winds, well above plane's design tolerance for landing, the main long Runway 21 was closed and planes were forced to use the much shorter Runway 06 for landing.

Strong winds also caused severe turbulence, making it difficult to get the plane stable for landing.

The freak conditions slowed the landing process, requiring controllers to put planes into long holding patterns, burning up fuel.

Planes burn considerably more fuel at lower altitudes and in holding patterns.

A Virgin Australia spokesman said that on arrival in Perth, Flight 697 had sufficient fuel to reach an alternate airport, although fuel to reach an alternative destination was not required to meet the regulatory requirement.

"However, the crew made the decision that the weather in Perth was not sufficiently adverse to warrant a diversion," he said.

"An extended holding period, due to traffic congestion caused by the weather, subsequently resulted in a circumstance where the crew was committed to landing at Perth."

The aircraft was scheduled to arrive at 9.40pm and landed at 10.27pm.

"There's also an east-west runway at Rottnest Island but it's pretty short as well," the controller says in the transcript.

"Yeah copied that, we had a look at Pearce, it's got about 1600m," the captain says.

During this period there were at least six other aborted landings by other planes.

Typically, planes must carry additional fuel to cover stronger than forecast headwinds, plus as holding fuel for about 45 minutes.

The West Australian

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