I live near Southend airport in the UK (SEN, EGMC) and noticed a strange behaviour of a cargo jet that does daily trips to Spain. It started out on runway 05, took a normal departure until it turned around 5 minutes later. Then it started circling the airport at 4,000' three times, before descending to 2000', switching direction and finally landing on runway 05.

The flight was obviously diverted back to Southend (it did leave an hour later) but given time was 0030-0100 local time, and it was quite noisy, can anyone think of a reason why it would repeatedly circle round a built up area so many times?



There was a report on a local facebook group that it had lost communication, but its squawk didn't change to 7600

  • $\begingroup$ See if you can find the ATC recording, that's the only way to know. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 13:42
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @GdD It's illegal to record ATC in the UK, unfortunately, due to horribly outdated wiretapping laws that are still enforced by OFCOM. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ Is it? I didn't know that @reirab, good to know. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @GdD Yep, it's bizarre, but it's true. It's why LiveATC doesn't have UK feeds. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 16:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Were they loud? Probably a standard noise abatement flight. They fly the airplanes around with the noisemakers set on "Max" every once in awhile, so the public will think all the other planes are quiet. $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2020 at 17:38

2 Answers 2


Looking at the flight path the airplane departed consistent with a flight direct to Spain, then returned and was put into the holding pattern (I've flown that hold enough, it's where I do my recurrent instrument checkrides). The airplane then departed the hold and did the standard ILS approach for runway 05 before landing. The hold is in that location at least in part to keep airplanes clear of the most built-up parts of the area, and clear of the danger areas to the east.

My interpretation is that the pilots had a technical issue which meant they couldn't complete the flight, so they returned to the airport. They were put into the hold for one of 2 reasons:

  • To lose altitude. If a flight is too high a hold gives it time to descend while staying close to the airport
  • To allow another airplane to land ahead of them. Easyjet, Flybe and Air France fly out of Southend as well as cargo and charter operations, scheduled arrivals would get priority from Air Traffic Control. Scheduled commercial arrivals that is, they wouldn't put a 737 in a hold for me in a PA-28

A dire emergency would most likely have seen the airplane land without a hold, so it was most likely a non-emergency technical problem of some kind. The only way to know more would be to listen to the ATC recordings if there are any, although you could just try to call southend tower and ask, they are reasonably friendly.

  • $\begingroup$ My personal interpretation is that they were looking for backup ground signals. There was no descent for 2 circuits, and no other traffic in the vicinity $\endgroup$
    – Jon Bates
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 14:14
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ During situations that require diverting back to the departure airport immediately after departure, it's also not uncommon for aircraft to request a hold for a while to run checklists and such before attempting the landing. Dumping fuel is another reason that might be done, though that seems unlikely here, as it normally wouldn't be needed on a flight from the UK to Spain and it wouldn't be done at low altitude over a populated area except in a pretty significant emergency where the aircraft didn't have time to hold during dumping. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab instead of burning fuel, the holding can also be used to burn fuel (e.g. if the pilot want to stay close to the airport) $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately it is illegal to listen to ATC conversations in the UK. $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2020 at 20:01

It wasn't "circling around a built up area" - it was placed into a holding pattern.

At this point we can only speculate, but holding patterns are exactly as the name implies - aeroplanes obviously can't pull over and stop like a car can, so a holding pattern is a known position where they can just fly around without causing problems for other air traffic.

It could have been to sort something out on the ground, it could have been to give the pilots time to diagnose or work on the issue, it could have been giving time for the airport to handle the unexpected arrival.

It's next to impossible to guess - the only one I'd rule out is burning fuel as they look to have only done three patterns which is nowhere near enough to burn useful quantities of fuel.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .