Burning runway

What do you do when a plane cannot land because of heavy fog? In WWII Britain, you set the runway on fire.

Goodchild A (Flt Lt), Royal Air Force official photographer / Public domain

I have to say, the Second World War produced some outlandish plans – remember the iceberg battleship? Unlike that unrealised scheme, the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation was actually used on fifteen British landing strips and a few overseas ones too.

(Before we get into the flames, can I say that the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation is a flagrant backronym: it’s clear that the acronym (FIDO) was chosen first and the other words then picked to fit it. How does setting a runway on fire help to “investigate” fog, anyway? Shameless, just shameless.)

After several airplanes crashed trying to land in fog, FIDO came into operation. Pipelines were installed on either side of special runways. When the fog came down and the planes were up, fuel was pumped down the pipelines and out of burners placed at intervals along the runway’s length. Light the burners and you have a long line of flame that would disperse the fog and illuminate the path home.

This is the thing that really amuses me about this plan: they had to light the burners very quickly. They did this by tying a flaming brand to the back of a Jeep and dragging the brand across the pipeline, igniting each burner as it went. Let me just repeat that: they drove a Jeep down the runway creating small explosions directly behind it. I imagine that heavy metal music was probably involved too.

They also sometimes used people on foot, who I am now picturing like an Olympic torch-bearer. Or bicycles, they also used bicycles. Anyway, FIDO used so much fuel that they only used it in desperate circumstances, but it turned out to be an extremely effective way to help planes land who otherwise might not have made it.

[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic.]


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