Why do some planes get a water salute?

It’s a time-honoured tradition at Schiphol: the water salute. In this welcoming ritual, also known as a shower of affection, two fire engines parked on either side of the runway use their water cannons to create a giant arc above a plane as it taxies to its gate. With a little luck and a ray of sunshine, you might even see a rainbow. It’s a fun tradition – and an impressive sight to behold – but why do we do it?

A warm (and wet) welcome
At Schiphol, water salutes are used to mark special occasions. This can be anything from the inaugural flight of a new airline or the arrival of a new type of plane to an Olympic team returning home. And it’s not just a matter of sending out two fire engines and turning on the water cannons – the engines need to be positioned carefully, in safe locations, allowing enough space for the plane to pass through. The wind direction needs to be taken into account as well, and the process must be coordinated together with Air Traffic Control. It’s also important for the pilot to announce the water salute to the passengers on board the plane – otherwise, the sight of fire engines and flashing lights just after landing might cause a panic.

From sea to sky
Although the tradition’s origins are unclear, many believe that it comes from the shipping industry. Before the days of commercial air travel, people travelled the world on immense ocean liners. Before their first sea voyage, these gigantic ships would be inaugurated with a festive arc of water created by fireboats before heading out to open water and disappearing beyond the horizon. The same ritual would be repeated at the ship’s first port of call. Because the worlds of air and sea travel have long been closely linked, there’s a good chance that our water salute is derived from this nautical tradition.

Save some for the fire
The spectacular welcoming ceremony can also be seen symbolically. Some have likened the water arcs to the arbours couples stand under at weddings when they say their vows, while others have drawn comparisons with the sabre arches seen at military weddings. In any case, it’s a festive tradition beloved by many. Also good to know: during each water salute, the firefighters make sure that there’s enough water left in the tanks should they actually need their water cannons to put out a fire. As much as we love our traditions at Schiphol, safety always comes first.