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Politics // Coffee Break
Jerry Coffee

Pilots Must Be Hands On

The worst thing a Navy carrier pilot can do is to land short of the landing area on the flight deck. When that happens, the airplane either hits the deck where it curves down behind the ship (called the ramp), or it misses the flight deck altogether and hits the rear-most part of the ship beneath the ramp, called the spud-locker.

Either way, it can ruin your whole day.

For that reason, the pilot stays totally focused on the details of landing aboard the ship safely, e.g., staying aligned with the centerline of the angled flight deck as the ship moves constantly to the right, flying exactly the right approach speed and, most importantly, controlling the decreasing altitude to stay exactly on the right glide slope (this is the part that keeps you off the ramp and out of the spud-locker).

In the early ’60s, when I was flying the F-8 Crusader from the USS Saratoga in the Mediterranean Sea, we used an ingenious landing aid consisting of a large, concave mirror mounted on the left side of the flight deck. An amber spotlight mounted aft of the mirror shone into the center of the mirror to reflect back up the glide slope for the pilot’s reference. The mirror was flanked on either side by a fixed horizontal row of green datum lights. If the pilot kept the reflection of the orange light (called the “meatball”) in line with the row of green datum lights, he was on the proper glide slope to land on the right spot on the deck where his tailhook would catch the arresting cables. This glide slope could be adjusted for different aircraft types by changing the tilt of the mirror.

This concept went through several refinements until the gyro-stabilized Fresnel lens beamed colored lights up the glide slope: green for above glide slope, amber for on glide slope, red for below, and flashing red for dangerously below.

Ultimately, of course, the Automatic Carrier Landing System was developed, whereby the plane’s flight controls and engine power settings are controlled by radar from the ship. Although touted as a “hands off” system, I never knew a pilot (including myself) who didn’t keep one hand loosely on the control stick and the other loosely on the throttle, ready to override the system instantly.

All of this is pertinent because we have just witnessed Asiana Airline Flight 214 incur the equivalent of a major ramp strike with the entire tail section (along with two young passengers) ending up in the spud-locker of San Francisco Bay.

The National Transportation Safety Board barely has commenced its investigation, but already it’s not looking good for the pilots. The flight control recorder indicated the pilots were using “auto-throttle” to maintain proper approach airspeed, but either it hadn’t been properly engaged or it had failed and was not noticed until the airspeed had dropped 30 knots below where it was supposed to be and impact with the ground was imminent.

A career United Airlines pilot who had spent more than five years as an instructor pilot for Korean Airlines has suggested that there also could have been cultural issues in play in the cockpit, whereby a junior instructor pilot may have been reluctant to emphatically correct a more senior “student” pilot. He also personally observed the propensity of the Koreans – as he put it – to become overly dependent upon technology.

Airline Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, who five years ago successfully ditched his bird-stricken plane into the Hudson River with virtually no casualties, said, “Pilots must be engaged, aware and mentally flying the airplane, even when it’s actually being flown by a computer.”

It is becoming more clear that none of the four Asiana pilots was keeping one hand “loosely on the control stick (yoke) and the other loosely on the throttle.”

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