Landing Ourselves: Pilots Can Do More Than You Think

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By Glenna Hall

Jim Fallows has already commented on the tower of Washington's principal airport (DCA) going silent, but I can't resist the opportunity to pile on.

Pilot humor is really bad, almost as bad as judge humor (though no one feels compelled to laugh at pilots' jokes).  Pilots are fond of saying, "Takeoffs are optional; landings are mandatory."

Of the approximately 600,000 certificated pilots in the United States, every one of them knows how to land an aircraft.  Every one of them has learned the procedures for landing at an airfield without a tower. As Jim pointed out, control towers don't help pilots land; rather, towers monitor and sort out landing traffic.

This is just one of the pieces of knowledge about flying that seems to be unknown to the press. When I first started flying as a student pilot, I began to listen to news reports with increased attention.  For instance, I noticed that for after any small-plane accident, inevitably I would hear a news report that said, portentously, "The pilot had not filed a flight plan."  This may be the aviation reporter's equivalent of Godwin's Law, a concept first introduced to me a few weeks ago by Keith Blount in these pages. 

Filing a flight plan for visual flight is not required by law or regulation, and its lack does not cause accidents, nor does it mean the pilot is somehow negligent or inept. 

After 9/11 I became aware of how much significance non-pilots placed on flight plans. In talking with friends, I found they had never known I could get into an airplane and go pretty much wherever I wanted without getting permission. I didn't even have to tell anyone where I was going. When my friends (and I think the general public) realized this, they were horrified, and seemed to think this practice should be ended immediately.  (I will not pile on Jeffrey Goldberg about this.)

I'm not sure which the press thought was more dangerous:  not filing a flight plan, or flying with "a map open in the cockpit,"  which I sometimes heard on news reports too.  How that might have caused an accident is unclear to me, unless the reporter thought that meant the pilot was lost.  It is, in fact, considered extremely bad form not to have an aviation chart open on your lap or very nearby.
So, back to the silence of the tower.  Pilots land airplanes, including some pretty big ones, at airports without control towers all day and night, every day, all over the world.  My local airport, which can take a pretty big private jet, has no tower.

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The key to landing safely at such airfields is communicating and following the most predictable possible approach to the airport.  Usually pilots will begin by flying at a 45 degree course until they are near the runway, then turn to parallel the runway, make another turn perpendicular to the runway, and finally make one more turn to allow a gradual descent to landing. It is recommended (and usually followed) that at every single one of these turns, the pilot announces on the airport's radio frequency what he or she is about to do.  Indeed, pilots will usually start radioing their whereabouts fairly far out, especially as they approach airports that get a lot of traffic.  All of the airfields in the San Juan Islands use a common radio frequency, so just by listening a pilot gets a pretty good idea of where other aircraft are maneuvering.

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We know that pilots of commercial airliners are able to land planes without help. Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his crew famously averted a dreadful disaster by landing in the Hudson River without directions. Less well remembered, but equally remarkable, was the 1983 landing of Air Canada Flight 143 -- nicknamed the Gimli Glider -- after running out of fuel at 26,000 feet. The field at Gimli, Manitoba, was a decommissioned RCAF base without a tower.

Many airports that have control towers run them only during the day.  At night, air traffic follows the uncontrolled-field procedure I noted above.

Obviously it's not really good that a busy airport like DCA where night-time tower operations are expected should go silent. But give pilots the credit they deserve.  They can land planes.

Glenna Hall, a retired superior court judge and mediator, lives on San Juan Island, Washington.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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