Today's Amazing Airliner Tricks: Crosswinds, 'Cat IIIC' Landings

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You might have seen these before. But just in case...

1) The "Crab Into Kick" Crosswind landing technique: A few weeks ago I posted a video of a dramatic landing by a Lufthansa plane, in Canada, as it coped with gale-force crosswinds. It was a useful demonstration of the classic "crab into kick" technique of landing in a crosswind. The airplane approaches the runway at a "crabbed" angle, to offset the wind -- then at practically the last instant before touchdown the pilot uses the rudder to "kick" the plane into alignment with the runway, so when the wheels make contact they are pointed straight ahead. That post also had a lot of links to how-to discussions of landing techniques.

Here is a fascinating demonstration of how various pilots apply the technique, during tough crosswinds last week in Dusseldorf, Germany. As you watch the sequence of planes coming in, you're looking to see how close each touchdown point is to the runway's center line, and whether the plane has been "kicked" so that it points straight ahead.



The landings shown here range from very precise, to "good enough." The results are a combination of the pilots' handling of the approach and the control characteristics of the various airplanes. Also, you get to see some crosswind takeoffs. At time 1:15 you'll note a plane "going around" -- breaking off an approach so it can circle around for another landing attempt -- because the pilot didn't like the way things were set up.

2) A 'Cat IIIC' automatic landing. Those crosswind landings require advanced "hand-flying" or "stick and rudder" skills. What autopilots can do is shown by this amazing cockpit video of a recent landing at, I believe, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.



Background here: the whole point of "instrument approaches" is to get an airplane close enough to the ground, through clouds, that the pilot can eventually see the runway (or the "runway environment," including guidance lights etc) and can take over and complete the landing. Depending on the type of approach, the type of airplane, the surrounding terrain, and other circumstances, the approach can guide the pilot to within a few hundred feet of ground level (or in some cases only to within 1000 feet or more) -- before he has to "go missed" if he still cannot see the runway or lights at that point.

The "Cat IIIC" approach is unique in having no minimum "decision height" and no visibility requirement at all. The autopilot takes the plane all the way to the ground, even if the pilots cannot see anything outside their windows. That's what is happening in this video. This is where you really are putting your faith in technology -- and it's a sign of the robustness of the aviation safety system that such "auto-landings" routinely occur. (Not many airports, airplanes, and air crews are certified for fully blind "Cat IIIC" automatic landings, but slightly less demanding Cat IIIA and IIIB systems are more normal.)

And, as pilot discussion boards always point out, the real problems with a Cat IIIC landing begin after the plane has touched down and has to find its way to the gate without running into anything.

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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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