Two More Quick Notes from Beijing

By James Fallows

Not meaning to crowd out the guests, to whom I'm grateful, quick updates on two time-sensitive points:

1) The Control Tower Silence at National Airport. The WaPo's story about the odd silence from the control tower at DC's National Airport begins as follows. I've highlighted two phrases worth noticing:

>>The control tower at Reagan National Airport went silent early Wednesday, forcing the pilots of two airliners carrying a total of 165 passengers and crew members to land on their own.

The tower, which normally is staffed by one air-traffic controller from midnight to 6 a.m., did not respond to pilot requests for landing assistance.<<

Just to spell this out, the vast majority of pilots on the vast majority of flights "land on their own." The control tower provides "landing assistance" in exactly the same way a green traffic light provides "driving assistance" when you're going through an intersection. The operator in the control tower delivers a clearance to land, very much as a green light constitutes a "clearance" to cross the intersection. That's a matter of regulating safely the flow of airplanes onto a runway (as Don Brown described so vividly here), in the same way a traffic light regulates the flow of vehicles through crossing streets. The absence of a "cleared to land" message is what would have been odd in this case -- and at a major airport like National it would genuinely be odd. But it wouldn't affect anything about actually getting the plane on the ground. The WaPo indirectly mentions this fact near the bottom of its story.

[Now it's time for caveats: Yes, tower controllers can provide a variety of other info and assistance to pilots, including in some circumstances info critical to the landing -- warnings about birds, wind-shear, runway conditions, etc. Yes, there are cases in which pilots aren't directly involved in the landing process, as with the so-called Cat III approaches, in which an autopilot directs the plane all the way to touchdown. Yes, in "instrument meteorological conditions," when the weather is bad, pilots rely crucially on a range of instrument navigation systems to guide them through clouds to the runway. But the tower controller doesn't operate these. And yes, here in China, both red and green traffic lights constitute "clearance" to go through the intersection at full speed. Yellow does too. And yes there are some other complications I'm not mentioning. See eg this great old article by William Langewiesche.]

Why bring this up? Because the article's breathless "they had to land all by themselves!" premise  both reflects and feeds the concept that planes are precariously perched in the air, reliant on "help" from below to get down safely. As in the immortal Airplane!, shown above. In some circumstances, yes. Not usually. As bonus homage to Airplane!, and on the occasion of Elizabeth Taylor's death, after the jump another picture from its control tower, showing the late Stephen Stucker "helping" the pilots land.

2) "What Happens Next?" Referring to Libya, I mentioned before the "no-fly" bombings commenced that the first few days of aerial strikes were likely to be the most satisfying, clear-cut, and one-sidedly successful moments of the campaign, from the US/Western point of view. And if in themselves they shattered Qaddafi's forces or their will to fight, great. But if they didn't, from that point on everything else would become steadily murkier and more complex. Thus I have noted a mounting flow of reports like one just in from Stratfor [full report requires free registration on their site], which says:

>>The success of the U.S.-led initial phase of the air campaign in Libya was hardly ever in question, but with no publicly articulated endgame or exit strategy, the questions of what to do next and which entity will take the lead when the United States moves to a supporting role have yet to be answered.... Limited enforcement of UNSC Resolution 1973 risks enforcing a symbolic no-fly zone over a country in which civilians continue to be killed, but more aggressive action risks greater combat losses and civilian casualties that could quickly alienate the coalition's more lukewarm contributors -- including the single Arab contributor, Qatar.

Moreover, even aggressive air power has only limited applicability to the larger problem of preventing loyalist forces from engaging civilians....Thus, the coalition continues to struggle with command structure and the next stage of the mission without any clear sense of what it is working toward or how making forward progress gets them anywhere in any military -- much less a larger political -- sense.<< 

As I said originally, I can only hope that the air strikes, given that they have begun, do in fact protect civilians -- and that the Obama Administration proves to have thought through all these "what happens then?" questions rather than also just hoping for the best.

Stephen Stucker in the role for which he was known best, as Controller Johnny in Airplane! He was 32 years old when the movie was made, and died at age 38 of AIDS.