Bitburg Air Base, Germany, November 1976
It was a late winter night in the western Eifel mountains of Germany. A thick, black fog silenced every sound, and you could barely see the glasses on your nose. It was the right weather for night air defense alert duty at Bitburg Air Base. After all, who in Ramstein headquarters command post would be crazy enough to approve a scramble into this kind of weather? The weather was so bad that my guess was the nearest alternate was somewhere in Africa or Nova Scotia. I preflighted my F-4E in the concrete shelter, readied it for an air defense scramble, and then found my way back through the fog to settle down for a night of popcorn and movies. I turned in around midnight.
I don’t remember much after hearing the Klaxon at zero dark 3 am or anything else, until I woke up to a 25-degree deck angle. My Phantom was climbing through 20,000 feet. Who was the idiot that did this to us? Then I began to settle down. I leveled off and was given a vector toward East Germany. My focus was on the instruments and the intercept, but my thoughts were on fuel, alternates, and getting home that night. The only rationale for a launch in that kind of weather was East German-Russian “Bluff,” an Air Force generals’ game of Friday night air power. We were the dynamic part of their Cold War game.
There was just enough fuel for an approach at Bitburg Air Base and a diversion due to the weather at Solingen. Bitburg weather was variable, reported visibility of one-quarter of a mile or less in the thickest, blackest fog I can remember. The GCA controller was steady, calm, and professional, and that helped. We all were going to earn our beer money that night. The controller kept me on course and the glide path all the way to minimums. I flew the final approach as slow as I could to have the precious moments I would need to see the runway lights. I looked over the right side just before minimums. It was still there, the blackest night I have ever experienced. I couldnʼt see anything, not even the wing lights.
A moment later at minimums, I looked over the left side and saw one faint green runway threshold light. That one light was all I needed. I continued the descent, which took us into a zero-zero fog bank. It seemed a lifetime until we touched down at 160 knots, and moments later the dim runway lights started to appear off the left wingtip. Everything after that was routine except I realized that we had landed with the left landing gear close to the edge of the runway. It was odd to see the dim runway lights passing so close to the left wingtip.
My back-seater was just as relieved as I was to be back on the ground and eager to break the silence and tension. He nonchalantly observed that we had somehow landed on the left side of the runway instead of at the centerline. I replied with a casual observation that this was the reason they make runways so wide. I had no other answer for him or anyone else about why we landed so far to the left side of the runway.
I was pleased with the overall outcome of the mission but that incident stayed with me for many years. Why were we on centerline at minimums and a few moments later touching down on the left side of the runway? Everything happened so fast, spotting the one green threshold light at minimums, entering the zero-zero fog bank a moment later, then touching down on the left side of the runway.
Going back into the zero-zero fog after minimums could easily be explained because of a small valley just off the end of the approach runway. Could the GCA radar centerline have been a little off to the left? I did not question my judgment or my skills. We were in the hands of Mother Nature and our faith. I remembered the fog during taxi and takeoff during our RTB and descent back to Bitburg. I was glad the F-4E had such a short takeoff roll during the near zero-zero conditions. All I could do was my best on the approaches and then make the right decision about where to run out of fuel and eject, at Bitburg or at the alternate. All Europe that night had variable visibility, a quarter of a mile or less in fog. But why did we land on the left side of the runway?
It was years later I made a connection between the “moth effect” and that one green runway light. Humans, like moths, will steer toward a light source. I suspect it was the only thing I saw outside the cockpit, so I must have steered toward the light. Would I have resisted that tendency to steer left toward the light had I known about this type of hazard? I think yes. Knowledge and being aware of all aspects of flight prepares a pilot for all situations, especially those that come only once in a lifetime of flying.
We called their bluff that night. We have a rich history of examples such as this one; when added together they are a part of how and why we won the Cold War. But I came about 20 feet from a different outcome. It could have resulted in an aircraft mishap or worse. We could have landed off the left side of the runway. If that had been the consequence, it would have been because of one small but essential bit of information that was missing from my formal training as a pilot: all the hazards associated with the “moth effect” and especially those associated with a low visibility approach and landing at night in dense fog.
- A surprise sunrise in an F-4 Phantom - September 30, 2022
- One green light, and a near disaster - July 6, 2022
- My first combat mission in an F-4 Phantom - April 22, 2021
Neil, those experiences make for gray hair, if it doesn’t fall out first! I know what you mean about those steady, calm voices of the GCA controller. My first A-10 launch on a REFORGER mission was on the Ops Officer’s wing. We went into the weather almost immediately and only broke out on top after a loooong climb. We got to the exercise area, but it too was weathered in. We headed home, but had to split up for landings as Sembach was now at minimums. He went first and, as I was approaching the Decision Height while listening to that ‘voice of experience’ guide me down, my flight lead chose that moment to come on the FM and tell me I would find the runway ‘right at minimums!’ I saw what he meant because in a few seconds as I started the throttles forward on a missed approach, I saw those lights and landed. As I taxied in, I heard another flight lead call the SOF on FM and tell him, “We just passed a duck.” The SOF answered, “In this weather?” The flight lead replied, “He was walking!”
Coming into Syracuse in a Beech 18 one night after delivering car parts to Detroit for GM. Weather was reported right at minimums and I was green as could be. I was co and my captain was flying the ILS to 27. I was looking out getting desperate for the lead in lights when I spotted s white light ahead to the right. I called it and he said nope, not it. as we passed the street light I realized my error.
I wasn’t a pilot then but Security Police and on those foggy nasty nights I would always think who would be crazy enough to launch in these conditions. Then Klaxon would go off and he they came running towards me and the F4!! Respect!
Good story to illustrate a new to me concept, makes sense.
Never heard of the Moth Effect before. I did make one low vis landing years ago at Miramar seeing only one runway light at a time on the left side only. But the AoA is on the left, so I thought that was the reason I stayed left, looking for the next light until stopped. I will look for more info on the Moth Effect.
My ex’s dad put an F-86D into the trees on a similar foggy night approach. The aircraft broke up, and his ejection seat came free of the aircraft. The report pics show a lot of shredded AC parts, and an ejection seat sitting by itself about 20 yards in front of it all. The rescue team found him still strapped into the seat. Amazingly, he survived! After that, the AF only let him fly big airplanes…