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I was flying with a brand-new guy. He was fresh out of the military as a single-seat fighter pilot and fresh out of the training system, having just completed his Initial Operating Experience (IOE) with a Check Airman. He was completely checked-out and qualified to fly the line but there are certain things brand new First Officers (F/O’s) may not do with the airplane. They may not land on wet runways until they have a few hours of experience, they may not land in less than Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions until they have a few more hours, and they certainly may not land under CAT IIIA conditions because they do not have a Heads-up Guidance System (HGS) at their flight station.

Normal Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) allow an airman to land their aircraft out of a category I (CAT I) approach with the clouds not less than 200 feet above the ground (the “ceiling”) and a half mile of forward visibility. With the Boeing 737 we operated, our approach speed was roughly 140 knots, or 152 miles an hour. That is about 223 feet per second, so one has about 12 seconds to decide whether conditions warrant an attempt at landing. That sounds like a very quick decision, but stay with me because you will soon see the difference between CAT I and CAT III approaches.

Many airlines utilize the autopilot and auto-throttle systems of their aircraft to land when conditions are below that required for a CAT I approach. However, the airline for which I was working (Morris Air) had our aircraft equipped-with and certified-to CAT IIIA landing minima by use of the HGS when we were purchased by Southwest Airlines. This is a completely hand-flown procedure (no autopilot or auto-throttles used). One of the principal reasons Southwest bought us was to get that system on their aircraft since it was already FAA-approved.

heads-up guidance system

The heads-up-guidance system (HGS) installed on the B737.

The F/O and I were approaching Oakland, CA (KOAK) from the south and the weather was unusually low. The clouds were on the ground (no “ceiling”) and the forward visibility was 700′ of runway visual range (RVR). This was the minimum visibility required to initiate the approach. With 700 feet of forward visibility, I would have only three seconds to decide if we could safely land or if it would be necessary to “go-around” for another try or divert to an airport with better weather conditions.

Since I knew the F/O was “brandy-new”, I briefed him on the approach while we were still at altitude with plenty of time. I briefed every possible aspect of the approach; I told him what I would say and when, what he should say and when, what he should expect to see at the bottom of the procedure (nothing but his gauges, as he was supposed to stay “heads-down” throughout the approach, backing up my use of the HGS) and what we would do if I had to “go-around”. It is a very labor-intensive approach procedure, requiring a great deal of work to brief and then fly properly.

737 flight director

The F/O is to remain “inside” on the flight instruments and make the appropriate call-outs.

Since I was flying by the information presented to me in the HGS (or “heads-up” throughout the procedure), the F/O was supposed to be my back-up on his gauges. The two sides of the aircraft were “split” with regard to the information presented on either side; the right (or F/O side) instruments were driven by his radios and instruments and mine (Captain-side) by my radios and instruments. There was effectively no interconnection between the sides of the aircraft so if everything was operating properly there would be identical indications on both sides; therefore, one pilot could back-up the other and assure that the aircraft was going where the pilots wanted it to go.

The HGS is a piece of heavy glass that is normally stowed above the Captain’s head. When he wishes to use it for any reason, he only has to press a release and it will swing down before his eyes and face. The information presented therein may be designated for the conditions; VFR or IFR or for the approaches by means of a designator panel his side of the center console. The device itself is simple; the projector that displays the data on the screen is the real “guts” of the system. The HGS is clear with a curved section within its three-piece sandwich of glass that makes the information presented become visible to the pilot. The information itself is presented so that it is focused at “infinity”. As the pilot looks through the device, he is seeing the outside world with all the flight information also presented for his use.

As we entered the transition portion of the approach, we received “vectors” (“fly heading 240 until intercepting the ILS 29 Approach, cleared approach”) from Air Traffic Control (ATC), at which point I turned-off the autopilot and auto-throttles and started flying the aircraft by hand. We intercepted the ILS Localizer (approach guidance side-to-side) and I continued configuring the aircraft for landing. As we captured the Glideslope (vertical guidance) I went to Flaps 40 configuration and continued the approach.

Normally on an instrument approach, one is in the clouds and “breaks-out” at the bottom – sees the airport. On this particular approach, as we approached the 200’ AGL (Above Ground Level) point on the glideslope, we were still in the clear above the clouds. It was weird.

At about 175’ AGL, we entered the clouds. The F/O had been making his appropriate call-outs right where he was supposed to and I continued flying the airplane. As we reached the 50’ AGL point, he was calling out the radio-altimeter heights-above-ground (off an altimeter that reads vertically from the belly of the airplane to the ground) and I announced “Landing”. I retarded the throttles when the flying cues in the HGS called for me to “flare” (ease the power off and pull the nose up for touchdown) and the mains settled-on the runway right where they were supposed to. At that moment, the F/O let out a loud “Whoop” that was heard clear back down the passenger cabin!

I continued slowing down and followed the lead-in line off the runway onto the high-speed taxiway. Once established on the taxiway, I called for “Flaps up, clean up” and he cleaned the airplane up for our approach to the gate. Parked at the gate, checklist complete, I turned to him and asked “You weren’t a little keyed-up there on approach, were you?” He grinned, embarrassed at having made such a loud sound and told me, “I was so keyed up you couldn’t have pulled a fiddle string through my ass with a D-8 Cat until we touched down!”  I, too, grinned and told him “Welcome to airline operations, bud. We do this all the time.”

Just another day in the life of a professional pilot. But it made life interesting and required we stay sharp in order to meet the challenges.

Mike Early
14 replies
    • Karl
      Karl says:

      Thank you, Matthew, for your unnecessary and irrelevant “nit-picking” comment. (This would be extreme sarcasm.)

      Thank you, Captain Mike, for sharing your interesting story!

  1. Mike Ewers
    Mike Ewers says:

    Great story. I laughed at your F/O’s response. I’m sure he was holding his breath the last few hundred feet! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Richard Hawley
    Richard Hawley says:

    Thank You, Mike! Your account and explanation of the HUD CATIIIA operation is spot on….and brings back many memories. My favorite was 16R at Sacramento….located right next to the Sacramento River for maximum fog density and flocks of waterfowl…

  3. john cordes
    john cordes says:

    Mike Early is very special airman. His experiences would fill volumes. It’s men like him that have helped other airman to learn and excel. Mike has blessed me with his friendship…..Well done Mike!

  4. Olaf
    Olaf says:

    An enjoyable read and a perfect description of an HGS Cat III approach!
    PS Did you fly for Metro Airlines many years ago?

  5. Dud Larsen
    Dud Larsen says:

    Nicely done Captain. He has many more great stories I have enjoyed over many years. Normally over a cup of coffee or enjoying a meal together. Keep ‘Em coming Sarge.

  6. Robert Muirhead
    Robert Muirhead says:

    Great story Mike. We autoland on anything below Cat I but then again we don’t have a HUD. Very cool!
    I can really appreciate the tension on the approach and relief on a successful approach.

  7. Edward R Shipley
    Edward R Shipley says:

    The B-777 had 3 autopilots that independently flew the aircraft. We did CAT111B approaches (no HUD, autoland only) and our only requirement was all three autopilots were working and hooked up. We had a light that said “land 3” and that was the last callout the Captain made. I don’t recall any RVR requirement but I retired 12 years ago so the memory is a little faded. Even after ding many of those I still puckered up passing 50′ and nothing in sight.

  8. Roland Schultz
    Roland Schultz says:

    Recall arriving early morning at San Fransisco on a flight from Narita Japan. Touchdown, Midfield, & Rollout RVR’s: 6-6 & 6. Rock Bottom minimums for a Cat 3b Approach. The Approach & Landing, was the easy part. Took 20 minutes afterwards, taxiing at a Crawl, to just find the Gate!

  9. Bill Martin
    Bill Martin says:

    EXCELLENT article, Mike. Wonderful explanation of what we did for years, getting into, and out of, where others could not. It was a pretty amazing system for the 737.

  10. Paul Harrison
    Paul Harrison says:

    I’m 71, soloed in 1970 and haven’t done much with it. I know that I know nothing, and I’m about to get back in the seat. I’m curious….for my question, I will assume that the airfield and the aircraft are fitted for and with the necessary equipment. Is there still minimum/s past which an aircraft cannot proceed with a landing?

  11. Henry Kuhlman
    Henry Kuhlman says:

    Hand flown at 700 RVR – impressive.
    I was Jumpseating on a Delta L1011 once into ATL on an autopilot Cat III. On short final the crusty captain grumbled like he had a wad of chew, “Hope this shit works.”

  12. Richard Hawley
    Richard Hawley says:

    Thank You, Mike…. Your account and explanation brings back many memories and is spot on. My favorite CATIIIA was 16R at Sacramento…where they built the airport as close to the river as possible to enjoy the heaviest fog in the valley.
    The Morris pilots were a great asset for SWA. I’m my case, Ray Plummer mentored me from the right seat as we flew into new ( for me) destinations.
    I’m out in the pasture now but still miss the HUD…. Might have to put one in my Cessna 195…


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