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By 1986 I had been flying the B-727 out of Chicago for about ten years ever since TWA began parking and selling our Convair 880 fleet in the mid ‘70s. By then new owner, Carl Icahn, had taken the company private and was selling off our most valuable assets, such as our U.S. to London routes. Most of us soon realized that we were on a ‘death watch’. It all ended in our third bankruptcy and the sale of our assets to American Airlines in 2000.


By 1986 I had been flying the B-727 out of Chicago for about ten years.

In ’86 TWA closed the Chicago pilot domicile, so I had to commute to New York. I was now senior enough to fly the El-Ten so it wasn’t quite as bad as I might have feared.

The “El-Ten” was a marvelous aircraft at least ten, maybe twenty years ahead of its time. Not yet a glass cockpit but the automatic flight system with two “yoked” auto pilots (that would disengage if not in agreement) got us right down to Category III-B landing limits which were, to make a long story short; Alert Height 50’ and runway visual range (RVR) 300’ or greater. All that was needed to start the approach was the RVR of 300’.


The automatic flight system on the L-1011 got us right down to Category III-B landing limits.

Lockheed’s Direct Lift Control (DLC) took effect when landing flaps were selected. All spoilers would extend slightly then rise further or retract in combination with elevator input. This resulted in a quicker (and smoother) response to the glideslope tracking accuracy, necessary for CAT III approaches.

If we had a non-1011 qualified jump seat pilot riding with us, I used to delight in showing them (in good VFR) an auto-land which was always an eye popper; especially if there was a crosswind in which case the autopilot would stop crabbing into it at 150’ and then side slip into it by dropping the upwind wing and adding top rudder to maintain runway centerline tracking. Then it would touch down gently on the upwind main landing gear and the spoilers would automatically extend. We were able to use this, slip into the crosswind landing technique, because of Lockheed’s trademark long legs.

One day I got to shoot two III-B approaches in a row. It was on a JFK to Munich flight with a stop in Frankfurt. Both airports were reporting zero ceilings but had the 300 feet or better RVR required to begin the approach. In both cases we saw nothing at 50’ but the big bird began its flare and touched down on the upwind gear. A III-B approach requires a crosswind component of not more than ten knots, but in good weather she could handle a crosswind up to the 44-knot limit. When we parked at Munich, I noticed the top of a B-747’s tail at the next gate was obscured in the clouds!

On an actual III-B approach, when the co-pilot calls, five hundred feet, you’ll likely see nothing. In fact, you may still see nothing at 50’ Here you must resist the urge to disconnect the auto pilots as the landing functions would be disabled and they would switch to go around mode. You press on. The El-Ten was granted an exception from having to see the runway environment at 50’ (Notice in the pic below that when the landing gear is at 50’ the cockpit is about 30’ higher.)

L1011 touchdown

When the landing gear is at 50’ the cockpit is about 30’ higher on the L-1011.

Even after touchdown you may not see anything. Again, resisting the temptation to disconnect the autopilots, they lower the nose, and we begin to see a short string of runway centerline lights disappearing below the nose. The auto pilots will now use the nose wheel steering to steer us down the localizer/centerline. I put the engines into reverse thrust, decelerating to 80-knots. Now I disconnect the autopilots (they know we’ve landed) and use the brakes to slow to taxi speed.

One might wonder, how the heck do you find your way to parking? That would really be tough except that CAT III airports have ground radar, and you will hear taxi instructions such as, “TWA 700 in 100 feet, turn left then take the next right ….”

I suppose all this may sound old hat to today’s pilots, but it was hot stuff in the ‘70s, ‘80s and maybe even into the ‘90s!

The pilots sit several feet above the main gear in the approach and flare attitudes. That’s why they may not see the runway on a CAT III approach until the nose is lowered.  Compare the size of the cockpit windows to the passenger’s windows! They were the largest of any jet I flew.

Jeff Hill
10 replies
  1. Bob Teter
    Bob Teter says:

    Thanks Jeff, it is a great article. The readers should know that the L-1011 autopilot was prior to the widespread use of digital avionics. It was highly redundant analog flight control system. As you said it was ahead of its time. Dave Mineck and others at Collins Radio did a super job. You know the autopilot is good when the pilots brag about it.

    • Jim Green
      Jim Green says:

      Bob, thanks for the mention of Collins and Dave Mineck! John Hall (now 95 yrs. old) was autopilot engineering mgr. many years, and I was a pgm. manager for the digital autopilot on the dash 500 L-1011. Dave Mineck is no longer with us.

  2. Derek Johnson
    Derek Johnson says:

    Thank you, Jeff! I am a PP now, but in the mid to late 80’s I was a young flight attendant for American Trans Air, flying hand-me-down L1011s and DC10’s around the world. Fascinated with airplanes since I was a ramp rat at CA35 as a boy, I was extremely fortunate to get a lot of flight deck jump seat time in both aircraft and really fell in love with the El Ten, as did our pilots. Those big cockpit windows gave me some amazing views of city skylines and a low altitude look at the Grand Canyon, among other highlights. Experienced a few CAT3 auto landings in the L1011 that raised the hair on the back of my 21 year old neck, including one in Gander, Newfoundland, stopping for fuel on the way back to the US from Europe. We went around twice in the soup before the auto land put that big bird right on the centerline and our 344 pax spontaneously erupted in thunderous applause. Here’s to the awesome El Ten! Great story!

  3. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    Sounds pretty sophisticated still. I had a FlightSafety instructor who flew these and loved them. He said something about the autopilot controlling the airplane differently, set a bank or pitch and hold it similar to Airbus or something?

  4. Tom Maher
    Tom Maher says:

    I had a similar experience but not in WX. It was the co-pilot’s leg, Ed Straight, as I recall. The x-wind was beyond a/c limits, tumble weeds and dust blowing across the runway! In asking the tower to recheck the wind direction, “hint, hint”, the response put us just within A/C limits. I asked the F/O, a 4 stripper, if he felt comfortable landing in those conditions, his reply blew my mind! “I think I’ll use auto-land if it’s OK with you! “OK, but I’m going to be right on top of the reject button along with you.”
    Well, it did the most beautiful, classic X-wind approach and landing with rollout imaginable.
    In that instant the L-1011 became my favorite of the fleet and I have a rating in every jet that TWA ever owned!

  5. Tom Maher
    Tom Maher says:

    By the way, Jeff, it’s a pleasure to hear your candid admission of how lucky you were to be hired with 700 hours at age 22.
    I was 28 after 7 years of USAF duty and 1600 hours of single engine jet time (T-33, F-100 and F-105), and happy to be hired!
    And probably 1000 numbers junior to you….650308.

  6. Todd Tracy
    Todd Tracy says:

    Thanks Jeff,
    Brought back the memory of an auto-land in an Eastern L-1011 back in 1986 at ATL where the nose wheel touched down before we saw the centerline lights. Remarkable airplane for it’s time!

  7. Drew Kemp
    Drew Kemp says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Great article! I really miss Teeny-Weeny Airlines and especially the El-Ten. I did countless flights on them back in my roadie days. I remember we did a Cat IIIB landing at LHR in proverbial Pea Soup conditions that really got my attention as a passenger. I could barely se the wing tip. You might have been driving on that one!

    Drew Kemp

  8. Busch Voigts
    Busch Voigts says:


    My grandfather was a TWA pilot from 1932-1970. I am attempting to recreate his last “around the world flight” and take the family. Is there a source document that lists the crew hotels for the city pairs on that route in 1970? Thank you.

    Busch Voigts


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