Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
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.
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’.
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.)
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.