Navigation, the art of getting lost – A taxiway will do…
Sometimes controllers get their share of uninvited visitors, too. This time it was a Sunday and the observation terrace was crowded by people, some of them waiting for flights due in later, others just there to watch for the fun of it. Well, they were in for more fun than they had bargained for.
Quite unknown to the aerodrome controllers, high above in the skies a fully armed fighter on routine patrol duty was in trouble. Not in big trouble mind you, just enough to loose all his navigation capability and his communication with the ground. As his fuel state deteriorated rapidly, the poor guy started descending, no doubt searching for one of the “secret” military fields the location of which only he was supposed to know. As he popped out from the solid cloud cover, he saw a field, which happened to Budapest’s international airport. He took this to be the military field, no doubt because he wanted to see a military field so much…
The first thing the tower controllers noticed had been a small something landing on the runway and before they had time to recover from their shock, there he was, rockets hanging from both wings, gallantly taxiing in. With the visitors’ cameras clicking happily at him, the fighter bloke finally woke up to where he was and making a U-turn, he took off again right from the taxiway, with his afterburner providing a unique theme for the amateur photographers on the terrace.
The controllers did call their military colleagues, but they insisted all their fighters were accounted for.
When you trust your eyes instead of the ILS
When an aircraft reaches the end of its trip, coming off the airways she is vectored by controllers in the confines of the Terminal Maneuvering Area, or TMA, until the pilots pick up the signals from the ILS, the Instrument Landing System. This device helps the pilot in flying to the landing runway on a precisely defined electronic course and glide slope. At most places you can trust the ILS with your life, but there are a few ILS’s in the world, well known to pilots using those fields, which just can’t seem to do their job properly. Siting difficulties and sometimes sloppy maintenance are usually behind this. Flying a certain airlines back in the 70s, one could have the good fortune of watching how pilots got around this problem, with a little help from rice farmers, at a busy Far Eastern field.
The 747 was on the middle leg of its long haul from Europe to Australia, and the invitation to the cockpit had been gladly accepted. There had been nothing unusual in the series of radar vectors, and the altitude assigned for ILS intercept, 2000 feet, also sounded familiar. Visibility had been less than ideal, with a late afternoon haze hiding most of the rice paddies below. Guided by expert hands, the big bird gracefully lined up on the extended runway centerline. Things started looking a bit strange, however, when instead of the gentle glide down along the glide slope, the co-pilot brought us steeply down to 1000 feet and then further to a little more than 500 feet above the ground. There, he leveled out and we happily motored along with the by now extended landing gear all but getting wet. It was patently apparent that they had done this before. The captain even had time to explain to me that this was one of “those” ILS installations, but fortunately one of the canals feeding the rice paddies was extending precisely on the approach course and it was safer to fly along that than the wandering ILS beam… With only flat ground all around, one could always descend below the haze until the friendly canal could be eyeballed right to the runway.
The sight of a Boeing 747 configured for landing, in level flight at 500 feet must be a majestic one, though it apparently left the peasants working the paddies quite unconcerned. “Oh, its not the first time they have seen this…”-explained the captain.
Who is flying this ship?
Remember, this was written many years before 9/11 and all that followed in security. Good old innocent times…
There are parts of the world, where, if you stray from your assigned airway, you are likely to meet a spectacular display by the friendly local air force. Interception is the name of the game and its uselessness in most cases is only surpassed by the costs of such an exercise. International co-operation not withstanding, the breed of uniformed men convinced that war will be brought to them by an unarmed Cessna will be with us for a long time to come.
The star of this particular event had indeed been a Cessna, registered in Norway. It was dark by the time they crossed the Hungarian state border and for the first few miles the flight progressed uneventfully. The required reports were made by a strong male voice and he sounded like someone who knows what he is doing. This self assurance was also apparent a few minutes later, when they turned due South-East onto a direct course to Budapest Airport. The trouble was, they had not been instructed to make this turn. Furthermore, their new heading took them outside the airway and towards an area where our uniformed friends had some of their toys “hidden” on the ground.
The radar controller handling the flight interfered almost immediately and with a few vectors steered the little plane back on course. The pilot took his clue and immediately claimed to be having some problem with the aircraft’s directional system. No problem, the controller countered, we will help you down.
This would have been the end of the story, had it not been one of the worse days for the man in charge of the air defense system. For reasons clear only to himself, he concluded that this was the ENEMY flying up there and promptly sent two of his fighters to investigate. He would not believe the controllers’ word that it was just a small, harmless bird with a bit of a hardware problem.
The next thing the controllers knew, the Cessna pilot started complaining bitterly about two jets almost knocking him out of the sky, and for a second time, too! Of course, the difference in speed made any kind of identification by the fighter boys impossible and they had radioed this to their boss after the second pass and before, low on fuel, they returned to base.
This apparent failure only made the big man more furious. What? His multi million beauties are not able to identify an intruder plodding along at a snail’s pace? Scandal, he roared, not least in an effort to cover up his frustration at not really comprehending how superior technology could fail so miserably. Of course, like most others of his kind, he was a political appointee, more at home in party meetings than aviation. With little else left that he could do, he telephoned the ATC supervisor, demanding a full report, including a signed “confession” by the crew of the offending aircraft. He also insisted that the “confession” be obtained in the presence of a representative of the armed forces… Fortunately, in view of the lateness of the our, he could not persuade any of his superiors to rush to the airport, so in the end he had agreed to make do with a lieutenant from the border police permanently stationed at the field. The lieutenant was sleepy, bored and he spoke only Hungarian.
Three people, the approach control duty supervisor, the sleepy border police officer and and a controller went to meet the crew in the arrival hall. Anxious to get this nonsense over and done with quickly, already having made up their minds what would go into the report (well, blaming the incident on faulty instruments, of course), they were quite unprepared for the sight that awaited them. There was this tall businessman type guy and next to him the most stunning Scandinavian beauty they had ever set their eyes on. Not wanting to be rough on them in the first place, they quickly turned the de-briefing session into an amiable chat. But the crew of the small plane was really frightened! It took several cups of strong coffee and about half an hour before they could speak without stammering.
While the supervisor addressed himself to the man, the lieutenant, fully awake now, kept his eyes riveted on the girl, who sat quietly while her husband related their story. They had made a mistake in setting their compass, all right. On the other hand, they did not look the spook-in-the-sky type (what does one look like anyway?). In the end, as per their original idea, the Hungarians suggested instrument failure as the cause of the incident. Obviously relieved, the man vigorously agreed. Their goodwill was also rewarded by a dazzling smile from the girl, who that far had not uttered a word.
As the man signed the report, the controller had a nagging feeling that something was wrong. He could not really pin it down, but the way the man told his story, it sounded a bit like he had been a spectator rather than a participant in the events of the preceding hour. Almost as an afterthought, and without any real authority to do so, the controller asked to see his pilot’s license.
The sight of a scorpion crawling out from beneath the report sheets would certainly have had less of an effect on the poor guy. Then they knew it. It was the girl who had been flying all along, hubby never having progressed beyond driving a car and operating the radio while she was flying their plane. This gallant show had been put on to protect his wife…
Well, gallantry and air traffic control go hand in hand and the Hungarians were even more pleased with having decided earlier to bend the rules a little…