When my T-37 Air Force jet trainer took off on a crisp January morning I had no idea how my skills as a pilot would be challenged when I returned to the base an hour later.
I was flying a routine training mission with Lt. Tahulerah Shakerifar, a student pilot from Iran. We had practiced a variety of maneuvers 50 miles north of the base over a deck of broken clouds. Our fuel gauge indicated that it was time to head south, the mission almost complete. I knew that there was a more intense layer of clouds obscuring the home field and that we would require a radar approach to make our landing. Such an instrument landing is called a GCA – Ground Controlled Approach. Using a GCA we could make a safe landing when the clouds were as low as 100 feet and the visibility was down to ½ mile.
When flying a GCA, the radar controllers on the ground assume responsibility for guiding the aircraft through the zero visibility conditions down to where your airplane breaks out of the clouds. At that point, the pilot hopefully sees the runway and can make the landing. We were already receiving instructions from the radar controller as we descended through 10,000 feet. As part of the descent checklist, I activated the canopy defroster. When descending in high moisture and low-temperature situations there is always the potential of the canopy icing over. Normally the canopy defroster draws very hot air off of the engine and rapidly clears any icing condition. As a thick layer of ice formed on our canopy, our vision was totally obscured and it was obvious that the defroster on our T-37 aircraft was not working. We were flying blind.
We did not have enough fuel to go to another base so our only option was to declare an emergency and request special assistance. At this time “Far,” my Iranian student, was beginning to grasp the seriousness of our situation and was no longer talking to himself in English, but in Farsi, his native tongue. Under normal conditions, the pilot receives corrections on heading, altitude and rate of descent all the way down to 100 feet above the ground. At that point, it is his responsibility to take over visually and land the aircraft. The young controller on the ground was pretty flustered when I asked him to give me heading and descent information all the way until the wheels of my plane touched the runway since we were iced over.
I soon decided that our situation required a more experienced controller and requested a change. The voice of a seasoned master sergeant came on the radio and began to give us heading and altitude instructions, just like he handled this kind of emergency every day before breakfast. This veteran had taken over none too soon, because Far was still speaking Farsi and every 5thword was, “Allah, Allah!” I slowed to 150 knots and lowered the landing gear.
Now we were on final approach, still in the dense clouds at 2000 feet. The ground controller worked to line us up with the runway that we could not see. “Falcon 46, turn right heading 345o, begin your descent. On course, on glide slope (the proper angle of descent to intersect the runway). Turn right heading 348o, left of course on glide slope. Correcting back to course, on glide slope. On course, turn left heading 346o, above glide slope, adjust rate of descent. On-course on glide slope.” A glance at my altimeter revealed that we had another 500 feet to go. The ice covered all but the extreme sides of the canopy. I was going to have to make this landing looking out the side.
“Falcon 46, on course, on glide slope. On course, on glide slope. Decision height.” At this point still 100 feet in the air I would normally take over and make the landing visually. I could see with my peripheral vision that we were now below the clouds, but there was no way to see the runway so the commands kept coming just as I had requested.
“Maintain heading 346oon glide slope.” Now the runway became visible out the side of the canopy and the first runway marker went rushing by. I eased back on the power and began to raise the nose for a safe landing. The wheels touched and I began to firmly brake the aircraft to a stop. When we finally stopped rolling, the base fire trucks that had been standing by in case things had not gone well pulled alongside. They were an unneeded comfort because the directions that we got put us right in the center of the runway.
“Thank you, Sergeant Johnson, for a job well done. We couldn’t have done it without your radar instructions.”
“You are welcome, Falcon 46. All in a day’s work.”
We were flying blind and Sergeant Johnson, with his radar and his experience, was the only one who could see where we were and where we needed to go. He had the skill and the understanding to instruct us perfectly on how to get our aircraft safely on the runway.
What did you like about this story?
What could have happened to Far and me without Sergeant Johnson’s directions?
What if I had chosen not to listen to him or take his instructions?
Dad, was there a time in your life, as a boy or more recently, when you felt like you didn’t know where to go or how to get there? Talk about that for a minute.
Son, is there anything in your life right now that you wish you had answers to or directions for? What can Dad be praying for you?
Lessons For Flying Higher:
Psalm 32:8 The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you.”
Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.”
Sometimes the best directions in life come from Someone that you can’t see. You can still talk to Him and listen to what He says in His word.