From day one in Air Force pilot training we all came to accept that sometimes we don't have the ability to understand why some of the electronics, mechanics, and aerodynamics behind flying results in us defying gravity with hardly any effort at all. We studied all the right texts and had great instructors. But when the day was over, most of us had to agree: it's magic.

— James Albright




Of course those of us with an engineering background understood more than most, but we too had a spot reserved for the "It's magic" explanation. For me, flying an ILS was never about magic. But hardly anyone really understands how any of this is possible. I was in only my second year of flying jets and already had more than a handful of approaches down to minimums when I got the "how could you see the runway?" question. I always try, but more times than not the explanation ends with . . . "It's magic."


33 Years Later at Minimums

It was my first big trip in the KC-135A tanker, from the northern tip of Maine to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, by way of Hawaii. I badgered the aircraft commander into giving me the landing in Hawaii, my home. Despite what ended up looking like a monsoon parked over the southern half of Oahu, I spotted the runway from a few hundred feet and we landed in paradise. "Good job, co." That was high praise indeed.

I made it a point to drive from the airport directly to the in-law's house, knowing I could use the excuse of having to see my own parents for the first time in a few years. It would give me the perfect escape clause while keeping the wife happy way back in Maine. Yes, dear, I did visit them.

It was still raining at the airport but as I climbed the mountains of Aiea in my rickety rental car I soon reached clear air. The in-law's house normally had a view of Pearl Harbor, the airport, and just a bit of Waikiki, but not tonight. It wasn't that they were rich or anything — they were not — but back then just about everyone had a view of some sort.

I pulled into the driveway and noticed the always present glow of the black and white television. Soon they would have color, I knew, but not anytime real soon. I rapped my knuckles on the metal part of the screen door, shaking the entire house, and was greeted by a sea of in-law faces.

"You made it?" came from more than one in-law.

"Of course," I said, "how could I not make it?"

In-law Brudah Numba One pointed to the south, where the airport should have been. "It's been raining all day down there."

"Sure," I agreed, "but it isn't too bad."

"How you can see the runway when it's raining?" In-law Brudah Numba Two asked.

I explained how the localizer antenna broadcasts two frequencies, left and right of centerline, and how another two antennas broadcast a glideslope. Then I explained how the aircraft had special receivers to interpret those into needles for the pilots. For me.

"But don't you have to see the runway before you land?" the remaining in-law Brudah asked.

I tried again, trying to equate the electrons into something more day-to-day, but the looks on their faces told me I wasn't doing a good job. I thought back to the old pilot training explanation, "it's magic." But they would think I was making fun of them and that would only get me in trouble with the wife back in Maine. Then I came up with it.

"I have really, really good eyes," I said.

"Ah," they said as one, "we knew it."

Post Script (2013)

All these years later I get the same question after landing in crummy weather and have to remind myself just how fortunate we pilots are to perform this kind of magic on a routine basis. As I write this I just came down from a maintenance check flight. We had a thrust reverser problem and I got a few questions about the airplane's enhanced vision system. So I mounted a camera in the cabin with a view of the passenger's video system and tuned that to the tail camera. I put another camera near my knee to look at the enhanced vision system and engine instruments. The third camera was for the glare shield. We got the data we needed but I also got a reminder of that special magic. The video shows the EVS on the top left, the tail camera at bottom left, and the view from the cockpit window on the right.