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Blind Landings

Low-Visibility Operations in American Aviation, 1918–1958

Erik M. Conway

Publication Year: 2006

When darkness falls, storms rage, fog settles, or lights fail, pilots are forced to make "instrument landings," relying on technology and training to guide them through typically the most dangerous part of any flight. In this original study, Erik M. Conway recounts one of the most important stories in aviation history: the evolution of aircraft landing aids that make landing safe and routine in almost all weather conditions. Discussing technologies such as the Loth leader-cable system, the American National Bureau of Standards system, and, its descendants, the Instrument Landing System, the MIT-Army-Sperry Gyroscope microwave blind landing system, and the MIT Radiation Lab's radar-based Ground Controlled Approach system, Conway interweaves technological change, training innovation, and pilots' experiences to examine the evolution of blind landing technologies. He shows how systems originally intended to produce routine, all-weather blind landings gradually developed into routine instrument-guided approaches. Even so, after two decades of development and experience, pilots still did not want to place the most critical phase of flight, the landing, entirely in technology's invisible hand. By the end of World War II, the very concept of landing blind therefore had disappeared from the trade literature, a victim of human limitations.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

A dozen years ago, I was afloat in the vast tracklessness of the Pacific Ocean when I received an e-mail from John Beatty welcoming me to the University of Minnesota’s Program in the History of Science and Technology. “Welcoming” proved an understatement, and I want to thank John, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Arthur Norberg, Robert Seidel, Alan...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. 1-11

Pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in his classic novel Night Flight, told of a French mail pilot and his radio operator who, surrounded by storms while flying between Patagonia and Buenos Aires, were unable to find a place to land.The pilot’s supervisor, driven by the need to conquer the distance between isolated cities, had ignored the worsening weather and insisted that the mail go...

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1 Instrumental Faith

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pp. 12-34

In the 1920s and 1930s, poor visibility was much more likely at the altitudes at which airplanes flew than it was at ground level due to the frequent occurrence of low clouds in the most populous regions of the United States. Early aircraft were restricted to altitudes of only a few thousand feet (at best), and thus they could not fly above the weather...

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2 Places to Land Blind

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pp. 35-56

While the goal of all-weather operations forced pilots to learn to fly blind, it also caused promoters of air commerce to seek landing fields capable of supporting all-weather flying. Airfields during the Great War had simply been grass fields, usually circular, and aircraft took o

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3 Radio Blind Flying

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pp. 57-79

Two government organizations played key roles in the late 1920s and early 1930s blind landing research, the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS) and the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce. The U.S. Congress had established the NBS in 1901 to devise and maintain a uniform system of weights and measures for the nation...

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4 The Promise of Microwaves

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pp. 80-103

Commercial pilots’ rejection of the Hegenberger system left a schism in the aviation community over how best to achieve blind landings. The Air Corps was satisfied with its radio compass approach, while commercial pilots wanted some version of the National Bureau of Standards’ (NBS) tripartite system....

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5 Instrument Landing Goes to War

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pp. 104-122

President Roosevelt’s May 1940 approval of the National Academy of Science’s report on blind landing systems had established a “standard” interim system and a research program to develop a final system. That approval allowed the army and CAA to continue supporting Edward Bowles’s microwave project while CAA began installation of the allowed ten copies..

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6 The Intrusion of Newcomers

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pp. 123-136

The blind landing systems detailed thus far worked in accordance with a single model, for lack of a better word. All of them, whether based upon cables or radio transmissions, provided a signal or set of signals that directly operated one or more instruments in a plane’s cockpit....

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7 The Politics of Blind Landing

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pp. 137-162

In May 1947, Charles V. Murray told readers of Life magazine that the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) had “declined into a mental outlook more befitting the guild of harness-makers.” At issue was CAA’s continued insistence on deploying its “old-fashioned” instrument landing system (ILS), which di¤ered from the army’s wartime SCS-51 only in..

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8 Transformations

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pp. 163-176

Congress’s smacking the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) with the budget axe after the air safety hearings was not quite the final act in the bitter debate between advocates of instrument landing system (ILS) and enthusiasts for ground control approach (GCA). After a new series of airline accidents in June 1947, the administration turned..

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pp. 177-186

On August 6, 1997, Korean Air flight 801 crashed near the top of Nimitz Hill, on the U.S. territory of Guam, near the transmitting antenna of the visual omnirange (VOR) that aircraft approaching the island’s primary airport outside the city of Agana use to maneuver onto the ILS approach path...


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pp. 2187-210


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pp. 211-218

E-ISBN-13: 9780801889608
E-ISBN-10: 080188960X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801884498
Print-ISBN-10: 0801884497

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 14 halftones, 9 line drawings
Publication Year: 2006