- Blind Landings: Low-Visibility Operations in American Aviation, 1918–1958
Blind Landings is a study of attempts to land airplanes under low-visibility conditions, but Erik Conway attempts to reach a wider audience by avoiding “quest narratives” and the tendency of “going native” in aviation histories (p. 3). The virtue of Conway’s approach is to take his actors’ conflicts, dilemmas, and frustrations as central to the story, rather than explaining them away as impediments to an otherwise smooth narrative of technological progress. As a result, this study would serve as another good illustration from aviation history—along with Eric Schatzberg’s work on wooden airplanes —of the ways in which politics, ideology, culture, and even nature play constitutive roles in the development and use of technologies.
Pre–World War II projects for enabling blind landing failed to gain wide acceptance by the aviation community for various reasons. The so called leader cable system, whose prototypes were developed in Europe, did not “fit the new technological context” of the United States, which was shaped by the “intertwined demands of commerce and geography” (p. 55). Also, lack of pragmatic thinking left the Army Air Corps and the Bureau of Air Commerce unsatisfied with the radio landing systems, which could have been used as good approach, instead of landing, aids. World War II, of course, played a significant part in the subsequent history, but its role, Conway observes, was somewhat ironic. Instead of facilitating the development of a novel and more advanced system, the urgency of war caused the “entrenchment” of the “temporary” and “low-tech” VHF system, while the new microwave systems—which had seemed like “the wave of the future” in 1940—did not win the army’s favor. Again, the “technoscape of aviation” could not be fully determined by the specifications of technological devices (pp. 105, 122).
The end of the war did not mean peace within the aviation community, as “a vicious political battle” that had been “suspended” during the war began to center on a new challenge to the previous paradigm of blind landing (p. 136). Conway’s characterization of the war as free of “politics,” by which he refers mainly to big congressional and institutional politics, [End Page 805] should not prevent readers from appreciating his analysis of what might be called small politics, which had a prewar origin and continued throughout the war. A new “model of behavior” flowed from experimental physics at Berkeley into the practice of blind landing. Luis Alvarez, who had learned the new culture of teamwork in physics at Earnest Lawrence’s cyclotron laboratory, proposed a Ground-Controlled Approach (GCA) system, which depended on a careful coordination among ground operators. In this “talkdown method,” the pilot had only to listen and follow the instructions offered to him over the radio. It was a radical departure from the “pilot control model” of Instrument Landing System (ILS), which placed the burden of interpreting information and making decisions mostly on the pilot.
The battle between GCA and ILS, then, was not so much about “how well” a system could land a plane blind as about exactly “how” it did so. And one’s position on the latter affected one’s answer to the former. Private pilots welcomed GCA because it could give them easier and safer access to airways without intensive training and expensive equipment. Airline pilots, however, saw GCA as posing a threat to their profession by taking away pilots’ autonomy in landing. The stakes were high, and it was difficult even to decide which method would serve the “majority” of airway users. While private pilots outnumbered airline pilots, the supporters of ILS (including the Civil Aeronautics Administration) could make a counterargument by including the number of commercial passengers in the calculation.
Thus, a seemingly technical task of blind landing posed much more fundamental questions for the aviation community, and for historians as well. What is the proper limit of a pilot’s control in the air? Who counts as a user of airways...