Q: A British newspaper recently told the story of a flight forced to divert because the pilot wasn’t trained to land in fog. The passengers panicked when the pilot announced that he hadn’t been trained. How could this be true?
And several years ago, a flight taxiing for departure in foggy weather returned to the gate and the flight attendant announced, “We apologize, but the pilot does not have enough experience to take off.”
Both of these examples (the former case was reported in the UK tabloid Sun) involve complicated situations that were taken from context and dumbed down into preposterous sounding scenarios.
When visibility drops below certain parameters, pilots must perform so-called “Category 2” or “Category 3” approaches. Such conditions happen rarely, and as a result not all airplanes are certified to perform them, and not all pilots are qualified to fly them. In fact, a relatively small number of runways even allow such approaches. In the British case, conditions called for a Category 3 approach. Many airplanes, not just this one, had in all likelihood been forced to divert. (If, during taxi, you spot strange-looking airport sign that says “Cat II,” it’s referring to the runway hold-line that airplanes must observe when Category 2 approaches are in progress.)
For departures it works similarly. When takeoff visibility drops to certain levels, the runway, the airplane, and the pilots all must meet various requirements. Our hapless flight attendant was technically correct that her pilot lacked the needed “experience,” but was disingenuous (if not entertaining) to summarize things using such simple language.
Runway visibility is measured using something called RVR (Runway Visual Range). A series of light-sensitive machines provide visibility values in feet or meters.
This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.