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How Planes Land Safely in Extremely Low Visibility

Have you ever been on board an airplane making its final approach into its destination yet there are no visual references of the proximity of the airplane to the ground until you finally touch down? Scary right?

Believe it or not, in modern aviation, not being able to see where you’re flying is perfectly safe.

Aircrafts have high-tech radars to ‘see’, while movements are digitally monitored by air traffic controllers to keep aircraft at a safe height and distance from each other. However, this is limited to a specified altitude above ground.

‘On the ground it’s less straightforward,’ says Captain James Toye, Line Operations Manager at Cathay Pacific and Boeing 777 pilot. ‘A lot of the ground control from the tower is visual – and it’s hard to direct aircraft taxiing around if you can’t see them. In low visibility it’s not just about leaving the runway quickly, it’s also about finding the turns on the taxiways. I’ve been in conditions where you can only see a few lights ahead of you, and these are spaced at 20-30 metre intervals. Looking for one reference point can be disorientating, and it has to be done slowly. We normally taxi at up to 30 knots (55 kilometres an hour), in low visibility that’s reduced to 10 knots or slower (20 kilometres an hour).’

Transmissometers are sometimes used at airports to check visibility for planes taking off and landing.

Company policy dictates that low visibility landings must use the aircraft’s automated systems that interact with the airport’s instrument landing system. This is the array of metal poles at the end of a runway that generate a radio beam for aircraft to follow. The airport will also transmit readings from transmissometers, which measure light every 15 seconds, to help pilots decide if they have enough visual references (i.e, they can see the runway and runway lights) to land.

While most airports are equipped to deal with fog safely – some are more efficient than others. So next time you find yourself freaking out during a low visibility takeoff or landing; remember that although you can't see anything, technology has equipped your pilots with 20/20 vision for the weather condition.

Check out this really cool video below of a fully automated landing in extremely low visibility.

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