In Plane Sight: Understanding the Critical Role of Visibility in Safe Aircraft Landings

Jul 19, 2023

Pilot training is crucial for safe operations

Visibility plays a paramount role in aviation, encompassing the ability to see and also be seen during flight operations. It directly affects the safety and efficiency of various aspects of aviation, with a particular emphasis on takeoffs and landings. Training is paramount in this realm, and non-scheduled operations have a slightly different approach regarding crew training, with specific guidelines for the Pilot in Command (PIC) and Second in Command (SIC). 

The skills and experience of pilots are crucial factors in ensuring safe landings, especially in challenging visibility conditions. They undergo extensive training to develop the skill to assess visibility accurately and make appropriate decisions while learning to rely on instruments and follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) when visual cues are limited or unavailable. The following airports have specific requirements for non-scheduled operations, evidencing the differences from their scheduled counterpart: 

EGLC – London City: a PIC and SIC training is required. Sim training is required.
LFLB – Chambéry
: PIC and SIC training is required. Sim training required, however, with theoretical training through the company’s OM-C and Airport Manual. Only in VMC and certain conditions.
LFLP – Annecy
: PIC and SIC training is required. Sim training required, however, with theoretical training through the company’s OM-C and Airport Manual. Only in VMC and certain conditions.
LOWI – Innsbruck
: PIC and SIC training is required. Sim training required, however, with theoretical training through the company’s OM-C and Airport Manual.
LPMA – Funchal
: PIC training is required with sim. Need to get an approval from the CAA.

As we will review in subsequent paragraphs, in situations where visibility is severely restricted, pilots rely on instrument-based operations to navigate and land the aircraft safely. Instruments provide critical flight information, such as altitude, airspeed, and heading, allowing pilots to operate solely based on instrument indications without relying on visual cues.

Visual Flight Rules versus Instrument Landing System 

Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) are two different approaches to aircraft navigation and landing, each suited for specific conditions and requirements. ILS is a precision approach and landing aid used in aviation that provides highly accurate lateral and vertical guidance to pilots during instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) or low visibility scenarios. 

 

ILS assists pilots in landing the aircraft safely when visual references are limited or unavailable, relying on a combination of radio signals, including the localizer and glide slope, to guide the aircraft along the correct flight path to the runway. Pilots must hold an instrument rating and follow instrument flight rules (IFR) when using ILS approaches, relying heavily on onboard instruments, such as attitude indicators, altimeters, and navigation displays, to execute the approach and landing.

VFR on the other hand, refers to a set of regulations and procedures governing aircraft operations when visibility and weather conditions allow for visual navigation and reference to the ground. VFR allows pilots to operate aircraft by visually navigating with reference to the ground, landmarks, and airspace visual markers. It is key to acknowledge that requires clear visibility and is typically used during good weather conditions.

Crew’s Trivia

Which airports are usually known for their low visibility when landing?

  1. BGBW – Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland
  2. CYYT – St. John’s International Airport, Canada
  3. LFMD – Mandelieu Airport, France       
  4. LSZS – Samedan Airport, Switzerland
  5. LIRQ – Florence Airport, Italy

Mitigating Low Visibility Challenges When Landing

With the aid of advanced technologies, well-maintained infrastructure, and comprehensive pilot training, the aviation industry continues to strive for safer landings in all visibility scenarios. By acknowledging the critical role of visibility and implementing appropriate measures, the entire industry can enhance the safety and efficiency of aircraft operations, ensuring that passengers and crew arrive at their destinations securely. 

Measures taken to counter low visibility:

Instrument Landing System (ILS): ILS is a highly precise navigational aid that assists pilots in landing aircraft safely even in low visibility conditions. It uses radio signals to provide lateral and vertical guidance, enabling pilots to align the aircraft with the runway accurately.
Runway Visual Range (RVR): RVR is a system that measures the horizontal distance over which a pilot can see specific visual references along the runway. It assists pilots in assessing visibility conditions before landing and provides valuable information for decision-making.
Low Visibility Procedures (LVP): Airports and operators have specific LVPs in place to ensure safe operations during low visibility conditions. These procedures include increased separation between aircraft, modified approach and landing techniques, and enhanced air traffic control coordination to minimize the risk of accidents.

Along these lines, autoland systems are a key component during low visibility conditions. Also known as automatic landing systems, these are advanced aircraft systems that enable an aircraft to perform a fully automated landing without direct pilot intervention. These systems have significantly evolved over the years, revolutionizing the ability to land aircraft safely in zero visibility conditions. 

#DidYouKnow that all these airports have runways of less than 6,000 feet?

LFPT – 5500 feet runway, alternate airport for Paris
EGMC – 6000 feet runway, alternate airport in London
BGBW – 6000 feet runway, airport for fuel-stop crossing Atlantic
LSZB – 5600 feet runway, airport in Switzerland
LIRQ – 5100 feet runway, airport in Italy
LFMD – 5000 feet runway, airport in France

Safety Protocols and Regulations Regarding Visibility

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are the two prominent regulatory authorities that establish safety protocols and regulations in aviation, including those related to visibility. Here is an overview of their regulations concerning visibility:

ICAO Regulations

Annex 2 – Rules of the Air: It provides standards and recommended practices for air navigation, including regulations related to visibility. It addresses the requirements for visual meteorological conditions (VMC) and instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), specifying the minimum visibility and cloud clearance requirements for different types of flight operations.

Annex 3 – Meteorological Service for International Air Navigation: It focuses on meteorological services and defines the standards and procedures for meteorological information provided to aviation. It covers the reporting and dissemination of weather information, including visibility observations, forecasts, and warnings, to ensure pilots have accurate and timely visibility-related information.

Annex 6 – Operation of Aircraft: It provides regulations and guidelines for aircraft operations, including those related to visibility. It includes provisions for the use of instruments, navigation aids, and visual references during different phases of flight. Annex 6 also addresses procedures for operations in low visibility conditions and the requirements for instrument approach procedures and landing operations.

FAA Regulations

Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs): The FARs encompass a comprehensive set of regulations governing all aspects of aviation operations in the United States. Part 91 of the FARs specifically addresses general operating and flight rules. It includes regulations for visibility requirements, such as the minimum visibility for takeoffs and landings, requirements for operating under VFR or IFR, and regulations for specific airspace classifications based on visibility requirements.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR): The FAA provides detailed regulations and procedures for IFR operations. These regulations cover requirements for instrument approaches, including those related to visibility conditions, minimum descent altitudes, and missed approach procedures. 

Air Traffic Control (ATC) Procedures: The FAA establishes regulations and procedures for air traffic control services, including those related to visibility conditions. Air traffic controllers provide pilots with information on visibility, issue instructions based on visibility conditions, and ensure appropriate separation between aircraft in different visibility scenarios.

#DidYouKnow that Computer Based Training (CBT) for pilots is needed in the following airports?

LFMD – Cannes
LSGS – Sion
LSZA – Lugano
LSZS – Samedan

Conclusion

Safety protocols and regulations regarding visibility are crucial in aviation to ensure the safety of flight operations, especially during takeoffs, landings, and low visibility conditions. Pilot training and proficiency play a significant role in handling manual landings under varying visibility conditions. 

Pilots undergo extensive training to develop the skills required for assessing visibility accurately and making informed decisions during landings, practicing techniques such as crosswind landings and low-visibility operations to enhance their ability to handle challenging conditions effectively. Ultimately, technology advancements in the cockpit coupled with highly specialized crew training will continue playing a huge role in the evolution of flight safety for everyone involved in a safe operation.

FAQs

-What is considered low visibility in aviation?

The specific threshold for what is considered low visibility may vary depending on the regulatory authority and the type of flight operation being conducted. However, generally, low visibility is defined based on the visibility range or the presence of weather phenomena that hinder visibility.

-How do pilots land planes in low visibility?

In low visibility conditions, pilots rely on instrument-based guidance systems, such as the Instrument Landing System (ILS), to align the aircraft with the runway and maintain the correct descent path.

-What is an instrument landing system (ILS) and how does it work?

An Instrument Landing System (ILS) is a ground-based navigational aid that assists pilots in landing an aircraft precisely and safely, especially in low visibility conditions. It provides lateral and vertical guidance to ensure accurate alignment with the runway and descent path.

-What regulations does the FAA have regarding visibility for takeoff and landing?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established regulations regarding visibility for takeoff and landing operations under Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). Here are the key regulations:

Takeoff Minimums (FAR 91.175): This regulation specifies the minimum visibility requirements for takeoff. It states that no person may take off an aircraft under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) unless the flight visibility is equal to or greater than the visibility requirements prescribed for the specific airport, runway, and operation. 

Landing Minimums (FAR 91.175): FAR 91.175 also addresses landing minimums. It states that no person may land an aircraft under IFR unless the flight visibility is equal to or greater than the visibility requirements prescribed for the specific airport, runway, and approach being used. 

-What new technologies are emerging to improve landings in low visibility conditions?

Ongoing research and development efforts aim to further enhance autoland systems. This includes advancements in sensor technology, data processing algorithms, and artificial intelligence to improve the precision, robustness, and safety of autoland operations.

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