Radar Love

Before instrument landing systems, military pilots relied on controllers to steer them right to the runway.

The author at Wethersfield, England, in 1969, and an early Super Sabre. (Courtesy Robert P. Mark; USAF; Photo-illustration By Théo)
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“Pop 21, this is your Wethersfield final controller,” Mahoney said as the first aircraft neared the glideslope intercept point. “How do you hear me?” The pilot acknowledged, and Mahoney told him that for a few minutes, he’d be doing all the talking. He’d provide headings and altitudes, and the pilot had just one task: Fly them precisely.

“Six miles from touchdown, begin descent now, maintain present heading.” The pilot lowered flaps and landing gear and squeezed some power off to begin a 500-feet-per-minute descent. “On glidepath, turn right three degrees. Four miles from touchdown, now dropping 100 feet low on the glidepath. Check gear down, you are cleared to land.”

The radar blip flew level for a few seconds and intercepted the glidepath, which only we could see (instrument landing system displays in fighter cockpits were well in the future). “Now on course, on glidepath, two miles from touchdown. Drifting slightly right of course, turn left two degrees, on glidepath.” Mahoney barely took a breath. “Approaching decision height, on course. You should see the approach lights. Take over visually and land.” Two seconds later the pilot reported in: “Pop 21’s on the ground.”

With barely time for a “Roger,” Mahoney made radio contact with Pop 22, seven miles out, and guided him back home safely, followed by Pop 23. We—Mahoney mostly—kept this up, bringing in more aircraft for nearly an hour until a relief controller finally showed up. He’d been delayed on the road trying to find the GCA shack in the dense fog.

After all three of the F-100s were down, one of the pilots came back on the radio: “Thanks, GCA. You’re my hero.” At age 18 I was hooked. I wanted to be like Sergeant Mahoney and talk airplanes down like he did: effortlessly—or so it seemed. During my training I watched GCA controllers bring down airplanes in zero ceilings and zero horizontal visibility. Under those conditions, a pilot’s only other option was punching out over the North Sea.

Ground-controlled approach duty taught me many now-extinct terms: I learned about the “main bang” (the center of the radar display), and how to get a pilot to “squawk his parrot” (turn his transponder radar beacon to a discrete code). Aligning the GCA’s precision radar in a darkened trailer by just feeling the controls that I’d learned the locations of in my sleep, I was able to pass my final exam.

I never forgot what Sergeant Mahoney and the other senior controllers taught me at Wethersfield. By the time my orders to leave England came in 1970, I had even managed to win a few thanks from pilots myself.

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