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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Flying China's "Smog Road"

If you're an instrument-rated pilot, you're quite familiar with flying an ILS, since you have to perform at least one on your checkride. If you are or were one of my flight students, you know what one is, too, since I use part of the 3 hours of required instrument time to introduce the concept of the ILS because it may save your hide in a worst-case scenario.

In both of those cases, the ILS you're familiar with is called a Category I. It is by far the most common, and has altitude minimums of 200 feet AGL and visibility minumums of 1/2 mile. This one is so common that almost no one calls it a Category I (or "Cat 1" for short); it's just plain old "ILS".

However, at bigger airports, there are two higher categories available, called, logically enough, Category II and Category III ("Cat 2" and "Cat 3"). Unless you're an airline pilot or a professional at the controls of a go-fast machine, you've probably never flown one of these. That's because the airplane has to have more expensive equipment and the crew has more expensive training (and currency) requirements.

Except for the equipment and training required, Cat II isn't particularly different from a regular ILS, except it allows lower minima. It isn't talked about much because it is wedged between the ubiquitous Cat I and the glory-hog Cat III, which allows for autoland at zero-zero minumums. That's right: the plane can land itself without the pilots being able to see the runway.

Check out this example of an Airbus A320 landing itself. If it seems like the video is broken because it's all black, that's because that's the view out the window:

What does this have to do with the price of smog in China? Well, according to this article from Weather Underground, the smog in Beijing has grown so bad that it alone is causing an enormous amount of delays. It's so bad that the Civil Aviation Administration of China is going to mandate that airline pilots flying into Beijing be certified to fly autoland approaches by the beginning of 2014.

Think the smog can't really be that bad? Check out this picture from the story:

That's not fog, that's smog!

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