The spookiest landing I’ve ever had


Fly enough and strange things are bound to happen.  I haven’t had to evacuate a plane or deal with oxygen mask deployment yet but I’ve had my share of aborted take-offs and “go around” missed landings.  Those are unsettling but I actually understand what is going on in those cases and it doesn’t really seem all that bad when it is happening.  Flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles today on my way to Hawaii I got to experience a final approach that was unlike any other.  And I got a bit spooked by it.

The pilot had the Channel 9 audio feed on so I was able to listen to the cockpit communications throughout the flight.  I heard the discussions of the weather with the controllers and our pilots’ requests to deviate around the worst of it.  That was all good stuff.  But having access to that audio also probably contributed to me freaking out a bit when we made a strange left turn about 30 seconds before touchdown.  What I heard was something to the effect of:

Tower, this is United 817.  We’re seeing wide variations on the localizer for runway 6R.  It is all over the place.

The localizer is the radio beacon that broadcasts out the location of the runway so that the plane’s autopilot functionality can glide it it to a safe landing.  If the plane is off course the autopilot will hone in on the localizer and correct the course.  But if the localizer goes wobbly bonkers then the plane will change course to “correct” even if that means actually heading away from the runway. 

And that’s exactly what our plane did this morning. The good news is that the pilots reacted quickly and professionally.  They disengaged the autopilot, corrected the course of the plane and brought us in for a completely normal landing.  Except the part where we briefly were headed in the wrong direction. 

The pilot and ATC folks had a brief conversation about the incident while we were still flying.  They checked with the plane behind us on the approach path to see if they saw the same issues with the localizer (they did) and then things continued on normally.  Once we were finally on the ground the pilot gave the tower another tongue lashing about the localizer and clarified that it was the runway localizer and not the glide slope indicator (another piece of the autopilot system) that was having problems.  And that was pretty much the end of it.

As we were deplaning I mentioned the event to the pilot and we chatted briefly about it.  It was only after that conversation that I fully grasped the severity of what had happened.  Probably a good thing as we were safely on the ground at that point and freaking out a bit wasn’t as significant an issue.  But I was definitely feeling spooked by the event.

No real reason to freak out, I know.  The pilots knew exactly what they were doing the whole time and they fixed the issue quickly and perfectly.  In fact, had I not been listening to Channel 9 I’m not entirely certain I would have even known something went amiss during the approach.  But it was still a bit freaky.  Certainly not enough to prevent me from getting on the next flight, but a bit freaky.

Sadly the LiveATC.net feed of KLAX is offline right now so I don’t have access to the actual tower communications to get the verbatim conversation that happened with our pilot, the pilot behind us and ATC.  I may have to dig a bit more to see if I can find it.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

3 Comments

  1. So I assume it was equipment malfunction on the airport side of the system? Why did the controllers receive a tongue lashing — they aren’t the ones maintaining that system, are they? Did they advise subsequent aircraft to ignore the system/turn off auto-pilot?

    I wonder how often something like this happens, and how well “rookie” regional pilots with often significantly less experience than your average UA mainline pilot would handle situations like this.

  2. If you zoom in on the flightaware map you can see the late turn.

    My flight landed an hour later and also had a late turn, which I didn’t notice at the time – I was watching the heavy shower on the windows to see if we might go around.

  3. shcok – horror – I demand royalties ….. and you know what I’m talking about …. 🙂 😛

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