It was late fall, and the French countryside was hidden in fog. It lay like a smothering blanket against the face of the world. Everything around me was shrouded in the tired, dead gray.
Three and a half years before, following the wanderlust of my youth, I had enlisted in the air force with no more thought for the future than my curiosity at what it might hold for me. Those years had taken their toll, and now I felt the value of what I’d left behind in the pure, clean air of my desert country home.
Lost in an inner fog as dense as the one now hovering around me, I felt lonely and isolated, detached and adrift in an alien world filled with uncertainty. For days doubts and questions troubled my mind—questions about my own worth, the direction of my life; questions that challenged the reasons for my existence and the deepest hopes of my future. I knew that I was standing alone at a crossroad in the cold and fog.
Three hundred feet in front of me the rows of runway lights dimmed, blurred, and faded away into the mist. Across the field, beyond the runway, the gray form of the control tower was hardly visible. At its top, the rotating beacon counted the minutes—light to tell the aviator a haven was near. But today the fog had made our haven a mockery.
Above and behind me, the low whine of gears was unbroken as the radar antenna covered an endless circle, looking into the gray world on all sides. This was my work: radar aircraft landing control. I was a ground control approach operator, providing radar guidance for pilots who needed help.
The morning cloud ceiling and visibility had been high enough to allow reconnaissance mission aircraft to leave. But then the weather had worsened, and without an improvement the returning planes would have to be diverted to other airfields with better weather conditions. We were waiting for this return.
The door of the radar unit opened above me and my supervisor stood blinking in the weak light, the headset still clamped over his ears. He glanced skyward and briefly around the field.
“They’re coming back,” he said.
Through the open door I could hear the radio traffic as the pilots called the control tower for weather information. The voices were cut off as the door closed, before starting up the stairs, I turned again to look through the fog at the dim shape of the control tower. From somewhere high above me came the tiny, almost inaudible whisper of a plane’s engine, clear and free in a world of light I could only long for. Then I slowly climbed up the stairs and into the dark interior.
“Take final approach,” my supervisor called as the door closed behind me. Then he cautioned me, “Careful. No second try in this weather.”
Nodding, I sat down at the final approach position and started the check-out procedures to insure that my equipment would be at peak accuracy. A light, nervous feeling began to grow in my stomach as I worked. I had handled aircraft in poor weather before, but never with full confidence. There was always the memory of a mistake to haunt me. Months before, an alert senior controller had stopped a potential tragedy that I had helped to create. I had been working the final approach then too, and the weather at that time had also been bad.
The check-out finished, I sat back in the warm darkness and listened. Through my headset came the questions and instructions from the pilots, as one by one they called in. Finally, only three remained under our control. They were taking a long gamble that a weather forecast for temporary improvement would materialize before their dwindling fuel supplies forced them to leave for other airfields also. Three tiny blips of light on our radar scopes traced an endless oval pattern in the sky. I wondered how it would be to leave the security of those skies for a homecoming of dark clouds far below.
The weather telephone buzzed sharply. It was too early for a regular weather report. It must be a special. I saw my supervisor’s assistant listen, then heard him yell, “Visibility has gone up to one mile, ceiling at 300 feet overcast!” The temporary improvement in weather had materialized at last.
Through the radio I could hear the control tower contacting the first aircraft with the new weather information. Then came a clearance to begin an immediate approach. Soon my supervisor, the search controller, was talking to the pilot.
As if following a well-rehearsed script, the first aircraft came down without problems. But the wind shift was a little unusual. It had to be watched. A range of low hills four miles from the runway sometimes did strange things with the wind. It often fooled controllers who didn’t watch for signs of it.
Ground Control: “Over the approach lights … on course … precision minimum altitude … on glide path … over the overrun … on centerline … end of runway. Take over visually; contact local control, channel 14, when landing complete. Final controller out.”
Pilot: “Roger; thank you. Saw the runway lights at one mile and the runway just under one mile.”
A faint hint of nervousness was heard in the second pilot’s voice. It might mean a slowly dropping visibility.
The voice of my supervisor, the search controller, was loud in order to be heard over the constant noise of the fans. He was now guiding the third aircraft that had left the holding pattern high above us, ten miles from the runway. At that point we literally became his eyes. My attention went to the bright blip, close to the limit of my radar scope.
Ground Control: “Sunset 25, Ground Control Approach final controller, how do you hear?”
Pilot: “Loud and clear, G. 25.”
So it began again. The familiar routine so deeply ingrained that it could be repeated almost without conscious effort. There was no hint that part of me was about to be reshaped in a terrible crucible of fear.
Nine miles from touchdown. Altitude 2,000 feet, heading 210 degrees. Nine of the most dangerous miles in the world for the man on the other end. He would cover the distance between each mile marker on my scope in less than twenty seconds. The earlier feelings of tension and nervousness were nearly gone now, my mind caught up in the moves and counter moves between pilot and ground control.
Ground Control: “Approaching glide path. Gear should be down and locked. Eight miles from touchdown.”
The rapid sweep of the radar moved the small blip forward in tiny jumps, leaving a trail of dimming phosphorescence on the scope face.
Ground Control: “On glide path. Begin descent. Six miles to touchdown.”
With one finger I pressed a small button at my wrist. In response, the tower controller gave a clearance to land and the latest wind information by using a hot line that linked our headsets directly to him.
Ground Control: “Tower has cleared you to land. Wind 260 degrees at 8 knots. On course. Rolling out on glide path.”
A moment later the control tower operator was heard again, this time with a touch of fear in his voice. He reported that the visibility was dropping rapidly, and we were told to stand by for a possible go-around.
A knot began to grow inside my stomach. I spoke to the pilot: “Four and a half miles from touchdown. Turn right, heading 212 degrees. Dropping 25 feet below glide path. Adjust rate of descent. One hundred feet left of course, correcting to the right. Four miles from touchdown.”
My nervousness was slowly increasing with each additional second of delay. A go-around wouldn’t be welcome; there might not be any place to go around to. Then the tower operator was talking to me again. The visibility had gone down to a half mile and cloud ceiling was at 200 feet and dropping. We needed to know the pilot’s intentions.
Ground Control: “Sunset 25, tower reports visibility at one half mile, ceiling 200 feet and dropping. Request your intentions, over.”
There was a moment of fearful stillness as my radio went silent; then—
Pilot: “Roger, GCA. I don’t have the fuel to reach any alternate field now. Can you get me down?”
His words were like an electric shock. I felt myself trembling at the sound of them. All trace of moisture suddenly vanished from my throat. The pilot had placed his safety in my hands, and the thought filled me with terror and desperation. For a moment I sensed a fleeting anger with my fear—anger that I should be in such a situation, anger at the man who was now asking for my help.
Could I get him down? I had heard the older men tell of blind landings. The ball in my stomach threatened to explode upward into my throat. Images were fighting through my mind in wild disorder. I remembered the strange, unreal feeling when we had lost a pilot, and the occasion when an aircraft had slid down the runway trailing smoke and flame, ground-looping wildly. Again, the sound of a pilot’s voice, lost and alone, asked if there was anyone, anywhere, who could hear and help. The edge of panic seemed very close.
I have no idea how much time was lost. In such moments all that a man has within him calls out for strength. Almost as in a dream I found myself speaking again. I was two people: one inside, frightened and shaking; the other outside, quiet, efficient, apparently confident. Perhaps that confidence could jump those last few miles to the stranger in the cockpit. Was he afraid? Fogblind with nothing but a strange voice for company?
Ground Control: “Roger, 25. Can do.”
The wind shift had pushed him far off course in the brief time required for our exchange of information. He was drifting rapidly left, and words began to come like bullets. But was there time?
Ground Control: “Right, heading 218 degrees … bring it over … you’re drifting rapidly left. Right, heading 220 degrees … dropping below glide path. Adjust your descent.”
He began to come back, slowly at first, then more rapidly as the heading changes took effect.
Ground Control: “Careful. Don’t overshoot. Reverse the correction. But not too fast.”
There was a silent but earnest duel between his speed and my ability to guide him. He was approaching the airfield so rapidly that his turn would have to stop precisely on course. If not, he might miss the strip of cement and asphalt that now seemed so terribly small.
All other activity in the radar unit had stopped. Every eye was watching the quarter-inch of moving light that meant an aircraft and a man. It seemed that the blip had become an extension of my own mind and that if I willed hard enough, it would turn and rise and fall as I wished it to.
Ground Control: “One hundred feet left of on course, and one and one-half miles from touchdown. Ten feet below glide path.”
My finger moved to the scope involuntarily, as if to nudge him to safety.
Ground Control: “One mile from touchdown. Left, heading 212 degrees.”
Such a small correction. Two degrees, needing only a fleeting touch against the rudder pedals. Yet it stopped the starboard movement of the aircraft on course, less than ten seconds from touchdown. I nearly shouted in my relief.
Ground Control: “Precision minimum altitude. Now on course … over the approach lights … on glide path … over the overrun … end of runway … take over visually. Final controller out.”
Still wearing the headset, I jumped from the chair, opened the door at my right hand, and looked out toward the runway. The descending whine of turbines approached and passed on the runway, only three hundred feet away. I could not see him—not even the runway lights. Everything was hidden in fog.
Then he was talking to me again. The same quiet, calm voice. Hadn’t he been afraid at all out there?
Pilot: “Thank you, G. Nice to know you’re there when we need you.”
I gave two clicks of the mike in reply. At the moment I couldn’t trust myself to speak. Behind me, my supervisor was talking with the control tower, telling them we would be in our standby quarters if needed. I took the headset from my ears and wiped the moisture where it had rested. The crew was leaving, and my supervisor asked me to shut the equipment down. It took only a few moments. Then I dimmed the lights, opened the door, and felt the cold dusk wash over me.
I stood alone for a moment, hands deep in pockets, listening to the sounds that reached me faintly through the mist. I was drained, but I was at peace.
Now that I had a chance to think quietly, I was sure the pilot had seen the brilliant, high-intensity approach lights on the runway, even in the dense fog. He must have used these lights to guide himself for the last portion of his approach. That would help explain his calm attitude. I hadn’t thought of that during the run, however. The only eyes the pilot had were mine, I felt. But the knowledge that my job wasn’t really so heroic didn’t lessen the buoyant feeling that had lifted me beyond my earlier despair.
In the months and years that have followed, those painfully frightening few moments have come to assume deep importance for me. I have become aware of my relationship to much that is around me. In large measure, I owe this to a pilot-stranger whose name is unknown.
The lesson was twofold. First, we are repeatedly tried by the temptation to be less than what we have the power to be, and we must overcome that temptation with whatever strength God puts at our disposal.
Second, in the pilot’s quiet words—“to know you’re there”—came the burning reaffirmation of the heart of Christian philosophy and my own Latter-day Saint heritage: a man finds fulfillment when time, talent, and concern are devoted to the welfare of others, when he loses himself in service that brings security, identity, and love to other souls. This kind of service is not prying or commanding, nor is it remaining sanctimoniously remote from the living and doing that is real life.
Rather, it is the quiet, but firm, assurance that communicates itself from heart to heart as surely as any spoken word. “Here I am. I care. Take my strength. Perhaps together we can find what one alone has failed to see.”
For the unknown pilot, perhaps, it was just another approach and landing in circumstances a little more difficult than normal. But for me, landing that pilot meant a newness of life. For me, the cold, lowering fog lifted the moment I began guiding my pilot through those few, foreboding, dark gray miles of mist to safety.