There are plenty of flaws in the airline industry. Here is a major one. At one time, many years ago, 80% of all fatal accidents were CFIT = Controlled Flight Into Terrain. Perfectly healthy aircraft crashed, most often blamed on pilot error. 80% of those 80% hit the ground during approach between 2 and 20 nautical miles from a runway on an airport without adequate landing systems. A rather drastic 64% of all fatal accident was thus caused by a lack of investment in the area of 100.000 USD for a precision landing system called ILS. The unfortunate aircraft had no vertical guidance, hence the premature ground contact, in an area before reaching the runway not suitable for airplanes with their extremely limited off-road capabilities.
An airport without ILS can only offer an approach, for which the industry has a scary name; non-precision approach. At least it would probably scare passengers to hear ”Ladies and gentlemen, today we are going to make an approach without precision, but don’t worry. It most often works ok”. The fact that most aircraft makes it all the way to the runway makes it all the more natural to blame the unfortunates ones on pilot error.
An ILS system, not surprisingly called a precision approach system, is a simple construction on ground, emitting 2 signals, possible for the aircraft instrument to pick up. One is for lateral guidance along the runway centerline and the other is for vertical guidance along a glidepath, i.e. a descent profile normally 3 degrees, bringing anyone who follows that guidance in over the beginning of the runway at 50 feet. In the cockpit you can follow this guidance by the indications in the instruments and also hook up the autopilot to the same guidance, enabling modern aircraft to also perform a fully automatic, perfect, landing.
The latest pilot error occurred now on the 28:th of september where a 737-800 touched down in the water short of the runway in Micronesia, while performing a – you guessed it – non precision approach. Fortunately everybody survived. One cannot stop wondering why ICAO has not prohibited non-presicion-approahes 40 years ago. It cannot be because ot money, since this latest hull loss alone would have paid for an estimated 500 – 600 ILS installations. The reason is something else, and since we can’t afford to be sued, we won’t speculate.
On an optimistic note, the industry is trying to address this problem on their own, and the latest generation of airplanes are able to generate a glideslope in their onboard navigation system, thus being self-contained guidance wise. There are however thousands of older planes still out there, and hundreds of airports happily providing the same guidance the Flying Fortresses had coming back to England during WW2. Consequently there will be more accidents that could have been avoided by some clever decision making, and when the next happens we’ll discuss this some more.