There are lists of airports identified as emergency landing locations, many on the east coast. Some are military, some are public airports.

Has anyone ever seen procedures on how this would be handled? It doesn't appear these airports were on any sort of alert, not like the trans Atlantic aboard locations that had technicians, medical and rescue personnel on standby.

I'm most wondering about the PAPI systems at these airports (the red and white lights that indicate the proper glide slope). Nearly all airports have their PAPI systems set to 3º, but the shuttle comes in at 20º. Would these just be ignored? Were there provisions for quickly changing the glideslope? Would the orbiters have been able to use the ILS at these airports?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And once landed,how the heck would they get it loaded onto a 747 to fly back? That one I know the answer. They had a special version of the Mate-Demate device that was 'portable' in the sense it could be moved. But it would not be easy. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ They did this once at White Sands for STS-3 $\endgroup$
    – rtphokie
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ There's an excellent novel called 'Shuttle Down' by Lee Correy (pen-name for G. Harry Stine) about a Shuttle launched from Vandenberg which suffers an engine failure and has to make an emergency landing on Easter Island. It covers in detail the logistics of getting the Orbiter off the island, not to mention the political fallout. $\endgroup$
    – GordonD
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ "Rapa Nui (Easter Island; Isla de Pascua), a selection forced by the lack of other usable islands in far eastern Polynesia" is discussed in How would the space shuttle have been retrieved following a TAL out of Vandenberg? and "Shuttle Down" is mentioned in comments there. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Dec 25, 2022 at 2:21

2 Answers 2


This is admittedly a partial answer; it was originally inspired by GandalfDDI's link of JSC-48029 in their answer. That document notably calls out whether or not selected airfields have PAPI lighting, "BALL BAR" lighting, and MLS (not ILS! see further on). Many have none of the above.

JSC-23266 - Approach, Landing and Rollout Flight Procedures Handbook - Rev B 2005 05 (also on GandalfDDI's site! thanks!) doesn't seem to consider the PAPI-less case, and takes it as a given that the PAPI lights are adjusted for the 20-degree Outer Glide Slope. See e.g. section "On the OGS", where

If MLS data is incorporated, navigation, and therefore guidance, is very accurate. The HUD guidance diamond is the primary flight reference with the PAPI lights as a cross check. The PAPI's are true information but with MLS, the guidance diamond (or needles) provides a simple method of smoothly tracking the OGS and the extended runway centerline. ... Of course, there are two red and two white PAPI's for a 20° glide slope, or three red and one white PAPI for an 18° glide slope.

When MLS data is not available or not incorporated, navigation and guidance information is only as accurate as the TACAN system. This level of accuracy is adequate for flight around the HAC, but is generally not sufficient to precisely track the OGS. Therefore, the PAPI's are used as the primary glideslope reference and the overall visual scene is used to determine lineup errors.

Of some additional interest in this document are appendice tables A-I and A-II. A-I is a list of "Space Shuttle Approved Landing Sites" (with a redirect to the document that will be the most current list); A-II is a much shorter list, flight-specific example list of sites noting which have PAPIs, etc (e.g. Edwards runways 33 and 18L do not for the STS-114 example--interestingly, JSC-48029's Edwards AFB section specifically calls out that "PAPI and Ball Bar lights can be moved with 24-hours notice and will be configured to meet mission requirements").

So there's at least an acknowledgment that the lights are angled for the Shuttle glideslope. Per the 1991 revision of JSC-48029 above, not all the alternate fields had PAPI lights (e.g. Amberly, Australia, the alphabetically-first ELS listed, is marked no PAPI, no Ball/Bar, no MLS). If they were available, adjusting a PAPI light doesn't seem particularly hard; from the Flightlight PAPI Manual:

For each 1/4 turn executed on the nut on one side, turn the nut on the other side 1/4 turn in the opposite direction. This will keep the lens center at the same elevation at all times during adjustment. Recheck both points. Position the proper aiming block on the edge of the light box for vertical alignment. Place the spirit level on the aiming block. Adjust the both rear adjustment jacks to bring the spirit level to center. Next, tighten the bolts holding the pivots. These are accessible underneath the unit at the forward corners. Tighten all nuts securely. Recheck the horizontal adjustment and adjust as required. Recheck the vertical adjustment, then tighten all nuts on the new pivot. Last, place the level on top of the tilt switch. Adjust the tilt switch until the spirit level is centered. Tighten the bolts to hold the tilt switch secure. Replace the cover on the light box assembly.

Presumably if you had been voluntold that your PAPI-equipped airfield was now a Shuttle alternate airfield, provisions to aim the PAPI lights for the steeper glideslope could have been made (including ensuring the jacks could be adjusted that far, having an appropriate aiming block, etc). But maybe, since Amberly, Australia 15/33 does have PAPI lights (though did it when that copy of JSC-48029 was released in 1991?) maybe normally-angled PAPI lights are simply listed as "PAPI: no" for Space Shuttle purposes.

ILS is a different story. Per NASA SP-504: Space Shuttle Avionics System, Section 3-07:

The predominant navigation aids in place at the time for the final approach and landing phase were the FAA ILS and the USAF ground-controlled approach (GCA) system; however, both the performance and the coverage provided by these systems were deemed inadequate for the type of approach to be flown by the Space Shuttle. The FAA was considering an upgrade to a precision microwave landing system, but no firm schedule existed. Precision microwave systems also under development by DOD would meet Space Shuttle performance and coverage requirements, and a variation of one of these was chosen, again modified to interface with the DPS. Triple redundancy was considered sufficient for this system also, both because of the short exposure and because the pilot could take over visually under most expected conditions.

So Shuttle ended up with a nearly-bespoke system, the Microwave Scanning Beam Landing System, and so did some of the airports it could land at, including Edwards, Dryden, the Shuttle Landing Facility, and the alternates in Spain and Morocco. Searching that copy of JSC-48029 is difficult but I've found at least one other MLS airfield, Yundum International in Banjul, Gambia (BYD). Elsewhere I've seen these referred to as "augmented landing sites."

In summary:

  • I don't think I've been able to answer what I think of as your main question, i.e. would glideslope indications be adjusted for the Space Shuttle orbiter during an emergency landing, just confirmed that specially-pointed PAPIs were available
  • Shuttle didn't use ILS, it used a different system, so ILS adjustment is moot.
  • Not all the Emergency Landing sites have the lighting; for example, Amberly, Australia
  • $\begingroup$ The shuttle Flight Rules archive.org/download/flight_rules_generic/… discuss which landing aids were considered "required" on page 3-39+ Not my wheelhouse, but they really, really wanted MLS. If I'm reading it right, in daylight, if you had MLS and the HUD, the PAPIs were not required. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 2:33
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble per A3-203 (pg 3-40), "If MLS is not available, then either the PAPI lights or aimpoint are mandatory (PAPI lights preferred). ... PAPI lights are mandatory for night landings or landings without the CDR HUD to help offset the loss of visual cues and references and the degraded ability to compensate for navigation errors." So I guess you could use Amberly as your ELS if you have the CDR HUD, they have aimpoint lights (which is unclear to me), and it's daytime? Plus the WX constraints from A2-6 in "Flight Operations" (pdf page 495, eww the page numbering in this doc)? $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 2:58
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know if that paragraph even applies to ELS. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 3:20
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    $\begingroup$ Emergencies do tend to have different rules. You'd imagine they'd try to land someplace with all the things that could help them possible, but I guess there was a scenario where you just had to go to Australia for some reason $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 5:10

All my Shuttle Documentation: https://gandalfddi.z19.web.core.windows.net/shuttle.html

See the JSC-48029 Rev B - Flight Data File - Flight Maps and Charts - 19910828.pdf: https://gandalfddi.z19.web.core.windows.net/Shuttle/JSC-48029%20Rev%20B%20-%20Flight%20Data%20File%20-%20Flight%20Maps%20and%20Charts%20-%2019910828.pdf

This document has all the landing sites all over the world. Some of these sites may not be ... optimal ... but each sites has notes about what to expect and what runway is optimum for use. See page 20 for the discussion on PAPI. I am not a pilot, I assume this document provides MUCH more information to a pilot.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think there's an answer to the question here yet. I looked at page 20 and there's no discussion on the PAPI, it's just an indication that the following charts will mention if PAPI lighting exists at each landing site. $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 5:57

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