A hands-on approach refers to landing aboard a battlestar under the pilot's full manual control, i.e. all flight control inputs come from the pilot, not from any automated system. This is a very difficult skill, requiring much practice to master.
At the time of the surprise Cylon Attack, complacency allows battlestars to routinely use computerized auto-landing systems to network with a ship's controls and guide it into the flightpods. On Galactica, William Adama's orders make hands-on approach the only accepted landing procedure. The uniqueness of this policy is evident from Lee "Apollo" Adama's confusion when he is instructed to land his Viper Mk VII manually (TRS: Miniseries).
Commander Adama has banned the use of auto-landing systems aboard Galactica because it would expose the computers to vulnerabilities exploited by the Cylons in the first war (such as viruses), part of his no-networked-computers policy to protect against future Cylon attacks.
- LSO: "Viper seven niner one / Galactica, you are cleared for approach ... Speed one seven five, port bay, hands-on approach, checkers green, call the ball."
- Pilot: "Copy. I have the ball."
- The "ball" refers to the arrangement of crossed navigational lights at the lip of the landing bay, and/or the visual cue on a cockpit display (as seen in Kat's Viper in "Act of Contrition"). The pilot would use this to adjust his/her glideslope for a proper approach into the flight pod. The phrase "I have the ball" informs the LSO that the pilot has acquired this visual cue and is beginning the final approach.