July 1, 1990
Richard L. Collins
Every pilot needs VFR recurrent training. In fact, pilots who profess to fly IFR "all the time" are as much or more in need of a good VFR workout as pilots who don't fly a lot, but who do all their flying VFR. In the great discussion on aircraft aging, the term "cycles" is often mentioned as a measure of aircraft wear. That is how many times the airplane has been started and flown. The term might be applied to VFR currency as well. On an IFR flight, one cycle might last for four hours. On a VFR flight, it might last for 10 minutes. Each is a cycle-- the point being that many of the things that challenge our VFR flying skills happen in each cycle.
What might we do to wring out those VFR skills on a relatively frequent basis, to stay current on them whether flying 500 EFR hours a year or 25 hours a year VFR, 30 minutes every weekend?
First, there is a difference between a VFR and an IFR brushup. It is accepted practice and perfectly legal to practice instrument flying under a hood with an appropriately rated safety pilot. If a pilot is realistic, he can do a good critique of himself. On a VFR brushup, though, it isn't simulated staff-it is the real thing. If you are rusty an short-field or crosswind landings, for example, you need to do the real dung and likely need the guidance of a Rot instructor for the brushup. There is a long history of problem with two pilots, neither strongly current, getting with the nitty-gritty. Don't do your VFR refresher with a buddy, do it with an instructor.
From a technique standpoint, the accident record shows the approach and landing to be the area of weakest VFR skills. All problems with landings aren't poor technique on touchdown, either. Poor approaches can lead to late go-arounds and, on small fields, to quite serious problems.
Many of us fly mostly from airports with runways of generous size. If we don't want to limit destinations to big airports, a first place to go on a brushup flight with an instructor might be to a smaller airport. You can practice short-field landings and turnoffs at the first intersection at a big airport all you like, but it lacks the realism of coming in over the trees and landing on a narrow and relatively short runway.
The technique on an approach to a runway of limited length is simple. Airspeed and approach slope control have to be precise, exact, right on the money. If the approach speed for a short-field landing in the pilot's operating handbook is 60 knots, that has to be the approach speed. No more and no less.
The greatest technique flaw here is usually a tendency to "chase" the airspeed indication. Given the task of flying a precise speed, a pilot not current on the chore will tend to, if fast, pull back on the control wheel until the airspeed is on the desired value. Then the airspeed continues its trend and gets too low. The next action is to push forward until it is on 60. Then the airspeed gets too high. The result is varying airspeed all the way in. If it happens to be low when time to flare comes, a hard landing might be the result. If it is too fast, the landing will be long.
The current pilot flies attitude on approach, making slight adjustments in pitch attitude and power to keep the airplane on the desired approach slope and at the correct speed. Given no wind shear being current means being able to set up for the approach and not make a perceptible pitch attitude or power change until the flare. Maybe small changes, but nothing a passenger would notice. This has special meaning for the IFR pilot practicing VFR procedures because one of the greater challenges is in making the decision that a normal landing can be made on a minimum-length runway after breaking out of clouds at the last minute. The decision has to be based on the ability to fly some sharp VFR right at the last You might manage those gauges like an ace, but you have to do the basic part with equal excellence.
An almost forgotten, procedure among many pilots is the power-off approach and landing. Back in the bad old days when engines were less reliable than they are today, power-off forced landings and spot landings were big things to practice. Engines have become mot reliable, but we do need to maintain the ability to accurately land single-engine airplanes without the benefit of power. A lot of pilots will complain that they don't want to cool the engine as quickly as it cools on a power-off approach. There is a solution to this. Practice spot landings in a trainer, one that is built for this. It is maintaining the ability to judge the progress of a glide that counts. The airline pilot who made a spot landing in a Boeing 767 after fuel exhaustion had hardly practiced a lot in that airplane. But he was an accomplished sailplane pilot, so he was quite current on power-off landings. What worked in a sailplane apparently worked in a Boeing.
Sharpening up on these two styles of approaches and landings, short field and power off, will help all your landings by illustrating how much easier it is to land if the airplane is always at the same pitch attitude and speed when the actual landing process starts.
Add a strong surface wind, preferably across the runway, for more sharpening of the skills. Here you, might say that it will be impossible to make the approach without any perceptible power or attitude changes. You are probably right, but this doesn't mean that it takes gross changes to handle other than the most severe wind shear.
On a gusty day, there will always be shear-that's what gusts are all about. changes in wind direction and velocity. (When wind speed increases in a gust, it veers, shifts clockwise, but terrain features or obstructions upwind of a runway can affect this.) The proof of currency is how smoothly a pilot handles gusty conditions. Some practically wear out the control surface hinges and make humongous and abrupt pitch and power changes; others make it look relatively easy. It isn't possible to quantify a short-field crosswind landing on a gusty day, but if pitch attitude and power changes are excessive, airspeed excursions are all over the lot, and if arrival over the threshold isn't at an acceptable height, attitude, and airspeed, it's an indication of a lack of currency. You do have to learn to boogie with the wind;- the airplane likes it better when you do it smoothly. The pilots who have the most trouble with wind are the ones who try to avoid it but have to face it in an unforecast condition.
What we have done to this point addresses another important am of VFR currency. Loss of control at low altitude, commonly called the stall/spin scenario, is a substantial problem. It is avoided by pure technique, and while we should practice stalls at altitude to examine the characteristics of the airplane and to learn recovery techniques, if you stall one at low altitude, those recovery techniques may or may not work. The saving technique thus becomes the ability to control the angle of attack of the wing not to do or recover from stalls. The simple fact is that the wing won't stall until it reaches an angle of attack of about 16 to 18 degrees on the average light airplane. Angle of attack is controlled with a combination of attitude control and power, or just attitude control when there is no power. A good place to test this ability is in the follow-on to an unsuccessful short-field landing-a go-around at the last minute. Good technique would suggest that the decision to go around be made early, but the best practice comes from a go-around that begins right before the flare. It requires precise attitude control as the flaps are retracted and the airplane is climbed at the best-angle-of-climb speed. Certainly a pilot who can do power-on short-field landings, power-off approaches, and go-arounds while keeping the airspeed at or within 10 knots above the target airspeed on a wild and gusty day is current on angle-of-attack control.
Low-altitude turns are where a lot of the stall/spin events originate. Certainly, you don't want to go out and practice stalls in turns at low altitude, so this is one that has to be examined at altitude. Perhaps the key is in being able to recognize a situation where excessive back pressure is being held on the elevator control slowing the airplane below the speed for which it is trimmed, with the ball not centered. it is heresy in some quarters to say this, but to allow a poorly executed turn to develop into a departure from controlled flight is a good thing to examine now and then. Because such could develop into a spin, all the applicable regulations for spins should be followed.
Weather accidents plague VFR pilots but this is not a technique area and can't be addressed in a brushup flight with an instructor. The best practice comes before each flight, when you question whether the weather is really good enough to fly. Once enroute, your task is to evaluate the weather and make a conservative judgment on continuing.
Night is a time of challenge for VFR flying, and while night problems are usually related to weather, some pattern work and landing practice with an instructor should be done occasionally to make certain those night approach and landing skills remain well-honed. For best value, don't do this at home base. Instead, go to an airport with a different runway length/width ratio, preferably one with minimum runway lighting, and shoot some landings.
All this can be done on a biennial flight review. For best results, though, we should seek out the things, the VFR or IFR procedures, that we don't do very often and give them a whirl more frequently. There are some other fun things to do VFR that help your basic skills. One in particular is seaplane flying, especially in a seaplane that isn't endowed with a lot of power. There is something about coaxing a Cub on floats out of the water that teaches more about precise attitude control than anything else. Water landings do a lot for land landings because the judgment of height is more demanding, and there are no tires and shocks to absorb the hit, so you work very hard at judging altitude and sliding it smoothly onto the surface. Flying a sailplane does wonders for your glide control and makes you feel a lot better about your ability to fly the airplane to a desired location sans power.
And then spend a while hovering in a helicopter. You will see your ability to judge height, practically to the inch, improve markedly.
Much is made of instrument flying, which is really procedural flying, that is best done in an almost mechanical manner. There is a lot there, and it can be quite demanding. The most demanding part, though, can be the VFR part of an IFR flight, such as on a circling approach at minimums. If you aren't a sharp VFR pilot, you had best stick to straight-in ILS approaches.
A lot of things in flying have changed since December 17, 1903, but meeting the basic challenge remains: We must be able to fly an airplane well based on what we see outside, what we feel, and our sense of how the airplane is moving through the air and its relationship to the ground.
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