Proficient Pilot

A different approach

August 1, 2007

In 1956, author Barry Schiff was working his way through college as a flight instructor.

At a recent pilot meeting at Castle Airport near Merced, California, a local instrument instructor lamented that airspace and traffic issues frequently prevented him from having his students practice back-course and other instrument approach procedures.

This complaint reminded me of a technique that I developed several years ago, one that allows an instrument pilot to practice non-precision approaches in flight without having to be concerned about arriving and departing traffic. You can even shoot a VOR approach to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, or a localizer approach to Mumbai, India, without having to go there. Such distant approaches might be romantically appealing, but I am not suggesting these exotic approaches to yield to a pilot's wanderlust. Rather, my intent is to add some variety to instrument training while at the same time offering a way to practice non-precision approaches that might otherwise be geographically undesirable.

It might be surprising to some, but many consider non-precision approaches to be more difficult to execute and master than ILS approaches. This is because most ILS approaches are essentially the same. Once a pilot learns to keep the needles centered, he is just as capable of sliding down the slot at Hong Kong as he is of doing the same at home.

Non-precision approaches are not so identical; each has a unique personality and incorporates procedures that differentiate one from another. Unfortunately, however, the average pilot usually gets to practice only non-precision approaches at or near his home airport. But there is a solution to this problem as well as the one expressed by the instructor at Castle Airport. It is a different approach to non-precision approaches.

Do you want to execute a back-course approach to a runway when traffic is arriving and departing in the opposite direction? No problem. All you have to do is add 3,000 feet (or other appropriate number of feet) to every altitude shown on the approach plate. You then follow the dictates of the approach procedure using these new higher altitudes, altitudes that generally will keep you safely above airport traffic and free of conflict.

The same technique can be used to practice almost any non-precision approach as long as you are not operating in Class B or Class C airspace and the procedure does not place you in conflict with other flight restrictions.

The typical VOR or VOR/DME approach utilizes only one vortac. Any local station, therefore, can be used as if it were distantly located. For example, a pilot living in Bakersfield, California, can use nearby Shafter Vortac to practice the VOR/DME approach to Runway 27 at the Kansas City International Airport instead of having to fly all the way to Missouri. The altitudes, of course, would have to be tailored to keep the aircraft safely above the Class D airspace at Bakersfield.

Those who want to practice an NDB approach (using the ADF receiver) to some distant airport can do so using a local commercial broadcast station as the basis for the approach. This overcomes the scarcity of NDBs in many parts of the country.

When training advanced pilots in the Los Angeles area I occasionally have them tune in KMPC on the AM dial and pretend it is the Targy NDB at West Yellowstone, Montana. The beauty of this approach is that the altitudes shown on the approach plate do not have to be changed. The actual MDA (minimum descent altitude) is 8,000 feet msl, well above the Class C airspace associated with the airports at Burbank and Van Nuys, California. While these pilots struggle to track an outbound bearing under the influence of a crosswind, I sit back, relax, and listen to the radio.

There is one obvious problem with these customized approaches. The airplane either will be too high to descend safely to a landing from the higher MDA and prior to reaching the MAP (missed approach point), or there might not be a nearby airport at all. This disadvantage can be used to advantage. The pilot can do what he is supposed to do prior to executing any instrument approach, and that is to prepare for the missed approach. During any approach — real or practice — he should be as prepared for the miss as he is for the approach itself.

More often than not, those practicing instrument approaches at busy airports are not allowed to practice associated missed approaches because of traffic conflicts. Shooting approaches and missed approaches at altitude eliminates this problem.

A creative instrument instructor can take this inventive approach procedure one step farther and use local radio aids to develop his own custom approaches to points in space (approaches that do not terminate with a visual approach to landing). In this way, he can ensure that his students have an opportunity to practice specific procedures that might not be available when practicing local approaches. For example, he could develop a VOR/DME approach with a long final approach incorporating numerous step-down fixes. Or perhaps he might develop a missed approach beginning with a climbing, teardrop return to the final-approach fix and terminating with a parallel or teardrop entry into a holding pattern.

Using a little imagination, an instrument instructor can develop his own approaches, or he can direct his students to practice instrument approaches to almost any airport in the world without ever leaving the local practice area.