Proficient Pilot

A different approach

August 3, 2009

One challenging aspect of being an instrument instructor is teaching instrument approaches. In major metropolitan areas, the CFII must cope with busy controllers, clearance delays, and so much VFR traffic that it can be impossible to complete an instrument approach (and the missed approach) because of VFR traffic in the pattern.

When flying in rural areas, there often is a limited selection of available approaches and sometimes only one. This can necessitate cross-country flights to get to other airports with approaches. Many pilots become proficient in shooting only those few approaches within a relatively short distance of their home airports, leading to false confidence because they have not had the opportunity to experience a wide variety of approach procedures.

This led me years ago to develop a procedure that I would like to share. It allows an instructor to teach an almost unlimited variety of nonprecision (VOR, VOR/DME, NDB, and localizer) approaches without ever leaving the local area and without having to work within the constraints and time delays often imposed by air traffic control.

The typical VOR approach, for example, incorporates only one VOR station. It therefore is possible to use a local VOR as if it were one that is distantly located. The other day, for example, I asked an instrument student to practice the Santa Monica VOR-A approach while using the Camarillo VOR. All he had to do was follow the dictates of the Santa Monica approach plate while using the Camarillo VOR as if it were the Santa Monica VOR. Want to execute a VOR approach in Kansas when flying in Louisiana? No problem.

There is one obvious problem with doing this, but it is a blessing in disguise. There likely will not be a runway at the end of the final approach course. The student, therefore, knows that he will have to execute the published missed approach and spend time reviewing it before executing every such approach, a habit that many of us need to develop further. (Missed approaches too often come as a surprise at a time when a pilot should be as prepared for the miss as he is for the approach itself.)

Another problem easily solved is that of altitude management. Assume, for example, that a Denver-based pilot wants to practice a San Diego approach using the Cheyenne, Wyoming, VOR. There is no way to cross Cheyenne at a final-approach-fix altitude of 2,000 feet, for example, because the station itself is a mile above sea level. No problem. Simply add some convenient altitude to every altitude (including minimum descent altitudes) shown on the San Diego approach plate and then use those altitudes in conjunction with the Cheyenne VOR. Be careful, though, to determine in advance that the procedure and altitudes to be flown will not cause the airplane to violate airspace restrictions; remain safely above all Class D airspace, for example.

Nonprecision GPS approaches obviously can be used only at the locations for which they are designated. Altitudes, however, can be increased so that these approaches can be practiced without having to mingle and conflict with VFR flights in the traffic pattern.

Using local VORs to execute distant approaches allows the CFI to surprise his student with a variety of unfamiliar approaches to see how well he can prepare for them while airborne. Having to study a procedure while en route to an airport is excellent training for the real world of instrument flight. It too often overwhelms pilots to have to deviate to an alternate airport and then execute an approach for which they have not had an opportunity to study in advance.

Many airports have ILS approaches but do not have published back-course approaches. Consequently, many pilots have never had a chance to practice one and either do not know or recall how to set up the avionics for such an approach. Every localizer, of course, has a back course, so a clever instructor can create his own back-course approach for his students’ use. After all, a back course has the same characteristics at 5,000 feet as it does at sea level. Just be sure that the altitudes selected for the approach are sufficiently high as to avoid conflict with those who might be using the front course of the ILS or be in the traffic pattern of the ILS-served airport.

When an instructor elects to use a local navaid as the nucleus for a distant approach procedure, he has the option of presenting his student with any of thousands of approaches from around the world. Want to exercise your wanderlust and shoot an approach to Zamboanga or Addis Ababa? No problem.

Years ago I used to challenge my students with the Schiff-1 instrument approach. It was the final step before recommending them for the practical examination for an instrument rating. It also was a sadistic procedure that utilized four different navaids and required significant maneuvering (because of fictitious terrain), but I was confident that anyone who could satisfactorily complete that approach could execute an approach anywhere.

Instrument pilots without instructors also can take advantage of this procedure to practice a variety of instrument approaches. Be certain, though, to have a safety pilot aboard.

Barry Schiff was awarded the Louis Blériot Air Medal in 1969 and a Congressional Commendation in 1975. Visit the author’s Web site (