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November 4, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
“Breaking out” is the climactic moment on an instrument approach. Descending to minimums, there will be either a landing or a missed approach in your immediate future. Which is it going to be?
In the real world of instrument approaches this moment and the flying that delivers you to it doesn’t much resemble the way inside-the-final-approach-fix flying scenarios are presented in training under simulated instrument conditions. In those cases, the pilot typically descends to minimums, removes the view-limiting device, and lands or misses. Or for variety, the view-limiting device stays on and the miss begins.
Actual approaches in low weather are more dynamic. Multiple layers, or breaks in the undercast, can pull you off the gauges and spoil a stabilized descent. If you then have to go back on instruments, there’s little time to correct deviations. (That’s also a reason not to cancel your IFR clearance until you’re down.)
There’s also the risk of spatial disorientation induced by abrupt head movements or from finding yourself in an unusual attitude.
Weather is 500 overcast and a mile visibility as you begin a hand-flown ILS approach with minimums of a 200-foot ceiling and a half-mile visibility. When will you begin looking for the runway environment?
Decide before you start down. Then stick to your plan. A good policy for new instrument pilots is to remain on the gauges until it’s time to either land or miss. Whether you opt to go visual at published minimums or at a higher personal minimum that builds in more margin depends on your own proficiency and comfort.
When to transition to visual references may also depend on who else is aboard. A qualified pilot, or an informed passenger, can be employed for runway-spotting duties. Brief your passenger to make sure that he doesn’t call the runway in sight too soon, and that he observes sterile cockpit procedures until you are safely on the ramp.
Keep the first step of the missed approach procedure in mind in case the view outside at your minimums is disappointing. If it’s a miss, stop the descent immediately.
Approaches in tricky weather are challenging enough without your straining to glimpse an airport that may or may not appear. Save the effort for when it promises the best chance of success.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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