IFR Fix: Beyond the zone

March 9, 2012

IFR Fix

Obviously, something had clicked.

The instrument pilot had the VOR approach nailed. The course deviation indicator stood perfectly centered as the aircraft neared the vortac inbound. Capturing the course so efficiently and correcting for the known wind freed the pilot to make a small altitude correction and give the approach plate a look in preparation for the final descent.

Wham. Station passage.

Not with the usual windshield-wiper antics of the CDI and an interval of irresolute to/from indications while the aircraft overflew the so-called zone of confusion.

This was a good hit.

A real bull’s-eye, beautiful to behold.

Too bad the pilot didn’t behold it.

Expecting the customarily bizarre behavior of the VOR receiver that manifests as an aircraft approaches a navaid slightly displaced, it took a few seconds for the pilot to sense that something was different—one of those “OK, what am I forgetting?” moments.

That too was a great thing to behold. Clearly, a new situational awareness was sounding the alarm just below consciousness, saving the approach. That’s a kind of mental redundancy we don’t give much credit—that gut feeling pilots acquire that can save a minor mess from morphing into major misery.

Something clicked. You see it all the time.

Sheer effort can make it happen, but so can walking away from a problem temporarily when you realize that a mighty effort to break a logjam has produced nothing more than anxiety, or an over-engineered solution.

Consider the task of flying a localizer back-course approach. For many pilots, the unintuitive guidance to “flying away from the needle” is a big distraction.

One of the local high-timers offered a better way: “Instead of putting the ball over the needle, you put the needle over the ball.” After that, pilots found that tackling our local back-course approach was a novelty, not a nightmare.

Time moved along, and like many oddball instrument approach procedures, that LOC/DME BC approach is gone, replaced by an uncomplicated GPS procedure.

Sentimentalists may enjoy knowing that one artifact has survived as the era of radials and reciprocals, erratic VOR station passages, and intentionally backward localizer courses rapidly recedes: The name of the new approach’s final approach waypoint remains TABUU.

There will be life beyond the zone of confusion, and it clicks.