Waypoints: Probability of success

September 1, 2013

Thomas B. Haines“Decision height,” I said out loud, as the altimeter pointer passed through 700 feet msl and just as the voice in the right seat shouted, “Go around!”

I may have said something else out loud—or at least under my breath—as I advanced the throttle, pitched up, and began a climb while cleaning up the airplane. However, what I noticed was that the altimeter continued trending downward for a precious few seconds before staggering upward again. From under the hood, I glanced out the side window at the ground coming up quickly.

During the debrief after that instrument proficiency flight the instructor noted what I already knew: I had not been aggressive enough in advancing the throttle and pitching up. Within 200 feet of the ground in the clag is not a time to baby the engine and dally around. Arresting the sink rate and starting a climb—while maintaining directional control, of course—is critical at that moment when, at a typical glideslope descent rate of about 600 feet per minute you’ll impact the ground in less than 20 seconds.

Given the infrequency with which most pilots face an actual missed approach, it’s no wonder that the muscle memory for the correct actions is weak when needed most.

The incident got me thinking about other critical moments in flight that we don’t get to practice much and yet that which require near-perfect execution in the heat of the moment. Joe Davis, an Atlanta-based contract business jet pilot and CFII who specializes in Cirrus checkouts and recurrency, sees this routinely in his clients and encourages them to focus attention on what he calls low-probability events, some of which also carry high risk. His list of such activities includes missed approaches/go-arounds; holds; full-procedure approaches; lost communications; emergency procedures with memory items; and GPS navigation failure.

Davis urges his clients to think about currency less in terms of “how often have I flown lately,” and more in terms of “how ready am I to perform the tasks that may be necessary for me to fly safely.”

As Davis notes, a missed approach in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) is a low-probability but high-risk event. Too often, students practice such events with the view that it will rarely happen in their day-to-day flying, rather than respecting the risk of such a maneuver and the skills necessary to safely execute it.

He makes a good point, and not just about missed approaches. Really, when was the last time you thought through both the regulations and what you would do in the case of lost communications while in IMC? Were a GPS outage to occur as you progressed along your flight, could you confidently report your position to ATC at any moment? Smoke in the cockpit—what are the next three things you would do?

Particularly in instrument flying, we talk a lot about situational awareness (SA), but usually that discussion pertains to such subjects as where we are with respect to a chosen course, fix, navaid, weather, other traffic, or airspace type. Today’s glass cockpits provide nearly boundless amounts of SA. But there’s another aspect to SA and that is our awareness of and readiness for the next situation that might occur—the need for a missed approach or go-around, the failure of the electrical system, or even a demand from ATC that we immediately enter a hold because of some traffic back-up just ahead. Does the issuance of holding instructions strike fear in your heart or simply cause you to calmly write down the necessary information?

Throw weather, turbulence, and concerned passengers into the mix and especially in a single-pilot situation, a simple instruction to enter a hold can lead to task saturation. I’ve been in single-pilot jet-simulator sessions where pilots have become so focused on solving a problem that they never hear the blaring of the master caution horn. How many pilots have landed gear up, with the gear horn blaring all the way down final, because they are fixated on looking for conflicting traffic or solving some distracting system problem?

As this is written less than a week after the San Francisco crash of Asiana Flight 214, I can’t help but wonder what sort of loss of situational awareness or task saturation occurred that caused the four professional pilots on board the Boeing 777 not to notice until too late their slowing approach speed and low altitude.

CFII Davis encourages every one of his clients to conduct an honest self-evaluation of their readiness to handle such low-probability situations should they occur on the next flight.

Good advice.

Email thomas.haines@aopa.org

Editor in Chief Tom Haines is busy learning all of the new situational awareness tools in his newly upgraded airplane. Stay tuned. Hear him speak about panel upgrades at AOPA Summit.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.