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Approaching the Approach

Setting up properly is the key to success

Excuses, excuses. It was night and the cockpit lighting of the single- engine aircraft was poor. The pilot forgot to get his flashlight out of the flight bag, and — once airborne — it was too difficult to reach. The approach was familiar and was memorized, so why bother reading it in the dim light? No matter how good the excuses, the pilot still pulled out an approach plate for a town spelled nearly the same — but located in the next state — and flew it...twice. Fortunately, it was an instructional flight. Unfortunately, it was an instrument competency check, and the pilot was invited to come back when he was better prepared.

How do you prepare for the approach? Do you have a system, or did you learn one during training and forget it? As you will see, there is no standardized way to set up a cockpit for an instrument approach. The best one for you is the one that works. If it's time for you to get a new system or get your first one, here are some possibilities.


National Flight Instructor of the Year Lyn Carlson teaches the mnemonic device Aharmmms to set up for the approach. It was developed for use by Sunrise Aviation students at John Wayne Airport/Orange County in Santa Ana, California, where she is the chief flight instructor and co-owner. It stands for ATIS, heading (final course, and check the directional gyro for precession), altitude outside the final approach fix (to determine whether you will be given a descent, or will intercept the glideslope from below), radios, marker beacons, minimums (altitude and visibility), missed approach procedures (where is the missed approach point, and what does the pilot do?), and slow (to final approach speed).


Students at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, use an approach checklist called WIRE, which stands for weather, instruments, radios, and environment. Weather refers to altimeter setting, winds, ceiling, and visibility at the airport. Then, all instruments, including the heading indicator, are set and engine gauges are checked. All radios and radials are dialed in, and then the approach environment is reviewed.

"Because there are so many things to check [about the approach environment], you use MATH to remember them all," said St. Cloud State University student Eric K. Whyte. Missed approach procedures are checked. Altitudes, including minimums and step-down altitudes, are read. Time is memorized or entered in a stopwatch; finally, headings, including the inbound and missed approach headings, are studied.

Approach plate

FlightSafety International Academy at Vero Beach, Florida, teaches pilots to use the instrument plate itself as the approach checklist. Starting at the top, the title is checked to make sure that it is the correct approach. Next, communications frequencies are set. Moving down to the plan view, navigation frequencies are located, entered, and set. Near the bottom of the plate, minimum altitudes and the missed approach point are noted. Finally, navigation frequencies needed for the missed approach can be set, and the first segment of the missed approach procedure is memorized.

"With this method, there is no acronym to memorize," Chief Pilot Larry Wakefield noted. The method for a two-pilot crew is roughly the same. The pilot who is flying relinquishes the controls, sets up using the approach plate, and takes the aircraft back from the copilot. The copilot then rechecks everything done by the pilot who is flying.

Instrument panel

Another method is to use the instrument panel itself, moving your hand top to bottom, referring to the approach plate as needed. At the top, you'll find the compass, a reminder to reset the DG. Below that is usually the audio panel where radios can be selected and marker beacons turned on. Next come the radios, where communication and navigation frequencies can be tuned and the proper radials set. As for the instrument approach plate, try remembering the acronym 3M: minutes, minimums, missed. Set the number of minutes from the final approach fix to the missed approach point in your timer (or memorize them), memorize the minimum altitude, and memorize the first step of the missed approach procedure.

Audio panel/FIC

The University of Illinois Institute of Aviation has yet another method — one that, like the FlightSafety method, requires no memorization of acronyms. Chief Flight Instructor Rick Weinberg simply tells his 250 students to use the audio panel.

By looking at each selector switch, students are, in turn, reminded to turn on marker beacons and set communications and navigation frequencies. For proper tuning of the navigation radios, however, the school uses an acronym: FIC. Students set the frequency, get the ident, and set the proper course.

"It works for VOR courses or an ILS," Weinberg said.

A checklist

A checklist: What a concept! Dulles Aviation at Manassas, Virginia, and Professional Pilot Programs, the all-ATP training school, both use checklists. The obvious advantage is that there is no acronym to remember for months or years after initial training.

Thomas Adams, chief flight instructor at Dulles Aviation, uses three checklists for IFR flights: "Pre-Planning," "Before Takeoff," and "Approach to Landing." The approach checklist has 13 steps, beginning with, "Tune in ATIS 25 miles out," and ending with, "Call out altitude remaining from 500 feet above decision height or MDA [minimum descent altitude] down in 100-foot increments." The steps in between are used to set up the cockpit and obtain key information from the approach plate.

Flow pattern

The University of North Dakota aviation program, UND Aerospace, publishes its own "Expanded Procedures" loose-leaf manuals for the Piper Seminole and Arrow. What the manuals preach is an "approach flow pattern" that involves moving the hand methodically down the avionics stack, across the engine gauges, and finally to switches and engine controls. When it is time to brief for the approach, pilots use a five-step checklist: type of approach and lighting, inbound course, decision height or minimum descent altitude, missed approach point, and initial heading/altitude for the missed approach.

Every interview for this article turned up a new system, and it is impossible to pick one as the winner. It doesn't matter which system you use; all that matters, instructors say, is that you have one.

Delta Air Lines

Just for fun, how do the majors do it? Delta uses the acronym NATS to brief for an approach. It stands for notams, ATIS, approach chart, terrain, and special pages. Obviously, a little explanation is in order. "Special pages" refers to a Delta practice in which supplemental data, in addition to the approach chart data supplied by Jeppesen, is appended to the approach information. "ATIS" includes advisories, flight plan messages provided by Delta to pilots, and chart notams. The "approach chart" step requires pilots to use the approach plate as they would a checklist, reading it from top to bottom, setting up radios, comparing actual weather with published minimums, and noting any special runway information (length, condition, etc.). Terrain calls attention to any special obstacle or terrain clearance requirements during the transition from cruise to the approach.

Delta teaches its pilots to set up early for the approach, late in cruise or early in the descent from cruise altitude. Usually, control of the aircraft is transferred to the copilot while the pilot in command sets up for the approach.

And what happened to our pilot who used the wrong approach plate? He has written himself a checklist, one as short as possible to avoid adding to the already high workload of single-pilot IFR flying, but one that includes: "Flashlight — Available."

A New Look for Approach Charts

Use the briefing strip for speed

There's good news for those of you who use the instrument approach chart as a checklist. A briefing strip will be added at the top, with all the information you need to set up the cockpit prior to an approach.

This is not a big change; no information has been deleted from the chart, and none has been added. Instead, the information has been reformatted, based on a design developed by M. Stephen Huntley, Jr., of the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A research engineering psychologist, Huntley is also a 1,000-hour instrument- and multiengine-rated commercial pilot. The chart gained further refinement from the Air Transport Association, which started research on approach charts prior to that by Huntley, and by Jeppesen Sanderson. Additionally, AOPA contributed research to the project.

Both Jeppesen and the National Ocean Service are expected to adopt the changes. Jeppesen expects to make final decisions and refinements late this year, but NOS has funding problems and may not change its format for two years. NOS is facing a personnel shortage and has its resources tied up just providing new GPS charts for nonprecision approaches. One decision facing Jeppesen is whether the new format will be used for both domestic and foreign customers.

The reaction in the United States has been positive, with a few exceptions; but airlines in the Pacific Rim have indicated reluctance to change, while European airlines have taken the attitude that the new format was "not invented here," said Ted Thompson, Jeppesen's manager of flight information.

It may be late this year before the majority of U.S. pilots see the new Jeppesen charts, but thousands of pilots have already tested them. They were evaluated by airlines at 28 locations last year. General aviation operators began testing the charts last December at eight locations; more than 7,000 pilots are involved. Testing at international locations is to start in late summer or early fall.

The briefing strips at the top of the chart follow closely the way the majority of airline crews conduct a cockpit briefing for the approach. To make room for the strip, the minimum sector altitude circle had to be moved into the plan view, a change that worries some pilots who feel that it is harder to see against terrain information. Another change can be seen in the profile view where icons are used to describe missed approach procedures. The full missed approach is included in the briefing strip so that it can be read off easily during a briefing. Researchers found that pilots concentrate mostly on the profile view during an approach and need to absorb missed approach directions easily without looking back to the top of the chart.

The new format offers a training advantage, as well, since flight schools offering training for airline careers can be assured that they are teaching instrument approach procedures as practiced by the carriers. — AKM

Alton Marsh
Alton K. Marsh
Freelance journalist
Alton K. Marsh is a former senior editor of AOPA Pilot and is now a freelance journalist specializing in aviation topics.

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