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Training Tip: A very good bad approach

A student pilot approaching the solo phase makes four circuits of the airport traffic pattern with the flight instructor aboard—doing a nice job three times and turning in one forgettable performance. How will the instructor assess the student’s preparedness for solo after that?

Photo by Chris Rose.

Sometimes, this is just what a CFI needs to see to decide that the student pilot is good to go it alone.

Surprised? Consistency demonstrated by the three good patterns complemented by the student pilot dealing safely with the complications of the bad one can reassure the CFI that the learning process is functioning as it should.

Suppose you take off for left-hand traffic into a 10-knot headwind with a slight crosswind component. Maybe you rush the downwind turn a little because air traffic control has urged you to expedite for traffic.

The hasty maneuvering and the radio calls were distracting enough to allow this minor miscalculation to begin exacting a serious toll. The first thing to go is your drift correction, which you abruptly realize as that crosswind—now a strong, right-quartering tailwind—pushes you too close to the runway. Too soon you are on base, descending while reconfiguring, and before you know it, you have flown through the final approach course.

Let’s freeze the frame right here: It is important that you recognize this predicament as a setup for a possible low-altitude stall/spin, something that can happen if a pilot stubbornly tries to wrack the aircraft around onto the final approach with drastic and uncoordinated control inputs. Avoid this situation. (This video shows what can happen if you don’t.)

There’s another error lurking even if you avoid using extreme control inputs to salvage the approach but instead try to gradually angle your aircraft back into position and straighten out at the last minute for a so-so touchdown. That too falls well short of the acceptable standard of a “stabilized approach.”

The right call, of course, is to go around once you have flown through the final approach course—or as soon as you realize that you will blow through final.

On the next circuit of the pattern, demonstrate situational awareness by giving yourself plenty of space before turning downwind, then nail the drift correction, and think ahead to how wind speed and direction will affect your track (and groundspeed) from here to touchdown.

Remember: A tower controller may ask you to “expedite,” but no one wants you to take risks to comply.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Training and Safety, Aeronautical Decision Making, Flight Planning
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