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Practical approach briefings

Make it meaningful

As RNAV approaches become increasingly common, even to airports long excluded from the IFR system, you might think that circling approaches will soon be a thing of the past. But that’s not the case.
Rudder & Wrench
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Some airports have approaches with only circling minimums available, so expect to see them in the Instrument Rating Airman Certification Standards for some time to come.

As a designated examiner who regularly gives instrument practical exams, I consider the circling approach to be one of the most challenging tasks in the ACS and the one most cited on notices of disapproval that I issue based on the flight portion of the exam. What surprises me is that many of the failures occur during the circling maneuver itself after the candidate has removed the view-limiting device.

If you factor in that the weather conditions on practical exam day are typically nice VMC, I’ve found it a real head-scratcher and wonder how these pilots would fare if the weather were near IFR minimums. Indeed, in the past few years we’ve seen accidents that mirror what I see on practical exams.

Here are some of the statements I’ve written on instrument notices of disapproval.

Improve descent planning

ACS standards require that pilots guide the aircraft to within 100 feet of the minimum descent altitude, or the preselected circling altitude, before the missed approach point. For a 90-knot true airspeed and a three-degree descent angle, a familiar 500-fpm descent rate probably does the trick most of the time. In fact, such a descent rate with a headwind means arriving at the MDA before the MAP so pilots can spend time looking for the runway. Traffic permitting, I always try to ensure that practical exams feature an honest circling approach—meaning that the final approach segment involves flying with a tailwind. For example, with 30 knots on the tail, the descent rate should increase by at least 33 percent or the aircraft won’t get to the missed approach point within FAA standards.

High surrounding terrain or an approach course not aligned with the runway often means an approach will have only circling minimums. For example, Macon County Airport in Franklin, North Carolina (1A5), features both, so the RNAV (GPS)-A has a steep descent angle and still the aircraft is almost 1,600 feet above the runway at the missed approach point. With a stiff wind coming from the south, the descent rate necessary between the final approach fix and the MAP could easily top 1,000 fpm. What’s amazing is that I see pilots who don’t know that their descent rate is woefully insufficient to get the job done, despite a collection of moving maps warning otherwise.

Plan the circling maneuver

When landing at a towered airport, the tower control typically provides instruction for circling, so the pilot needs to study the airport diagram to ensure compliance. If the field is nontowered, approach control will say something like, “November One-Two-Three-Four-Five, proceed direct DAYEL, maintain seven thousand feet until established, cleared for the RNAV-A approach into Macon County. Report IFR cancellation this frequency or on the ground. Frequency change approved.”

A meaningful approach briefing is all about anticipating. Gather as much information as early as possible and use it in a practical way to imagine how this approach, circling or otherwise, might be unusual.It’s then the pilot’s job to figure out the best way to maneuver the aircraft for a landing. Too often, I see a pilot enter a downwind leg opposite the orientation designated for the airport. In Macon County, Runway 25 has a right-hand pattern, so it makes sense to enter a midfield crosswind and then turn downwind for the runway with the more favorable winds. But you won’t see a reference to that nonstandard pattern on the instrument approach plate—that requires consulting another publication like a sectional chart or chart supplement.

There might be traffic already in the pattern and an IFR pilot does not enjoy priority for landing. It helps to keep the second com radio tuned to the local frequency to form a mental picture of what’s going on in the pattern. And, of course, those without communication capability might be there too. Since the VFR weather minimums for an nontowered airport are typically one mile visibility and clear of clouds, IFR pilots might be surprised to learn that the circling maneuver means coordinating with a Piper Cub in the pattern.

Inappropriate maneuvering onto final

When I was a student pilot, my instructor taught me that, on the downwind leg of the pattern, if the runway hit the left strut on the Cessna about two-thirds of the way up, that meant I was a good distance from the runway. It was terrific advice, but I found it lacking when I circled for a landing after an instrument approach. If a normal pattern is 1,000 feet agl and a circling approach sends me to 500 feet agl, my instructor’s advice puts me twice as close to the runway as I normally am. It may not seem like a bad thing until you turn onto the base leg and see how easy it is to overshoot the final approach segment. Let’s see, poor weather conditions combined with a low altitude and a steep bank, what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, there are accident reports that answer that question in a disappointing way, so finishing a circling procedure in such a manner results in a failed practical exam.

Insufficient plan for the missed procedure

Most instrument candidates can rattle off items that should be in sight to finish the approach with a landing at the airport. And the simplified missed approach procedure images on the approach plate make it easy to know what to do if they need to execute it. If the pilot loses sight of the runway at any point during the circling maneuver the missed must be executed, but now there are no simple graphics for that. If that occurs on the turn from downwind to base, it might not be obvious how best to join the missed approach course.

All these deficiencies could be prevented by a pre-approach briefing. Often when an instrument candidate offers one, it starts with a verification that the charts are in date. News flash: that should have been part of the preflight briefing. If these are the only approach plates in the airplane, then they’re the ones we're using. What follows usually amounts to reading but not internalizing because the candidate then can’t answer basic questions about the approach. No, I am looking for a meaningful pre-approach briefing.

Here are some items a proper approach briefing should include.

Verifying the weather conditions at the destination can be accomplished many miles away from the airport at cruising altitude. When we know what approaches are in use, open them up on the tablet and use a stylus to highlight important com and nav frequencies as well as color coding that indicates what navigational devices to monitor in the various approach phases. Bruce Williams, a Seattle-based flight instructor, gives terrific advice on this topic on his blog (bruceair.wordpress.com).

Look at the final approach course. What kind of airspeed are you going to use and how will the winds determine your groundspeed on that segment? I keep the FAA’s climb/descent chart in my EFB as it saves me from doing mental math when I’m busy. Know what kind of descent rates are needed to arrive at the minimum descent altitude in advance of the missed approach point instead of picking the familiar 500 fpm.

If the airport is not towered, find what runway is indicated by the prevailing winds as well as the pattern determined for that runway. On an airport diagram, use a stylus to draw your anticipated path around the airport. Studying ahead of time the airport layout and the expected path around the complex during the circling maneuver can aid situational awareness.

On this airport diagram, indicate how to execute the missed approach procedure if things don’t go your way. That plan will change based on where you are in the circling maneuver. No matter where you are in the pattern, know the first motion you’ll make if you lose sight of the complex.

A meaningful approach briefing is all about anticipating. Gather as much information as early as possible and use it in a practical way to imagine how this approach, circling or otherwise, might be unusual. The benefits will extend well beyond a successful practical exam.


Catherine Cavagnaro
Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor (aceaerobaticschool.com) and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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