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Don't brief the approach: pilots can fall behind by thinking too far ahead. Instead, focus in detail on the next action point and have a general idea what must happen next.

One of the politically correct tasks in instrument flying is briefing the approach. This involves reviewing all of the details of the approach right through the missed. It's been my observation in over 30 years of instrument instruction that this doesn't work well for single-pilot operations without an autopilot, especially in a complex airplane.

It's pretty much impossible to hand fly the plane, thoroughly review all of the details of the approach and missed approach procedure, and actually remember them in sequence. It tends to overload the short-term memory and can even lead to confusion. Looking at the details instead of the "big picture" can prompt a pilot to turn to a wrong heading when crossing a fix because it was one of the details--but the wrong one for that moment. Maybe it's time we stopped working so hard.

Think Big

It's easier to brief the big picture, and focus on the details one at a time as they become applicable. To make sure you get what you need from those details, you perform three procedural checklists at the right times. The checklists are: In Range, IAF Outbound, and FAF (or glideslope intercept) Inbound.


The big picture analyzes the general layout of the approach, as well as the location of navaids in relationship to the airport, so start with the plan view. Take an inventory of all of the available navaids, check for obstructions and read the notes. On the ILS Runway 34 at Hays with a local altimeter setting and no NOTAMs for lighting outages, the analysis goes something like this:

"The approach is an ILS, the final approach course is generally to the north, the outbound is to the south, and the maneuvering airspace lies east of the course. It's a typical ILS with a locator outer marker. There's a VORTAC on the field, which will help with positional awareness. The highest obstruction is a 2601-foot antenna (about 600 feet AGL) about five miles west of the airport. The runway has pilot-controlled lighting on 122.8."

I frequently see pilots (including experienced ATP candidates) get mentally spun 180 degrees, especially when flying in an unfamiliar area. They may approach the IAF on a westerly heading, and when asked to point out their location on the approach plate they will put their finger somewhere west of the IAF. However, as long as they turn to the correct outbound heading upon reaching the IAF, that momentary confusion is irrelevant.

That's why it's important to focus on the general direction of the outbound leg in terms of a cardinal heading or quadrant, rather than as a left- or right-hand turn. It may seem odd to a pilot as he crosses the IAF that the outbound heading of south requires a left turn instead of the right turn as he had (mistakenly) expected, but as long as he turns to the south, everything will work out.

One little trick for positional awareness: Whenever you are proceeding directly to a fix or navaid, your present location (the direction you are coming from) is always at the bottom of the heading indicator. That's so obvious that nobody seems to point it out.

In Range Do-List

After reviewing the big picture, perform the In-Range checklist, which is really a do-list. It can be quite time consuming, and you should begin it no later than about 15 miles from the IAF. The acronym I teach is AAA-GUMPS. That stands for: avionics, altitude and altimeter, airspeed, followed by gas, undercarriage (we'll hold it until glideslope intercept), mixtures, props, and switches.

You should set your nav receivers to use all the navaids you reviewed from the big picture. If you're radar vectored, you'll initially set the number-one nav receiver to the primary navaid defining the final approach, and the HSI course arrow to that inbound course. The frequency and course are in the briefing strip on top of the approach plate: That's 111.5 and 339 degrees at Hays. Frequently the plan view shows multiple navaids, and it's easy to confuse which one is primary and set the wrong one.

To fly the full approach with procedure turn, say with a clearance direct NETTE from the northeast, you'll tune the ADF first and turn the airplane toward the LOM. You should also listen to the identifier before turning the airplane to the arrowhead, to confirm that there's a valid signal. Don't worry about actually decoding the Morse code identifier. Just make sure there is one and the general direction matches your expectation from the big picture. Once you've turned toward NETTE, you continue to set up all of the other avionics.

You'll need the localizer after you cross NETTE, so set the localizer frequency of 111.5 and the HSI course arrow to 339 degrees. Always tune a frequency and then immediately set the course associated with that navaid. Also, never set a new course without double-checking the frequency. Don't worry about identifying the localizer yet: you won't get a valid signal until you're about three miles east of the LOM.

Tune the number-two nav to the Hays VORTAC on 110.4 and the CDI to 156 degrees, which is the radial shown for the transition from Hays to NETTE. That CDI will come alive about a mile before you reach NETTE, and alert you to imminent station passage. This is especially helpful if you don't have an RMI or GPS moving map. Also, switch the DME source to Hays because this localizer doesn't have DME.

Once again confirm that the ADF is tuned to the correct frequency. Some airports have multiple NDBs or LOMs in close proximity, and it would be easy to proceed to the wrong NDB. Finally, check that the marker beacon audio is selected to the headphones. It's helpful to hear the audio at station passage.

The order of steps may change if you have an IFR GPS. Loading the approach is first on combination units that automatically tune the localizer for you and take the place of the ADF for guidance to NETTE. (Although, I think tuning an ADF and simply pointing the plane is quicker than loading an approach.) If your GPS is just for situational awareness, then it's on par with that number-two nav.

Setting up all of the avionics probably took about three minutes. The rest of the In-Range checklist is simpler.

Check the profile view of the approach plate for your next authorized altitude, which will be the procedure turn outbound at 3800 feet. Confirm that you've set the altimeter: ATC probably gave it to you already or you got it from AWOS, but check it once more. Reduce to initial approach speed. Use the same power setting you would use for a VFR downwind leg (slower than landing-gear operating speed), or approach speed if you want more time.

Gas should be switched now to the main or fullest tank, as applicable. The undercarriage stays up for now, but include it anyway to prevent a VFR GUMPS check that skips it. I've had instrument students try to land gear-up on a visual landing at the end of an instrument lesson. Set mixtures, props and pumps as required. Get the Tower or CTAF frequency in a standby position.

A common mistake is conducting an approach briefing immediately after setting the avionics and never finishing the In-Range checklist. If you've been taught to brief the approach, do it after completing the whole In-Range checklist.

We've all been taught to always expect a missed approach. But most pilots worry too much about the missed. If it happens, you'll apply full throttles, establish a climb, and retract the gear. Once you're stabilized in a straight-ahead climb, check the missed approach instructions and maneuver as appropriate. Even if a climbing turn is required, TERPS criteria allow adequate room for a delayed turn, so a 10- or 15-second delay won't hurt anything. Trying to remember too many numbers just means more numbers to confuse or forget.

Action Point Checklists

The In-Range checklist is a non-action-point-specific checklist. Do it at your convenience as you approach your destination. Just make sure it's completed several miles before reaching the IAF so you can focus on the next required tasks.

The subsequent checklists are shorter, but are action-point specific and time critical. The best way to handle these is usually to walk through the points just before they're needed and then, immediately after, do them.

After you've crossed NETTE, you'll need the IAF Outbound checklist, a.k.a., the Five Ts: turn, time, twist, throttle and talk. So just before NETTE, get that information off your approach plate, but be specific. Instead of "Reaching the fix I'll turn outbound," you look down at your plate and say, "My next action point is crossing the NDB, my actions will be turn to 159, start the timer, nothing needs twisting, throttle for a descent to 3800 and report outbound. My next action after that will be a left turn inbound." Then you cross NETTE and do the steps.

Know the importance and accuracy for these actions. For example, don't worry about precise tracking outbound. There's 1000 feet of obstacle clearance four miles from the centerline on the "wrong" (non-maneuvering) side of the procedure turn, and six to eight miles on the maneuvering side. With DME from the Hays VOR, or GPS, starting a timer is more a tradition than a requirement. If you must, start the timer after you've rolled wings level to pace yourself on the outbound leg of the procedure turn.

"Twist" for the primary nav frequency and course--or just confirm if you set it one step earlier. But confirm both the frequency (source) and the course. Pilots have flown the correct course from the wrong navaid right into terrain. Since you were not able to identify the localizer during the In-Range checklist, identify it now. To be honest, I'm sloppy about identifying VORs or localizers. I confirm the frequency and course, and check the absence of a failure flag. All of the designated pilot examiners I've sent my students to are OK with that as well.

You've already slowed to your approach speed, so the "throttle" task is only a cue to descend if required. Even so, the procedure turn altitude of 3800 feet is a minimum altitude, not a mandatory one. "Talk" is a cue to report as necessary--not often required these days.

I know my students aren't conspiring to drive me crazy, but it seems that way when so many do the "turn" and "time," study the approach plate and talk about when to turn inbound, and completely forget about the "twist," "throttle" and "talk." Even when you don't have to do one or more of the items, you should mentally check them off. When flying VFR approaches at an uncontrolled airport, an outbound report on CTAF is extremely important to advise other traffic of your presence and intentions.

Many pilots rush the inbound turn. I'd fly at least six miles outbound from NETTE, to about 11 DME, to get plenty of time to establish on the localizer inbound. If you need additional time to get organized or check the AWOS one more time, you can continue the full 10 miles before turning inbound, because the protected airspace (procedure turn primary area) extends another six miles beyond that to provide adequate space for the turn.

I don't teach an action checklist for the course reversal. After the 5Ts on the outbound leg, check the profile view to see if additional time (distance) is necessary for the descent coming back inbound. Then just turn around and join the course.

Once inbound, checking the ground-speed on the DME or GPS helps you to anticipate the power setting and rate of descent of the final approach. If you saw 112 knots inbound, you'd need about 600 FPM down to stay on glideslope. This reminds you one more time if you haven't already tacked this on to one of your glances at the chart: "DA is 2194 feet. Let's call it 2200 feet."

FAF Inbound

Once inbound, prepare for the next action checklist. My memory aid is "TUPPerware Party." As the glideslope approaches 1/4 scale from center (or crossing the FAF on a non-precision approach), you'll execute it.

The first step is time, it you're so inclined and have no GPS or DME. It's never required on an ILS anyway. If you insist on timing an ILS, you'd have to wait until you cross the LOM anyway. Next is "Undercarriage--down," including the check for three greens. You should hit the "P" for power reduction just as the glideslope needle centers. The second "P" is pitching down for your target descent rate. "Party" stands for "talk." First tell yourself one more time that, "DA is 2200 feet," and then tell everyone else, "Hays Traffic, Apache Seven Six Hotel Kilo. Five-mile final on the ILS 34 approach, Hays." Because it's pilot-controlled lighting, you'll key the mic seven times slowly, even if you've done it earlier, to make sure the lights are up bright for your arrival.

Make your gentle corrections as needed and fly out the rest of the approach. Your next action step will be to transition to visual maneuvering for landing (possibly after three clicks to dim some overly bright lights) or to initiate the missed and look down at the plate only after getting cleaned up and climbing.

A Realistic Strategy

Taking approaches one step at a time won't work for all approaches, especially in mountainous terrain. If you see high terrain surrounding the airport, take the time to review the plate in detail.

However, in most situations this simple method works fine. It helps you fly an unfamiliar approach to a strange airport with little advanced notice--a critical skill in the event of a diversion. You might also be struggling with an engine problem, icing or a sick passenger at the same time.

I prefer a method that's not dependent on studying the approach plate. Just let me see what I've got to do next.


The heart of this system is focusing only on the part of the approach plate you'll need for the next flight segment. For the big picture or in-range, you can do items right as you read them off the plate. For the IAF or FAF checklists, you'll review what you need right before crossing, do them immediately after, and then check to see if you missed anything.


Some items really get checked multiple times, such as the frequency and course for the final approach or the DA. That's because those items are more dramatic if botched.


I'm all for precision flying, but in moderation.

In our Hays example, after crossing NETTE, just turn to a south heading of about 160. Since you've crossed NETTE in a westerly direction, this turn puts you about 3/4 mile west of the approach course. But, as we've said, you have 1000 feet of obstacle clearance four miles from centerline, so you're well within the protected airspace.


At 11 DME outbound, the HSI shows a full-scale deflection to the left. Now make a left, 180-degree turn to intercept the localizer. If, as you turn inbound, the HSI's D-bar is still full-scale to the east, roll out on a 30-degree intercept heading of 010 and complete the intercept when the D-bar comes alive.

On your final approach segment for a non-precision approach, initially concentrate on tracking the course and leveling off 100 feet above MDA. Only after that's done should you determine the MAP. I have repeatedly seen students descend below MDA while checking their MAP (time or DME fix) during the descent. They become pre-occupied with the MAP, neglect to scan the altimeter and miss their level-off. This may even explain the occasional (and typically fatal) accident of flying into terrain on centerline but two miles short of the runway.

MDA on some non-precision approaches may be 250 feet above the obstacles. Delaying your level off by 15 seconds could take you into the trees. Compare that to the fairly wide corridor of protected airspace to either side of the approach course and beyond the MAP. Even if the missed approach is initiated 20 seconds late, you'll still be in protected airspace.

Practically speaking, if you break out of the clouds 100 feet above the MDA, you'll proceed to the runway and land; the MAP becomes irrelevant. If you're still in the clouds 100 feet above MDA you'll probably miss the approach. It's not that you'll give up. Just wait until you're level and slow before you look up the MAP and then slowly descend the last few feet to MDA to see the runway or start the missed. --H.P.

Herb Pello has trained about 2500 students. He owns Prairie Air Service, in Benton, Kansas.
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Author:Pello, Herb
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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