• The Stabilized Approach

    For Better, Safer Approaches and Landings

    We continue to see many preventable landing accidents. No group of pilots nor class of airplane seems to be immune from this kind of mishap. The airplanes involved in these accidents range from the smallest amateur built airplane to the unfortunate recent crash of the Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 at San Francisco. The pilot experience ranges from newly certificated pilots to airline captains with many thousands of hours. But many of these landing accidents have one thing in common - an unstabilized approach. Everybody probably remembers a flight instructor saying that a good approach leads to a good landing. If a pilot is chasing the airspeed, struggling to get lined up with the runway, or trying to correct for being significantly too high or too low, the landing is probably not going to be pretty - or worse. But just saying that we need to make a "good approach" isn't really much help unless we can define what we mean by that. Over the past twenty or so years, we have quantified what we mean and renamed it the "stabilized approach." The concept has been in wide use by professional pilots for many years but is not always embraced by pilots of small airplanes. The concept of the stabilized approach applies to both VFR and IFR operations. A general aviation adaptation of the stabilized approach might consist of seven elements. An eighth element simply states that if any one of the first seven is not being met, the approach is not stabilized and must be abandoned.

    Though pilots might argue some of the items, wishing to delete or modify some and add others, the following is a good starting point for the general aviation pilot:
    1. The aircraft is on the correct flight path.
    2. Only small changes in heading or pitch are required to maintain the correct flight path.
    3. The aircraft speed is not more than the desired approach speed (VREF) +10 knots indicated airspeed and not less than VREF
    4. The aircraft is in the correct landing configuration.
    5. Rate of descent is no greater than 500 feet per minute; if a descent rate greater than 500 feet per minute is required due to approach considerations, special attention must be paid.
    6. Power setting is appropriate for the aircraft configuration.
    7. All briefings and checklists have been accomplished.
    8. If the approach becomes unstabilized below the stabilization altitude, an immediate go-around or missed approach must be initiated.

    The pilot needs to become familiar with the elements of the stabilized approach. This list is not intended to be used as a checklist during the busy approach phase. The first seven elements should be committed to memory so that a mental bell will sound when one or more of the items is amiss.

  • Decision Tools

    Flight Risk Assessment Tool and Personal Minimums Checklist

    Our lives, along with the lives and well-being of our passengers, family and friends depends on our decisions. Unfortunately, our humanness can often cause us to make a bad decision. Our cognitive biases can influence our decision in regard to the perceived importance of the flight, our inflated assessment of our abilities, our underestimation of the risk, and other factors. By moving our decisions from the subjective to the objective we can largely avoid those human influences that work on an unconscious level in our brains.

    Two tools are valuable in helping us to make our decisions based on facts rather than subjective evaluation. This section will present the Personal Minimums Checklist (PMC) and the Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT). Pilots will typically choose one of the two. Both tools accomplish the same goal and both must be customized to the individual pilot and the aircraft. Pilots flying more than one aircraft type may need two tools, one for each type. The tools must be adjusted periodically to reflect changes in the pilot's capability.

    The Personal Minimums Checklist

    The personals minimums checklist is something that we create for ourselves through honest, realistic analysis of our comfort level in several areas. Once completed, it can be shared with passengers days before a flight to make them aware that the flight is contingent upon several factors and that they should make alternate plans should the flight be cancelled.

    Click here to read or download this comprehensive article from the FAA website.

    PMC from AIH

    Click here to view or download a sample Personal Minimums Checklist from the FAA Aviation Instructor's Handbook.

    Click here to view or download a concise document from the FAA website.

    The Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT)

    The FRAT is used extensively in business aviation. Customized for each kind of airplane, it lists items that are not open to interpretation and assigns a numerical risk value to them. For example, a surface wind greater than 15 knots might assign a risk value of 2, while the pilot having flown less than 5 hours in the past 30 days might assign a risk value of 3. The assigned risk values are totaled and compared to a previously determined total value. If the risk value for the proposed flight exceeds the predetermined total value, the flight must not go. Sometimes it may be possible to make a change to the flight so that the risk value is reduced. For example, perhaps having any part of the flight occurring at night might have a risk value of 5. If the flight can be scheduled and executed such that no night flying is involved, the total risk value would be reduced by 5 and might now fall within the acceptable range. That is not to say that we should be looking for ways to circumvent the FRAT risk score. But if we can find ways to actually reduce the risk, we are making the flight safer.

    There might also be some items which solely assign a no-go to the flight. That might include the pilot taking any medication containing diphenhydramine (Benadryl, etc.).

    Nothing contained in a FRAT or any other tool should be construed as permission to violate any regulation. The sample FRAT contains the following in the Aircraft Section: “Has not had an annual inspection in the past 12 months” with a risk value of 8 assigned. Flying an aircraft that does not have a current annual inspection seems contrary to regulations, but there are circumstances in which it is legal. For example, the FAA can issue a ferry permit to allow a pilot to relocate an airplane from where it is located to a place where an annual inspection can be performed. The flight is legal, but it carries a higher risk because of the lack of inspection. A few other items have similar conditions.

    For the FRAT to be effective, it must be developed well before a flight is scheduled when there is no external pressure. Then it must be followed to the letter with no deviation allowed for any reason.

    Sample Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT)

    Click here to view or download an FAA publication explaining the FRAT

    Click here to download a sample FRAT

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  • Ramp and Taxi Safety

    Ramp and taxi accidents are among the most avoidable kind of accidents. While most of these accidents result only in property damage, some cause life-changing injuries or even death. A few simple techniques and practices can greatly reduce the risk of having a ramp or taxi accident.

     

    Ramp safety practices must begin when we step onto the ramp, not when we board the aircraft. Vigilance is key and we must remain acutely aware of our surroundings. Situational awareness is just as necessary when we are pedestrians on a ramp as when we are pilots in the aircraft. Any distractions such as talking on the phone or texting should be avoided. If those activities are necessary, we should select a safe spot and remain there as we complete our communications. Minor pedestrian mishaps have included a bloody forehead after walking into the trailing edge of a Cessna wing or a pitot tube and falls associated with tripping over a tiedown rope or chock. Moderate pedestrian injuries have resulted from encounters with jet blast, including being struck by loose objects such as chocks propelled by the jet blast. Of course, any bodily contact with a spinning propeller, main rotor, or tail rotor almost always results in catastrophic injury or death. Always assume that any propeller is about to spin. We must never allow any part of your body to cross the rotation plane of any propeller unless it is necessary such as to remove engine cowl plugs. Recall that the ignition system in most small GA airplanes is wired such that a failure results in the ignition system being “ON.” A faulty ignition switch, a worn key, or a broken p-lead can result in the system providing spark for ignition if the propeller is turned, even if the ignition switch is in the “OFF” position. This failure will not be noted during normal operations because the engine is typically shut down by moving the mixture control to the “LEAN” position thereby starving the engine of fuel, not of spark. Here is one step we can take to reveal a failure such as this. Just prior to shutting the engine down after a flight, with the throttle at the idle stop, momentarily turn the ignition switch to the “OFF” position. Note the sound of the engine shutting down, then immediately return the ignition switch back to the “BOTH” position and proceed with a normal shutdown. Use caution to make sure the throttle is at the idle stop and only leave the ignition switch in the “OFF” position for a second or two. Not following those two steps can result in a backfire which can cause damage to the muffler.

    Dangerous!

    Avoid the propeller plane of rotation!

    Handling the propeller of a parked airplane can be very dangerous. At fly-in events, it is crucial to teach children about propeller safety and never allow a child near a propeller.

    Performing a thorough preflight inspection is critical to the safety of flight but carries its own risks. The hazards previously mentioned also apply while performing the preflight inspection. Additional hazards include climbing to visually verify fuel levels in a high-wing airplane, safely handling fuel samples, walking into pitot tubes, and more. These hazards are multiplied when an additional person, especially a non-pilot, is present during the preflight inspection.

     

    A few airplanes must be started by hand propping. Many airplanes can be started by hand propping in the event of a weak or dead battery. Hand propping is extremely dangerous and must only be performed by someone who has been adequately trained in the procedure. We will not address hand propping procedures here, but more information can be found in the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook on page 2-9. Click here to download Chapter 2 of the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook. Pilots should also be aware that even if an engine is started via hand propping, taking off with a weak or dead battery is not recommended. The aircraft’s charging system will not adequately charge the battery in the length of time it takes to taxi to the runway, do a runup, and takeoff. Several aircraft systems, especially landing gear retraction systems, depend on battery power to operate since the charging system alone cannot handle the electrical load.

    Extremely Dangerous!

    Not for amateurs!

    Hand propping must only be performed by someone who has been adequately trained in the procedure.

    Once in the aircraft, our responsibility expands to the safety of others and the avoidance of property damage. Prior to engine start we must establish beyond doubt that everyone is well clear of the propeller and is aware that we are about to put it in motion. In addition to looking around, there are two steps to follow. The first is to activate the rotating beacon/anticollision light. That serves as a signal to anyone in the immediate vicinity that the aircraft is about to start. Next, through an open window, provide a loud, “CLEAR PROP” announcement. Do a slow count to five so that anyone nearby has time to recognize the announcement and react. A quick “CLEAR PROP” yell immediately followed by starter activation is not sufficient.

     

    Once the engine is running, we must never, ever, allow anyone to exit or enter our airplane. If someone must exit or enter, we must shut down the engine. When ready to go again, we must use the appropriate checklist for engine start.

     

    While the engine is running, we must be vigilant for anything that may come in close proximity to the propeller. This includes people, animals, vehicles, or other aircraft. We must be ready to shut down the engine quickly if a potential conflict becomes evident. The fastest way to stop the propeller is to turn off the ignition switch rather than to pull the mixture control to full lean.

    Fatally Dangerous

    CFI killed by propeller

    A CFI was killed in Massachusetts by the propeller of the airplane after exited while the engine was running.

    Next comes the taxi phase of flight. Preparation is just as important for taxi as it is for flight. We must familiarize ourselves with the airport layout and follow an airport diagram. If at a controlled airport, we must copy our taxi clearance and fully understand it. If in doubt, ask ATC..

     

    Common taxi accidents include striking another aircraft, a vehicle, a sign, a building, or a fence. We know that generally, if we keep the nosewheel on the center line of a taxiway, we will be clear of obstacles. That works providing no one has parked an aircraft or vehicle such that it extends into the safe zone. Constant vigilance is needed as we taxi. We must have briefed our passengers prior to engine start on sterile cockpit procedures which simply means no conversation that is not necessary for the operation of the aircraft during critical phases of flight. Taxi is a critical phase of flight. We must put all our attention into the safe taxi. Radios and other avionics should be set prior to taxi. The setting of flaps and other checklist items must wait until the airplane is stopped in the runup area. This also applies to taxi after landing. Flaps, trim, lights, avionics, and other items must wait until the airplane has exited the runway and is stopped on a taxiway.

    Taxiing in Wind

    Correct control position

    This diagram, from the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, illustrates the correct position of the flight controls during taxi.

    Common taxi accidents include striking another aircraft, a vehicle, a sign, a building, or a fence. We know that generally, if we keep the nosewheel on the center line of a taxiway, we will be clear of obstacles. That works providing no one has parked an aircraft or vehicle such that it extends into the safe zone. Constant vigilance is needed as we taxi. We must have briefed our passengers prior to engine start on sterile cockpit procedures which simply means no conversation that is not necessary for the operation of the aircraft during critical phases of flight. Taxi is a critical phase of flight. We must put all our attention into the safe taxi. Radios and other avionics should be set prior to taxi. The setting of flaps and other checklist items must wait until the airplane is stopped in the runup area. This also applies to taxi after landing. Flaps, trim, lights, avionics, and other items must wait until the airplane has exited the runway and is stopped on a taxiway.

     

    Safety in the runup area requires a bit of planning. All airports are different so we need to adapt to the situation. Sometimes we cannot be in the ideal position due to the layout and the present traffic load. But when possible, we want to avoid being positioned directly in front of or directly behind an airplane that will be doing a runup. Being behind and airplane running at high RPM means that any debris will be blown into our aircraft with substantial force. Being positioned directly in front of the runup airplane puts us at risk if the pilot fails to hold the brakes securely. This is not a small risk. A significant number of accidents have occurred when a pilot fails to secure the airplane from forward movement during a runup. And, since we do not want to be one of those pilots, we must not only set the parking brake but also hold the toe brakes during the runup. Glancing up between checklist items to make sure the airplane is not moving is also a good practice. A finger placed on the just completed checklist item before looking up will assure that nothing is skipped.

     

     

    Hold the brakes!

    Do not let the airplane creep forward during runup.

    The private pilot reported that he was number three for departure and was looking at the tachometer. The airplane slowly moved forward and struck the airplane ahead. The pilot realized after the collision that he had not set the parking brake. He thought that his feet were on the brake pedals but that he did not put “much pressure” on them before the crash.

    Taxiing to the ramp or hangar requires the same vigilance as taxiing out for takeoff. However, if the flight was long or difficult, the pilot may be suffering from fatigue. We need to recognize that and focus on the task of taxiing. Remember that the flight is not complete until the airplane is in the hangar or tied down..

  • Airworthiness Awareness

    The airplane is not a car with roadside assistance readily available. Even a relative minor malfunction can generate a dangerous situation if it happens during a critical phase of flight or creates a distraction. Owner-pilots must ensure that maintenance is not neglected and that all maintenance is performed by competent individuals. Renter pilots must become more knowledgeable in how to evaluate an airplane’s airworthiness critically and independently. All pilots must increase awareness of the need to, the extent possible, verify that recently performed maintenance was done correctly.

     

    Unfortunately, verifying that any airplane is airworthy, both legally and in regard to safety, can be complex task. Pilots must perform due diligence in assessing the airworthiness of an airplane, but it is impossible to verify every aspect. For example, crashes have occurred because proper improper torque values were used during internal engine work or an incorrect gasket was used when installing a vacuum pump. Trust is required. For non-owned aircraft, the pilot must trust that the operator is assuring airworthiness and that the maintenance provider is competent and is acting in the best interest of safety. If the pilot is the aircraft owner, then the entire responsibility falls upon the pilot to choose a maintenance provider wisely.

     

    The FAA has published some valuable information on the subject. "Understanding Owner and Mechanic Roles and Responsibilities" presents some excellent points. A two-minute YouTube video with the same title is also available.

    CEN18LA159

    NTSB Probable Cause: "A catastrophic engine failure due to improper torque on the engine through-bolt nuts, which resulted in relative movement between the crankcase halves, damage to a main journal bearing, and a loss of oil lubrication." Accident #CEN18LA159

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