On final approach
5 min read

Pat Luebke is an important member of the Air Facts team and has been part of my aviation magazine family for more than 37 years. She is not a pilot but has always been perceptive not only about the magazine business but also about the flying part even though she is not a pilot. As a result, when she asks a question it is usually a good question and it is often a challenge to come up with a good answer.

Pat writes for Avionics News and recently wrote a story about Andy Davis, CEO of UK-based Trig Avionics. Prior to that he had done a tour as a charter and corporate pilot in Europe. He spoke fondly of that: “I actually miss being a pro pilot – it was good fun and quite different than business. A cockpit is an organized environment where it’s possible to know exactly what you’re doing at all times.”

Pat’s question and the subject of this blog is: “Is it possible to know at all times what you’re doing when you’re flying?”

Twenty or thirty years ago I wrote a story about situational awareness. I did this before that became a popular subject among aviation educators who have now hung buzzwords and memory puzzles on almost everything in aviation. If I answer ”yes” to Pat’s question, it has to do with situational awareness.

On final approach

Landings demand precise flying--no exceptions.

I want to tie this a little to John’s blog about flight training. It has always been my notion that we should sell learning to fly as something that everyone is not suited for. It is something special; are you good and sharp enough to master the art of flying? You are going to have to be above average on dexterity as well as quick of mind because things happen and change fast in airplanes, even in the most basic airplanes.

Flying should be treated as an elitist activity, not in terms of dollars but ability.

If we look at it this way then it is not only possible to know exactly what you are doing at all times, it is required. Put another way, right before every accident a pilot is flying without knowing everything that is going on in, with, around and about his airplane. Part of the requirement is quickly recognizing anything that changes and compensating right away.

A lot of accidents happen in the landing phase of flight. Some are serious. A recent Citation landing accident in North Carolina took five lives. It’ll be a long time before an accident report is issued but here we are going to use that and similar accidents to examine the challenges found in approaches and landings.

The airport at Franklin, N. C. is in mountainous terrain. The runway is 4,400 feet long, plenty for a Citation, but the visual illusions caused by rough terrain have to be carefully considered and dealt with when planning such an approach.

The witness reports from newspaper clippings told two slightly different stories. One was that the pilot made a first approach that was too high and then aborted that one and came back to try again. The airplane was high on the second approach but came down steeply in an effort to get to the runway. The airplane landed nosewheel first, gyrated, a wingtip hit the ground and the airplane cartwheeled and burst into flames.

The slightly different report said that the airplane approached in a steep descent, landed nosewheel first and that the accident happened as the pilot attempted a go around.

A pilot has to be aware of a lot of things on approach because there is often little tolerance for error. The airplane needs to be not a little to the right and not a little to the left, but right on the final approach. Nor can it be a little too high or a little too low, it must be right on the approach slope whether defined electronically, with visual aids, or by the pilot’s knowledge of what a correct approach slope looks like.

Airspeed is another big factor. Approaches that result in the airplane crossing the runway threshold at precisely the correct height and speed are absolutely required, especially if the runway is of marginal length.

All of these things illustrate why a pilot has to know all about everything all the time when flying. That enables the making of good plans that lead to that precise arrival at the approach end of the runway. If everything is not just right, it needs to put on the path of righteousness sooner rather than later.

Another critical area is single-pilot IFR operation. This is a complex task with many elements that have to be kept current in the pilots thinking process.

Curiously, the same FAA that wants to require a pilot in the right seat of an airliner to have the highest certificate they issue and 1,500 hour flying time not too long ago diluted the requirements for an instrument rating. Now a pilot with not much over 100 hours is deemed fit for the same flying operations as the pilot in the left seat of that airliner. And he can do it all alone.

The FAA lowered the instrument rating requirements because some badly misguided people pressured them to do so to make the training cheaper. The accident record suggests that it should have been made more extensive as well as more demanding. Certainly a pilot doing single-pilot IFR needs to know more than 70-percent of what is going on as he flies along. A good autopilot might take up some of the slack some of the time but is no substitute for the pilot’s thinking ability.

I have been accused of taking flying too seriously and maybe this business about precise flying suggests that is true though I always thought it was a lot of fun to try to make every flight a perfect flight. I even wrote a book about that.

What do you think? Should pilots be cut a little slack or should all strive to be truly elite aviators by knowing all about everything all of the time? Do you think that is even possible? Is knowledge of 70-percent of the material really an acceptable passing grade?

Richard Collins
12 replies
  1. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    No, I think your view is a little too narrow Dick. Yes, those of us that were basically born with a desire to fly should want to know everything all of the time (although we probably don’t). But we’re basically related to technonerds. I can imagine that there are left brained types out there that would desire to fly to see the landscape or whatever from above, and drifting to a landing at a 3000′ foot strip in a Cub doesn’t require +/- 2mph and +/-5ft altitude; that’s ok for them and it will work. I think there are way too many variations in the universe to say one particular view is the only way.

  2. Jim
    Jim says:

    How do you know if you know everything? Isn’t that something only hindsight can reveal. You can and should be aware of the more obvious things like being on course and on glideslope, etc., but how do you know you know everything? Isn’t that like trying to prove a negative?

  3. Bob W
    Bob W says:

    The point is to never stop *trying* to know everything. Flying is dynamic. Your awareness of terrain, weather, traffic, and your airplane’s status rapidly fades if you don’t keep striving to update it.

  4. Mike
    Mike says:

    I just took my written today. I got a 97 and I barely feel like I know what I am doing. The fact that they give you the questions to study they should at least set the bar at 85. If someone can’t make a 70 they probably shouldn’t be flying. The thing I love most about flying is that you can never learn everything there is to know. You learn something new every time you fly.

  5. Don Rieser
    Don Rieser says:

    I’m struggling with the concept of knowing everything all the time. There is more to flying than knowledge. An analogy would be the golf swing. If you try to tell yourself every move of the golf swing, no matter how well you know the technical movements, you have no chance of making a smooth coordinated swing. It requires physical repetition to groove the feelings and the movements. I think landings and flying on the gages are two examples of flying skills that require feel and practice to remain proficient. I definitely agree flying is not for everyone. It requires dedication, desire, enough “coordination” to master the physical skills required, and the ability to learn and remember all of the knowledge related to systems, weather, and regulations.

  6. vernon fueston
    vernon fueston says:

    I think “knowing everything” is like the “Perfect Flight” (and I did read the book), something that is impossible to do but something we should constantly strive to achieve.

    I think cutting the training to make flying more affordable is a huge mistake. Rod Machado wrote a good column in the latest AOPA magazine about the lack of stick and rudder skills being required and it’s effect on safety. There is no doubt in my mind that single pilot IFR is very demanding and that the current training does not adequately prepare a pilot for the real world.

  7. Claudia
    Claudia says:

    You can never know everything, but that is one of the benefits of aviation. However you can know enough, and as long as you thoroughly prepare yourself for the flight, it should be good. I have seen pilots that over analyze everything and because they are nervous about everything they forget to enjoy the flight. I am not saying that they aren’t safe, but to sit there and worry about everything just seems as too much. I know what to do if the radios go out, loose vacuum system, electricity. However I will not let that get in the way of enjoying the flight. I do go over the checklists, regularly and keep them near me in the plane.

  8. George
    George says:

    One will never “know everything” about anything, let alone flying. But is it acceptable to only safely complete 70% of your flights? How about only 70% of your landings need be on the runway?

    Obviously every flight cannot be 100% perfect, but that should be the goal. Flying has very little tolerance for “good enough”. Thanks Dick for bring up this important topic.

  9. Mark C.
    Mark C. says:

    So far, all of my flights have been perfect. That is, everyone walked away and the airplane could be flown again without needing repair. Not to diminish the importance of doing things properly, and well, when flying, but I think the pressure to be perfect drives some of the better pilot candidates to give up. The guys who don’t care, don’t give up, but the ones who would actually become conscientious pilots are bothered by their own imperfections and feel inadequate. While it’s good to encourage pilots to try for perfection, and not much in life feels better than a truly perfect landing, it’s also important to let students and new pilots know that success is not dependent on perfection.

  10. BoB Reser
    BoB Reser says:

    O.K. Let’s take a look at what it takes to fly. I have spent the last three years trying to explain how airplanes fly and how pilots control them.
    Almost everything about landings going wrong can be related to basic aircraft control. Except for engine out landings, a screwed up approach should be followed with a go-around.
    I can’t write all the things that need to be fixed on this blog. My website has many papers I have written about these things.
    Basically, none of us have been trained correctly of how airplanes are controlled. I have not yet found any Flight Instructor or Flight text that explains it correctly.
    I have attempted to approach many “professional” pilots about this matter. They don’t want to discuss the idea they may not know…after all, I’m an experienced professional.
    No matter, I have never found any pilot, new, old, neophyte, or old pro that can correctly answer the following very basic questions.
    As a Pilot flying an aircraft:
    What stalls an aircraft?
    What controls pitch?
    How do you accelerate an aircraft?
    How do you make a spot landing?
    How do you make a level constant indicated-airspeed turn?
    And it goes on and on.
    Accident survival needs a new definition. With engine failure, there is no accident until the approach to landing is screwed up. Typically with “stall and crash”. The accident doesn’t occur until touchdown. The cause of the engine failure has nothing to do with the landing. It just made the landing necessary. It is the untrained pilot making the approach that causes the stall-crash.
    This is a big subject. I have tried to explain it to many, including the FAA. Until the Managers, Examiners, Flight School’s Curriculum, and Flight Instructors realize they need to reassess (admit they don’t know it all) there will be no change.
    Take a look at my website.

    MORT MASON says:

    If a pilot doesn’t know more than 70% of what’s going on around him, he’d be better off to stay in the airport coffee shop and watch other pilots perform to that limited percentage.

  12. Janne
    Janne says:

    I think the perfectionist should be reminded that a landing where you can walk from is a good one, and if the airplane can be used again, it is a perfect one; the slacker should be reminded that you should never stop trying to reach perfection, because if you start letting your standards drop, they might creep down to dangerous levels. And about elitism – well. In Stick and Rudder, the author makes the point that the earlier ideas about pilots having to be supermen are false; piloting and airplane is something an average person is well capable of, having received proper instruction, training and recurrent practice. On the other hand, there are obviously people that shouldn’t be at the controls of an airplane, even though they might well fit the idea of ‘the average person’ in all other areas of life. So I don’t know; I don’t think there’s a single ‘bar’ above which someone is ‘elite enough’ to be a pilot and below which, not. Some traits make a person more apt to be a pilot; others, less; and how there traits play together might decide the final aptitude. Some of the adverse traits can be changed, be they physiological or psychological in nature; some can’t.

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