READY, SET .
"Cessna 405EG, turn right heading 160°. Your position is 3 miles north of Lemon, cleared ILS, runway one niner right. Maintain 3000' until established, contact Tower at Lemon 126.8."
Oh wow! "Uh, roger, 405EG uh, turn right 160 .. cleared for approach ..say again altitude?"
"5EG, maintain 3000 until established. "
"5EG, maintain 5000. Roger, cleared approach."
Let's see. Right turn, don't descend. OK, maintain 3000, climb a bit. Wait a minute--I'm past the localizer, turn a bunch. Better ID it. Where's Lemon? Markers .OK that's fixed. Maintain altitude, turn on course. That's the ID. Way above glide slope. Where's Lemon? Better get Seal Beach on the # 2 I know the freq. There. Oh oh, past Lemon. Too late for the glide slope. Descend to 2600', do the Localizer--should be OK. Let's see, 2600' untilbetter turn back on course. Wait--I'm inside Lemon, gotta descend760'what's the DME? Eleven miles? That can't be right. Lower the nose. Better call tower. Frequency change .there. Off course, turn....
"John Wayne Tower, 405EG is, uh, with you on the ILS."
"5EG roger. Continue. Traffic is a 757 touching down 19R."
Uh ohno DME, I need to time thisstart the stopwatch. No, too late. Way off course. Maybe the DME's slaved wrong. Where's Dyers? Way too high--damn.
"Uh tower, 5EG I need another approach."
"5EG. Understand missed approach. Say intentions."
"Uh, never mind, tower, I see the runway."
"5EG, understand runway in sight. Cleared to land, 19R"
Great, did it!--a successful approach. Too high, of course, but with 5800' of runway, I could say the extra height was a good thingI was way above the wake turbulence from that Boeing. Not very pretty--better work on the setup a bit more--lucky I saw the runway when I did or I'd have had to do it all over again.
Could it happen? More often than you think. The silver lining? Maybe it was a training flight with a CFI keeping a watchful eye from the other seat. In fact, this is the kind of thing that keeps flight instructors in business: it's clear this pilot is a long way from ready to go on his own.
The solution lies in adopting a pre-approach checklist designed to clear the way. Mine is AHARMMMStried and true, somewhat flawed, but adequate for the job. I recently spoke with a past employee, a pilot for American, who assured me that at the conclusion of all pre-approach checks required by his employer he silently runs through AHARMMMS to reassure himself nothing has been missed. Too many years as a CFI, I guess. For all he knows, the pilot in the other seat is quietly doing the samethe lessons learned from skipping essential approach items tend to be memorable, so whatever system you first came to depend on is likely to stay with you.
The most important thing to recognize about a pre-approach checklist is that it needs to be started very early. At a cruising airspeed of 120 knots, most of the items should be complete at least 20 miles from the destination airport. At higher speeds, multiply the distance accordingly. This means, ultimately, that if you find yourself inside 20 miles and still not started on the checklist, you should be uncomfortable and anxious to get going. No matter that your list differs somewhat from mine, the most important point is to start and complete early.
Although some of the items on a pre-approach checklistmost obviously the radio frequenciescannot be completed while you are still enroute, it is important the remainder get done: it would be a mistake to delay everything until all radios on the panel get freed up for you to set in the approach frequencies. When it is necessary to defer an item, the best procedure is to make a mental note, something like "Nav One still to go." Saying this out loud is useful during the learning processa feature you can drop after building experience. However you choose to go about dealing with deferred items, the goal should be obvious: to devise a reliable procedure for filling in gaps in your preparation as the opportunities arise.
Do you see differences from your list? If so, it's probably not criticalwhile all the items are necessary, there is some room for changing the order in which you perform them as you get ready for the approach.
ATISthe sooner you get it, the sooner you can make some critical decisions. Here are the five most important: Which runway does the wind favor? Are the clouds high enough? Is the visibility good enough? What's the altimeter setting? What approach and runway are in use?
Too many negatives or contradictions may mean you need to diverta real possibility in IFR operations, but one often ignored, unfortunately, during initial instrument training. Clouds or visibility too low, gusting conditions, unacceptable crosswindall may be enough to send you somewhere else, so close attention is necessary.
Now, how you will go about receiving it? There are several possibilities: (1) attempt to listen to both Com radios simultaneously, (2) ask the controller for the information, (3) leave the ATC frequency briefly to switch to ATIS.
And, the answer is ..(3). Number (1) is toughespecially in a busy approach environment. Pilots attempting to listen to one radio for ATIS information while continuing to monitor ATC on the other nearly always end up wasting time, missing radio calls and passing over important airport information. It's hard to say which is the worst.
And (2) is likely to get you the rough edge of the controller's tongue. ATIS was originally created to reduce controller workload; asking someone to read it to you misses the point rather completely. So, that leaves (3). Simply tell ATC you would like to leave frequency briefly to get ATIS; nine times out of ten you'll get a positive response with instructions to "report back on." If for some reason the controller really can't spare you off freq, he or she will give you the airport informationjust as if you had asked for it, but pleasantly.
Before leaving the subject of ATIS altogether, it pays to note that controllers tend to shorten the airport information to the bare minimum: altimeter, approach in use and only that weather which appears threatening. As a consequence, you are far better off finding a way to get the information on your ownyou'll get a more complete picture.
At non-towered airports, there are fewer optionsairport advisories on the CTAF or automatic weather broadcasts. The technique described in (3) above continues to be the best option.
Two downseveral to go. Next time, more of the AHAMMMS items and more observations on how best to get ready for approach clearances.