To Pull or Not to Pull

Garmin G1000 panel

It’s hard to believe a full decade has elapsed since the launch of the GA glass panel revolution. But as I recall, the first relatively high-volume GA aircraft with a fully integrated glass cockpit was the 2003 edition of the Cirrus SR22. That was the same year that Diamond brought the Garmin G1000 suite to their DA-40. The race was on, and we haven’t looked back since.

While this technology is a blessing, it’s also more complex than traditional analog gauges. Each product line has it’s own failure modes and redundancies, it’s pluses and minuses. Those are the things which dictate how partial panel scenarios should be simulated. It ought to be based on the way failures are expected to occur in real life, right?

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The Key to Good IFR: More VFR


The Asiana 214 investigation has proven to be every bit as interesting and disturbing as I’d predicted.

Most of the reporting and commentary has been focused on the pilot’s interaction with — and understanding of — the aircraft’s automation system. It seems clear they were having trouble getting the aircraft to do what they wanted during the approach into San Francisco.

You won’t hear pilots bragging about this at cocktail parties, but “what’s it doing now?” is uttered far too often on the flight deck. I myself have been puzzled about why the airplane didn’t do what I thought I asked it to do. Usually it’s a programming issue, but not always.

The most recent issue of NASA’s Callback publication, issue 407, details the story of four professional flight crews who had automation confusion issues similar to that experienced by the Asiana crew. So this isn’t exactly uncommon.

Either way, pressing the wrong button is not a criminal offense.

“Cleared for the Visual.” Gulp!

What is criminal is putting a captain on the flight deck of a passenger airliner when he’s unable to comfortably hand-fly it, because when the electrons aren’t flowing the way you want ‘em to, flying the airplane by hand is often the best course of action… not to mention the most fun, too.

Well, most of the time anyway.

The Asiana Airlines training captain who crashed a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport in July was anxious about the visual approach, which he described as “very stressful,” according to investigators.

Capt. Lee Kang Kuk, an eight-year employee of Asiana on his first extended trip flying the 777, also told investigators he was confused about the operation of the airplane’s automation controls, according to a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday as the board held a hearing into the crash.

The 777’s speed dropped dangerously low on the approach, made with assistance of the PAPI lights but without vertical guidance from the ILS glideslope, which was out of service at the time. Both Asiana 214 pilots said they were unsure about the automation mode with respect to the autothrottles, which should have been engaged on the approach. Instead, the autothrottles were set to idle, according to investigators.

The training captain stated it was “very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane,” according to the safety board summary of an interview with the pilot. Asked whether he was concerned about his ability to perform the visual approach, he said, “very concerned, yeah.”

An automation interaction problem — the so-called “FLCH trap” — I can understand. But inability to comfortably fly a visual approach? On the surface, that’s a major head-scratcher. When you dig a little deeper, however, it makes perfect sense.

The Key to Good IFR: More VFR

I don’t know how Asiana does it, but many foreign airlines hire their pilots “ab initio”, meaning they are trained by the airline as airline pilots from day one. They have no exposure to pleasure flying, aerobatics, or gliders because the concept of “general aviation” does not exist in most countries. Ab initio airline pilots receive only the minimum required VFR experience. As soon as they venture into instrument flying, the VFR world is left behind forever. They have no use for it! Or so they think.

I’d imagine many of them never fly under visual flight rules again for the rest of their lives. It’s sad. And it’s no wonder some of them are uncomfortable with the thought of flying a visual approach!

It’s not as if the weather was poor, the runway short, or the airfield surrounded by high terrain. There were no issues with density altitude, runway slope or width, or anything else. San Francisco International’s runway 28R is nearly 12,000 feet long. I’ve landed on it many times myself. The weather was clear, winds calm, and the airport is unmistakably large.

Sure, the controllers do tend to keep arriving aircraft quite high. But even from 10,000 feet on a tight downwind, it’s not rocket science to start slowing the airplane and adding drag. Unless you’re asleep at the wheel, you know what’s coming. And even if you don’t, you can ask. The controllers speak English, too. A visual approach in those conditions shouldn’t scare the pilot-in-command of any aircraft. In fact, if there’s an easier way to land an airplane, I’m not sure what it is.

Kids Can Do It — Why Can’t We?

To put this in perspective, consider a glider. It has no engine, and therefore cannot abort a landing attempt. Once you begin an approach to the runway, you are going to land, period. These aircraft have no instruments, no electronic guidance, and they fly in and out of airports without any visual landing aids whatsoever. The landing areas tend to be short, narrow, and rough. And here in the U.S., students as young as fourteen years old can fly them solo. Fourteen! They’re just kids, and apparently even with virtually no flight time, they have no trouble getting comfortable with something that a highly experienced major airline captain felt very uneasy attempting.

This begs the question of how Captain Kuk became so uncomfortable with a simple visual approach. I’d estimate that 75% of all approaches are visuals. I’d be shocked if Kuk hadn’t flown literally hundreds of them. As a scheduled airline pilot, he was required to undergo recurrent training every six months, and had been doing that for eight years.

So how did this level of discomfort with basic visual flying escape the schoolhouse? If Kuk’s training is anything like what we undergo in the Gulfstream, he may rarely have ever flown that kind of visual procedure in the simulator. Mostly what gets simulated are low-visibility conditions. The assumption that it’d almost be “cheating” to have visual references outside the aircraft might not have been correct. Visual approaches in the sim are typically combined with other anomalies: no-flap scenarios, windshear simulations, landing gear blow-downs, etc. But not the typical slam-dunk from a harried controller.

One wonders how many other airline pilots pale at the thought of flying a visual approach (or as the VFR pilots among us call it: landing). I know most airlines no longer allow circle-to-land procedures, but even the neophyte instrument pilot has to perform them to acceptable standards before being issued an instrument rating, and that’s infinitely more demanding than a visual approach. Instead of practicing an ILS PRM at San Francisco, perhaps we should be vectored in on one of those famously high downwinds and cleared for a visual approach from two miles up. Maybe we should train a little more like we fly.

And while we’re at it, taking a hint from that fourteen year old kid who just soloed a beat up Schweizer glider might not be so bad, either. Get out of the glass palace and into an actual airplane where there’s nothing to do except fly by looking out the window.

“Unable”: Your Ace in the Hole

Short final on a Category 3A ILS approach into Oslo, Norway.  Most definitely NOT the time to be "head down" in the cockpit.

If you’re anything like me, your e-mail account is perpetually filling up with newsletters, magazines, digests, announcements and offers from the likes of AOPA, EAA, IAC, NBAA, AVweb, AIN, and others. I wouldn’t call this stuff junk mail or spam, because it’s useful, aviation-related information that I solicited at some point.

But to be honest, there are times that the endless stream of data pouring into my computer feels like a gentle, Matrix-esque form of digital waterboarding. Add in a healthy stream of blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds etc. and it can be a full-time job keeping up with it all. In response, I’ve become rather adept at quickly skimming these publications and adding a few select articles to my reading list before hitting the delete key.

Still, there’s a lot of good stuff out there. One of my favorites is the “IFR Fix” column on the AOPA web site. Author Dan Namowitz keeps the writing short and sweet, yet always imparts a thought-provoking lesson. Even if you’re not instrument-rated, there’s much to be gleaned from his posts.

For example, Dan recently penned an article about an aircraft which was only a few hundred feet above minimums on an instrument approach and got a rude shock from the controller.

The twin was 300 feet above minimums, descending, when ATC called with new missed approach instructions.

“Advise ready to copy.”

The pilot flying was undergoing a checkride for an air-taxi operator. The check pilot responded to the radio call.

“I said that it was a really bad time, but go ahead,” recounted the check pilot in a complaint to the Aviation Safety Reporting System, noting great displeasure at having to copy alternate missed approach instructions at such a high-workload stage.

Since this was a checkride, the aircraft was probably on a practice approach in good VFR weather while the pilot flying was wearing a view-limiting device. The controller was likely aware of the weather, but since most of them these days are not pilots, probably didn’t understand why it would be a problem to make a pilot write a long series of instructions down on paper just as he was approaching the ground.

Three hundred feet is about 30 seconds of flying time. It’s unreasonable to expect a pilot to grab a pen and paper, transcribe the procedure, read it back, set up the radios correctly, and still fly the plane. Even if the aircraft’s flying on autopilot, the request was outlandish at best.

Lest you think that this is something which would only occur in VMC, let me say I’ve had this happen in actual low IMC while flying into Chino (KCNO). And would you believe it didn’t phase me in the least? No stress, no sweat, no frantic scribbling with one hand while trying to control the airplane with the other. You might be thinking I’m some sort of aviation Superman… and in a way you’d be right. I have a super power at my disposal that can crush the most dastardly schemes of evil air traffic controllers in a single second.

I’ll let you in on another secret: you have this power too. It’s called “unable”. That word is your salvation and one which probably doesn’t get used often enough, because as pilots we don’t like to admit that we’re incapable. Incapable is a word we associate with failure and a lack of personal ability. We’re genetically programmed to do everything in our power to comply with a controller’s instructions. Besides, if ATC asks you to do something, there’s an implied assertion that you should be able to do it. Otherwise why would they be asking? Aren’t they trained professionals who know what they’re doing?

Maybe. But don’t be fooled by that authoritative sounding voice-from-on-high, controllers are not infallible. They’re not pilots. And they most certainly are not in command if your airplane. You are.

It’s an important distinction, and I take it as a huge accomplishment when a student of mine learns to use this magic word. The list of crazy things I’ve seen them instructed to do by FAA certified air traffic controllers is long, and it’s not limited to IFR operations, either.

How many of these do you recognize?

  • Increase taxi speed
  • Taxi routing too close to jet blast
  • Last minute circling instructions
  • Slam dunk approaches
  • Maintain high speed until short final
  • Early crosswind turns at low altitude
  • Cancel takeoff clearance after V1 (yes, that happened to me!)
  • “Exit at taxiway X” while too fast
  • Last minute alternate missed approach instruction
  • Clear to takeoff or land into a wake turbulence hazard
  • Vectored onto an approach inside the FAF
  • Vectored onto an approach way too high
  • Controller cancels IFR without pilot assent
  • Instructed NOT to go-around (we did anyway)
  • Vectored underneath a low-flying helicopter in the pattern

You don’t have to do any of these. According to the FAA’s Pilot-Controller Glossary, the word unable “indicates inability to comply with a specific instruction, request, or clearance.” Very simple.

The reason doesn’t really matter. It could be safety-related, or infer a lack of equipment (GPS, for instance) or pilot certification (instrument rating or currency) for the requested action. It might be high pilot workload, low time-in-type, unfamiliarity with the phraseology or maneuver, or literally any other reason. If you’re not comfortable, then don’t do it. That little voice in the back of your head and those hairs on the back of your neck are worth listening to.

I’ve refused quite a few instructions over the years, but looking back, if I could do it all over again I’d refuse a few more. There’s a VFR departure procedure leaving Santa Barbara which takes single engine aircraft way out over the water at very low altitude. I’ve flown that one on a dozen occasions and I kick myself for accepting it every. single. time.

I understand the reason for the limitation (traffic separation), but that’s simply not my problem. It’d be better to hold on the ground until the departure path is clear for a climb than to get sent out over miles of cold ocean at low altitude in a single-engine aircraft, especially if you’re not equipped with rafts and life vests and/or have passengers who cannot swim.

If you’re in a twin, that’s a different story. But the procedure at SBA doesn’t make any distinction, so it falls to the pilot, and far too often I’ve failed to make the smart choice. If more aviators were to do so, the flurry of refusals would probably cause the procedure to be changed, resulting in a safety improvement for the rest of our brethren.

Short final on a Category 3A ILS approach into Oslo, Norway.  Most definitely NOT the time to be writing down missed approach instructions.

Short final on a Category 3A ILS approach into Oslo, Norway. Most definitely NOT the time to be “head down” in the cockpit.

Getting back to Namowitz’s example, the check pilot did accept the alternate missed approach instruction, but were I in his shoes I’d have refused it for two reasons. Not only was it a poor idea to be head-down while low and descending, but there’s also the issue of setting up the missed approach procedure. These days, many of us are equipped with TSO-C129/145 GPS receivers and typically fly all missed approaches with GPS guidance.

Naturally, we should be prepared in case reversion to a ground-based navaid is required, but even if you were prepared for that eventuality, according to the Aeronautical Information Manual, many alternate missed procedures are not published, even if the holding fix is. That means the procedure will not appear in the database or on the approach plate. The only way to obtain it is by having ATC verbally communicate it to you over the radio. Right out of 1940, folks.

“Some locations may have a preplanned alternate missed approach procedure for use in the event the primary navaid used for the missed approach procedure is unavailable,” explains the Aeronautical Information Manual.”To avoid confusion, the alternate missed approach instructions are not published on the chart. However, the alternate missed approach holding pattern will be depicted on the instrument approach chart for pilot situational awareness and to assist ATC by not having to issue detailed holding instructions.” The alternate missed approach also may use navaids not part of the approach or the primary missed approach.

How ironic is that? The alternate missed is used for instances where a navaid (typically ground based) is unavailable, but with GPS we can go there anyway. It’d be infinitely safer to simply allow a /G, /F, or other suitably equipped airplane to fly the published missed even if the navaid was offline.

The approach plate has instructions (circled, center) to get you to the Newberg VOR (left), but no route for getting you to the "alternate" hold at CANBY (right).

The approach plate has instructions (circled, center) to get you to the Newberg VOR (left), but no route for getting you to the “alternate” hold at CANBY (right).

So was the controller the bad guy here? Not necessarily. They simply follow approved procedures for moving traffic. If the airplane has multiple pilots on board and they’re familiar with the area, this could’ve almost been a reasonable request. Almost. But for a single pilot in actual IMC? No way. The best response is to focus on the instruments, fly the plane, put down the pencil, and give the controller the only read back he needs to hear:


It’s a beautiful thing.

Circle-to-Land Complications

The protected airspace extends a specified radius from the ends of each runway at the airport.

If I asked you to ponder the most pucker-inducing aspect of instrument flying, what would come to mind? An icing encounter? Circumventing imbedded thunderstorms? Hand flying that approach to minimums? An instrument failure?

Those are all good answers, but for me the one that takes the cake is a low-visibility circle-to-land maneuver to an unfamiliar airport at night.

If you’re not an instrument-rated pilot, you might not be familiar with this. The need for circling comes from situations where the weather is poor and the runway most associated with the approach is not suitable for landing. This could be due to unfavorable winds, runway construction, insufficient runway length, or any one of a dozen different reasons.

Some approaches are simply not aligned with any runway whatsoever, and in those cases circling is mandatory if you want to put the plane on the ground.

In plain English, circle-to-land means low-altitude, low-speed maneuvering in a confined space. Circling out of an instrument approach procedure in relatively low IMC is not something to be taken lightly. The margin for error is slight, and that’s probably why most Part 121 airlines don’t allow their flight crews to perform circling maneuvers.

Despite that fact, the FAA recently elected to change circling approaches in a way that adds significant complication for those of us who do use them.

Here are four examples of what circling might look like:

These are four common methods used for circling.  (The exact maneuvers during circling are not specified.  As long as the aircraft is kept within the protected airspace, terrain and obstacle clearance is assured.)

These are four common methods used for circling. (The exact maneuvers during circling are not specified. As long as the aircraft is kept within the protected airspace, terrain and obstacle clearance is assured.)

Up until now, determining how large an area was available for circling was straightforward and quite standardized. The FAA would prescribe a minimum altitude to use during the circling maneuver based on the aircraft’s speed. This makes sense, because the faster an aircraft is flying, the more airspace it needs in order to maneuver, right?

There are five speed categories:

Category A: up to 90 knots
Category B: 91 to 120 knots
Category C: 121 to 140 knots
Category D: 141 to 165 knots
Category E: 166 knots or greater

Once the aircraft’s category is determined, the minimum altitude for the circling maneuver could simply be read off the approach plate. The size of the protected airspace at that altitude was determined by a standard radius from the ends of the runways.

If, for example, you were flying category “B”, you were assured of obstacle and terrain clearance within a radius of 1.5 nautical miles from the ends of each runway. There were relatively few things to memorize. When the weather’s poor and you’re tired after a long bumpy flight, that’s a good thing. The “KISS” principal has proven to be a pilot’s best friend on many occasions.

This is the way it used to be: simple.  Each category had only one radius to remember.

This is the way it used to be: simple. Each category had only one radius to remember.

As of this month, however, circling has become more challenging. I’ve read several explanations of the new system, but I believe NBAA described it best:

Industry safety groups have long expressed concerns that the radii size used to establish these arcs was insufficient to contain large, jet transport airplanes during the circle-to-land maneuver. These concerns were highlighted following a Boeing 767 controlled flight into terrain accident during a circling approach designed using US TERPS criteria [Ed. I believe they’re referring to the crash of Air China Flight 129 back in April of 2002]. In addition, the size of the circling approach area did not always allow enough room for pilots to align the aircraft with the final approach and consistently achieve a stabilized approach. The result was an increased frequency of runway excursions (i.e. overruns) out of circle-to-land approaches.

As result, FAA conducted an extensive review that resulted in new TERPS criteria that increases the radii dimensions defining the circling protected airspace. In addition, the radii dimensions increase in size as circling MDA increases. This increase in radii size with higher MDAs accounts for greater true airspeeds and adverse wind gradients encountered at higher mean sea level (MSL) altitudes. While these radii are smaller than those used in ICAOs PANS-OPS, they represent a significant improvement over the previous TERPS criteria.

At first glance this looks like a positive development — and it is, if you fly an airliner and are approved for circling maneuvers. But most airlines aren’t, and those that are often have significant limitations on their flight crews. For example, I know of a few companies that do not allow circling at night. Others pad the circling minima.

If the old system was going away, it would actually be less complicated. But the FAA is keeping it — sort of. In addition to all the things a pilot is responsible for briefing him- or herself on, there’s a new one: if you see an “inverse C” icon or “inverse C diamond” icon on your approach plate, you’ll have to either pull out a separate reference sheet or rely on a memorized version of this table to determine how large your protected airspace is:

New Circling Area Radii
Circling MDA in feet MSL Approach Category and Circling Radius (NM)
1000 or less 1.3 1.7 2.7 3.6 4.5
1001-3000 1.3 1.8 2.8 3.7 4.6
3001-5000 1.3 1.8 2.9 3.8 4.8
5001-7000 1.3 1.9 3.0 4.0 5.0
7001-9000 1.4 2.0 3.2 4.2 5.3
9001 and above 1.4 2.1 3.3 4.4 5.5

The FAA believes this makes circling safer, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s necessarily true.

To be sure, the new radii are equal to or greater than that of the old system, meaning that a pilot who misses the inverse symbol on the approach plate and flies the old criteria will not find themselves outside the protected airspace. But the variety of possible radii in the new system introduces added complexity that make it far easier for an aviator to select the incorrect circling area. That can make them more likely to hit something, not less.

This is especially true if a last-minute change (say, a wind shift) requires circling when it was not previously expected.

In addition, the CFIT accident the FAA cites in their justification for the new circling radii happened more than 11 years ago, involved a foreign carrier, and according to the March 2005 accident report, was the fault of the flight crew, not the procedure or TERPS criteria. The report found that their approach briefing was subpar and didn’t include the missed approach. They “exercised poor CRM and lost situational awareness”, and “failed to execute the missed approach after losing sight of the runway”.

Finally, as I noted above, there’s the matter of whether the very airlines these changes where designed to help will even use them. Increasing the circling radii will often have the effect of raising the Minimum Descent Altitude, and that could make the procedure less valuable.

I think of circle-to-land much like a contact approach or Special VFR: a wonderful tool, but one that must be used with great care in truly poor weather if tragedy is to be avoided. Complicating the matter as this new criteria does may have consequences that the FAA never anticipated.

Climb/Descend Via


I was recently in Arizona for a 135.293 oral exam with the FAA and learned that the local FSDO has been seeing quite a few pilot deviations due to misunderstandings about the appropriate altitudes to fly when given a “climb/descend via” departure/arrival procedure.

To be honest, until I started flying internationally, it was somewhat rare to encounter a “descend via” instruction. It seems more common in Europe, probably because many domestic STARs contain “expect” altitude restrictions, and ATC is specifically prohibited from giving descend-via instructions on those procedures. (It’s also worth noting that pilots are not expected to comply with published “expect” restrictions in the event of lost communications, unless ATC has specifically advised the pilot to expect these restrictions as part of a further clearance.)

As far as “climb via” is concerned, it’s even rarer because thus far it has not been used in the United States. That’s going to change next month, however. NBAA recently published a short primer about it:

The new “climb via” instruction for standard instrument departures (SIDs) mirrors the similar “descend via” instruction already being issued for standard terminal arrival route (STAR) procedures. Under the new clearances, pilots need to pay close attention to intermediate-altitude and speed restrictions, notes NBAA Access Committee member Rich Boll.

“Many SID procedures also have published, intermediate-altitude restrictions, including ‘at,’ ‘at or below’ or ‘at or above’ restrictions, which must be followed for ATC separation purposes,” he said. “When issued a ‘climb via’ clearance, pilots will be expected to abide by all restrictions listed on the procedure when vertically navigating the SID and climbing to the initial ‘maintain altitude’ published on the SID.” Failure to comply with the charted SID procedure could result in a pilot deviation.

Along with charted altitude restrictions, pilots will also be required to comply with published speed restrictions on instrument flight procedures, though controllers can still issue speed adjustments. But once the adjustment is no longer required, ATC may advise aircraft to “resume published speed,” with no additional guidance provided.

In theory, the “climb/descend via” instruction will increase efficiency by eliminating some of the radio communication that takes place as controllers verbally provide each altitude change to the flight crew during an a SID or STAR. I say “in theory” because I have a feeling the read backs are going to cause some frequency congestion of their own until pilots get the phraseology straight. If in doubt about what a clearance means, pilots should ask for clarification, and that will eat up some bandwidth, too.

NBAA has a comprehensive tutorial available online. It’s free even if you’re not an NBAA member, so if you fly IFR, I highly recommend reading through it. The “climb/descend via” instruction is one case where pilot read back phraseology is critical. I imagine it’s going to be much like runway “hold short” instructions — if you don’t read back the instruction properly, ATC will keep bugging you until they hear the words they need to have on tape. On the plus side, if your aircraft is equipped with VNAV capability and autothrottles, these clearances should simplify SIDs and STARs because the altitude and speed profiles are part of the FMS database.

The FAA has published Notice 7110.584, which goes into effect August 15th and officially explains the phraseology and meaning. If you’re the type that prefers to watch rather than read, they also put out a 15 minute video, however the sheer physical size of the co-pilot was distracting enough that I went back to the PDF file. I’m not kidding.