The concept of a stabilized approach has been around since powered flight began, and likewise, the concept of a non-stabilized approach, as well. The term “stabilized approach” has been common in the airline and commuter worlds, and has eased its way into general aviation language. Once we have a label, we naturally spend two or three pages in flying textbooks to explain it, exactly define it and then argue about the definition. That definition can be as simple as on course, glide path and airspeed, or pages, yup, pages, of complex definitions with exacting mathematical specifications of how off course, glide path or airspeed you can be and still be considered stabilized. I think simpler is better, but I confess to having seemingly endless, yet enthusiastic, debates over the microscopic details of what constitutes stabilized. This topic always comes up at flight instructor refresher clinics, and throwing a little verbal fuel on the fire always gets the crowd lathered up. I know some flight instructors think an exacting definition of what constitutes a stabilized approach is important; no disrespect to those who do, I just don’t. Whether you define stabilized conceptually or mathematically isn’t really important. What is important is what you do when the approach is not stabilized.
Every year we collectively bend a lot of good airplanes while landing. Many of these don’t meet the NTSB criteria to be reportable and, therefore, don’t show up in the accident statistics but in our insurance premiums. Unfortunately, these unplanned events are usually the result of not flying a stabilized approach. I often see applicants on practical tests, Private through ATP, demonstrating the time-honored landing technique of Chop, Drop and Yank. They arrive high over the threshold, typically, a few too many knots fast, realize they need to do something, and chop the throttle. The airplane nose, followed closely by the rest of the airplane, drops suddenly—and only imminent ground impact forces them to yank on the yoke to arrest the descent. Many times this technique works out, that is, if you consider a relatively damage-free airplane as working out. Other times, it results directly in a hard landing, or a big balloon followed by a hard landing, and a call to the insurance agent.
The unfortunate part of this tradition is that it doesn’t have to happen. All us pilot types have to do is fix two simple problems. First, learn to let the airplane do what it already knows how to do: Fly. Second, create a culture that encourages pilots to go around. Easy, huh? This writing isn’t about how to fly a stabilized approach; there are more techniques than there are flight instructors, and addressing them all would be, at the very minimum, a short novel. I do, however, want to agree on what the elusive stabilized approach might look like so we can have a starting point.
Imagine all landings start from a 2½-mile straight-in approach with the airplane fully configured, on airspeed, and trimmed correctly. All you need to do is make small glide path corrections with power and apply gentle pressures on the yoke/stick to stay lined up on final. As you cross the threshold, make a gentle power reduction, ease the yoke/stick back to set the landing attitude, and let the airplane land itself. One of the best-kept secrets in aviation, still, is that the airplane actually knows how to fly; we just need to let it do exactly that. The airplane resists being flown out of trim and, when manhandled, will always express its displeasure with a reaction you may not appreciate. If this concept of a stabilized approach seems vaguely familiar, but doesn’t happen very often, you can fix that with a little practice. Once that straight-in approach is consistent, just bend it around a base and downwind; the control inputs are just as gentle and simple.
Consistently flying stable approaches takes a little practice, but sooner or later all of us, no matter how skillful we imagine ourselves to be, find ourselves, well, let’s just say not on a stabilized approach. Should you try and salvage the approach, or go around? I’m not suggesting you go around if the approach isn’t perfect, but therein lies the insidious trap. How big a correction do you need to fix it, and is there enough time?
We’re all our worst enemies when it comes to abandoning an approach. We’re confident, goal-oriented, high-achieving individuals, and that self-confidence and goal orientation can be a strong, if not overpowering, element in continuing the approach and attempting to salvage the landing. Additionally, you’ve probably practiced salvaging unstable approaches from your very first flight lesson. In an effort to get more landings in each lesson, well-meaning flight instructors have likely demonstrated how to salvage a bad approach. As you gained experience, they helped you less and less, but all the while increasing your confidence level in continuing the approach to see if it will work.
So where does that leave you when by any definition of what you consider a stabilized approach you realize this one ain’t? Easy—go around! So why don’t more folks do it? Ego? I’m not convinced. The folks I’ve talked to, post-mishap, haven’t been reckless pilots nor ego-driven. They just became so focused on completing the landing that they found themselves having exceeded their ability to fix the problem. I always ask them if they consciously considered going around, and when the obviousness of the question passes, they, to the person, say they did not. They were intensely focused on the landing as if they were managing an engine-out approach where going around wasn’t an option. This gotta-stick-the-landing focus is a hard thing to fix. It’s easy for me to say that you should plan every approach to a go-around and only land if everything continues to go as planned to the point of touchdown, but to change the goal of the approach to a go-around instead of the landing isn’t something most pilots do. In some way, we consider going around a failure.
Let’s look at two different pilots. The first was testing for a commercial rating and things went badly from the downwind. He leveled off on downwind, kept the power in until he was at cruise speed, pulled the throttle back suddenly and mechanically, but couldn’t lower the flaps because of the airspeed. He began the descent, further reducing his ability to slow down, turned final fast and high, and wrestled the airplane to the ground despite its bucking and biting. Clearly, the approach was outside the parameters of the standards, and when I asked him in the debrief why he didn’t go around, he truthfully confessed it never occurred to him to do anything but continue to try to salvage the landing.
The second pilot was testing for a private pilot certificate and flew a textbook downwind approach. He announced the target speeds he was going to fly and flew them, and had the aircraft trimmed during all the configuration and airspeed changes. He was making nearly imperceptible inputs to fine-tune his glide path, but about 20 feet over the runway he added power and announced he was going around. He completed all the checklist items, made all the appropriate calls and flew another near-perfect pattern and landing. During the debrief, I asked him why he went around on the first approach, and he said, “It just didn’t feel right, and my instructor told me if it doesn’t feel right, I should go around.”
How do you know when it’s time to go around? Try this. Spot yourself, for now, the downwind and base legs, but when you roll out on final, if you can’t take your hand off the yoke without the airplane trying to escape, you’re not stabilized, so go around. If you can’t control the glide path with, say, a ¼-inch of throttle, yeah, don’t be staring at the tach on final; you’re not stabilized. If it takes more than slight pressure on the yoke to correct your heading, you’re not stabilized. And, lastly, and most importantly, if it doesn’t feel right, go around!
Perhaps the perfect approach to a perfect landing is as elusive as the perfect wave is to surfers—not to worry. A stabilized approach to an uneventful landing is not; it just takes a little practice. Many applicants earn their Notice Of Disapproval for bad approaches and landings; I can’t recall ever issuing one for a bad go-around. Just sayin’.
Roger Sharp is a pilot, an instructor and a designated examiner from San Antonio, Texas. For weekend fun, he flies warbirds with the Commemorative Air Force.