One of the great truths of flying is the admonition, “He who stops getting better stops being good.” We must constantly strive for the perfection we may never achieve, just to keep our skills sharp. Becoming satisfied with being almost good enough means that we’re no longer trying to stay on centerline, on altitude or on track. Why bother? Because if we don’t practice at every opportunity, then the skills we need at a critical juncture won’t be there.
Are you an aviation enthusiast or pilot? Sign up for our newsletter, full of tips, reviews and more!
I recall reading a story from 50 years ago about a transatlantic cargo flight that had already passed its point of no return when the weather in all of Europe within reach of the plane’s range unexpectedly went down to zero-zero in fog. The flight deck crew knew the situation was dire, but the aircraft commander took charge, slipping into the left seat.
He marshaled all his resources for the inevitable ILS approach to a below-minimums destination. The co-pilot was assigned the tasks of watching for any sign of lights or runways and calling out altitudes. The flight engineer was to take care of the engine controls, and all hands on board were briefed on their duties at crash stations. Gear down with half flaps, the old man flew the ILS as if on rails, tweaking wheel and pedals minutely to hold the crossed needles immobile, past the middle marker and across the invisible approach lights. As the radar altitude reading passed through 25 feet, he slowed the rate of descent imperceptibly, the callouts coming in 10-foot increments as he continued along the localizer beam. There was a sound of tires brushing pavement—he called for power off, tapped the brakes to maintain an unseen centerline, and brought the indicated airspeed to zero, setting the parking brake. Nothing but fog could be seen from the 30-foot cockpit height. The control tower was alerted to their arrival.
Eventually, a slight bump was felt from below, and the loadmaster exited the aircraft to see what it might have been. It turned out to be a follow-me truck that had driven under the nose of the stationary airliner and bounced off the nosewheel tires. The driver had been creeping along the centerline of the runway, attempting to locate the immobile airplane, and couldn’t see the huge shape in the fog. The dual nose tires were sitting precisely astraddle the runway centerline.
Do you suppose that captain learned how to make a precision approach to a blind landing on that fateful morning? No. He trained for it constantly, seeking perfection in the simulator and actual flight, just in case such skill would be needed someday. He may have been out of options, but he wasn’t out of luck. He made his own luck.
Use It Or Lose it
Manual flying isn’t a lost art unless we let it be. To keep sharp, we need to stay in practice, and that means flying more than occasionally in order to maintain predictable performance. My habit is to hand-fly the aircraft unless workload dictates otherwise. I need the practice, and staying in actual touch with the airplane allows a bonding that wouldn’t occur otherwise. That’s not to say I won’t use the autopilot in appropriate situations—it’s a tool but only a tool, not a replacement for the human element. Certainly, the automation should be employed when one has to divert attention to look up information or enter data. If the METAR is sitting at minimums, it makes sense to use every bit of capability, including flying a coupled approach.
Even when flying on autopilot, we can improve our precision flying ability by paying close attention to the autopilot’s actions. Take note of how it anticipates a course interception by small, early increments of control, avoiding an overshoot; so should we when it’s our turn to fly. A smooth altitude capture isn’t a matter of driving the aircraft up or down to a number and grabbing hold of it. Instead, the autopilot is aware of the closure rate, modifies pitch attitude accordingly, and stops gently in level flight, on target. There’s a lesson there for each of us if we want to be a precision pilot.
How can you tell if your skills need honing? There are lots of ways, but a sure sign is chasing the instrument indications instead of anticipating them. When observing pilots doing recurrent training, I often see jerky movements rather than fluid control use. I advise the struggling pilot to use half as much input, starting earlier, and to apply a scan pattern of the sources of information on the panel, rather than fixating too long on one indication.
Instead of turning control over to the autopilot, you can instead fly manually in flight director mode, though you need to remember to keep your scan sharp, cross-checking the rest of the displayed indications and not hyperforcusing on the flight director. As with all automation, the pilot has to remain in charge of setting up the guidance, so the flight director’s attitude cues will be leading him or her right where the aircraft should go. As with fully automated flight, small, incremental, anticipatory control input is the key to precise results. The pilot’s muscles are simply replacing the servos of the autopilot.
No Such Thing As Non-Precision
I’ve never cared for the term “non-precision approach.” Any approach to a landing, whether it’s done in the clear or with electronic guidance, should be conducted with precision. Without enhanced electronic vertical and lateral guidance, we’ll simply execute the descent in a stabilized manner, setting up the aircraft to reach certain targets at key positions, ones that ensure a stress-free landing. Even if you do get clear of clouds and spot the airport from 10 miles out, don’t let that get in the way of your quest for precision. If you successfully fly the altitude and airspeed targets, you’ll be assured a properly aligned, stabilized final approach. And while you’re at it, remember that zero-zero landing story. Practice when the weather’s fine, so the habit is formed for when it’s not so fine.
Not all flying is by reference to charts. For example, getting the aircraft to the runway without a programmed arrival path seems to be a lost piece of creative flying. Any good pilot must be capable of keeping the airplane under smooth, precise control simply by watching the landscape and applying knowledge of the environment around the airport. It’s at this time that basic pitch and power criteria have to be drawn upon from prior practice; in approach configuration, a certain amount of thrust and a certain attitude will produce the level flight or constant descent that is needed. One cannot seek out these parameters on the fly, so to speak. They need to be developed and stored in advance of need, not when you’re twisting and turning on a visual arrival.
At the foundation of precision flying are these basic pitch-and-power settings, applied to configurations like initial climb, cruise climb, low-speed and high-speed level flight, descent and approach. Knowing what power setting is needed to hold level flight or achieve a crossing altitude gives a familiar starting point, from which one can modify technique slightly for turbulence or wind shear conditions. But if you don’t know the basic settings, you can’t be creative with precision flight path control.
You might be surprised how this attention to precision pays off in many phases of flight, often when you need maximum performance and there’s reduced margin for error, such as when flying a heavily loaded aircraft with little remaining power available, as when you’re near the airplane’s practical service ceiling. Trying to stay on a target altitude or squeeze the airplane up to get over a mountain ridge by simply adding more pitch attitude is a recipe for disaster; increased power, applied in a timely manner, is the only answer. When faced with a sagging altitude reading, my first reaction is to apply a small bit of back pressure on the yoke, perhaps with a touch of pitch trim, as soon as I notice 25 feet of altitude loss. That reduces IAS a knot or two, perhaps enough to ease back up to the target. If there’s no immediate rise in the altitude readout, I’ll nudge the power up without delay, not letting the discrepancy increase. The secret is never to allow 100 feet of altitude loss to occur without taking action; correct it when it’s small—when it’s more easily fixed.
Stay On The Line
Precision control of an airplane even takes place on the ground. The government inspector giving me a flight check wanted to set the tone for what was to come. As we taxied out from the parking ramp, he said, “See that taxiway centerline? Why are you staying 5 feet to one side of it? They put it there for a reason!” I dutifully toe-tapped the old Commander twin back into alignment. In reality, he was doing me a favor: He could see I was new to the game and that I was a bit cocky, and I needed a little prodding if I was going to meet his standards.
Is precision flying exhausting, requiring too much work for regular use? Perhaps, but if you need a break, use the autopilot. Like it or not, the ability to hold a precise flight path and airspeed while hand flying is an acquired skill that, with sufficient practice, can become a natural reaction. Like any kind of challenging new skill, learning it will be tiring at first, but remember that without that practice, you won’t have those precision flying skills when you need them most.