Precision and approximation: These are contradictory terms that, when applied to flying, have more to do with the pilot’s mind-set than they do with skill. They’re a way of thinking, and one of the underlying traits that separates those who fly into two totally different categories: aviators and drivers.
Anyone can be a “driver.” However, only those who care enough about the art of flying to strive for precision in their skills will find themselves moving over into the coveted “aviator” category. It should be noted that it’s the person at the controls who makes the decision as to which category they’ll belong. Will they, or won’t they, put forth the extra effort to be precise at what they do in the air?
There’s a simple fact that applies here: “Approximation” in flying costs those who fly in many tangible ways. They’re less efficient and less capable of putting the airplane exactly where it should be. They aren’t really in control of the airplane. “Precision,” on the other hand, pays dividends every time we’re in the airplane. And nowhere is this more obvious than when flying the pattern and making landings.
Precision as applied to the pattern, or flying in general for that matter, is based on the fact that virtually everything we do in an airplane has a parameter, a number, attached to it. Maybe it’s an altitude. A heading. A distance from the runway. The ground track we’re making in reference to the runway. And many more equally definable factors. Just about everything can be measured, so we know well in advance where the airplane is supposed to be and what it’s supposed to be doing.
The concept of flying a precise pattern to a precision landing is based on flying a consistent pattern and approach. This means the downwind will be in the same place, the same altitude, the same power setting. The power changes, and configuration changes will be initiated the same way, in the same place. The airspeed will be the same and will be the number called out in the POH, etc. All of this is being done while flying a precise ground track that’s referenced only to the numbers at the end of the runway, not the runway itself. We ignore the runway itself because it’s too big to be a precise reference and amounts to approximation.
Just so you know, the whole concept of precision would, on the surface at least, appear to fly in the face of FAA regulations, as spelled out in the PTS, the Practical Test Standards, which are used as the training bible far and wide. In the PTS you’ll find such verbiage as “…maintains traffic pattern altitude +/-100 feet” and on approach “… maintains recommended speed…+10-/-5 knots…” What we have here is approximation by regulation. Although, if asked, we’re certain the FAA would say that their intent is NOT to recommend approximation in anything, but to present a reasonable range for the student pilot during the checkride. However, by publishing those standards in what amounts to the teaching guide for CFIs, flight instruction can’t help but echo what’s said in the PTS, so the concept of tighter precision is totally up to the individual CFI to implement. Some do, some don’t.
There’s a reason POHs say the proper approach speed should be 85 mph, or 90 mph, or whatever (it promotes maximum efficiency). There’s a reason a pattern altitude is a set number (so we’re all working to the same standard). If we were going to be satisfied with an approximate number, we’d say so: “…pattern altitude is 2,400-2,600 feet MSL and approach speed is 80-95 mph.” However, since virtually everything in flying is defined by a single number, our goal should be to hold that number as closely as possible.
We could actually look at the pattern, the approach and the landing as if they’re all parts of a huge anchor chain in which each of the links represents one of those parameters we’re trying to control, and they’re all linked together. If, for instance, we find that we’re too wide on downwind (the distance parameter is wrong), every link in the chain that’s in front of us will also be in the wrong place unless we correct the placement of the downwind immediately. The longer we wait to make that correction, the more pronounced the errors in all the other parameters will become. So, we don’t wait.
The rule in making corrections when in the pattern is “knock down whichever parameter jumps up the highest.” We’re monitoring and controlling a number of basic factors, and we’re doing this in what amounts to a boat moving in a three-dimensional sea. Everything is subject to change. So the timing of the corrections is critical: When we see that something isn’t right, whether it’s altitude, direction, speed, whatever, correct it right at that moment. Don’t wait. This is especially obvious on downwind. Don’t slowly make a change, planning on having it right by the time we’re opposite the end of the runway. There will be plenty of other things wrong at the Initial Point (IP) opposite the threshold on downwind, so don’t carry a correction to that point. If you’re too wide, maneuver the aircraft immediately to eliminate that problem. Too low, power up and get it back up to altitude right now. Whatever the correction needed, don’t wait to make it. Do it as soon as you see it’s wrong.
Our goal is to develop a pattern and approach that’s as rigid as possible. We want our pattern cast in concrete so we have a datum from which changes can be measured. If we adhere to the FAA-approved “range” concept (100 feet high or low, etc.), there’s nothing rigid about our pattern. In fact, downwind could be viewed as a vague, Jell-O-like path. Same thing for the approach. Nothing is well defined, and that makes it more difficult to make quantifiable changes.
One of the criticisms leveled against the concept of a rigid, cast-in-concrete pattern is that it appears to offer no flexibility, when just the opposite is true. The purpose of a consistent, rigid pattern is, as we said, to establish a datum—a benchmark from which all deviations can be accurately measured. If we have a pattern made of Jell-O, deviations or changes can’t accurately be measured, and their effects on the rest of the pattern will be difficult to predict. If we always fly the same very precise pattern and we have to make a change to accommodate runway, traffic or weather variations, we’ll know exactly what effect that change will have on the rest of the approach. We’ll know how much further out to move base leg, or how much to delay the power change on downwind, etc. We need a definite, precise position/path to facilitate making accurate changes.
Flying a pattern and the subsequent approach involves a lot of variables, but not so many that they can’t be reduced to a checklist of major items to be scanned and controlled.
How far an airplane is flown from the runway on downwind is going to vary from airplane to airplane, but once that distance is determined it should be the same every time. Don’t change it for wind or traffic. Accommodate those on the placement of the base leg. If you move downwind in and out, yet another variation is being introduced.
Landing an airplane is an exercise in energy management, and the energy at the Initial Point opposite the threshold on downwind is kinetic energy borne of the aircraft’s speed, and potential energy that is the result of its altitude. Ideally, we want the energy footprint of the airplane to be identical every time we begin the approach at the end of downwind: same speed, same altitude, same distance. If we don’t do that, we’re dealing with an unknown quantity in terms of how far the aircraft will and how much power is going to be needed and when. This unnecessarily makes the approach that much more difficult. If the Initial Point isn’t consistent, everything past it is a guess.
Downwind Heading At The IP
If the position (altitude and distance) at the IP is perfect, we can screw it up by not correcting for P-factor. When the power is reduced, if left to its own devices, it will try to turn slightly right. So, we keep the nose right in front of us (the ball in the center) with a little left rudder. Letting it change heading moves us away from the runway, which is the same as losing altitude where our energy is concerned, and we’re back to working with unknowns. The same thing is true of crosswind-heading corrections once the power has been reduced: Don’t let the wind blow you in or out.
Even though we’re in the air, what we’re really concerned with is the track we’re making across the ground: We want that track to wind up on centerline at the threshold in the most efficient manner. It helps if we imagine a black airplane shadow directly under us, and we’re maneuvering that shadow as needed to put it on the end of the runway. So we have to include the ground track in our scan, and correct when needed.
Speed (Nose Attitude)
The speed as controlled by our attitude has a lot to do with how far we’ll glide and how the aircraft will behave in flare. The more precise we are at holding the POH recommended speed by holding a stable, correct nose attitude, the more precise and controllable the approach will be.
Glide Slope (Watching The Numbers)
Flaps, slips and power all come into play in controlling the glideslope, which we want pointed right at the numbers or some other clearly defined point on the runway. The touchdown point will appear to be sliding toward us (down the windshield), if we’re high, sliding away (up the windshield) if low. We won’t land on that point because our flare will carry us 500 feet or so past it.
Keep The Scan Going: “P.A.S.T. Ball” Is Your Mantra
Our eyes should be continually scanning across the windshield (the windshield is the primary instrument) and back through the panel controlling the above parameters. Say “P.A.S.T. Ball” to yourself constantly and check each parameter periodically:
- Speed (a reference to nose attitude)
- Track (Where are we going on the ground?)
- Ball (Feel your butt…are we as coordinated and as efficient as we could be?)
Remember, this isn’t a skill. It’s a mind-set. It’s a way of thinking about flying in general in which we’re going to try to do everything as accurately as possible. The whole process could be summed up by an old target-shooter’s saying (actually, I made it up): No one shoots for the eight-ring. The eight-ring is the fourth one out from the bull’s-eye. There’s no challenge in aiming for that. The challenge is hitting the bull’s-eye dead center. And if that’s not what we’re trying to do every time we saddle up, we shouldn’t be playing the game.