If you’ve flown IFR, you’ve no doubt heard the ATC phrase: “you’re cleared for the visual approach.”
You’d think that a visual approach would be one of the easiest things in instrument flying, right? You get visual approaches when the weather’s good, and when you have the field in sight.
But visual approaches can be one of the more difficult things in the IFR world. Just look at this NASA Aviation Safety Report from an airline crew:
“The weather was scattered clouds, thirteen miles visibility. [The] First Officer was the pilot flying, and I was operating the radios. We were being vectored by Approach Control to the airport … I was inside [the cockpit] tuning the radios when Approach asked if we had the airport in sight. I looked up and out the window and saw … the airport slightly to our left. I asked [the] First Officer if he saw it and he said ‘Yes.’ I told Approach we had the airport in sight, and they cleared us for the visual. Our position was such that we had to immediately configure for approach [and] landing. Our focus from that point was outside the cockpit. We were switched over to the Tower and cleared to land. We heard no more radio calls after that. On the landing roll it became obvious that something was not right. After some radio calls, we were informed that this airport was … a few miles short of … the intended point of landing.”
If professional airline crews can have a hard time with a visual approach, the same goes for all of us.
What Makes A Visual Approach So Hard?
Often times when you’re cleared for the visual, you’re not lined up with the runway, you’re several miles (or 10s of miles) from the airport, and you’re high. On top of that, you typically spend less time looking at your instruments, and more time focused on what’s happening outside your windscreen. So how can you get yourself lined up, and on altitude?
There are two really good ways of making it happen.
Option 1: Back Yourself Up With An Approach
This is one of the easiest ways to make sure you’re lined up with the right runway. And in addition to that, it gives you the confidence that you’re not getting too low, especially when you’re miles from the runway, where it can be hard to see the VASI/PAPI.
When you back yourself up with a precision approach for the visual, you know that you’re lined up with the right runway, at the right airport. Plus, you get the added benefit of a constant glide path all the way to the pavement, which makes your approach more stable all the way down.
Even if there’s only a non-precision approach for your runway, follow the altitudes along the final approach course, and you’ll set yourself up for a safe descent. On top of that, you’ll be well clear of obstacles at the same time.
Option 2: Fly The Traffic Pattern
This is a great way (and the recommended one) for non-towered airports. If you’re too high, if there are other aircraft in the pattern, or if you just want to take a look at the airport before you land, entering the traffic pattern is the best way to get down safely.
Keep in mind that if you decide to enter the traffic pattern from the visual, it’s still a good idea to keep your navigation loaded up to make sure you’re pointed at the right airport.
From there, depending on where you’re entering from, you can overfly the field 500-1000 feet above traffic pattern altitude, then maneuver to enter the downwind.
Or, if you’re in a position to enter a 45-degree entry to the downwind, you can descend to TPA and enter from there.
Either way, you’re giving yourself the benefit of flying familiar speeds, power settings, and descent rates, which puts you on the path to a great approach and landing.
Putting It All Together
What seems like the easiest approach is often the hardest, and the one that’s prone to the most errors. By backing yourself up with an approach, or by flying the traffic pattern, you give yourself an added layer of safety. You know that you’re lined up with the right runway, on a safe glide path, and ready for a smooth transition from your visual approach all the way to the pavement.
How do you fly your visuals? What else would you add? Tell us in the comments below.
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