When you think about instrument flying, your first thought is probably on flying instrument approaches. Admittedly, there is nothing quite like flying through a thick cloud bank only to see a runway magically appear right there in front of you. Because of the obvious importance of the approach phase of flight and the increased task requirements that exist during this segment, instructors and pilots alike tend to place a predominant amount of emphasis on this element in initial and recurrent instrument training. Much like visual flying, though, a good approach and landing are dependent on proper preparation when arriving into the airport area. Whether you are entering the airport traffic pattern during visual operations or entering the area via a published arrival procedure or ATC vectors in instrument conditions, the arrival phase of flight is critically important.
Many instrument pilots let their guard down once they enter the cruise segment of the flight because the task requirements are much lower. The pilot is then jolted upon entering the airport area and having to suddenly gear up for the approach. General aviation pilots often overlook the arrival phase because they are rarely assigned published arrival procedures by ATC, unless they are entering high-density airspace. As such, GA pilots often find themselves struggling to catch up once they enter the approach phase. For them, there is no transition between the relative calm of the en route phase and the hustle and bustle of the approach phase. It behooves every GA pilot to make planning for the arrival, published or not, a top priority to ensure a smooth and safe transition from the gray sky to the black asphalt.
Arrivals Are Your Approach to the Approach
Imagine flying an instrument approach without a published approach procedure — the sensation of blindly descending toward the ground at 100-plus mph, hoping there is a runway below you, hoping you are properly aligned with it and hoping there is enough of it remaining to allow you to land on it. We would all agree this is ludicrous, a recipe for certain disaster. Not planning for your arrival into the airport area can be equally hazardous. Whether you are flying a published STAR, flying a conventional flight plan or flying ATC vectors, you will agree that knowing where you are and where you are headed next is critically important. The arrival phase of instrument flight is the “approach to the approach.”
First off, be aware of your arrival procedure. Whether the procedure is published or not, there is a procedure. Acknowledge that fact and plan for it. Second, brief your arrival procedure well in advance of beginning it. When you conduct that briefing depends on a multitude of factors from weather avoidance to ATC communications to aircraft speed, but you should allow at least as much lead time as you currently do for your approach briefing. Treating the arrival like an approach to the approach will very nearly guarantee that you do not find yourself in that terrible position of scrambling to prepare for the approach, getting behind the aircraft and placing yourself and your passengers in unnecessary risk.
Proper Preparation Starts on the Ground
I have watched countless instrument pilots “plan” for an upcoming flight by spending 90 percent of their effort reviewing the available approaches at their destination and 10 percent on the overall flight. Cockpit automation, for all its wonder and glory, has allowed instrument pilots to disconnect themselves from the en route and arrival phases of instrument flight. We tend to focus on the approach as though it is the only factor that matters, both in training and in practice.
Many VFR pilots place a great deal of emphasis on planning for intermediate checkpoints and how they will enter the airport area, while instrument pilots have a tendency to rely more heavily on equipment and ATC instructions rather than personal situational awareness. As instrument pilots, the approach phase may be the most important, but its significance should not come to the detriment of proper planning for the departure, en route and arrival phases. You cannot grill a steak for 30 minutes on one side and two minutes on the other and expect to enjoy your meal. Balanced cooking lends itself to good food just as balanced preflight preparation lends itself to comfort in the cockpit.
Study published STARs and en route charts to understand and plan for how the arrival and approach fit into the big picture of the flight. Avoid looking at each phase in a vacuum. Rather, understand how each puzzle piece fits together to form a safe flight. Make note of the navaids, waypoints and altitudes in use throughout the en route, arrival and approach phases. While a navigation log is a great tool, consider going beyond that by creating a written checklist of waypoints, altitudes and other notes so you can follow along and check off each segment of your flight rather than having to hurriedly scan a chart to find your next checkpoint or step-down altitude.
Consider planning your flights with both VFR and IFR charts so you can compare ground features, terrain and obstructions alongside the course you will fly. This can be a great aid to situational awareness and can help you avoid creating an instrument flight plan that ATC cannot support.
Published Arrival Procedures Are Not Evil
Not long after I began providing instrument instruction, I discovered pilots were using “NO STAR” in the remarks section of their instrument flight plan as a crutch so they did not have to maintain the charts or the knowledge of how to properly use them. Many believed published STARs somehow complicated their lives when flying in the instrument system. The main complaint was that published STARs lengthen the time it takes to get to the destination.
Both “complicating” and “lengthening” are completely untrue. The only thing better than a published arrival route is ATC vectors. Arrivals were created specifically to facilitate the efficient flow of traffic into densely populated airspace. Veteran instrument pilots can attest that there is little worse than getting last-minute flight plan reroutes while you are transitioning to the approach phase. Published arrival procedures can help prevent this last-minute knob turning. You know before you ever leave the ground how you will transition from cruise to the approach. This information allows you to brief yourself for the arrival and approach during the relative calm of the en route phase. Use published arrival procedures when they are available. They are not evil.
Preparation, utilizing available published planning aids and giving the arrival phase the respect it requires will make your instrument flying more pleasant and less stressful. Successful preparation for instrument arrivals equals increased safety, and that is always the goal of each and every trip we take into the wild blue (or gray) yonder.
Eric Crump is the aerospace program director for Polk State College, located in sunny Central Florida. Eric has been involved with all kinds of pilot training, including Part 141 schools and curriculum development. He is an active CFI with a particular interest in the integration of simulation in GA pilot training.