Why Learning to Fly by TLAR Is Important

Pilots shouldn't always strive for perfection.

Sully Sullenberger Miracle on the Hudson

MIRACLEPLANE

Why were Sullenberger and Skiles able to land an A320 on the Hudson? They knew how to fly by TLAR — "that looks about right."Getty Images

“We’re going to be in the Hudson.” It was Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger announcing they were going to dead stick US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River. It is a story most of us are familiar with. After the loss of both engines in their A320, Capt. Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles first intended to return to La Guardia and then decided they couldn’t make it. Next, they were offered Teterboro Airport, and Sully said, “We can’t do it.”

Ultimately, they pulled off the “Miracle on the Hudson” — ditching with no fatalities and no major injuries. They skillfully missed bridges and steered toward operating boats on the icy water to maximize the chance of rescue. They didn’t have time to make precise calculations. They didn’t have the guidance of a localizer or glideslope. Their primary resource was the view out the windscreen.

Why were Sullenberger and Skiles able to do this? They knew how to fly by TLAR — “that looks about right.” They were both flight instructors, and Sullenberger was a longtime glider pilot.

In contrast, Asiana Flight 214, with both engines running, was unable to successfully complete a visual approach to Runway 28L at San Francisco International when the ILS was out of service. The Boeing 777 struck the seawall short of the runway. Three passengers died and 187 were injured. The pilots weren’t accustomed to making approaches without an ILS.

Why were Sullenberger and Skiles able to do this? They knew how to fly by TLAR — “that looks about right.”

TLAR (pronounced “T-LAR”) is a skill that every pilot should possess for several reasons. One is that, like the pilots of US Airways 1549 and Asiana 214, sometimes you just won’t have all the resources you are accustomed to. If you have TLAR skills, you can safely get by without those resources.

Of course, developing TLAR skills is part of every pilot’s primary training. That’s why we practice engine-out emergencies. But it might be a good idea to take your TLAR development a step further for operations around airports, which are where most accidents happen.

You might pay special attention to what 1,000 feet agl looks like out the window. You can use the runway length to gauge what a mile on final looks like. The standard 3-degree glidepath is 300 feet per nautical mile, so you might focus on what 300 feet agl looks like when on a 1-mile final.

Another thing to focus on is what the pitch attitude of the airplane looks like when at the proper approach speed and configuration. Likewise, you want to pay attention to what the engine power setting on final approach should sound like. Plus, you want to be able to keep the airplane yawed into the relative wind by being aware of side forces instead of having to always rely on the slip-skid indicator.

Your TLAR in-the-pattern graduation test would be to fly the airplane completely around the pattern with the altimeter, airspeed indicator and maybe more instruments covered up. (It would be a really good idea to have an instructor with fully developed TLAR skills with you.)

It might be a good idea to take your TLAR development a step further for operations around airports, which are where most accidents happen.

Another reason for developing TLAR skills is they allow you to take action quickly without having to first make precise calculations or change the flight plan in your GPS. In all of life, timeliness is often better than perfection. It is especially true in flying. Striving for perfection can sometimes lead to paralysis and inaction, and distract you from situational awareness.

Sometimes we only have the time or resources for a roughly good job. If you have to make a diversion for weather, the first thing to do is turn to an approximate heading for your new course. If you know your groundspeed in miles per minute, a quick look at a chart can give you a good idea of how long it will take you to reach your new destination. Using quick estimates will keep you from continuing toward the bad weather while you figure out the details of your new route and enter it in your GPS receiver.

Sometimes the need to have everything planned out in detail deters a pilot from taking timely action when he or she needs to. There was a pilot who had spent months planning a trip from the Midwest to the West Coast. He talked to other pilots about exactly what route and altitude he should fly on each leg. He created a flight log with every leg planned out in magnificent detail.

On the leg crossing the Rockies, he ran into icing conditions but continued with his planned route, even though a simple diversion would have gotten him out of the icing. He and his wife died in the crash.

His friends told investigators they thought he had spent so much time and energy planning the legs in detail that he wasn’t able to adjust mentally and divert when circumstances required it. Although detailed planning is a wonderful thing, having additional TLAR skills gives a pilot the confidence to quickly create and execute an alternative plan when needed.

As we have seen, there are times when being willing to be approximate can be less risky than shooting for absolute precision.

There is a misconception that pilots have to be perfect and precise all the time. Of course, there are times when precision is critical, such as when flying an approach procedure in IMC. But, as we have seen, there are times when being willing to be approximate can be less risky than shooting for absolute precision.

Sometimes implied precision can provide a pilot with insufficient margins. On the knowledge test, the FAA used to ask for precise answers requiring interpolation on airplane performance charts. This falsely implied pilots could rely on those precise numbers in their own flying. The reality is the numbers were generated in ideal conditions and may be unachievable in everyday flying. It’s far better for pilots to pick the more conservative conditions rather than interpolating.

There is a concern that modern aviation technology is luring pilots away from maintaining TLAR skills. The digital precision of GPS is indeed fetching. But it takes time to program the avionics, and a failure leaves a pilot who has no TLAR skills without alternatives. Maintaining TLAR skills is important. Pilots who lack them are like painters who can only paint by number. They may look like good artists, but without the numbers they are helpless.