Slam Dunk at the Marker

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There are times when, either for a challenge or for an emergency, you really don't want to take the time for a full 10-nm final approach. As Doug Rozendaal wrote in IFR magazine, there are two ways to cut it shorter -- take a quick intercept turn at the outer marker, or do a highly modified procedure turn.

This article appeared in the July 2002 edition of IFR Magazine and is reprinted here by permission.

Flying the System

Most autopilots are happiest if they intercept the localizer four or five miles outside the marker from a 45-degree intercept. Most pilots are, too. Why then does a certain subspecies of pilot -- Canis familiaris nocturnis, a.k.a., a freight dog -- often ask for a close turn at the marker? If you ask them, they'll tell you it's to save time. My response: "Male Bovine Dung!" They do it because it makes them better pilots.

Just like with autopilots, pilots do a better job on the ILS when given an opportunity to bracket the localizer before tackling the glideslope. The few minutes available outside the marker that a five-mile intercept provides can reduce the workload as the pilot figures out what kind of descent rate will keep the glideslope needle between the pegs.

Where's The Challenge?

A freight dog's job is to fly the same airplane over the same route, five nights a week, 50 weeks a year. Corporate pilots fly all over the country to different airports every week, and airline pilots fly all over the world on different lines, with different crews every month.

The excitement of freight hauling is provided by foul weather, bad sleep in pilot's lounges, and self-imposed challenges to be better. How fast they can burn down final, how short they can land, and how tight they can make the turn at the marker are some of the things freight dogs do to keep themselves sharp, and the flying interesting.

Most Cessna 310s, Barons, or Beech 18s hauling freight don't need five miles outside the marker for their autopilots, because they don't have them (autopilots, that is). If they do have an autopilot installed, it's probably placarded INOP. So, if the equipment doesn't demand setup time, why the rush? What difference does a couple minutes make anyway? A big difference.

Package express companies spend millions of dollars to take minutes off the time it takes to move packages from point A to point B. Schedules are made assuming VFR conditions, and when the weather falls apart, so do the schedules. When that happens, minutes matter, and companies make it clear to pilots that this is an urgent business.

Even with all the pressure and sense of urgency, what motivates most of these pilots is still the challenge. It's knowing that they can be 60 degrees off the inbound heading when the marker starts beeping, yet on course with the gear falling out of the wells when the marker stops, that gives them the confidence they need to fly old airplanes in all sorts of weather.

They do this at V-ref plus 20 or 30 knots, break out 200 feet above DA, land on the numbers, and make the first turnoff to the freight ramp.

The coveted payoff comes when a controller says, "I have a heavy, 10 miles out, but if you can take a tight turn at the marker and keep your speed up, I can work you in ahead of him." The controller knows the freighter can and will perform as requested. The freighter knows that the slot has been earned through demonstrated past performance, and if he screws up, all the freight dogs will be flying five miles in trail of the heavies for a long time afterward.

When Getting Down Fast is Required

The minutes saved may help keep the freight moving, but the freight dog knows that someday it'll be a thunderstorm, a load of ice, or a sick airplane that's the motivation for an expeditious ending to a flight. Just like a Labrador who patiently waits for hours while looking down a gopher hole, the freight dog knows that vigilance will pay off. One day a sick engine may force an intercept well inside the marker in order to get back to the airport before the airplane runs out of altitude.

"How can they do that?" you ask. Practice. By flying the same equipment on the same route, night after night, they get good at it. Most freight pilots are young and highly motivated. They dream about the sim ride at their first airline interview, and they push themselves hard.

"So what? I have no interest in tight turns at the marker," most pilots might say. Granted. This slam-dunk attitude has nothing to do with where you join the localizer. This is, instead, about being satisfied with your current level of performance. Neither the freight hound nor the Labrador is satisfied with his current situation. The Lab is well-fed, and the freight dog is certainly able to fly the airplane. Whether it's an airline job, or a ground-squirrel snack, they both want more, not because they need to be better, but because they can.

It's about an attitude of striving to be a more capable pilot. Loading up an instructor or a friend and going out to push the limits -- not in a dangerous way, but in a way that adds stress and highlights weaknesses -- is good practice.

Adding stress doesn't mean shooting below-minimum approaches in actual conditions. No one would go out on a day that's 200 and a half and try to join at the marker. Even the freight hounds will take a few miles to get stable when the weather gets down in the weeds.

Look in the mirror. Even better, take an IFR flight, and then look in the mirror. Ask yourself, "Am I satisfied with my abilities as a pilot?" If the answer is "Yes," then quit flying. If the answer is no, then ask what you've done lately to become better. Take a lesson from a freight dog, or a Labrador -- be relentless, not because you need to, but because you can. Spending time in your airplane, pushing yourself to be better, will make you better. Because someday a gopher may raise its ugly head.


Make All Your PTs "NO PT"

In the package express business, small aircraft called feeders depart nightly from outlying locations, and along the way swap packages with trucks and bigger airplanes, until finally delivering everything to a sort facility, which is simply called the "sort." Early the next morning the feeders are reloaded and then scatter back to their stations for delivery.

A feeder might fly six or more instrument approaches in one cycle of this system. The outlying stations are often not at airports with control towers or approach control, or the tower might be closed after midnight. Center radar might be available for vectors to the final approach course, but some stations will be outside radar coverage of any type. At these remote stations, procedure turns and holding patterns are routine, and the freight hounds long ago figured out more efficient ways to fashion a course reversal.

If loaded with ice or behind a sick engine, simply skip the PT. If altitude allows, fly direct to the VOR and join the final (left). If arriving from the reciprocal of the final approach course, you can shortcut the PT with a crop-duster 90-degree turn immediately followed by a 270-degree turn back to final (right).

The quickest method is to skip it all together. In a non-radar environment -- where no one is watching -- freight dogs have been known to pass on the PT despite its being absolutely illegal to do so. Here's the logic for the shortcut: Imagine an off-airport VOR approach where the en route altitude is 3000 feet and the approach allows 2700 feet on the procedure turn inbound until crossing the VOR. A cheater would simply cross the VOR on the inbound course and start the descent from 3000 feet instead of 2700 feet. Not legal or recommended, but with a sick airplane or a load of ice, getting down is not going to be a problem, so the ignored PT becomes a good emergency tool to have in your bag of tricks.

The slickest trick is the crop-duster turn. This works best when the marker is approached from the reciprocal of the inbound course. In this scenario, the localizer is intercepted inside the marker tracking outbound. At the marker a 90-270-degree turn is executed. If the wind is blowing toward the localizer, the 90-degree turn will have less bank than the 270-degree one. It's legal, simple, and works, provided there's no altitude to lose in the procedure turn. Plus, it points the airplane in the right direction. If the speed is high, a little steeper bank than standard will burn up some energy, and unless there's a howling crosswind, the airplane ends up centered on the localizer every time.

As for holding pattern course reversals, any pattern entry will work and is legal, faster, and simpler than textbook PTs. A turn in the holding pattern is always a legal substitute for the procedure turn. Once cleared for the approach, there's no requirement for the one-minute outbound leg. A holding pattern without an outbound leg is a 360-degree turn - two minutes of thumb-twiddling and you're back at the marker. With a howling tailwind, however, wise pilots might consider flying an outbound leg.

These shortcut tools presume the proficiency to join the final approach course at the marker. Most pilots can, they just don't know it because they haven't tried. Go ahead and try it.