It's an interesting phenomenon: As student pilots, we master VFR traffic patterns in just a few hours. After earning the private, we work on our instrument rating. Initially, nothing is quite so nerve wracking as a difficult approach. Then, our careers progress and we land that big job. IFR becomes old hat -- we can shoot that approach without a second thought.
In fact, we get so used to "vectors to final" that we get the shakes flying a VFR traffic pattern at a small airport on a nice day -- something we mastered thousands of hours ago. What causes this odd reversal and what can we do about it?
As a student pilot, we were delighted if we could hold altitude within a few hundred feet while looking out the window to keep ourselves headed in the right general direction. The "V" in VFR flight stands for, obviously, "visual." Look outside. Keep your attention divided while struggling to manage that snarling 100 hp. That's a lot for a student to do with any meaningful precision while trying to effect a controlled mid-air collision with Planet Earth at the end of the pattern.
After we get our private ticket, we learn a whole new set of skills: instrument flying. Now we have to hold heading and altitude more precisely. By then, hopefully, we're skilled enough that concentrating on keeping the airplane pointed where we want it and maintaining a good scan isn't too hard. Obviously, in IFR flight the instruments are the key.
Then, we land our first dream job -- the big time. We approach this new job determined to be the best instrument pilot possible. Sure, it takes some experience to get there, but we fly IFR everywhere and even those visual approaches are commonly to runways with an ILS, so we "back up" the visual with the ILS. Even ATC is in on the con, since controllers usually treat the visual approach pretty much the same: They'll start vectoring you to final until you call the airport in sight. Often, you're already established on the localizer and glideslope anyway. At worst, you're typically well into the base leg.
So, it goes this way until one day your trip takes you to Smalltown Municipal Airport. It's a clear Saturday afternoon and there are hordes of "little airplanes" buzzing around, practicing their pattern work. Oh, and you're approaching from the southeast and the one runway in use is Runway 9. Tower tells you to report a left crosswind, citing numerous Cessnas and a lone Citrabria in the pattern. You're still about 30 miles out, trying to get below 250 kts as you descend through 10,000 feet. As you near the airport, your non-flying pilot reminds you of the upcoming speed limit of 200 kts.
So, you try to slow and start hanging out everything but the laundry. Meanwhile, your friend the TCAS is having an apoplectic fit keeping up with all the traffic. "That's OK," you remind yourself. They'll be at 1000 agl and you'll be at 1500 agl in the "big boy" pattern. Then you remember your own student days and how well you held that 1000 agl and you realize you're a bit nervous. Your non-flying pilot begins to call out the traffic he's spotting, and you suddenly remember you really need to start looking out the window and actually begin to fly the airplane with reference to the ground. You brace yourself as you disconnect the autopilot.
Suddenly, all those instrument skills that have served you so well become about as useful as the three-hour old METAR from your departure airport. This is basic, visual flying in an airplane designed to go fast in any weather. In fact, you might even realize whimsically that, of the couple thousand hours you've got in that type, you probably don't have even an hour of real stick-and-rudder flying. Then you're aware that you've begun to sweat. A lot.
Take a deep breath. It's like riding a bicycle; you never forget, right? Probably, but what you'll never forget is how to do all that in a piston trainer, not the jet-fuel-burning monster you're driving that weighs as much as a bus.
As all this blasts through your mind, so have you blasted through the pattern. You quickly crank it over in a vain attempt to enter a downwind within at least five miles of the airport. You're still descending, too, having at least gotten it slowed below 200. As you begin to squirm a bit in your seat, you remember your flight instructor once told you: "Always enter the pattern at pattern altitude." Good advice, that. You vow to remember it next time, when you're descending through 3000 agl, just as you would probably be doing if you were on tight vectors to a visual. But, of course, you're not doing that this time.
The rest goes pretty much the same. You level off at 1500 agl about as well as any student pilot. You keep looking over your shoulder trying to figure out when to turn base. Oh, and you also try not to hit all the other traffic in the pattern. Then, there's the crosswind -- the one on downwind that's pushing you toward the runway. The one you later swear just popped up on base as it blew you so far through final that the Tower asked if you still had the runway in sight.
Somehow, you landed and managed to keep both your aircraft and your passengers reusable, without a call from the Tower asking for a little chit-chat. But what went wrong and what can you do to prevent it from happening again?
Over the last few thousand hours you've refined excellent instrument skills. You can take that ILS to minimums in gusty, blowing snow and keep the needles within half a dot. You're a pro, and that's what pros do. However, while you've built up all those instrument skill in your turbine aircraft, you've really only accumulated a few VFR patterns that you had to fly by the seat of your pants. You didn't quite forget how, but most of the skills and cues about how to do that were acquired in much smaller, lighter, slower aircraft.
Your failure was complacency, lack of planning and lack of skill. Remember your student solo cross-country? You probably started thinking about the pattern entry a long way out. You may have even reviewed it with your instructor before the flight. On this recent adventure into Smalltown Muni, when did you think about your pattern entry?
Also, being used to progressive altitude and speed assignments from ATC, you didn't plan ahead for a proper altitude and speed at pattern entry. Your experience as an instrument pilot made you complacent about simple VFR, and you failed to brief the visual approach much as you would brief an instrument approach.
Then, there's your lack of practice. Your common technique was to use the autopilot and fly primarily on instruments until the final segment. You just didn't have all the basic visual stick-and-rudder skills anymore, especially in that high-speed, turbine-powered plane you'd been flying.
Like so much else in aviation, if you're prepared, both with mental planning and sufficient practice, it's easy. On this trip into Smalltown, like any other arrival, you probably got the weather about 100 miles out. But you dropped the ball when you didn't plan the visual approach and traffic pattern just as you would have planned an instrument approach.
Review the prevailing winds, terrain and runway-in-use and plan your pattern entry. Plan ahead for the necessary descents and speed reductions. Check that wind and figure out what it'll do to your pattern, just like you did as a student. Tune in the Tower on the second radio and see what they're actually doing down there.
That takes care of the planning, but the practice isn't quite so easy. One of the reasons we use an autopilot is that -- for most of us -- it provides a better ride for the folks in back. In fact, some airlines and corporate flight departments mandate the use of the autopilot for all but approach and departure. Then, there are the lazy and the fear factors: It's ever so much easier to simply let George do it.
Or, especially when you're new to the plane, you don't want to risk not flying well, so you let George do it. So, if you start out using the autopilot as a crutch while you're learning the new job, and you use the autopilot because you're lazy, when do you actually handle the controls? Only those few minutes on take-off and landing? Sure, you're good at take-offs and landings, but there's a lot more to VFR flying. Even if you're logging a thousand hours a year, you might only have an hour or two actually manipulating the controls.
Fire George! Do as much hand-flying as you possibly can, consistent with workload, safety, and your employer's procedures. Try to turn that hour or so a year into an hour or so a month. Pretty soon, you'll start to get real comfortable hand-flying the airplane and you'll be pretty good at it, too.
You never know, you might even start to enjoy it, and after all, that's why most of us fly, isn't it? Do all this and your traffic patterns will once again be as good as a student pilot's. Maybe even better!
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