Decision Training for Pilots – Traffic Pattern & Advanced Airspeed

To any student pilot the practice area is like the minor leagues is to a baseball player. In the practice area you learn your craft, yet — with an instructor on board — the stakes are not all that high. To the student pilot the traffic pattern is the major leagues. The pattern is the show. In the traffic pattern you have a much bigger audience of people on the ground, other pilots in the air, even air traffic controllers can be among the spectators. And in the traffic pattern the stakes are much higher. In the practice area, it really did not matter if you were a little off altitude, or a little blown off by the wind. But in the pattern, with all the other airplanes, everything does matter because everything you do affects everyone else.

Scenario: You are on the downwind leg of the traffic pattern and are setting up for a normal landing. As you are just about to turn base you see a large airplane making a straight-in approach to your runway (figure 1). What do you do?

The Questions: Should you extend the downwind leg or turn base? How will this approach need to be adjusted to compensate for a longer downwind? Will power, airspeed, and flaps settings be different as a result? Is now a good time to consider Wake Turbulence? Is the location of the big airplane on a straight-in instrument approach important to you? There are plenty of decisions to be made in this “event set.

The instructor would say, “This time lets fly out farther on downwind to see if you can do a longer final approach.” The “longer final” maneuver was taught and the student performs the maneuver well, but the entire time the student is thinking about the maneuver, not the particulars that lead to the decision to perform that maneuver … or when to perform it in the future.

According to the Private Pilot PTS:
REFERENCES: FAA-H-8083-3, AC 61-23/FAA-H-8083-25, AC 90-66; AIM.
Objective. To determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to traffic patterns. This shall include procedures at airports with and without operating control towers, prevention of runway incursions, collision avoidance, wake turbulence avoidance, and wind shear.
  2. Complies with proper traffic pattern procedures.
  3. Maintains proper spacing from other aircraft.
  4. Corrects for wind drift to maintain the proper ground track.
  5. Maintains orientation with the runway/landing area in use.
  6. Maintains traffic pattern altitude, ±100 feet (30 meters), and the appropriate airspeed, ±10 knots.

Inside Information: The vast majority of mid-air collisions take place on VFR days in uncontrolled airport traffic patterns. Most accidents occur during landing. This should provide all the incentive necessary to do a good job with traffic pattern scenarios.

The Short and Soft Field takeoff and landing techniques, as the name implies, prepare the pilot to operate out of an airport with a shorter than normal and/or non-hard surface runway, but it is more than that. To the student pilot these maneuvers are a demonstration of advanced airspeed control in a critical situation. Each of these maneuvers requires a very close tolerance of airspeed control while the airspeed used is slower than normal. Combine a slow airspeed with a low proximity to the ground/runway and you have a critical situation. A false move here at 50 feet AGL will cause more of a hazard than a false move while in the practice area at 3,000 feet AGL. This is really the first time that the student pilot learns precision flying.

Scenario: A pilot in a light airplane is flying to a busy controlled airport. There are two runways at this airport, one is long and is primarily used for air carrier traffic, and the other is short and is used for General Aviation traffic (figure 2). The controller tells the pilot, “You are cleared to land on runway 27, hold short of Runway 36. Boeing 737 traffic on five mile final for Runway 36.

The Questions: Is it possible to land on Runway 27 and come to a complete stop before crossing Runway 36? Must the light airplane pilot accept these instructions? What should the pilot do?

The pilot could ask the controller about the distance from the Runway 27 threshold to the Runway 36 intersection. The pilot could then combine the available landing distance information, with the airplane’s short field landing capability – and the pilot’s own abilities — and make a decision to accept or reject the instructions.

Inside Information: The Airline Pilot’s Association rejects Land and Hold Short Operations (LASHO) when a General Aviation airplane is approaching the crossing runway. Why did they do this? Because they do not trust General Aviation pilots. They clearly feel that our initial and recurrent training is inadequate to guarantee that we will do the right thing each time. They have a low opinion of our decision-making skills. Maybe their opinion of us would improve if we saw the short field landing not just as a maneuver but as a potentially dangerous scenario.

In the past the instructor would say, “Lets see if you can land and make that first taxiway turnoff.

The Private Pilot PTS includes the Short-Field Approach and Landing. To meet the standards of the test the applicant must:

FAA-S-8081-14A 1-13
Objective. To determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to a soft-field approach and landing.
  2. Considers the wind conditions, landing surface and obstructions, and selects the most suitable touchdown area.
  3. Establishes the recommended approach and landing configuration, and airspeed; adjusts pitch attitude and power as required.
  4. Maintains a stabilized approach and recommended airspeed, or in its absence not more than 1.3 V SO , +10/-5 knots, with wind gust factor applied.
  5. Makes smooth, timely, and correct control application during the roundout and touchdown.
  6. Touches down softly with no drift, and with the airplane’s longitudinal axis aligned with the runway/landing path.
  7. Maintains crosswind correction and directional control throughout the approach and landing sequence.
  8. Maintains proper position of the flight controls and sufficient speed to taxi on the soft surface.
  9. Completes the appropriate checklist.

THE BOTTOM LINE: All these PTS requirements never mention the possibility of conducting this maneuver while another airplane is bearing down on a collision course, but scenario-based training does. It’s time we all made a conscious decision to implement scenario-based training into our training and our flying habits. It’s not just about maneuvers. It’s about thinking. We learn as we go.