Stop Looking at the Runway

Almost all loss of control accidents derive from a stall and involve a turn. A common scenario for loss of control is on the approach to landing during the turn from base to final. Advocates and pundits for pilot training frequently emphasize that a plethora of factors could be involved in a typical stall/spin incident; however, one factor always applies – there is no stall if the pilot does not apply and/or hold back pressure on the yoke! In this photo, the airplane is turning base to final. If the pilot where to misuse the controls this sight picture would show the nose move; however, if the pilot is looking at the runway he will not see this sight picture when it gives stark warning of the impending stall.
Almost all loss of control accidents derive from a stall and involve a turn. A common scenario for loss of control is on the approach to landing during the turn from base to final. Advocates and pundits for pilot training frequently emphasize that a plethora of factors could be involved in a typical stall/spin incident; however, one factor always applies – there is no stall if the pilot does not apply and/or hold back pressure on the yoke! In this photo, the airplane is turning base to final. If the pilot where to misuse the controls this sight picture would show the nose move; however, if the pilot is looking at the runway he will not see this sight picture when it gives stark warning of the impending stall.
Whether a pilot develops good stick and rudder skills during basic pilot training or seeks to correct deteriorated skills, good habits based upon fundamentals always apply. In this series titled How to Become a Great Stick, I present ten great habits that promote good stick and rudder skill. In no particular order, #3 on my list is:
Stop Looking At The Runway When Flying A Traffic Pattern.

If you participate in any physical activity you know that your head directs movement. A biker know her Harley goes where she looks; a gymnast, figure skater, quarterback, pitcher or any other athlete knows the importance of controlling head movement. It is the same for airplane pilots. If a pilot turns her head she will inadvertently apply pressure and move the flight controls. That will destabilize an otherwise stable flight path resulting in a change of altitude, airspeed and/or heading.

A standard practice on approach to landing an airplane is to establish a downwind leg in the traffic pattern. The definition of downwind includes that the flight path by parallel to the runway at some altitude and airspeed. Watch pilots fly the downwind and you might see them continuously turning their head to look at the runway. The look is frequently followed by the pilot moving some flight control to chase airspeed, altitude or heading. Instead, a pilot should have selected a downwind aiming point and kept focus on the sight picture. Destabilizing an approach is contrary to the purpose of flying an approach to landing.

Side Bar: During a one year period of instructing tailwheel skills, I counted the number of times my students looked at the runway during a traffic pattern. The record was an amazing 33 times a pilot turned his head and shoulders to look at the runway in a single pattern approach to landing. You will not be surprised to learn that pilot did not do well at maintaining a pre-requisite stable approach to land a tailwheel airplane.

I think base leg of the traffic pattern is the most important leg.
• It includes two turns. A pilot with weak rudder skills is guaranteed to destabilize the flight path. The pilot’s attention to controlling yaw and avoiding excessive elevator pressure during a turn is almost impossible if the pilot is looking about trying to see the runway.
• When established on base, a pilot must look carefully to clear final approach of traffic and clear the runway for potential hazards. This example of looking out turn and then in turn to clear traffic is mandatory and should be accomplished with the conscience effort to avoid inadvertent movement of the controls.
• Pilots commit a common and potentially deadly mistake when their turn from base to final is early. Instead of rolling out of the turn aligned with the runway, the pilot intercepts runway alignment at an angle and at a very low altitude. This situation is typically the direct result of the pilot’s focus on the near end of the runway. Instead, a pilot should maintain base leg heading until she can begin to see down the length of the runway.

A pilot cannot fly an airplane without attitude information. The goal of good airmanship, stick and rudder skills, is to establish and maintain attitude stability before, during and after a maneuver. The sight picture is a pilot’s guide to airspeed and a stable approach. It is key to a good landing. If a pilot is looking at the runway she is not looking at the sight picture:
• she does not see changes in attitude that could be precursor to loss of control during a turn.
• she does not see the change in attitude caused by inadvertent movement of the controls caused by head movement to look at the runway.

Break the habit of looking at the runway; instead focus on the sight picture in the landing pattern. That builds the skill required to fly aerial maneuvers with quality and grace. Good airmanship is using the flight control you need, when you need it, as much as you need it. That guidance comes from interpreting and reacting to the sight picture. Also of very special importance is how the sight picture exposes pilot induced oscillation, over-control, and helps the pilot avoid loss of control and a stall/spin incident.

Click here to see this month’s feature video What Are You Looking At?

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