Use precautionary approaches more often

Dale Nielsen


Most of us have never landed at a site other than an airport and probably never will. A precautionary approach is something we don’t practice or even think much about because we don’t think it applies to us.

When we took our pilot training, we learned precautionary approaches for use at off-airport sites. Most of us did not have instructors who told us precautionary approaches should be performed any time we are not certain about the landing conditions at our point of intended landing, even at an airport.

Many of us occasionally go to unfamiliar airports and some of them may have runway surface conditions we are not certain about.

A pilot was intending to land his Piper PA-24-200T Seneca at Mont Laurier. He touched down on Runway 26 but was unable to stop the aircraft on the runway. He eventually came to a stop in the snow, 200 feet off the end of the runway. The runway was 100% ice covered at the time. Fortunately no one was injured and the aircraft received little damage.

A pilot of a Cessna C- 180K overflew a 2,400 foot private strip and judged it to be firm and suitable. On landing, the aircraft drifted right. Power was added and the aircraft became airborne for about 100 feet and touched down again with the right wheel on softer ground. The aircraft continued to the right until the right wheel hit a snow drift and the aircraft flipped over. The pilot was not injured.

A Cessna C-172 pilot departed a northern Ontario airport for a short sight seeing flight. He returned for landing 20 minutes later and shortly after touchdown, the right wheel hit some snow that had drifted partially across the runway. The aircraft veered right and impacted the snow bank on the right side of the runway. The pilot was not injured, the aircraft was.

The report about the PA 34-200T accident did not say if the pilot performed a full precautionary approach procedure, just that he overflew the airport Doing a full precautionary approach procedure may have prevented this accident.

The C-180K pilot did fly over the strip and judged it suitable. It appears that just the centre portion was suitable. He allowed the aircraft to drift to the right, away from the suitable landing area and added power to attempt to correct, but the aircraft touched down before the correction took effect. He should have gone around and attempted another landing, or diverted to another landing site.

The C-172 pilot did not perform a precautionary approach as he had only been gone 20 minutes. Fresh snow and a crosswind should now be a reminder for the rest of us that it only takes minutes for snow drifts to form across a runway.

We should always be prepared to go around. Too often when we expect or judge a landing site safe, we put ourselves into the mindset that we are going to land.

We do not have reports on runway conditions at airports without an operating Control Tower, FSS or CARS. Recent snows, rains or construction can leave unexpected hazards. Local pilots or city crews may clear the runways of snow. Without specific airport training, snow windrows or clumps of hard snow can be left at entrances to taxiways or runway intersections. Winds may blow snow back onto runways in hard drifts. Animals may also create runway hazards at uncontrolled airports, with deer, coyotes, dogs and birds being the most common.

When we are not sure of surface conditions, a landing site, airport or not, should initially be flown over at about 1,000 feet (high pass). An initial Assessment can be made of the runway surface and of the wind conditions.

When the choice of runway is made, a low pass at 300 to 400 feet can be made along the runway and to the right of the runway to better assess the field conditions. Three hundred to 400 feet should safely clear all nearby obstacles and the surface conditions can be clearly seen. This pass should be made no slower than the flap up final approach speed.

Partial flap during this pass will lower the aircraft pitch attitude and help with aircraft stability. The airspeed, altitude, partial flap and trim should all be set before reaching the start of the runway so that all a pilot has to do is look to the left and inspect the runway. If the field is judged suitable, a return for a normal, soft or short field landing can be performed from a normal circuit pattern.

A normal circuit pattern should be performed for the landing whenever possible, because that is what we are used to doing, and there are fewer chances of making errors.

Major errors to watch for when performing precautionary approaches are: making the high pass in a dive at high speed; not having the aircraft stabilized at an appropriate airspeed and in an appropriate configuration for the low Pass; and abbreviating the circuit and landing hot and long.

At any airport where you would consider a precautionary approach prior to landing, it may be wise to perform a runway surface check prior to take-off. Standing on the ramp, or sitting in the aircraft on the ramp, or even on the end of the runway will provide a good view of only a small portion of the runway surface.

There could be soft areas, holes, rocks, pools of water, ice patches, clumps of ice dropped from a snow plow, wind drifts of snow, animals or birds out of your line of sight. While checking out the runway surface, check the grass near the runway for animals or birds.

Walk, if it is safe and legal to do so, or taxi the entire runway length to check the surface. An assumption that the rest of the runway is in the same condition as the piece you are sitting on has resulted in more than one aircraft getting bent.

We should not assume that conditions are safe just because we are landing at an airport, or that a strip is safe because someone said so. The few minutes spent doing a precautionary approach may save us a lot of down time.