I never liked the saying, “plan the flight and fly the plan.” Most GA flying requires bending the plan to fit the reality of the moment—or ends with the breaking of something valuable. When the aircraft capabilities are limited and crew resource management consists of talking to oneself, flexibility is king.
A more useful statement might be, “plan the flight to have a plan.” These days of iPad route planning and magenta lines allow perilous absence of forethought. This was hammered home to me one day while climbing VFR towards my GPS-direct course. I realized I had absolutely no idea what heading that was. I just knew it was up and to the left. That’s not a plan. That’s tagging along for the ride.
The right plan enables flexibility by providing options, yet constraining them within safe boundaries. A perfect example of this is the oft-underused contact approach.
See and Avoid
Simply put, a Contact Approach lets you keep your IFR clearance and find your own path to the runway. The requirements are remaining clear of clouds with a mile visibility and not dying as you get to the pavement.
Suppose you’re approaching an airport from the south that has only one published approach coming in from the north. As you fly over the airport, you see the runway and a clear path to descend and join final. Requesting and receiving a clearance for a contact approach lets you descend and land without trucking miles past your destination only to turn around and come back.
However, you can request a contact approach and still fly most or all of a published approach as you see fit, so long as you stay visual. You don’t even need the destination airport in sight. Imagine cruising along on an intermediate leg of a published approach that’s taking you in and out of clouds with turbulence or icing.
When you’re in the clear, request a contact approach. Once granted, you can avoid the clouds with climbs, descents, or deviations left or right of the approach course. You could still follow a published segment to help find the airport, but 400 feet lower, or a mile right of course.
Doesn’t that remove obstacle protection? Absolutely. You’re now responsible for staying out of trouble, but that might be easy in visual conditions, as they exist on a particular day.
The freedom is similar to a Special VFR clearance, however, you’re still legally IFR. Special VFR clearances are for specific blocks of airspace: the Class D surface area around a towered airport or a Class E surface area around an uncontrolled airport. Technically, the pilot has no less-than-VFR freedom outside that airspace. The contact approach clearance covers operation in any controlled airspace.
Staying IFR also keeps an IMC escape hatch open for you: With a Special VFR clearance, reentering the clouds would be an emergency; with a contact approach, it’s just a missed.
Well, it’s a missed without a procedure, which means the onus is on you to stay out of the rocks and get back to ATC immediately. Contact approaches shouldn’t end with reentering IMC, but if you have a general plan you’ll be ready for that corner case.
Which all brings us back to planning for flexibility. Flying IFR on good-weather days, you should be ready for the visual. On marginal days, you can fly the charted black lines to your destination airport but be ready for a switch to a contact approach in case the situation warrants it. That’s what masterful use of the system is all about.
Watch This Video:
“The Contact Switcheroo”
“I know that the Jet Airways start at 18,000 feet with the Victor Airways below that. Out West, there are a lot of Jet Airways that have altitudes starting at 22,000 feet or higher so they really aren’t that usable for TC or TN aircraft.
My question is, can you file Victor Airways above 18,000 feet? I basically want to take advantage of the capabilities of the TC/TN aircraft by flying above 18,000 feet but using the Victor Airway system.”
“Yes and no. You could file the airways and an altitude, but any clearance that takes you into Class A would put you on Jet routes if routes were required. If your filed altitude was a flight level, you’d get a new route without Victor airways.
One alternative is to file using the underlying VORs and fixes for the Victor airways rather than the airways themselves. However, my suggestion is just to use direct between a fix in your departure sector and a fix in your arrival sector. Then work it out with ATC from there once you’re flying. If you have a turbocharged aircraft these days, you probably have at least a basic IFR GPS. You won’t find OROCAs above FL 180 in the lower 48.”
While most controllers are happy to offload responsibility to you and clear you for the contact approach, some controllers meet a request with, “Confirm you’re cancelling IFR?”
Whether they forgot that part of the ATC operating guidelines or just aren’t enthusiastic for something out of the ordinary, you may have to clarify. “I’m staying IFR. I’m requesting a contact approach, which is like a visual but requested by the pilot and only needs a mile visibility.”
The silence following may be them asking around the control room. Hopefully, your clearance will come back, along with all the flexibility it allows.
ForeFlight Question of the Month:
“The Extended Centerline function in settings shows runway extended centerlines and runway numbers on the moving map. Which airports get this extra information?”
A. Your destination airport only
B. Your departure and destination airport
C. All airports in your flight plan
D. Departure, destination, and any airport when zoomed in on it.
Jeff Van West is PilotWorkshops’ Creative Director with the primary responsibility for managing the development and creation of the company’s pilot proficiency training programs, including our flagship IFR and VFR Mastery programs.
For 19 years, Jeff ran many noteworthy aviation media projects with his own firm, Van West Communications, including magazines, books, videos and live seminars. Jeff previously served as editor-in-chief of IFR Magazine and co-editor of Aviation Consumer, and his work appears in AOPA Pilot, Flight Training Magazine, Plane and Pilot, and AVweb. He’s an experienced CFII/MEI with ratings for single- and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes, and gliders. Jeff was the creator of the first pilot transition program for new Cirrus aircraft.
One thing that’s universally true of my aviation mentors was their persistent pursuit of refinement. They strove to improve a technique here, apply a concept more skillfully there, and generally understand the craft of aviation as deeply as they could. They also all had stories where said knowledge saved their bacon.
Best Glide Isn’t Published
One refinement that rarely gets taught is adjusting best glide speed (Vbg) for changes in weight and wind. I was never taught it, and therefore never passed it on to others, until I added on a glider rating. In a glider, if you’re heading back to the airport with a headwind, you can’t just open the throttle to make up for lost groundspeed. Instead, you pitch down to speed up. A lot. In fact, you might add 20 knots to your best glide (L/Dmax) speed to counter a 20-knot headwind.
Without going into too much math, think about it this way. If your best glide speed was 65 knots and you were pointed into a 65-knot wind, you’d have zero speed over the ground. You’d be descending vertically. Pitch down for 95 knots and you’re losing altitude much faster, but you’re at least moving forward by 30 knots, so you’re increasing your glide range. It’s obviously not as good as your glide range with no wind, but it’s better than just holding 65 knots.
Glider pilots get published data that tells them how much to change speed for a given amount of headwind (as well as tailwinds, rising air, and sinking air). Without such data, the quick estimator for most fixed-wing aircraft is to add at least half the headwind component to your best glide speed to get the best glide range over the ground into the wind.
Curious about how much this would hurt sink rates, a friend and I went out in his airplane and did a bunch of engine-idle descents at speeds from Vbg - 10 knots to Vbg + 30 knots. This data is just one sample, but we found the hit to sink rate was minimal up to 20 knots over best glide. Yes, we were sinking faster, but the variation in rate just due to minor pitch changes in holding airspeed were greater than the overall effect of a faster speed. The takeaway: If you have to glide into a wind in a GA airplane pitch down and go faster.
You can really see this effect doing power-idle glides to a runway into a wind. It’s kinda shocking with a strong wind. Try it.
While this sounds like a VFR skill, here’s the point for our IFR flying. It’s easy to say that if we lost the (only) engine in IMC, we punch up a nearest airport and glide there. But we don’t think too much about the how. The act of simply adding about half the headwind component to your best glide speed could make the difference between reaching that airport or not, especially if you’re up high and have to glide a long way. Pitching down at the bitter end if you’re not going to make the runway might get you enough forward progress that you do make the runway.
While we’re tweaking numbers, remember that Vbg is published for gross weight. It’s lower if you’re lighter. This change is small, but not zero. The actual formula is to reduce the airspeed by a factor of SQRT (CurrentWeight / GrossWeight). This works out to about a 1.5 percent reduction per each 100 pounds under gross weight for aircraft with gross weights of 1600-4500 pounds.
You might wonder if slowing down below Vbg with a tailwind will also increase range. Yes, but it’s probably not worth it. Slower than Vbg, many aircraft get more difficult to hold on speed. Also, you never want to go slower than minimum sink, which is about 75-percent of Vbg (corrected for your weight). That’s often less than a 20-knot window in piston singles.
All of this adjustment should happen after more critical items, like turning to the emergency airport, slowing to at least the Vbg you’ve studied and memorized, telling ATC, and trying to restart the engine. If you don’t have time for more than that, then adjusting your best glide probably won’t matter. However, if you have a long way to go and time to do it, adjustment could make all the difference.
Glide tables in the POH are published for a windmilling propeller, which creates a lot of drag. Wouldn’t it be better to just stop the prop? Sure. In fact, you might extend your glide by ten percent or more. Except it’s not that simple.
First of all, you want the prop windmilling while you try to restart the engine. Otherwise, you’d have to crank it with the starter. Even if you were certain the engine will never restart—“Hey Bob, is the piston supposed to hang outside the cowling like that?”—it’s not easy to stop a windmilling prop in flight.
Getting airflow slow enough to stop the prop often requires flirting with stall speed, and even that might not do it. This isn’t what you want unless you have a long way to glide and will make up lost altitude from such low speed (or a stall recovery). If you have a constant-speed prop that doesn’t automatically feather, however, pulling it to a coarse pitch is usually free distance. Do it.
ForeFlight Question of the Month:
If you had to quickly divert to a nearby airport, how many of the following techniques would show you distance, bearing, and time to that airport at your current groundspeed? (Select all that apply)
A. The nearest airport field on the HUD (attitude display)
B. The nearest airport field on the moving map (if shown)
C. A two-finger distance measure performed on the moving map
D. From your flight plan after activating a direct-to that airport