"I'm newly minted in IFR and starting to travel. Preparing for approaches is so different than training. I have lots more time, yet I still somehow end up feeling rushed and behind when joining the actual approach. Do you have any tips?" — Luci L.
“Staying ahead of the airplane is critical in all phases of flight. You can help yourself with approaches by asking yourself some questions while you’re still in cruise and getting near your destination.
What approach should you expect? Get the ATIS early and/or check the METAR.
Do you want to fly this approach? Normally the answer is yes but there may be reasons why you want to fly a different one. If that’s the case, you should start organizing this with ATC right away.
Where do you want to join the approach? That might be the first waypoint of the approach procedure, but there are many cases where it’s more efficient to join further down the procedure. If so, make sure ATC knows that’s what you want.
Related to that question is: What lateral track do you want from where you are now to where you want to join the procedure? Usually this will be direct to an approach waypoint, but a dogleg to an airway fix may be desirable to give you more time to get down, avoid nasty weather, or better align you with the approach track. Vectors used to be the norm anywhere there was radar coverage, but GPS direct to fixes is so simple for controllers and pilots that ATC sometimes just assigns that. If you want vectors, don’t be shy about asking for vectors.
How will you descend? This can be one of the most vexing challenges to less experienced pilots. Arriving high and fast usually doesn’t end well. Been there done that. VNAV on your GPS, or advisory VNAV on an app like ForeFlight can help, but you must keep track of the required descent rate versus your actual descent rate—including allowing for a level segment to slow down before the final approach.
If you don’t have an answer to these questions before top of descent, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. Of course, ATC or other factors can still mess up your perfect plan, but these questions give you a framework to assess the impact of changes and stay ahead of the airplane.”