Simplify the Approach, and Slow Down the Heartbeat

an article, submitted for publication to AOPA Flight Training magazine



Overload is common for new instrument pilots as they get
closer to the runway, but the change is only psychological,
not an actual qualitative difference in flying or procedures.




It's like your heartbeat.

The dots and dashes of the outer, middle, and inner markers are easy to remember, my original instrument rating instructor told me. "They're like your heartbeat on final," she said. "First steady and slow over the outer marker, then faster as you get close, and by the time of the missed approach, beating like fast dots."

That was kind of cute at the time, but as a CFII, I don't teach that anymore, and in fact am trying to keep my students away from such a thought. Instead, their heartbeat should be the steady slow dashes all the way down.

But how, they ask, is that possible when there's so much to do, so many things to look at, and it gets so quick and busy and intense at the end?

The answer is: it only gets quick and busy and intense if you think of it that way. Otherwise, that final approach is no different from anything else you do on an instrument flight. It's really not any different from flying from one VOR airway to another.


There are three things that you can control in an aircraft: heading, altitude, and speed. This is true whether you're flying VMC on an hour-long leg to a picnic site, doing a procedure turn, or shooting the final on an ILS to minimums. With an appropriate power setting, we can even relegate the airspeed issue. So simplify:

Fly a heading. Fly an altitude.

The Great Psychology Shift

Instrument students and new instrument pilots, whether in actual IMC, or under the hood, or even in a non-motion simulator, go through some qualitative change in mindset the moment that an approach begins, and blood pressure gets higher the closer they get to the runway. But it's all psychological.

From the very first time under the hood, during private pilot training, we learn to scan the six instruments, to hold heading and altitude. Straight-and-level moves on to turning to a new heading, then to changing altitudes. We practice rate climbs and airspeed climbs, straight and with turns. Then we throw in the odd distractions such as doing checklists.

Still, all along the way it's the same actions: scan the instruments (particularly the attitude indicator), and go to new (1) headings and (2) altitudes in a stable, steady fashion.

These exact skills-and no others-are used at every part of an instrument approach, from being vectored to the IAF, to the procedure turns, to flying the needles down to the missed approach point and beyond.


Compare the final approach to a lazy VFR airway shift

Let's look for a moment at a comparison between flying VFR from one airway to another (easy, right?) and intercepting a localizer and descending to final approach in IMC (busy, right?)

Flying on a clear day from Connecticut to Montreal, you take Victor 14 over the Gardner VOR, to Victor 229. What do you do at that point, with hardly a thought?

First, you turn to the new heading, about 159º. You check your watch to see how your flight plan timing has worked out. You switch the second VOR from Norwich to Keene, and twist the OBS to 159º TO. Noticing that you're going from an east-ish heading (011º) to a west-ish heading (339º), which means you need to change your VFR cruising altitude, say from 5500 to 6500 feet. So, you put the mixture full rich, throttle up, and get into a climb attitude. You don't need to contact anyone at this point, but once at altitude it might be good to do a cruise checklist in order to switch tanks and lean the mixture. Flying along the airway, you'll need to bracket in order to find a heading that will keep you on track.

In paragraph form, it seems to be a long list. However, most any pilot does these things easily, not from some checklist but by second nature, and altogether they only take a few seconds.

Furthermore, this list should look familiar to an instrument pilot going over a fix: it's the six T's. Turn, Time, Twist, Throttle, Talk, Tcheck (or Track or Tires, depending on what your instructor prefers. There are also other variations of the six T's, but they all accomplish the same tasks). These are the actions you take on localizer intercept in IMC.



 As a comparison to this VFR navigation, now let's say that ATC has issued you this clearance: "Cessna 12545, fly heading 120º. Maintain 2000 until you intercept the localizer. Cleared for the Beverly localizer 16 approach."

According to the approach plate and most instrument instruction manuals, there are going to be a whole bunch of things to do now: pre-landing checklist, airspeed to approach, intercept the localizer, fly the localizer needle, descend, final approach fix, power and configuration adjustment, fly the needles, timer, outer marker, reporting, radio changing, missed approach instructions, timer beeping, what happened to your scan? Full needle deflection, ugh.

That's too much. At any given point, say to yourself: "Simplify. What heading, what altitude?" Let's take a look.

You've been told to fly heading 120º and maintain 2000 feet. So that's first. Long ago you should have gotten to approach speed and configuration. You've got a minute now to get that pre-landing checklist done, but that's done in baby steps while concentrating on the scan: 120º, 2000; 120º, 2000; 120º, 2000. (The easiest way to do that: as always, don't get focused on the altimeter and DG, but scan scan scan and use the attitude indicator. If it stays straight and level, then you're staying very close to 120º and 2000 feet.)

The localizer needle centers. What altitude do you need, and what heading? 157º, and now 1800 feet. So that's all you need to do. If you go through your six T's right now, that's what they'll tell you.

Getting on the right heading

The altitude part is easier than the heading part, of course, because the heading you choose may not be exactly right for the wind, and the needle may start moving. Still, finding that heading isn't any different from your enroute VOR navigation, as we can demonstrate:

When going from one VOR to another, you need to bracket in order to find the right heading. It's no different flying down a localizer: the needle moves right, so turn a little right by deciding on a new heading, and holding that heading. When the needle recenters, split the difference. See which way the needle goes this time.

Do not "chase the needle" by just turning toward it haphazardly, or goodness forbid by turning toward it until the needle moves centerward. Instead, always declare a new heading, and hold it.

Most instructors at this point tell their students, "Make small corrections." That phrase, though, probably is the wrong one, as it implies that changes keep needing to be made-that we're trying to center that OBS and glide slope needle. But we're really trying to center a needle only indirectly, by holding headings that will cause us to get back on track. Instead, instructors should tell their students now to announce the headings they want, out loud. Then, scan to stay on the declared heading.

Never, ever look at a needle for more than ½ a second. Just glance at it to see where it is. Then back to your six instruments for a heading and altitude.

I say to my students, "I don't care what heading you pick. I just want to know what it is. Then hold it. If you need to change, that's fine: just tell me the new heading. Then hold it."

Once on the localizer, heading changes should be no more than five degrees. Say, in this example, you've gone to a no-wind-type heading of 157º. If the needle moves a dot to the right, say (aloud!) "I'm going to a heading of 162º." Go to that heading and hold it with the attitude indicator and turn coordinator. See what the needle does. One of three things will happen:
1. The needle will start to come back toward the center. Hurrah. Wait until it does. Then split the difference between the old heading (157º) and the new one (162º). Say (aloud), "I will fly 160º." Then do that. After that, you will never have to change that heading more than two degrees to stay on course.
2. The needle will stay frozen. This is probably a good heading, eventually, but you'll first need to get the needle to recenter. Now you can go another five degrees: no more! Say (aloud) "New heading is 167º." Do that. When the needle recenters, "Let's try 162º again." Then see #1, above.
3. The needle will continue to move away. Choose another five degrees (no more!). "I will fly 167º." Then see what the needle does.

You repeat the steps above until you find the right direction. Once again these paragraphs of text make that seem very busy. However, all you're doing at any given moment, is holding a constant heading, and an altitude.

Yes, the bracketing procedure goes quicker when going down the localizer than when going on an airway, but the principle is no different: you're looking for a heading that will hold the needle steady. One heading.

Down to minimums and beyond, without the heartbeat

Back to our example in Beverly: so you find the right heading to hold the localizer, and now you're not changing it by any more than 2 degrees. What's next? When you get to the final approach fix at TAITS, ask: "What heading, what altitude?" According to the approach plate, you now need an altitude of 580 feet. So go there. Scan to stay on heading, and go to your altitude. This is unhurried. There are several minutes between the outer marker and the missed approach point.

All the way to the missed approach point, you're just holding headings that you announce aloud, and staying at 580 feet.

Heading, and altitude: it even works getting into approaches, shooting the missed, and even entering holds.

Let's shoot the missed and enter the hold at Beverly. What altitude should we be at, and what heading? We need to climb to 2000 feet, and the heading is more or less 021º. Try that, and then you're going to have a long time to get that PSM VOR tuned in and go to WITCH intersection, which is six nautical miles away. Once on heading and altitude, you'll have a space for thinking about other things such as communicating and doing checklists, but wait until you're bored of holding that heading and altitude, and your heartbeat won't speed up.

Entering the hold? It's parallel entry or a teardrop, but it doesn't matter either way because it's still just heading and altitude: teardrop heading 351º; parallel heading 021º. A minute later, turn to the inbound heading. La dee da.

What about the precision approach?

It may seem that "heading and altitude" could work for a simple nonprecision approach, but the situation changes when there's a glide slope involved.

Not really. Staying on the glide slope is just a matter of maintaining an appropriate and steady descent rate. This is done by setting the power right and then making small changes in pitch by using the attitude indicator. This is what you do, also, when you fly straight and level during the enroute phase.

So set the power; make small attitude changes (guess which instrument!); fly your heading; go to the DH altitude.

Relax, and keep up the scan

A very good pilot who owns a Cirrus got his instrument rating with me, and in our last half dozen flights before his checkride, I said to him two things, and only two things, over and over: "fingertips," and "attitude indicator."

"Fingertips," meant relax; fly not with a gorilla grip on the yoke, but with a light touch.

"Attitude indicator," meant to keep the scan up and use that most beautiful and informative of instruments.

When he did those two things, he was fine. He had already learned to do his six T's over each fix, and everything became simple.

Back to the slow heartbeat

Now, before every instructor and overloaded student jumps on the notion of this article to point out that instrument approaches are, in fact, busier than VOR tracking, I'll point it out, myself. A good instrument pilot will complete the checklists, set up avionics and brief the approach properly, and do all the T's over every fix; a good CFII will train the student to accomplish these actions. There is, in fact, a higher rate of procedures to follow, and turns (headings), and altitudes changes to make during a full instrument procedure, than during an airway navigation.

However, the difference is not qualitative, but quantitative. The changes you make are no different; they just happen with somewhat greater frequency. That frequency, though, is still paced and allows time. The change in blood pressure on final is simply unnecessary.

I had to learn this on my own. My instrument instructor made it seem like the point of the last two minutes of an approach was to get to the runway and weave around to force the needles to center and review the final approach and missed instructions and complete every checklist ever printed, but the fact is, the point is to get to an altitude, and fly a heading. Once I started simplifying, my approaches became smoother, calmer, and more precise. With an occasional glance, the needles took care of themselves.

Every instrument guide notes the reasons for getting off course: omission, emphasis, and fixation. These happen primarily because of thinking about the wrong things: an overload that can be deterred by simplification.

The difference between flying between airways, and flying the stages of a seemingly complicated approach, is psychological. At any given point in your instrument flight, when in doubt, just ask, "What altitude should I be at, here? What heading should I be flying?" Simplify, and when you get to the middle and inner markers, your heartbeat will still be the steady dashes of the outer one, and the final approach will, indeed, be like your heartbeat.


Scott Cameron Todd is a former English teacher, former newspaper reporter, former Peace Corps volunteer, current ultimate Frisbee player and MEII with more than 1500 hours of dual given. He lives and teaches outside of Boston, MA.