Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Automation: Great for Finding the Right Airport

 Years ago, as a low-time pilot approaching San Diego’s Lindbergh Field at night in IFR weather, I managed to get lost by failing to follow the automation telling me where the runway was located and relied, instead, on my eyes…to lead me astray.  I made the common  mistake of breaking out of the clouds, seeing the city lights below me, and then, distracted from focusing on the instruments,  let my course wander and decided that the first airport I could see MUST be the right one.  Thank you, ATC, for preventing me from landing at Miramar Naval Air Station!

Finding the correct airport, particularly at night is tough to do visually…you need to rely on the instruments and then keep the automation in the forefront of your consciousness and NOT rely on the visual.  Here’s an example of when automation definitely wins over the manual mode.

Don’t relinquish the help that automation can provide you…until you KNOW you’ve found the airport…and the right one at that.  In good VFR weather,  ATC will push pilots to accept a visual approach to an airport to facilitate a higher acceptance/landing rate.  If you accept a visual approach too early, you assume the responsibility for your own separation and finding the airport. Don’t let your ego push you to tell the controller “airport in sight”unless you really DO have the airport in sight.  Their traffic services are good ones that can keep you headed in the right direction and safely separated from other traffic.

My recent airline landing in OGG (Maui) was full of queries from ATC asking, “don’t you see the airport?” I told them “No” and that we wanted vectors…just to make sure we had enough time to lose the necessary altitude and position the airplane on a stabilized approach.  Maui’s got a very short runway (for airliners with high approach speeds) which requires good concentration and no last minute scrambling…which can easily happen when you allow ATC to cut you loose (read: accept a visual approach) before you’re really ready, willing and able.

It’s easy to ID the wrong airport, particularly at night, when you’re tired or clouds obscure some or all of the surrounding terrain features.  Lots of lights can also confuse your brain and make what was easy to identify in the day, very tricky at night.…play it safe and use the automation…this is one time when it can be a life saver.