A never ending debate among pilots is the role of automation, particularly in IFR flying. On one side is a group who thinks you should hand fly in the clouds a lot and fly complicated procedures when possible because some day equipment failure may force you to do just that. The other side of the argument is that we should use all of the equipment and tools available to make IFR flying as simple, and thus potentially as safe, as possible.
This came up the other day here at Oshkosh. Another pilot and I had both flown in under IFR conditions with a southerly wind. The visibility was not that bad, but the ceiling was low enough that you had to pay attention on whatever IFR approach you flew.
When you leaf through the approach charts—twist a knob or touch some buttons on an electronic display for most of us these days—you come across the localizer/DME backcourse approach to runway 18 as the first option for landing with a south wind. At least it is the first option on the controller’s list of available procedures and that’s what they advertise on ATIS and what approach control tells you to expect.
Nothing wrong with a backcourse approach, but you do need to set up your avionics correctly so that the left-right course deviation indication makes sense. And because it is a non-precision approach you need to step down in altitude as you proceed along the backcourse to the runway.
But Oshkosh Runway 18 is also served by a RNAV GPS approach that provides lateral guidance, and also vertical guidance that sends you down a glidepath to the runway. The approach is an LNAV/V meaning it has lateral nav guidance with vertical information. It is not the “precision” LPV type of GPS approach, but it’s darn good. Minimums on the approach are one mile visibility with a minimum descent to 400 feet above the runway.
When approach control told me to expect the backcourse approach I immediately asked for the RNAV GPS instead. No problem for the controller and I received an instant clearance to an initial fix on the approach. The lateral and vertical guidance was perfect, just like an ILS. Actually better than most ILS approaches because the guidance was rock steady with none of the scallops and wiggles many ILS signals have.
My friend told me he was fired up to fly the backcourse because he almost never gets to fly them for real. But, as he neared the airport, the wind went left to blow right down Runway 27 so he flew the RNAV GPS to that runway.
Which of us showed the “right” attitude that day. My friend who wanted to practice what is becoming an unusual approach that GPS will make obsolete before long? Or me, who had no interest in the past and wanted to fly the simplest and easiest procedure the airport had to offer?
There is, of course, no right or wrong answer. Both procedures are perfectly safe. Flying the backcourse requires more steps because you need to monitor your DME from the airport, look at the chart, and then step down in altitude based on the DME. That’s not hard to do, and is something any instrument rated pilot must be able to do. But still, it’s at least a little more demanding than flying a stable descent that keeps the glideslope needle centered on the RNAV GPS approach.
Am I a lazy pilot? Those who know me well are disqualified from answering that. But I also believe that the easiest, simplest procedure to get from inside the clouds to the runway also offers the fewest chance to screw up.
A similar thought had crossed my mind earlier in the flight as I sat on top of the clouds and checked the weather conditions below for the 100 or so miles the Avidyne system showed in all directions. It was IFR everywhere. I started to think about which airport I would head for if my primary instruments or electrical system were to fail and I was left with bare bones backups.
Then it dawned on me that I was not in the clouds, I could see for 30 or more miles and I had 600 or more miles of range in the tanks. Why would I pick any airport for a backup instrument approach when I could fly for at least four hours and see what happened to the weather conditions below.
Patience is a virtue. I’m now telling myself a little bit of laziness may also not be bad when it comes to picking the easiest way down.