Am I a Lazy or Prudent Pilot?

 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.


This entry was posted in Mac Clellan's Left Seat Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Am I a Lazy or Prudent Pilot?

  1. Jan says:

    Your friend was right – no offense, but you were lazy and short sighted in your rush to get on the ground as soon as possible.

    The whole idea of recurrent training (i.e. simulators offered by the likes of FlightSafety) is to put you out of your comfort zone and test your raw abilities. Mac, I believe you have been a proponent of this on various occasions.

    As conscientious pilots, we should all have an ongoing commitment to rigorous self monitoring and improvement. This does not involve taking the short cut when one presents itself.

  2. Kiwi1 says:

    As you say, there is no conclusively right or wrong answer, but I suggest that the question is a little vague. Using any/all modern navigation and autopilot equipment available is clearly a prudent and safe course of action … as long as all your equipment is working. When it fails (and it does … we all read “Aftermath” and other accident reports), you need to be sharp at old-fashioned stick and rudder work.

    The wise choice is probably a compromise. Use the hi-tech gear, but fly one the old-fashioned way once in a while … with the hi-tech gear serving as your safety pilot in those circumstances.

  3. Bob says:


    To each his own, but I perfer the safest approach to the field, which in this case was also the easiest and probably more economical in terms of time and fuel.

    The sim is the place to practice arcane and disappearing approaches for that day the GPS goes blank. Until then, I’m right behind you on the approach.

  4. Mike says:

    Use everything in cockpit…U paid for it and it better work or get it fixed. All MorseCode approaches need to be off the charts and put pasture. Steam gauges too. Carry handheld GPS that works with battery and U got no worries mate. Is this the 22nd century or what? Think aliens carry around 20-30 lbs extra dead weight in panel?

  5. Wylbur says:

    I have hand flown one airplane for 9 hours, all IMC or MVFR, in one day. It will wear you out. I know it wore out my passenger.

    I recently flew a 6 place plane from the DFW area to INDY in mixed IMC to VMC at night with one fuel stop. A single axis autopilot that would only follow a heading bug made this easy. A few days later I flew to HGR and back in freezing conditions, IMC and MVFR. That single axis autopilot allowed me to take my hands off the controls and check charts, Hiwas, etc. and all I needed to do was watch the OAT, stay out of precip and manage the fuel — and keep +-100′ of assigned altitude. Getting back to Indy and landing was a relatively easy VFR approach (x-wind w/ gusts) and I wasn’t mentally fatigued (even with picking up some trace on the descent).

    There is something to be said for an A/P when doing single Pilot IFR Night. So you might call me lazy. But when I have to hand fly it, I’ve shown I can do it for hours. But will I get behind the plane during the approach — and that’s not after 11 hours, but 8 hours of hand flying in light to moderate turbulence because of mental fatique? I’ve come close even w/ the last landing of the day actually being at night, VMC, at a towered field.

    Our job as pilots is to manage risk and make the flight as smooth as we can for passengers or freight (even when the freight is just gifts for the grandkids). So, I go with a safety pilot and fly a real plane by hand (thanks to a retired B373 captain) with short intercepts and all the bad things that ATC might do in real life. But when I fly in the real stuff with my wife on board, my job is to make her so bored that the only thing she remembers is the take off and being awakened on the ground by “Hey Honey, we’re here, you need to wake up.”

    There’s where the ego needs to go: “How smooth, safe, and comfortable can I make this ride?” And sometimes that’s done with a safety pilot who gives you bad vectors, fails your A/P just as you engage it for a direct to xxx VOR for the approach, etc.

    But in the real stuff, single pilot, I’ll use all the tools I can to keep me mentally fresh for the approach I might have to do to minimums — so my wife doesn’t even know I’m sweating bullets because the GPS just gave me a RAIM fail…

    Just my two cents.

  6. Bruce Ziegler says:

    A GPS LNAV/VNAV approach is not new fangled or a lazy pilot’s approach. It is here to stay and the approach of the future. I would have been right behind you Mac and Bob on the GPS approach.

  7. StuBob says:

    Single-pilot IFR in IMC at the end of a cross-country flight isn’t the time for practice. When you only need two points, take the layup, not the three-pointer.

  8. Bill says:


    As Wylbur pointed out, hand flying in IMC for extended hours can & will WEAR YOU OUT. You don’t need the added stress of flying a more difficult approach if a more precise, easier to fly GPS approach is available. Leave the back course approaches to when you have an instructor/safety pilot with you or when you are practicing at your local airport and take advantage of technology in the real world.

  9. Donald G. Henderson says:

    I guess flying a back course on partial panel would be out of the question.

    I worry about our skills eroding as the panels do more and more for us. I worry about becoming psychologically dependent on everything working. Not everything can be simulated.

  10. Mac says:

    I find it interesting what aspects of flying each of us worries about most. I fly IFR all of the time–meaning I am on a clearance even for short trips. Just a habit and it’s actually a safer way to fly in terms of avoiding regulated airspace issues. If I follow my clearance correctly I am authorized to be wherever it is I am. But IFR is not IMC and well under 10 percent of all of my hours have been in IMC. Flying approaches in IMC to near minimums is even more rare. But we worry about the low approach and IMC the most.
    After all of these years IMC still concerns me, but I have taken to focusing on engines the most. Only a small percentage of my flying is in IMC, but 100 percent of my flying depends on engines. So, should I do a forced landing every few hours for real just to see how that works out? It would be good practice, I guess, but really hard on the airplane.
    When I learned to fly helicopters we made autorotations to touchdown. The autos were flown to the airport, but still all the way to landing. We did it that way because that was the Army way. But the Army finally quit doing that because too many helicopters were being damaged. An auto is a forced landing–some may call it a crash–so does it make sense to practice that?
    Mac Mc

  11. Lou Whitaker says:

    An old machinist mentor once told me “never crank anything that will turn by itself – but know how to crank it if you need to” Sort of makes sense in IFR application also but we need to add “Know when you need to turn the crank “

  12. wsinsel says:

    I’ve learned over time that I’m actually more comfortable with the autopilot off in IMC. I worry constantly about it wandering away. I feel better just doing it myself. Of course it is tiring but it keeps me sharp and on top of the machine all through the flight. If I’m on top on a long flight I’ll run the thing for sure and just relax. At the end I’ll choose the RNAV as well. My wife thinks of it as a video game. It’s the ultimate in safety and efficiency and with the stuff we have on board, XM included, I feel like I’m doing the best for my family that the industry has to offer. I still like flying older approaches but I’ll always choose RNAV when possible.

  13. Alan Fitz says:

    Help! I keep signing up for Mac’s Blogs, only to be told I’m already subscribed. But I do not get them outside the weekly EAA eletter. I used to get them when I first subscribed, but not now.

    Can someone at EAA fix this?

    Thank you.

  14. Josh Johnson says:

    I like to practice arcane procedures such as LOC-BC and VOR approaches (typically under the hood), but if it’s really low IMC give me a precision approach, thank you very much!
    I do think there’s a real point to hand flying at least some of these approaches (considering my current airplane has an Armstrong Mark 1 autopilot – I hand fly them all!) When I was flying in a 135 operation, I had a tendency to rely on the autopilot too much and scared myself pretty good when I tried hand flying an approach – there is a balance to be struck here!

  15. A couple thousand of my hours were 100% hand-flown because the old Lodestar L-18 had pre-steam gauges and zero autopilot. When they sold the old thing, I didn’t much miss it, but I sure was glad for the experience! :-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>