Brief instrument approaches like a pro

There’s no one-fit-all method to perform an approach briefing. A commercial operator may have a specific way to do it. But if you don’t work for one, you need to develop your own approach briefing technique. The key is to set the aircraft and review all important information in advance, so the workload won’t overwhelm you.

Get the instrument approach briefing checklist. (PDF)

Let’s look at an example showing the importance of a good approach briefing.

In 1996, a Learjet 35 crashed near Dorchester, N.H., killing both pilots. The crew first attempted to shoot the ILS to runway 18. The captain reported that they were not receiving the localizer, when in fact they were 5 NM left of it. They executed a missed approach, in which they deviated from the published instructions, and prepared to land on runway 25 using the VOR approach. Their preparation for the second approach was rushed, an approach briefing was not properly completed and, as a result, the first officer descended below the published minimum altitude. This altitude deviation ended in a crash into the trees. The NTSB concluded the probable cause of the accident was the crew’s failure to maintain situational awareness with a contributing factor of a rushed and incomplete instrument approach briefing.

This accident, and unfortunately, several others, illustrates the importance of a good approach briefing, “thinking ahead of the aircraft”, and maintaining situational awareness throughout the flight.

Whether you’re flying in a multi-crew or single-pilot environment, the approach should be briefed in some way. If you’re flying as a crew, briefing the approach out loud can help catch mistakes early and keep everyone “in the loop.” But even if you’re flying as a single pilot, brief the procedure to yourself. It doesn’t have to be spoken out loud, just cover the same important elements of the briefing as you would do with another pilot.

Here’s a short list of mistakes that a good briefing can prevent:

  • Obstacle and terrain collision
  • Using the wrong navigation aids
  • Following the wrong approach courses
  • Choosing a wrong or unsuitable runway
  • Busting regulations

The following is a basic approach setup and briefing technique that you can modify to your own needs:

  • First, ensure you’re using correct and current chart. Pay attention to the header section of the approach charts; it will help you prevent embarrassing and potentially dangerous mistakes. For example, if you’re flying into Chicago Midway, preparing for an ILS to runway 4R, you should be careful not to use the plate to runway 4R in Chicago O’HARE. You may find 2, 3, 4, or more airports under the same city name, so the best way to verify the correct airport is by its four letter identifier (The identifier for Midway is KMDW; O’Hare’s is KORD)
  • Next, set up the aircraft. Set the current altimeter setting, align the heading indicator with the compass, and setup the navaid frequencies.
  • Identify the navaids.
  • Find the appropriate approach minimums, including the minimum required visibility and DA/MDA for your aircraft category and type of approach. Note that normally several different minimums are published on the same chart. It’s your job to choose the right ones.
  • Look for special notes on the chart. For example, a common note on many approach plates requires DME or an active ATC radar environment. In case you find yourself in a non-radar environment (ATC radar inoperative), you may need DME distance available (which could be obtain from a GPS also) to shoot the approach.
  • Ensure the runway length and conditions are sufficient for a safe landing.
  • “Rehearse” the entire approach procedure-verbally. For example, if you’re about to shoot the full VOR 16 approach into Daytona Beach, Florida, you can brief: “…after passing the OMN VOR I’ll track the 356 degrees outbound course for two minutes and descend to 1600 feet, then I’ll perform a 45 degrees procedure turn to the left, tune the OBS to the inbound course of 156 degrees, intercept and track it. The VOR is the final approach fix. I’ll cross it at 1600 feet and once I have regain a positive course indication, I’ll descend to the MDA of 760 feet”.

The newest NACO approach charts, and all Jeppesen charts, lay out the information in a comfortable top to bottom, left to right flow, which is easy to brief.

To make things even simpler for you, Download the instrument approach briefing checklist (PDF).

Practice a few instrument approach briefings on a “dry run.” Try to find interesting notes that some approach charts may have that, should you ignore them, may get you in trouble. Finally, before leaving the ground, get familiar with all the approach plates you may need for the flight. Make it easier, and as a result safer, by preparing ahead of time.