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Private to Professional Pilot: Backing Up Visual Approaches

Having extra backups can guide pilots through critical phases of flight.

Landing in New York aboard a Tailwind Air Cessna 208B. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

I flew my first night cross country as a private pilot a couple months after passing my private pilot checkride. I took two friends with me from the Chicagoland area down to Purdue University Airport in Indiana, up to South Bend, and back to Chicago. It was among the first times I got to share flying with friends, and the fact they were both student pilots who could appreciate the trip made it all the more special for me.

My biggest challenge in the flight proved to be the approaches. Both were safe, but I noticed each time that visually finding the airports was more challenging than I would have hoped. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised; I had only the minimum amount of night time for certification, I had flown only one night cross country (to familiar airports that I knew how to find with an instructor familiar with the area also onboard), and that flight had been nearly six months ago that spring.

As I was fresh into instrument training, I was not very familiar with the instrument approaches that could have guided me to the runway centerline. I had flown probably only a few in my life, and I was at the time still much more familiar with visual flying.

Learning From Experiences

Both approaches proved challenging. In Lafayette, by the time I visually identified the airport, I was closer to the airport than I was used to in training. I still had plenty of room, but, at the time, the surprise of recognizing just where I was added some stress to the situation It was another trick I had learned in training – using the G1000’s OBS mode to turn the airport into a waypoint, as my instructors would say, and marking the centerline of the main intersecting runway – that helped me locate position in relation to the airport.

A Pilatus PC-12. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Fabian Behr)

In South Bend, I was able to join the traffic pattern safely and come in for a smooth landing. However, a band of bright lights a few miles from the airport momentarily disoriented me, and it took one of my copilots pointing out the airport lights in front of me to make a correction (the power of having two crewmembers…perhaps a future article for the series).

In my confusion, I delayed my final descent longer than I otherwise would have, leading to a higher traffic pattern than normal; luckily, South Bend’s main runway is over 8,000 feet long, so a slightly longer downwind leg and a surprisingly-well-executed slip ensured a stable, safe landing with more than enough room to spare.

A Smart Use of Automation

There was a trick that I at the time did not know (nor quite how to use) that would have made managing these approaches much easier for that fresh VFR-only private pilot: backing up visual approaches by programming instrument procedures into the airplane’s flight management system (FMS). All airlines have policies mandating that pilots do just that: activate instrument approaches into the airplane’s systems so they can confirm with their instruments what their eyes are telling them.

This policy makes sense. The biggest airport in my hometown, O’Hare International Airport, has eight runways. Six of those runways are all parallel to each other running from east to west: 10R/28L, 10C/28C, and 10L/28R make up what is known as the “South Airfield,” and 09R/27L, 09C/27C, and 09L/27R make up what is known as the “North Airfield.” Jets sometimes join long straight-in finals over Lake Michigan, and with the high traffic volume that O’Hare gets, it is easy to believe that, every once in a while, some of the runways can morph together in the pilots’ views. Having an instrument procedure to back up pilots’ decision-making can help them ensure they are on the right path sooner and guarantee a safe approach with standard separation between other arriving and departing aircraft.

A PenAir Saab 340B on approach to Denver International Airport. (Photo: AirliineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Hundreds of airports across the United States and around the world also have parallel runways. Los Angeles International Airport is comprised only of parallel runways (they have four in two pairs), Denver International Airport has three sets of two pairs, and so on.

But having the extra backup does not only work for parallel runways. As I learned on that first flight, the added backup is really helpful for orientation to the airports in the first place. I was going into new airports in an environment I was still quite unfamiliar with, and around the work of trying to run checklists, transferring from approach to tower controllers, trying to manage the passengers admiring the Purdue University campus, and marveling over what those weird lights (oddly in the same layout as the runways in South Bend), finding the airport I wanted to land at proved a more difficult task than I cared to admit.

Applying Old Lessons to New Concepts

I did, in fact, end up using a very similar tactic landing in West Lafayette. While I didn’t load an instrument approach to the runway, I did rely on my navigation instrumentation to find my position in relation to the airport. The method was less precise than prepping an actual approach to the airport – I found an extra way to emphasize some of the features of what I was looking for – but it did the trick; I managed to find a way to make my instrumentation work for me to facilitate a visual approach.

It is important to know the difference between using these instrument systems as a tool and as a crutch. I am not advocating to rely solely on instrumentation and instrument approaches in visual conditions. Visual and instrument approaches have some key differences, after all, and pilots must not forget their duty to see and avoid other traffic when conditions allow.

An Alborg Airtaxi North Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner climbing out on departure. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

But these approaches are a good tool. They do not replace our eyes, but they aid us and guide us in the right direction. The instruments support pilots’ abilities to manage information and task saturation; they act as a failsafe in the moments that we as pilots need a little extra support. Again, the instruments are not a replacement, and they should not guide our decision-making. Knowing how, and when, to use them can give us a great advantage to maintain safe flight.

I feel lucky to know that my training and experience has guided me to another tool I can use today in my flying. I am glad for the experiences that that second-ever night flight provided me and the lessons I was able to learn from it.

Editor’s Note: Welcome back to the Private to Professional series. Each week, we will take time to break down a new regulation written for professional pilots in Part 121 and Part 135 flying, and we will consider different ways to apply those regulations to general aviation. Some regulations have straightforward applications to general aviation, but there is usually more that meets the eye. Thus, we will take time to explore a wide variety of ways general aviation pilots can apply even simple things, like minimum rest requirements, to their own flying. Check back in next week for the next installment of the series. Read the previous article here.

John McDermott


  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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