Stabilized approaches in VFR

by Jean-Claude (JC) Audet, VP Operations, Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA)

Experienced IFR pilots have learned that flying an approach to minima is a high-risk phase of IFR flight. These experienced pilots have also learned that the appropriate risk mitigation for the IFR approach is a stabilized approach. All IFR approaches are designed to guide the pilot over the final approach fix (FAF) to a specific point called the missed approach point (MAP), and from there, to a safe landing or a go-around/missed approach.

The quality, smoothness, and ultimate safety of the approach and landing are significantly influenced by the condition of the aircraft at the FAF. The FAF is the point on the IFR approach procedure where the approach should be stabilized. This means that the aircraft must be on track, both horizontally and vertically, at the proper power setting, speed, and rate of descent, and with a landing configuration appropriate for the conditions of the day. This ensures that the aircraft does not require any further pilot input, or only some very minimal corrections at most, to achieve a safe landing. Meteorological conditions such as wind and turbulence, as well as other factors, still require the pilot to remain focused and apply control inputs as required.

Many VFR landing accidents in general aviation (GA), some fatal, are the result of loss of control, usually in flight, but also on the ground following touchdown. Many of these landing accidents are the direct consequence of the pilot failing to achieve a stabilized approach, and in some cases, failing to execute a timely and proper go-around.

In VFR, the circuit serves, among other things, the same purpose as the approach procedure in IFR. The circuit is designed to guide the pilot to a safe landing. As with IFR procedures, the quality, smoothness, and safety of the approach and landing will be directly related to whether or not the aircraft was stabilized prior to, or shortly after, establishing the aircraft on the final approach leg. The attention and accuracy with which the pilot flies, or enters the circuit, especially on a straight-in final, will determine how well the aircraft is positioned for a safe landing.

Transport Canada’s Flight Test Guide—Private Pilot Licence—Aeroplane was recently amended to include a stabilized approach for all approaches to a landing. During the flight test, and at some point on the approach, the candidate is expected to announce whether or not the aircraft is stabilized. That ‘’some point’’ is not as precisely defined as the FAF in IFR, and it may not be the moment the aircraft turns onto final, as further changes to the aircraft configuration and flight path may still be required. However, it is reasonable to assume that approximately halfway between the base turn to final at 500 feet (ft) above ground level (AGL) and the touchdown point, the pilot would achieve a stabilized approach, with the proper power setting, speed, rate of descent, and landing configuration for the conditions of the day. By 200 ft AGL, the candidate is required to declare whether or not the approach is stabilized. If not, a go-around will be executed.

The General Aviation Safety Campaign’s Safety Initiatives Team firmly believes that the implementation of a stabilized approach in VFR flying and a timely decision to execute a go-around, when required, will bring about significant reductions in the number of loss-of-control accidents and encourage all pilots to review and apply this technique on every approach.