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Decision Training for Pilots -- Ground Reference

I was giving a stage check to a pilot who had just soloed the day before and I asked him to do the "turn around a point" maneuver. He flew a great maneuver, but he had no idea why it was a good thing to know.

I was giving a stage check to a pilot who had just soloed the day before and I asked him to do the "turn around a point" maneuver. He flew a great maneuver, but he had no idea why it was a good thing to know.

There was at least a 12-knot wind blowing when I asked the student to fly that Turn Around a Point. The wind offered a challenge for that maneuver, but nevertheless this student pilot flew the maneuver perfectly. I was impressed. I told the student that he had done a really good job out-smarting the wind and then I asked, "So why do we do that maneuver anyway?" The student said proudly, "Well its a practice for later when I'm working on my instrument rating, in case I have to do a holding pattern." That really was not the answer I expected! It does no good to teach something if the learner does not understand the reasoning behind the lesson.

Scenario: Two airplanes are both flying downwind in a traffic pattern (figure A). There is a crosswind. Airplane 1 continues the downwind leg without adjusting for the crosswind. Airplane 2 continues downwind but crabs into the wind slightly (figure B). The wind has drifted Airplane 1 out away from the airport so that when Airplane 1 turns on the base leg a conflict arises with Airplane 2 (figure C). What should happen next time to avoid this problem?

Pilots cannot actually see the wind, but they must fly their airplanes as if they do. Pilots must manipulate the airplane while flying straight -- and while turning -- so that their track across the ground seems unaffected by wind drift. If pilots do not do this, their ground tracks will be somewhat out of control and in the traffic pattern that can be dangerous. So pilots learn to fly parallel to a course even though there is a crosswind by using a "crab" or "wind correction angle." That maneuver is called a Parallel Course. Pilots also learn to vary bank angle to avoid wind drift while in turns. That maneuver is called the Turn Around a Point. Both these maneuvers are classified as ground reference maneuvers because the pilot must fly the airplane through a wind by reference to some object on the ground.

Placing the ground reference maneuvers in a scenario, especially a scenario that could involve a mid-air collision, forces the pilot into a decision to use the maneuver to solve the problem.

In the Past: The instructor would say, "Fly a circle around that silo." The pilot then flies a circle around the silo, but really does not know how this might ever be applied and no decisions were required.

The Private Pilot PTS includes the Turn Around a Point as a task for use on the checkride. The objective is to determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to turns around a point.
  2. Selects a suitable ground reference point.
  3. Plans the maneuver so as to enter left or right at 600 to 1,000 feet (180 to 300 meters) AGL, at an appropriate distance from the reference point.
  4. Applies adequate wind-drift correction to track a constant radius turn around the selected reference point.
  5. Divides attention between airplane control and the ground track while maintaining coordinated flight.
  6. Maintains altitude, +/-100 feet (30 meters); maintains airspeed, +/-10 knots.

The Aeronautical Information Manual says that, "at most airports and military bases, traffic pattern altitudes for propeller driven aircraft generally extend from 600 feet to as high as 1,500 feet above the ground." Pilots should practice their ground reference maneuvers at the same AGL altitude as their home airport's traffic pattern, because ground reference maneuvers are just a traffic pattern warm-up. This fact is not stated in the PTS, making retention of the skills and their application in appropriate scenarios at a later time less obvious to the student pilot.

BOTTOM LINE: According to the PTS you just do the maneuver and shut-up. But people learning to become a Pilot in Command should do better than that.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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