January 2009 Issue

How Low Can We Go?

No matter how badly we want to be on the ground, we have to maintain minimum altitudes on approaches.

Altitude is your friend." So says a common cliché instructors and old-timers pilots drill into their less-experienced contemporaries. The idea—especially when considering failure of a single-engine airplane’s powerplant—is greater altitude affords more time to find and glide to a suitable landing area. But having plenty of altitude isn’t always a good thing. It’s not a good thing when we’re on fire, for sure, nor is it a good thing on final to a short runway. In those instances, it can be said we have too much altitude. Another occasion when we can have too much of a good thing is on an instrument approach in for-real conditions. Approach procedures are predicated on being in such-and-such position at so-and-so altitude, then flying a measured distance, perhaps descending to another altitude, where a runway magically appears through the mist. At least that’s what we tell passengers unfamiliar with the concept. The basic idea of an instrument approach sometimes is misinterpreted, however. We aren’t trying to get as low as we can; instead, we’re trying to fly along a prescribed path and altitude, arriving at a point in space from which a relatively normal landing can be made. Too high, and we may not see the runway environment at the right time. Too low, and we may hit something before we have a chance to land on the runway. The latter is far worse than the former.

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