Aviation Safety and Cheese and Baseball?

Circling approaches are the car equivalent of the three point turn, you do in a stick shift, on a steep hill, in some narrow British side road: You can do it, but it isn’t easy, and you certainly don’t go looking for the opportunity.

For those of us in the advisory capacity they might be something we’d bring up with a jet owner in a casual setting. For instance, if they wanted to discuss ops things of interest that are just “good to know” and how they fit with training, planning, attitudes and risk management.

But when acting as a crew, the day of a trip, you might ask yourself: “Do I need to stress them out with something non-typical?” The reality is that there is no handbook or protocol to brief your passengers on whether or not you are doing a straight in approach and why it would even matter to them.

But putting yourself in an airline passenger’s shoes, when you think of the few times you’ve done a “go around” (and all the passengers have a semi “WTF?” style panicked look on their face) you realize that people in back are noticing more than you might think. So we might as well bring circling approaches out of the closet, if only since there is a bit more intimacy with the jet owner, charter passenger or fractional user and the crew that flies them.

But in my world of “telling all” to those who ride in back, who not only write the checks, but have an active role in safety, it is worth discussing so that at least jet owners, operators and users can learn the risk assessment procedure your crew likely goes through. And if we want to really dumb it down, we can look into my paranoid myopic world of self preservation when flying.

I like baseball: Three strikes? You’re out.

So, after returning to Portsmouth, late one night, I was pawing through the mountains of aviation mail that I admittedly am far too behind on, and I came across James Albright’s nugget in my inbox.

He was kind enough to give me permission to reprint the clean graphic below, which outlines the risk involved in circling maneuvers. Simply add night, low visibility and wind, and you’ve got an impressive cocktail. The story in the picture is one of two scenarios – the one not depicted is where you see the airport from farther away (you broke out under the clouds sooner) and you just turn the aircraft to the right and then back to the left to align with the runway. (This would be a likely better weather / daylight scenario where you could see everything, chat with the tower about your intentions, etc.)

The depicted scenario is option 2 – most likely after an approach that got you visual contact with the airport as you we in close and now you have to make a right 270 degree turn (not too steep a bank please… and…with the copilot’s eyeballs doing the outside work) while you maneuver to land. Don’t let the simplicity of this graphic fool you, many of us get in trouble in the sim in this maneuver, especially the first time. The main reason? The wind can push you into an unsafe area (the dotted red line) if you aren’t diligent about situational awareness.

The above scenario is reasonable to discuss with jet owners if for no other reason than to be more educated about what is really going on up front, how the risk management game of “baseball” works.

Ultimately, a frank conversation about risk mitigation only reinforces to the owner that the pilots are not mere bus drivers, rather professionals, well trained in the game of risk analysis, assessment and mitigation. And while the clean graphics above show an elegant story of what to do and not do, the fact is that circling can be a messy affair, with both increased heart rate and blood pressure – which is why the airlines have mostly outright banned them from their scheduled and more mundane operations.


The risk version of baseball is about itemizing your risk factors and getting the batter on base, or not, as is appropriate.

Strike ONE: It is night and IFR (more work for everyone up front). This is a strike one since barring anything else annoying, difficult or challenging, you can still proceed. Night and IFR are garden variety, admittedly more work, stuff that we are just expected to do.

Strike TWO: An unfamiliar airport. Not a show stopper unto itself, but for sure a big extra load of work for the crew. When you compound night and low weather with an unfamiliar airport, you are two strikes into the three that would cause you to cancel, postpone or alter the flight.

Strike THREE: The topic of this post! The circling approach, to the uninitiated means that we take the airplane down a safe glide path, get below the weather, look out the window, and presto (!) the runway we’re lined up for isn’t the one we’re going to use. Nope, tonight’s your lucky night! Through the rain and stuff, in the dark, we’re going to “circle” to another runway, not the one we were originally pointed at. This means turning and maneuvering, close to the ground to make at least a 90 degree realignment to another runway (again, that we were not pointed at) when we came barreling out of the clouds at 130 or more knots.

Sounds insane right? Well, in many cases it is needlessly stressful and hard to manage, but amazingly, … it is totally legal. And totally legal to do at night, with a new crew, at a new airport in low weather. Uncle Sam (the FAA) expects or hopes that you have some other way to interpret what you are doing.

In fact, despite the practice in simulators we get every six months, the airlines, in most cases have banned them mainly due to needless exposure and the sheer amount of people that would get hurt if the pilot doens’t get it right. And when you think about what is going on in the cockpit, you can see why: In James Albright’s graphic above, Johnny (your captain, in the left seat) gives control of the airplane to Bobby (in the right seat) since they will be circling to the left and making a right turn with Bobby looking out his window to be sure that he doesn’t lose site of the runway in the dark as they zoom around at low altitude, low airspeed, to line up with the new runway. This requires careful coordination, planning and all at the end of potentially a long leg with tired eyes and full bladders.

So why do the unscheduled charter aircraft and business jets do these approaches? The simple answer is we go to a LOT more places than the airlines do (thousands of airports in the USA alone vs. Hundreds) where there isn’t the luxury of many runways and options. So the necessity to consider them does enter our planning purposes and has to be part of a frank discussion amongst the crew.

Baseball and Cheese

So while this post began with perhaps a bit about circling approaches, their inherent challenges, etc. an important take away is how the three strikes rule applies to what accident analysts refer to as the holes lining up in the swiss cheese that can lead to accidents. Accidents are rarely the result of a single event and are usually the result of a bunch of factors that weren’t managed properly. Once the stage is set, we are then able to demonstrate how stuff happened by holding up three or five pieces of hole filled cheese, and arrange them perfectly so that the holes lined up.

Think about holes

The key part of the swiss cheese and baseball story is that whatever training program it is you are paying for with your crew, be sure that there are themes you hear time and again:

#1 Best Practices vs. Compliance: The Part 135 industry is most guilty of this – simply keep it legal, focus on legal and hit that bar. This bar is not only far too low, but in the case of the circling approach narrative above you can also see that it is flat out insane.

#2 Play the risk game: When you are into risk management, your mind is naturally tuned to scenarios that line up holes. Good training typically has set ups where you push the crew to the limits of what is do-able and legal and see how they manage it. As a non-aviation person (with an active aviation interest) it is even worthwhile to go through scenarios that pilots have been set up for and sent into and see how they navigated their way out of it. Anyone who is financially hooked into an airplane (that doesn’t fly it) will get pleasure, comfort and satisfaction knowing just how thorough a risk management diet they are on.

#3 The weather is my fault: As the frequent bearer of bad news, I suffered from this terribly in my mid-20’s and came out of it slowly in my 30’s. Telling a client that “yeah, we can’t go” led me to confusing those words with my faltering manhood and ability to “get things done.” Many jet owners (and pilots) are entrepreneurial types and these are important dynamics to be aware of and manage. Accomplishing the mission shows that you are not only task driven, but you are always able to find a way. The weather, airplanes and the associated parameters we juggle (and the illusion of invincibility that cool jets give you) are all complicit in fostering a feeling that is really important to pay attention to. Your crew will have boundaries, personal limits. You need to totally respect them.