The Common-Sense Approach Checklist

by Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2018 issue

The question often arises, “What about an instrument approach checklist?” In this issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine, I will address some of my thoughts on this topic.

     When flying an instrument approach, it is great to have a two-pilot crew or at least a sophisticated autopilot driven by a sophisticated Global Positioning System (GPS) navigator. When training a pilot for an instrument rating, as an instructor, I first teach how to fly the airplane on instruments without using an autopilot. This is to prepare the pilot for the day when the autopilot quits or does something un-commanded. Those of you reading this will wonder what kind of instructor would waste time teaching timed approaches using the VOR or ADF and “needle-ball-airspeed,” but it pays off. In my opinion, if a pilot cannot hand-fly an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach without a GPS assist or an autopilot, he/she should not be flying in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC).

So, what about the checklist for the approach? As I wrote about in my previous articles, I never use a written checklist in the air while flying as a single pilot. I use acronyms and flow patterns, as you should never bury your head in the cockpit while trying to read something. While in VFR conditions, you should be looking for traffic, and in IMC conditions, you should be monitoring your instruments. In a two-pilot airplane, it is important for the pilots to brief each approach before starting the approach. In a single-pilot airplane, it is important to self-brief the approach for the destination airport if possible before departing on the flight. This is addressed in the FARs. I wrote “if possible,” and this may not be the case as the destination could change during the flight due to weather or other conditions. During an instrument ground school session using a PowerPoint presentation, I display an approach on the screen for 10 seconds, and ask the participants to write down the most important numbers of the approach. I will cover these numbers later.

The first item on the checklist should deal with what approach you will be doing and if using a GPS navigator, it needs to be loaded in the box. The navigator first wants the airport where the approach will be made and if this is your destination airport as a direct to waypoint or is in the route of a flight plan, it is already there. Next comes the routing of the approach. Is there a standard terminal arrival (STAR) and what is my initial approach fix (IAF), or will this be radar vectors? Oops. This is the COMMON-SENSE CHECKLIST.

You are 10 miles from the airport, ATC is extremely busy, you have the ATIS and several approaches are in use. You are flying at 200 knots at 3,000 feet above all the initial approach fixes and you have not been given your approach yet. On that COMMON-SENSE CHECKLIST, when do you slow down or go to your approach airspeed? The question on any checklist is using common sense.

We have all been in this situation if we have been flying IFR for any period of time. ATC may be busy and seems to have forgotten you, and you cannot get a radio transmission in edgewise. You are too high, but descending without a clearance would get you in big trouble. There is also a rule on airspeed changes without notifying ATC as well, but I would still slow to my approach airspeed. So, there is always a question or a checklist item that will vary.

If I am at the proper altitude for the approach, I will usually slow to approach airspeed when turning on final approach. This can vary with distance from the final approach fix and with the airplane I am flying. Note, you should have the power, configuration and pitch settings memorized for the airplane you are flying as part of flying by the numbers.

Going back to the checklist item of setting up your GPS navigator if you have one and the approach is other than a GPS approach (VOR, ILS, LOC), it is necessary to move the NAV standby frequency to the active window. This is one of the top checklist errors I have seen as an instructor. Make this a flow pattern item as part of loading an approach on your GPS navigator.

If you are flying this approach with an autopilot, it is time to include the autopilot in your checklist as well. So much of what you do with your autopilot during an approach depends on the autopilot itself. The pilot should become very familiar with its capabilities as they differ greatly from one make and model to the other. Let’s take a brief look at some of the more popular autopilots on the market and their differences and similarities:

King KFC-200 & S-Tec 55 with GPSS add-on.
King KFC-225
S-Tec 55X
S-Tec 50 & S-Tec 30

We could spend an entire issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine on just one of these autopilots, so I will only be scratching the surface. I have grouped several of these devices together to explain some key features.

The first group being the King KFC 200 and the S-Tec 55, which did not come with GPS steering (GPSS), and I am describing them with the GPSS add-on. If using these units during the approach, as part of my checklist, I use the GPS steering function until established on the final approach course before switching the function from HEADING to APPROACH mode. While in HEADING mode, I am either flying the heading mode while getting vectors or flying the full approach with the GPS Steering mode engaged.

On the King KFC-225 autopilot (the first autopilot with built-in GPS steering) – providing it was properly installed – the GPS navigator will flash a message for you to select (Nav inputs) after which you recycle the autopilot by pushing the approach button twice.

The S-Tec 55X has certain criteria necessary to do the approach and capture the localizer. This is for software version 5 only:
1.  NAV APR mode engaged
2.  ALT mode engaged
3.  NAV flag out of view on CDI
4.  GS flag out of view on CDI
5.  LOC frequency selected

The S-Tec 50 and 30 auto pilots are not capable of capturing a localizer without an add-on GPS steering module, but they will fly a localizer or GPS course once intercepted and stabilized. These autopilots have altitude hold, but no available pitch control or glide-slope capture. Assuming these units are paired with a GPS steering module, we can fly a GPS approach without switching to the analogue approach mode, but need to switch once established inbound and stabilized on the final approach for all other approaches. The pilot must provide input manually for the glide-slope.

There are so many circumstances to consider when thinking about a checklist of items for doing an instrument approach. We would need to have a dozen or more different checklists for every type of approach or circumstance. An example for a VOR approach alone, we would need at least three different checklists…one for radar vectors, one for when the VOR is on the airport, and one when the VOR is not on the airport and is the final approach fix.

When building your COMMON-SENSE CHECKLIST, there are a couple of items I always do. If the airplane I am flying “NEEDS” approach flaps (some do and some do not), I put them down and slow to approach airspeed once established on the final approach course. If I have retractable landing gear, the gear goes down at glide-slope intercept or the final approach fix. Once on the final approach segment of a STABALIZED APPROACH, I use the GUMP final check (Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop).

When training student instrument pilots, I ask them what are the most items to note about this approach and give them 10 seconds to find and list them.

Think about approach similarities if you would have to do an approach to an unfamiliar airport in an emergency, as I have on several occasions.

Let’s assume, for example, an ILS approach as follows:
1.  Frequency of the localizer.
2.  Inbound final approach course.
3.  Altitude to intercept the glide-slope.
4.  How low can I go (decision altitude) and the missed approach point.
5.  Initial part of the missed approach if I need to go missed.

Once I am inside the final approach fix, it is no longer necessary to look at the chart and I often take away the chart from a pilot I am training. At this point, there are two items that the pilot must have memorized: decision altitude and the initial part of the missed approach. Every missed approach I have seen begins with a climb, and either a climbing right or left turn or straight ahead. My missed approach checklist is as follows:
1.  Power Up
2.  Pitch Up
3.  Positive Rate (Climb)
4.  Gear Up
5.  Autopilot Disconnect or Go-Around Button. (This should be together with the power up as one item.)

Should the missed approach become part of the flight, there are some important items to add as a sequence of events to our COMMON-SENSE CHECKLIST. On almost all of the autopilots, it is necessary to disconnect or push the missed approach/go-around button to start the missed approach, thus disconnecting the autopilot servos. Here is where a GPS navigator will make flying much easier, but knowing some basics of the missed approach will help.

The approach plate will indicate at a glance the altitude to climb to before the next sequence of events, and this is one of the common errors I see as an instructor. If your GPS navigator does not auto sequence to the missed approach procedure (most do not), it is important to climb to the first published altitude before pushing the Omni Bearing Selector (OBS) button on the navigator. If you do not follow this procedure and a turn is part of the missed approach, an early activation of the missed approach sequence could fly you into a hill, mountain or tower. You, as the pilot-in-command, need to customize your COMMON-SENSE CHECKLIST to include turning the autopilot back on and selecting the proper mode (GPSS) if necessary.

Every airplane, navigator and autopilot is different, so it is the pilot’s responsibility to know his/her equipment well. And after maintenance, and equipment or software updates, never fly in IMC until you are certain your equipment is working as it should be. It may affect what happens on that COMMON-SENSE CHECKLIST.

Remember, this is the COMMON-SENSE CHECKLIST. There are laws – “Laws of God and physics” – and there are rules. “Rules are made for pilots with no common sense by bureaucrats who have no common sense” – a quote from a General Aviation District Office inspector some 45-plus years ago.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) and the program manager of flight operations with the “Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training” organization. Kaufman conducts pilot clinics and specialized instruction throughout the U.S. in a variety of aircraft, which are equipped with a variety of avionics, although he is based in Lone Rock (KLNR) and Eagle River (KEGV), Wisconsin. Kaufman was named “FAA’s Safety Team Representative of the Year” for Wisconsin in 2008. Email questions to or call 817-988-0174.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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