Using the Search, Plan and Execute Method

By Morné Kleinhans – Passionate aviator at CTFC.

The 1st step is to make the decision to do a precautionary landing. In real-life this will probably be one of the most difficult decisions to make. Reasons for such a decision can be due to bad weather, darkness setting in, being lost and running low on fuel. All of them are usually a direct result of poor pre-flight planning.

During training exercises your instructor will usually create a scenario based on one of the above. Here follows a brief guide, which can be used to simplify the precautionary landing procedure:

Once you have decided to commit to a precautionary landing your 1st step should be to configure your aircraft for slow safe cruise. Always be familiar with you particular aircraft’s configuration as it may differ from type to type.

Search Phase:

With your aircraft configured for slow safe cruise you can start with the Search Phase. The slow safe cruise configuration will allow you to fly slower which gives you an advantage while looking for a suitable area to land. During this phase you can apply the WHOSSSSSS checks to determine if a field is suitable for the intended landing. Remember, you are not yet inspecting your field you are only doing a general assessment to determine if a particular field will be worthwhile to inspect. The altitude during this phase will depend directly on the situation or scenario created by the instructor. If it is due to bad weather (low clouds) the general rule of thumb is to remain approximately 100 ft below the cloud base. If it is due to darkness, low fuel etc. a 800 ft – 1000 ft AGL will be sufficient. Also try and limit your turns to a rate 1 turn and do not focus inside the cockpit for too long. Develop a scan where you pay attention to attitude and bank angle outside then briefly inside scanning airspeed, outside again, inside checking temperature and pressures, outside again… etc. Constantly be aware of the surrounding terrain, drift due to wind and possible changing weather conditions.

  • W – Wind direction
  • H – Habitation (does not mean you need to land in someone’s backyard, note where there is habitation in case you need to ask for assistance after the landing)
  • O – Obstacles (look for general obstacles in the vicinity of your field, this will play an important role in determining how low you will be able to conduct your inspections)
  • S – Size (a general overview of the size of the field, remember you want to land and take-off again)
  • S – Shape (a general overview of the shape of the field, preferably an open area which can safely accommodate your type of aircraft)
  • S – Surface (a general overview of the surface, is wet, dry, sandy, rocky etc.)
  • S – Slope (a general overview of the terrain, upslope is usually preferable over a down slope – within limits)
  • S – Shoot (a general overview of the terrain surrounding your possible field, paying special attention to the approach and go-around path. You can ask yourself if the undershoot will be safe to land on if you don’t make your field, or if the overshoot will be safe to land on if you land to deep.)
  • S – Sun (try as far as practical not to land directly into the sun as this will have negative impact on your visibility during the approach)

After reviewing your field by applying the above checks you may move to the next phase. Remember: At this stage you’ve purely made use of the WHOSSSSSS checks to get a general overview of the selected field.

Plan Phase:

Now we enter the Plan Phase where we will once again apply most of the WHOSSSSSS checks but in more detail. This phase will typically consist of two inspection circuits of your selected field a high level inspection and a low level inspection. The idea here is to plan your circuit while inspecting your field in more detail.

The best approach is to position your aircraft to over-fly the upwind threshold of your selected field. Very similar to when we join at an unmanned airfield like Fisantekraal, the only difference is you do not have any familiar references therefore it is important to look for suitable reference points to orientate yourself. Your altitude at this stage will be the same as you have used during the Search Phase e.g. 800 ft – 1000 ft AGL.

On the crosswind leg you need to look for a suitable reference, which you will use to turn crosswind after you first high level inspection of the selected field. Next you need to pick a reference to turn onto the downwind leg. Be careful not to make your circuit too tight as we want to avoid making very steep turns while flying low level.

Once on the downwind you will have a very good profile view (side view) of your selected field. Here you will be able to determine the slope, get a good look at the over and undershoot areas as well as any major obstacles like power lines, trees etc. Next you will pick a reference to turn onto the base leg.

On the base leg we will not descent as we are positioning our aircraft for our high level inspection. Now we can also get a closer look at our approach path and look for any obstacles, which might affect our low level inspection and landing. Also have a good look at the undershoot area to determine of it will be suitable in case we land short of our planned field. Next you need to pick a reference to turn onto final approach and fly past it, which will enable us to fly slightly to the right of the actual final approach path. This will also give you a better view of the area you are about to inspect. Now we can turn onto final approach (remember you will be slightly to the right of the final approach path)

On final approach a few things need to happen.

  • Check the runway heading against your DI and compass as this will be a valuable reference to backup your visual outside reference.
  • Inspect the approach path for obstacles remember this will have a direct impact on determining the altitude for your low level inspection.
  • Once abeam your landing threshold you need to time the length of the field. 15 – 20 seconds will be enough for most two and four seater aircraft. The reason for this check is to determine if the aircraft will be able to land and take off from the selected field.
  • Inspect the surface condition of the field, note obstacles like fences, rocks, ditches etc.
  • Inspect the over shoot (go-around area) in the case we end up landing deep, as well as for obstacles which might affect our low level inspection.

Remember to continue with the scan mentioned in the Search Phase at all times.

Before turning onto your “crosswind” reference selected earlier you can ask yourself the following question:

Does this field justify a low level inspection? If the answer is no you start with the Search Phase again. If the answer is yes you continue to turn onto the crosswind reference and prepare for the low level inspection.

This is where the importance of good reference points come in as it is easy to loose your field amongst other surrounding fields. Find your downwind reference point and position your aircraft on downwind. Now you need to continue looking for any obstacles, which might affect your low level inspection on final approach, over the field and along the go-around path. Continue until you are abeam your base leg reference point and commence your base turn.

Once established on base we will commence our descent for the low level inspection. How low do we go? This will depend on the obstacles and terrain surrounding your selected field and the prevailing weather conditions e.g. wind, turbulence, visibility etc. Typically 100 – 300 ft AGL will be suitable in most cases. Keep an eye on your rate of descent and angle of bank when turning onto your final approach and remember you will once again position slightly to the right of the final approach path.

When you are established on final approach you need to be very disciplined with your scan as discussed in the Search Phase. The aim of this inspection is to inspect the field in greater detail for any obstacles or obstructions we might have missed during the high level inspection. That is why it is very important to have completed the high-level final approach checks during the previous inspection as it will only increase your workload during this phase and take your attention away from the task at hand.

Once you have over flown the length of your field you will apply full power and climb to the altitude you selected during the beginning of the Search Phase.

Before turning onto crosswind you need to ask yourself. Does this field justify a landing? If the answer is no you need to start with the Search Phase again. If the answer is yes you will need to start preparing for a short/soft field landing and turn onto your crosswind reference.

Execution Phase:

Now we need to get all the formalities out of the way:

  • Squawk 7700
  • Make a PAN call on the relevant frequencies
  • Do your passenger briefing

These checks will usually be done shortly after establishing on your downwind leg.

Now it becomes a fairly standard short field circuit with a possible soft field landing (depending on the surface condition – if not sure you need to plan for a soft field landing)

Standard downwind, base and final approach checks will apply.

I hope this template will help with your precautionary landings.