reducing "Crew-caused"
approach and landing

Pilot-in-charge Monitored Approach

"First Officers' Minima" - Cross-checking the visual reference and land/go-around decision.

It has been claimed that one of the disadvantages of the PicMA procedure is that "there is no crosscheck of the visual cues and the land /go-around decision, which is done in traditional PF/PM procedures".  This is discussed at some length in the section on Objections, but it becomes a significant issue during PICUS sectors. 

When the F/O is "pilot flying" using traditional procedures, Captains will inevitably have a strong desire to confirm that indeed the F/O has made the correct decision. This is from a safety viewpoint if the decision is to land, and to avoid an "unnecessary" and potentially costly go-around from a commercial viewpoint.

Many operators whose crews routinely alternate sectors apply an additional restriction to F/Os' activities for PICUS flying - one might imagine this is part of the "method of supervision acceptable to the authority" which is part of the PICUS definition. For example, some state that only a Captain may make the decision to abandon a takeoff, and others impose different crosswind, visibility or other limitations, and PicMA procedures are no different in that respect. 

Many operators currently using "monitored approach" procedures do so by specifying that monitored approaches are required below certain weather criteria, usually quite poor visibility and cloudbase, and in these conditions, it is specifically the Captain that must make the landing. Consequently, these operators' F/Os do not routinely experience taking control at a late stage in a flight, as it only occurs on the relatively rare occasions when the Captain must make the landing.

To expand the use of monitored approaches to all operations in IMC and at night, as the CFIT Training Aid recommends, it makes sense to look at this slightly differently. It can then cease to be a "very occasional, severe weather" procedure used when Captains must make the landing, but be used on F/O sectors ("PICUS") sectors as well.

During PICUS sectors, the "land or go-around decision is in principle no different to any other in that the Captain has an obligation to "supervise" it and confirm that indeed the F/O has made the correct decision.

The logical way to deal with this must recognise that a Captain may and indeed should want to cross-check, in order to if necessary over-ride or reverse a First Officer's judgment, even though the opposite - a F/O reversing Captain's visual assessment - is not possible.

That is what the Captain's command authority actually means - the Captain should have the final say in what happens. To reconcile these conflicting requirements and make it possible for the Captain to over-ride the F/O's decision, without the reverse being true, it's necessary to provide the Captain with an extra safety margin.

The basic problem is that the legal minima (DH/RVR combination) may not guarantee that "the pilot" will actually have sufficient visual cues to judge the flight path, in which case it certainly won't allow a subsequent confirmation.

Applying the PicMA procedure in an PICUS sector, based on the F/O's judgment of the visual cues, the F/O has two possible decisions - "Land" or "Go-around".

Training emphasises that a "Go-around" call by either pilot should normally result in almost automatic reactions to carry it out, in particular application of high thrust by the PF. Nearly all pilots would rightly consider it dangerous to reverse a go-around call-out, whatever the reason, and many operators specifically state that once initiated, a go-around must always be completed.  

So although an "unnecessary" go-around by an F/O is undesirable from a commercial viewpoint, from a safety perspective, the only decision relevant decision that a Captain would want to be able to reverse would be to continue to land. If the F/O decides "Land", the approach status quo is maintained. Action can then be taken if the Captain considers it unsafe, based on the visual cues, and over-rides it with a go-around call.

By definition, the lowest altitude that a go-around can safely be initiated is the DH.  As a consequence, it is inevitable that the F/O must make his or her decision earlier than that if the Captain is to have a legitimate opportunity to validate it. In other words, the F/O must make his or her decision above the DH published for the approach itself, e.g. if DH is 200ft (Cat. 1), the F/O should use perhaps 250ft.

But at 250ft in homogeneous fog with typical Cat 1 RVR minima of 550m/1800ft, the F/O's chance of seeing sufficient to make a "land" judgement are small, and go-around decision is very likely.

The numbers chosen need to achieve three things

  1. a satisfactory approach success rate that minimises unnecessary go-arounds
  2. not exposing passengers and crew to entirely unnecessary risks
  3. not leaving Captains with a  responsibility that they cannot actually carry out.

To do this,  a number of criteria need to be met.  

  • The F/O will be able to have sufficient visual reference to assess the flight path in both planes. Horizontal is easy, but as seen in the section on low visibility transition, the vertical needs path needs sight of the aiming point.
  • The F/O will have an extremely high probability of seeing the aiming point several seconds before the aircraft reaches the DH, so that the decision will be "land".
  • The Captain will have a very easy task in temporarily relinquishing instrument monitoring to make his own assessment of the cues, prior to reaching the actual DH.

This can be achieved by having higher minimum visibility criteria for First Officers' landings, such that there can be a very high expectation that the touchdown point will be visible well before DH. For typical ILS approaches, an RVR of 1500-1800m (5000ft - 1 mile) should provide this, and fog of this density is unlikely to produce the dangerous reduction of visual segment that occurs with the most deceptive shallow fogs. 

Even in operators that ostensibly do not have formal criteria for First Officers landings, in practical terms it is likely that such a system is imposed informally by Captains' discretion in deciding which sectors to assign to F/Os and which to operate themselves.

It seems unlikely that on encountering a new and inexperienced F/O for the first time, at the start of duty period that is likely to involve one landing in difficult conditions and one in benign conditions, the Captain will assign  the difficult one to the inexperienced F/O. The criteria involved in making that decision will probably include the likely visibility at each destination.

Formalising such criteria even as guidance to Captains may prove unpopular at first in some operators. Going from "our F/Os operate to the same minima as our Captains" to "F/Os don't land in such severe conditions as Captains" could be perceived as indicating a lack of confidence in the F/Os' abilities.

But imposing higher minima for First Officers than for Captains is not a reflection on the First Officers skills - it is simply a recognition that the visual judgement cannot be properly supervised in the most limiting conditions.

It also recognises that from the passengers' point of view,  the most experienced and senior pilot will be performing the most challenging tasks, and junior pilots are not "practicing hazardous manouevres" on the paying public.  Where operators want to make sure that F/Os have some experience of critical visibility judgement prior to upgrade to Captain, the proper place for this is by training in the flight simulator, where the hazards can be safely demonstrated.