BACK TO BASICS
AIRSTRIP SAFETY EVALUATION
By David Dunteman
Arizona Pilots Association and Recreational Aviation Foundation
Issue 3, March 1, 2016
How do you prepare for landing at a new location? Our January Back to Basics addressed preflight preparation actions and requirements to familiarize us with all information relevant to a given flight. The Airstrip Safety Evaluation (ASE) is my attempt to combine several different sources to provide a rubric for this preparation in the backcountry or for that matter anywhere we fly.
Here is a twelve‐step program for pilots to use to prepare for landing at new locations. I have combined criteria glider pilots' use for land outs with the information provided in the Mountain Flying Bible. The best way to prepare for a new location is to find an experienced instructor or local pilot with specific experience to the location you are intending on visiting. Never try to teach yourself these skills alone!
If you are going to Utah or Idaho you can save quite a bit of work by purchasing Galen Hansens' Fly Idaho or Fly Utah books-he also has a nice IPad product for Idaho.
While airborne or in preparation I like to have something memorized or jotted down to make sure I think of all eventualities. First from high overhead, or a satellite view on Google earth, I look for potential approach paths and ascertain whether a standard pattern will work or if a modified or blind approach will be required. Some local pilot associations have already done some of this work and there are PDF safety briefings and videos that are helpful in determining information on local strips. While researching these options, I also choose abort points. I need to know abort points for my arrival as well as for my landing. I need to be able to determine where on the ground I need to touchdown, and also where specifically I will go around if I have not touched down. I review my go around procedure. If I have not touched down by the clearing on the south side of the strip one quarter of the way in I will apply full power, accelerate to Vx in ground effect while reducing to flap 1 and climb straight ahead until the end of the strip at which point I will turn left and follow the valley to where it widens and then will turn around and fly back towards the strip and out the drainage. I want to leave nothing to chance. I do not want to reach an abort point and then have to think. My thought was done while I had time and altitude to determine best courses of action.
Prepare for Arrival and Departure!
Once I have observed the strip from overhead I am ready to announce my intentions for arrival on the strips frequency or backcountry common.
While looking down at the strip I want to apply the seven "S" criteria. I look at Size, Shape, Surface, Surface Wind, Surroundings, Slope, and Stock.
Slope is one of my early observations as it is often observable from above. Begin paying attention to slope as you hike, drive and interact in the wilderness so you pick up subtle changes. It is helpful to then walk the slope so you feel the effort change- imagine the effect of that effort on your takeoff and landing performance. If a slope if visible from altitude, it is probably far greater than you predict. Don't be afraid to label the strip one way in due to slope or surroundings. The last consideration with slope is to consider the effect of slope verses the effect of the wind.
When evaluating Size and Shape, I must remember that based on the Surface I may not be able to take off in the distance I landed. If the surface is very soft it may take quite a bit more distance to takeoff than to stop-so it is critical to consider both takeoff and landing distances based on the surface type and condition to preclude getting stuck on the ground or worse! Also clearly, your aircraft type comes into consideration when looking at size shape and surface. A Katmai on large tires will be able to go many places a stock 182 cannot.
Other considerations for Surface include evaluating rodent holes. As long as the strip is not a one way strip this can be accomplished by flying low over the strip and observing and by touching a wheel to determine if the surface is firm or is you are going to sink or settle.
Some strips will have windsocks, find them at altitude so you are not searching during valuable time during approach or landing. I do keep the wind sock in my cross check during approach and landing but I want to know where it is. If there is no sock then I will have to use other sources of wind-ripples on water, blowing smoke, movement of dust from my low pass or wheel touch. I want the wind source to be as close to the strip as possible as winds in the backcountry change often depending on terrain.
When evaluating surroundings I want to know how high the trees are, location of any wires, fences, or power lines, terrain, roads or trails that enter the strip for possible traffic entering the runway environment.
The final S is liveStock, be ready for deer, elk, cattle and other large game. The deer can be quite hard to spot and they move quickly.
Last I Evaluate and if I am not happy with what I have found I Escape.
I don't expect to ever find a strip and land on it in my first attempt. Best case I would rather drive out to a location and spend time scouting all of the previous criteria prior to attempting this in my aircraft. Now if I'm flying to a location that local pilots can brief me on hazards and best practices, then I am stacking the deck in my favor! Fly safe and enjoy becoming an ASE!
I'd love to hear your inputs on how you prepare to land at a strip!