Let’s start with airplane type. We know that we need to fly a stabilized approach from the FAF on in. If we don’t have to make changes in configuration or airspeed, the entire process is going to go much easier. But a few thoughts for those pilots who are flying lower performance aircraft. (And I am defining “low performance” as the Cessna 172 \ Cherokee Archer \ LSA type of aircraft.) In this type of aircraft, I will generally not slow to the final approach airspeed with flaps extended. Instead, I will generally fly the airspeed at the top of the white arc and leave the flaps up. There are two reasons for this. First, by flying at a higher airspeed, I have better aileron-rudder-elevator response, which makes it easer to fly a more precise approach. Second, instead of flying at the 70 – 80 KIAS I am flying at 90 – 105 KIAS (depending on the airplane) which gets me through this stuff a little faster.
At missed approach point, if I decide to go missed approach, the flaps are already up which makes missed approach easier. If I decide to land, I can either extend the flaps (this is why I keep the airspeed below the top of the white arc) or I can land no-flap.
There is a definite down-side to the decision to fly final at a higher airspeed. That airspeed needs to bleed off sometime prior to landing. I find personally in the lower-performance airplanes I can bleed off the airspeed easily on short final by lowering the flaps. And I will be ready to make the trim changes that will be required with decreasing airspeed. Please note: this is a technique for the low and slow crowd. When flying a retractable-gear airplane, I will always have the gear down prior to the FAF and I will extend the flaps at least to the “approach” position prior to the final approach fix.. (More on flaps later.
Straight-in approach or circling? This relates back to flap and gear position decisions when leaving the FAF. If I am planning on flying a circling approach in a low performance aircraft, I will leave flaps up. If I am flying a high-performance aircraft, I will lower (and check) the gear and I will lower the flaps to “approach” prior to the FAF. In either case, I will lower the flaps to full (if required) when I roll out on final, in a position to land.
Passengers on board? Another pilot in the right seat? With another qualified pilot, one pilot can fly the approach, and the other can call altitudes and perform other co-pilot tasks (radio calls, frequency changes, etc.) The pilot not flying is also the pilot looking for the runway environment. When the runway is in sight, the pilot not flying announces “runway in sight”, takes over and lands. Otherwise, the pilot not flying calls the missed approach point and flying pilot stays on the gauges and executes the missed approach. Do not expect this procedure to work if the pilot not flying has not been fully briefed on his duties or if he is not proficient in landing in inclement weather. There are other variations on this, of course. The most important aspect of a two-pilot procedure is that both pilots must understand their roles.
So what if the right seat passenger is not a qualified pilot? You still have some great options. Before you leave the FAF, you should have a good idea of the ceiling and visibility to expect. Tell you your passenger to let you know when you expect to break out of the clouds, and what you expect to see. I ask my passengers to tell me when they see the ground and when they see runway lights. I also tell them what the runway environment should look like when they see it. (aligned with runway, angling toward it, etc.) By utilizing my passenger, I can get a bit of comfort when I break out of the clouds when expected, and I don’t have to switch my vision from instruments to outside quite so soon. One of the most critical points in the approach is the switch from instruments to visual, so it is best not to put yourself in a position where you have to continuously go back and forth between inside and outside unless you really have to..
Reminders – altitudes, times, and airspeeds. One of the luxuries of a crew environment is having someone else set frequencies, talk on the radio, and remind you of timings and altitudes and dme’s. When I have a person qualified to do so, I ask that person to call all of my checkpoints and altitudes. (Hint. You want a reminder when approaching a point or an altitude, not when you just went past it.)