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The Timer

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from IFR Checkride Reviewer, April 2011
CFIDarren Newsletter, April 19, 2011
Navigation:   General Info Instrument Rating | 7-day IFR Rating | IFR Adventure | IFR Adventure FAQs | IFR Adventure Itinerary | Holding | IFR Risk | Trip Reports | Flight Profiles | Rating Requirements | After the IFR Rating | Checkride Reviewer | Visi-Hold | Are you ready?

Approach chart table for FAF to MAPHave you ever performed an approach without starting the timer at the final approach fix?  If you're instrument rated, I bet you have and shame on all of us (including me).  As we have all been taught, the timer is clicked on at the Final Approach Fix (FAF).  On the approach chart, there's a table (depicted to the right) that shows, based on the aircraft ground speed, how long they can fly until the pilot MUST have a visual on the runway environment. This point in space (based on time from the FAF) is call the Missed Approach mouse kitchen timerPoint (MAP).

Being able to identify the Missed Approach Point is an absolute MUST on every approach.  Because it's safety related (i.e. keeps you from hitting the ground if you're at the right altitude on course), the more ways you can identify the MAP, the better.  There are many ways to identify the MAP on an approach, but a solid IFR technique is to use a timer, often a kitchen timer, to time your final segment.  Some times the aircraft has a built in timer, while a must in airliners, it often does not exist in the general aviation fleet.  So we head on down to wally world to buy a kitchen timer.  And that doesn't mean the mouse timer depicted above right.   Typically that's a digital timer so we can measure 4 minutes and 4 seconds exactly.
simple timer
The common question is what kind of timer to buy.  There are two types you'll commonly find.  The first timer, most common, and often least expensive is the timer with three buttons:  start/stop and minutes & seconds.  This timer is easy to use if you're counting UP from 0 seconds to 4 minutes and 4 seconds.  But if you'd like an alarm where the missed approach should be, you'll need to set it for 4 minutes and 4 seconds, then hit start at the Final Approach Fix.  With this kind of timer, it means hitting the minutes button 4 times, then the seconds button 4 times to set the countdown timer.  That's a little bit of a pain while you're bouncing around IFR, or under pressure during a checkride. 
more complicated timer
I often recommend the timer depicted to the right, with keys 0-9 so that you can set 4:04 with only 3 button presses.  That's a lot less work while you're under pressure. 

So, most flight instructors send their students off to the store to buy their timer, sometimes with the instruction to buy the timer with the 0-9 buttons, and that's the end of the discussion.  Once you buy your timer, consider taking off the magnet, and using velcro to attach it where you need it.

I'd like you to consider this only the preparation for the discussion about timers.  In the human factors field, we know that habits are very powerful and we usually revert to those habits while under pressure -- like a checkride, or a really hairy approach.  So the real discussion about timers is how you can build the habit of always starting the timer at the Final Approach Fix. During your IFR training, your instructor emphasized the use of the timer during approaches and that was the end of it.  If the connection between approach and timer stuck, this is why.  So the question is, how come we forget to start the timer on EVERY approach?  After all, we already know the safety benefits, right?  We know that some approaches require it.  Yet still we forget.

If you're a student going to an airline job, pay attention.  If you're an occasional pilot who needs to build good habits, and maintain them, pay attention.  I'm going to give you a tip to help you build the habit of using the timer.  It's real simple. Here it comes.  Ready?  Time everything.

Yes, that's right.  I said time everything.  Here's a list of things I want you to time on every flight:
  • When you start your engine, hit the timer as you glance towards the oil pressure gauge.  Stop the timer at the hold short line ready for take off. 
    • Pilots bound for airline jobs will find a similar procedure when you make it to the big leagues. 
    • If you're a helicopter pilot, you'll need to see blade rotation within x seconds OR timing your run-up at x% power.
  • Start the timer after you release brakes for acceleration down the runway for take off.  Stop the timer when you reach the "change fuel tanks" point.  And remember, never change tanks between run-up and take-off.
  • Start the timer afer you change fuel tanks, and stop it when you reach the next "change fuel tanks" point. If you don't change fuel tanks during your enroute flying, ignore this step.
    • Just leave the timer running until you brief the approach (i.e. set the timer for the final approach segment).
    • If you're not doing an approach, just leave it running until you clear the runway and perform your after landing checks.
  • Alternatively, if you don't use the timer for changing fuel tanks, then you can use it enroute:
    • For IFR pilots, start the timer whenever you enter IFR.  This might be a handy way to record your IFR time for logbook purposes.
    • If you're a Private Pilot, use the timer to measure time between waypoints on your crosscountry.
  • Use your timer to keep anxiety in check.  Have you ever had a feeling something wasn't right but couldn't put your finger on it?  Stop what you're doing and give yourself 30 seconds to check all the basics. Then before you continue, take a deep breath and get back to work.
When in doubt, start the timer.  Time everything.  You've got to make it a mindset that things in aviation must be timed.

Just wait, that's not all.  There's more.  To reinforce your skills in timing everything, I'd even recommend buying another timer for your car.  Velcro it somewhere on the panel and time everything there too.  Here are some ideas:
  • Engine start to movement.
  • Yellow light to green light.
  • Just going to run into the store for a minute.
  • Engine cool down (from "park" to remove the key)
Bet you can think of a thousand things you can start timing so that you build your habits of starting the timer.  Please drop me a line or leave a comment about your ideas.

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