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Have 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 Point (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.
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.
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:
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: