Flying into an unfamiliar airstrip will bring with it lots of unknowns.
A precautionary inspection of an unfamiliar airstrip before landing is a logical and effective way to reassure yourself you have chosen a suitable landing area. This is not only good for your aircraft but also for your skill level.
On arrival in the vicinity of the strip, remember the mnemonic that will provide the focus of your airborne inspection. These include:
- W: wind velocity and direction
- O: obstacles. In the undershoot, field and overshoot
- S: size. Minimum 1,500 ft (450 m) length
- S: shape. Suitable landing direction for current wind
- S: slope. Landing direction
- S: surface. Cultivated? Wet? Rocky? Livestock? Tyre tracks? Ant hills?
- S: sun. Landing into the sun, strobe effect through the propeller
- E: elevation. Key altitudes on altimeter for the circuit pattern
- T: terrain. Will the terrain surrounding the field affect the landing or go-around?
As there is little doubt you will someday need this skill, practising a textbook precautionary search and landing every make sense.
It's another way of getting on the front foot and prepare for whatever unusual situations your flying is going to present you with.
Book your instructor for a dual session if you are struggling to remember the correct procedure. You can also ask for the take-home notes. Your flying school will almost certainly have available on landing at approach and landing (ALAs).
If the strip is unfenced, stock may be 'hiding' in surrounding bushes. Make sure you check both sides of the strip for any sign of wildlife. Remember, your precautionary pass can startle wildlife or cattle onto the strip. Just in time for your actual landing.
Select and stick to a maximum touchdown point for landing. You will have mentally marked this spot as abeam a gate, a particular tree, a big anthill or similar. Just don't choose a cow.
Many pilots are overconfident of their ability to handle an aircraft safely on unknown strips. With recent practice under your belt, you are far less likely to stray from the accuracy. Maintain a safe height and indicated air speed during your inspection run whilst visually assessing the strip for suitability.
One thing to remember is not to rush the inspection. Don't put yourself in the position where you are racing the clock to beat last light or deteriorating weather.
What happens if you are unhappy with the landing area and must continue to locate another suitable field? You need to approach low flying with the greatest respect for its inherent risks.
Call the owner of the airstrip for permission to use the strip. Make sure you take the opportunity of quizzing them for any helpful advice about landing there.
Consider the insurance cover that may or may not apply to unregistered landing areas.