Aircraft Approaches - IFR Flight

Compliance With Published Standard Instrument Approach Procedures

Compliance with the approach procedures shown on the approach charts provides necessary navigation guidance information for alignment with the final approach courses, as well as obstruction clearance. Under certain conditions, a course reversal maneuver or procedure turn may be necessary. However, this procedure is not authorized when:
  1. The symbol “NoPT” appears on the approach course on the plan view of the approach chart.
  2. Radar vectoring is provided to the final approach course.
  3. A holding pattern is published in lieu of a procedure turn.
  4. Executing a timed approach from a holding fix.
  5. Otherwise directed by ATC.

Instrument Approaches to Civil Airports

Unless otherwise authorized, when an instrument letdown to an airport is necessary, the pilot should use a standard IAP prescribed for that airport. IAPs are depicted on IAP charts and are found in the TPP.

ATC approach procedures depend upon the facilities available at the terminal area, the type of instrument approach executed, and the existing weather conditions. The ATC facilities, NAVAIDs, and associated frequencies appropriate to each standard instrument approach are given on the approach chart. Individual charts are published for standard approach procedures associated with the following types of facilities:
  1. Nondirectional beacon (NDB)
  2. Very-high frequency omnirange (VOR)
  3. Very-high frequency omnirange with distance measuring equipment (VORTAC or VOR/DME)
  4. Localizer (LOC)
  5. Instrument landing system (ILS)
  6. Localizer-type directional aid (LDA)
  7. Simplified directional facility (SDF)
  8. Area navigation (RNAV)
  9. Global positioning system (GPS)

An IAP can be flown in one of two ways: as a full approach or with the assistance of radar vectors. When the IAP is flown as a full approach, pilots conduct their own navigation using the routes and altitudes depicted on the instrument approach chart. A full approach allows the pilot to transition from the en route phase, to the instrument approach, and then to a landing with minimal assistance from ATC. This type of procedure may be requested by the pilot but is most often used in areas without radar coverage. A full approach also provides the pilot with a means of completing an instrument approach in the event of a communications failure.

When an approach is flown with the assistance of radar vectors, ATC provides guidance in the form of headings and altitudes, which position the aircraft to intercept the final approach. From this point, the pilot resumes navigation, intercepts the final approach course, and completes the approach using the IAP chart. This is often a more expedient method of flying the approach, as opposed to the full approach, and allows ATC to sequence arriving traffic. A pilot operating in radar contact can generally expect the assistance of radar vectors to the final approach course.

Approach to Airport Without an Operating Control Tower

Figure 1 shows an approach procedure at an airport without an operating control tower. When approaching such a facility, the pilot should monitor the AWOS/ASOS if available for the latest weather conditions. When direct communication between the pilot and controller is no longer required, the ARTCC or approach controller issues a clearance for an instrument approach and advises “change to advisory frequency approved.” When the aircraft arrives on a “cruise” clearance, ATC does not issue further clearance for approach and landing.

Approaches - IFR Flight
Figure 1. Monroeville, Alabama (MVC) VOR or GPS Rwy 3 Approach: An approach procedure at an airport without an operating control tower

If an approach clearance is required, ATC authorizes the pilots to execute his or her choice of standard instrument approach (if more than one is published for the airport) with the phrase “Cleared for the approach” and the communications frequency change required, if any. From this point on, there is no contact with ATC. The pilot is responsible for closing the IFR flight plan before landing, if in VFR conditions, or by telephone after landing.

Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, a pilot is expected to execute the complete IAP shown on the chart.

Approach to Airport With an Operating Tower, With No Approach Control

When an aircraft approaches an airport with an operating control tower, but no approach control, ATC issues a clearance to an approach/outer fix with the appropriate information and instructions as follows:

1. Name of the fix
2. Altitude to be maintained
3. Holding information and expected approach clearance time, if appropriate
4. Instructions regarding further communications, including:
  • facility to be contacted
  • time and place of contact
  • frequency/ies to be used

If ATIS is available, a pilot should monitor that frequency for information such as ceiling, visibility, wind direction and velocity, altimeter setting, instrument approach, and runways in use prior to initial radio contact with the tower. If ATIS is not available, ATC provides weather information from the nearest reporting station.

Approach to an Airport With an Operating Tower, With an Approach Control

Where radar is approved for approach control service, it is used to provide vectors in conjunction with published IAPs. Radar vectors can provide course guidance and expedite traffic to the final approach course of any established IAP. Figure 2 shows an IAP chart with maximum ATC facilities available.

Approaches - IFR Flight
Figure 2. Gulfport, Mississippi (GPT) ILS or LOC Rwy 14 Approach: An instrument procedure chart with maximum ATC facilities available

Approach control facilities that provide this radar service operate in the following manner:

1. Arriving aircraft are either cleared to an outer fix most appropriate to the route being flown with vertical separation and, if required, given holding information; or,

2. When radar hand-offs are effected between ARTCC and approach control, or between two approach control facilities, aircraft are cleared to the airport or to a fix so located that the hand-off is completed prior to the time the aircraft reaches the fix.
  • When the radar hand-offs are utilized, successive arriving flights may be handed off to approach control with radar separation in lieu of vertical separation.
  • After hand-off to approach control, an aircraft is vectored to the appropriate final approach course.
3. Radar vectors and altitude/flight levels are issued as required for spacing and separating aircraft; do not deviate from the headings issued by approach control.

4. Aircraft are normally informed when it becomes necessary to be vectored across the final approach course for spacing or other reasons. If approach course crossing is imminent and the pilot has not been informed that the aircraft will be vectored across the final approach course, the pilot should query the controller. The pilot is not expected to turn inbound on the final approach course unless an approach clearance has been issued. This clearance is normally issued with the final vector for interception of the final approach course, and the vector enables the pilot to establish the aircraft on the final approach course prior to reaching the final approach fix.

5. Once the aircraft is established inbound on the final approach course, radar separation is maintained with other aircraft, and the pilot is expected to complete the approach using the NAVAID designated in the clearance (ILS, VOR, NDB, GPS, etc.) as the primary means of navigation.
After passing the final approach fix inbound, the pilot is expected to proceed direct to the airport and complete the approach or to execute the published missed approach procedure.

6. Radar service is automatically terminated when the landing is completed or when the pilot is instructed to change to advisory frequency at uncontrolled airports, whichever occurs first.

Radar Approaches

With a radar approach, the pilot receives course and altitude guidance from a controller who monitors the progress of the flight with radar. This is an option should the pilot experience an emergency or distress situation.

The only airborne radio equipment required for radar approaches is a functioning radio transmitter and receiver.

The radar controller vectors the aircraft to align it with the runway centerline. The controller continues the vectors to keep the aircraft on course until the pilot can complete the approach and landing by visual reference to the surface. There are two types of radar approaches: Precision (PAR) and Surveillance (ASR).

A radar approach may be given to any aircraft upon request and may be offered to pilots of aircraft in distress or to expedite traffic; however, an ASR might not be approved unless there is an ATC operational requirement or in an unusual or emergency situation. Acceptance of a PAR or ASR by a pilot does not waive the prescribed weather minimums for the airport or for the particular aircraft operator concerned. The decision to make a radar approach when the reported weather is below the established minimums rests with the pilot.

PAR and ASR minimums are published on separate pages in the FAA TPP. Figure 3.

Approaches - IFR Flight
Figure 3. Radar instrument approach minimums for Troy, Alabama Radar instrument approach minimums for Troy, Alabama

PAR is one in which a controller provides highly accurate navigational guidance in azimuth and elevation to a pilot.

The controller gives the pilot headings to fly that direct the aircraft to, and keep the aircraft aligned with, the extended centerline of the landing runway. The pilot is told to anticipate glidepath interception approximately 10 to 30 seconds before it occurs and when to start descent. The published decision height (DH) is given only if the pilot requests it. If the aircraft is observed to deviate above or below the glidepath, the pilot is given the relative amount of deviation by use of terms “slightly” or “well” and is expected to adjust the aircraft’s rate of descent/ascent to return to the glidepath. Trend information is also issued with respect to the elevation of the aircraft and may be modified by the terms “rapidly” and “slowly” (e.g., “well above glidepath, coming down rapidly”).

Range from touchdown is given at least once each mile. If an aircraft is observed by the controller to proceed outside of specified safety zone limits in azimuth and/or elevation and continue to operate outside these prescribed limits, the pilot is directed to execute a missed approach or to fly a specified course unless the pilot has the runway environment (runway, approach lights, etc.) in sight. Navigational guidance in azimuth and elevation is provided to the pilot until the aircraft reaches the published DH. Advisory course and glidepath information is furnished by the controller until the aircraft passes over the landing threshold. At this point, the pilot is advised of any deviation from the runway centerline. Radar service is automatically terminated upon completion of the approach.

ASR is one in which a controller provides navigational guidance in azimuth only.

The controller furnishes the pilot with headings to fly to align the aircraft with the extended centerline of the landing runway. Since the radar information used for a surveillance approach is considerably less precise than that used for a precision approach, the accuracy of the approach is not as great and higher minimums apply. Guidance in elevation is not possible, but the pilot is advised when to commence descent to the Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) or, if appropriate, to an intermediate step-down fix Minimum Crossing Altitude (MCA) and subsequently to the prescribed MDA. In addition, the pilot is advised of the location of the Missed Approach Point (MAP) prescribed for the procedure and the aircraft’s position each mile on final from the runway, airport, heliport, or MAP, as appropriate.

If requested by the pilot, recommended altitudes are issued at each mile, based on the descent gradient established for the procedure, down to the last mile that is at or above the MDA. Normally, navigational guidance is provided until the aircraft reaches the MAP.

Radar service is automatically terminated at the completion of a radar approach.

No-Gyro Approach is available to a pilot under radar control who experiences circumstances wherein the directional gyro or other stabilized compass is inoperative or inaccurate. When this occurs, the pilot should so advise ATC and request a nogyro vector or approach. The pilot of an aircraft not equipped with a directional gyro or other stabilized compass who desires radar handling may also request a no-gyro vector or approach. The pilot should make all turns at standard rate and should execute the turn immediately upon receipt of instructions. For example, “TURN RIGHT,” “STOP TURN.” When a surveillance or precision approach is made, the pilot is advised after the aircraft has been turned onto final approach to make turns at half standard rate.

Radar Monitoring of Instrument Approaches
PAR facilities operated by the FAA and the military services at some joint-use (civil and military) and military installations monitor aircraft on instrument approaches and issue radar advisories to the pilot when weather is below VFR minimums (1,000 and 3), at night, or when requested by a pilot. This service is provided only when the PAR Final Approach Course coincides with the final approach of the navigational aid and only during the operational hours of the PAR. The radar advisories serve only as a secondary aid since the pilot has selected the NAVAID as the primary aid for the approach.

Prior to starting final approach, the pilot is advised of the frequency on which the advisories are transmitted. If, for any reason, radar advisories cannot be furnished, the pilot is so advised.

Advisory information, derived from radar observations, includes information on:
  1. Passing the final approach fix inbound (nonprecision approach) or passing the outer marker or fix used in lieu of the outer marker inbound (precision approach).
  2. Trend advisories with respect to elevation and/or azimuth radar position and movement are provided.
  3. If, after repeated advisories, the aircraft proceeds outside the PAR safety limit or if a radical deviation is observed, the pilot is advised to execute a missed approach unless the prescribed visual reference with the surface is established.

Radar service is automatically terminated upon completion of the approach. [Figure 4]

Approaches - IFR Flight
Figure 4. ILS RWY 7 Troy, Alabama

Timed Approaches From a Holding Fix

Timed approaches from a holding fix are conducted when many aircraft are waiting for an approach clearance. Although the controller does not specifically state “timed approaches are in progress,” the assigning of a time to depart the FAF inbound (nonprecision approach), or the outer marker or fix used in lieu of the outer marker inbound (precision approach), indicates that timed approach procedures are being utilized.

In lieu of holding, the controller may use radar vectors to the final approach course to establish a distance between aircraft that ensures the appropriate time sequence between the FAF and outer marker or fix used in lieu of the outer marker and the airport. Each pilot in the approach sequence is given advance notice of the time they should leave the holding point on approach to the airport. When a time to leave the holding point is received, the pilot should adjust the flightpath in order to leave the fix as closely as possible to the designated time.

Timed approaches may be conducted when the following conditions are met:

1. A control tower is in operation at the airport where the approaches are conducted.
2. Direct communications are maintained between the pilot and the Center or approach controller until the pilot is instructed to contact the tower.
3. If more than one MAP is available, none require a course reversal.
4. If only one MAP is available, the following conditions are met:
  • Course reversal is not required; and
  • Reported ceiling and visibility are equal to or greater than the highest prescribed circling minimums for the IAP.
5. When cleared for the approach, pilots should not execute a procedure turn.

Approaches to Parallel Runways

Procedures permit ILS instrument approach operations to dual or triple parallel runway configurations. A parallel approach is an ATC procedure that permits parallel ILS approach to airports with parallel runways separated by at least 2,500 feet between centerlines. Wherever parallel approaches are in progress, pilots are informed that approaches to both runways are in use.

Simultaneous approaches are permitted to runways:
  1. With centerlines separated by 4,300 to 9,000 feet;
  2. Equipped with final monitor controllers;
  3. Requiring radar monitoring to ensure separation between aircraft on the adjacent parallel approach course.

The approach procedure chart includes the note “simultaneous approaches authorized RWYS 14L and 14R,” identifying the appropriate runways. When advised that simultaneous parallel approaches are in progress, pilots must advise approach control immediately of malfunctioning or inoperative components.

Parallel approach operations demand heightened pilot situational awareness. The close proximity of adjacent aircraft conducting simultaneous parallel approaches mandates strict compliance with all ATC clearances and approach procedures. Pilots should pay particular attention to the following approach chart information: name and number of the approach, localizer frequency, inbound course, glideslope intercept altitude, DA/DH, missed approach instructions, special notes/procedures, and the assigned runway location and proximity to adjacent runways. Pilots also need to exercise strict radio discipline, which includes continuous monitoring of communications and the avoidance of lengthy, unnecessary radio transmissions.

Side-Step Maneuver

ATC may authorize a side-step maneuver to either one of two parallel runways that are separated by 1,200 feet or less, followed by a straight-in landing on the adjacent runway. Aircraft executing a side-step maneuver are cleared for a specified nonprecision approach and landing on the adjacent parallel runway. For example, “Cleared ILS runway 7 left approach, side-step to runway 7 right.” The pilot is expected to commence the side-step maneuver as soon as possible after the runway or runway environment is in sight. Landing minimums to the adjacent runway are based on nonprecision criteria and therefore higher than the precision minimums to the primary runway, but are normally lower than the published circling minimums.

Circling Approaches

Landing minimums listed on the approach chart under “CIRCLING” apply when it is necessary to circle the airport, maneuver for landing, or when no straight-in minimums are specified on the approach chart. [Figure 4]

The circling minimums published on the instrument approach chart provide a minimum of 300 feet of obstacle clearance in the circling area. [Figure 5] During a circling approach, the pilot should maintain visual contact with the runway of intended landing and fly no lower than the circling minimums until positioned to make a final descent for a landing. It is important to remember that circling minimums are only minimums. If the ceiling allows it, fly at an altitude that more nearly approximates VFR traffic pattern altitude. This makes any maneuvering safer and brings the view of the landing runway into a more normal perspective.

Approaches - IFR Flight
Figure 5. Circling approach area radii

Approaches - IFR Flight
Figure 6. Circling approaches

Figure 6 shows patterns that can be used for circling approaches. Pattern A can be flown when the final approach course intersects the runway centerline at less than a 90°angle, and the runway is in sight early enough to establish a base leg. If the runway becomes visible too late to fly pattern A, circle as shown in B. Fly pattern C if it is desirable to land opposite the direction of the final approach, and the runway is sighted in time for a turn to downwind leg. If the runway is sighted too late for a turn to downwind, fly pattern “D.” Regardless of the pattern flown, the pilot must maneuver the aircraft to remain within the designated circling area. Refer to section A (“Terms and Landing Minima Data”) in the front of each TPP for a description of circling approach categories. The criteria for determining the pattern to be flown are based on personal flying capabilities and knowledge of the performance characteristics of the aircraft. In each instance, the pilot must consider all factors: airport design, ceiling and visibility, wind direction and velocity, final approach course alignment, distance from the final approach fix to the runway, and ATC instructions.

IAP Minimums

Pilots may not operate an aircraft at any airport below the authorized MDA or continue an approach below the authorized DA/DH unless:

1. The aircraft is continuously in a position from which a descent to a landing on the intended runway can be made at a normal descent rate using normal maneuvers;

2. The flight visibility is not less than that prescribed for the approach procedure being used; and

3. At least one of the following visual references for the intended runway is visible and identifiable to the pilot:
  • Approach light system
  • Threshold
  • Threshold markings
  • Threshold lights
  • Runway end identifier lights (REIL)
  • Visual approach slope indicator (VASI)
  • Touchdown zone or touchdown zone markings
  • Touchdown zone lights
  • Runway or runway markings
  • Runway lights

Missed Approaches

A MAP is formulated for each published instrument approach and allows the pilot to return to the airway structure while remaining clear of obstacles. The procedure is shown on the approach chart in text and graphic form. Since the execution of a missed approach occurs when the flight deck workload is at a maximum, the procedure should be studied and mastered before beginning the approach.

When a MAP is initiated, a climb pitch attitude should be established while setting climb power. Configure the aircraft for climb, turn to the appropriate heading, advise ATC that a missed approach is being executed, and request further clearances.

If the missed approach is initiated prior to reaching the MAP, unless otherwise cleared by ATC, continue to fly the IAP as specified on the approach chart. Fly to the MAP at or above the MDA or DA/DH before beginning a turn.

If visual reference is lost while circling-to-land from an instrument approach, execute the appropriate MAP. Make the initial climbing turn toward the landing runway and then maneuver to intercept and fly the missed approach course.

Pilots should immediately execute the MAP:
  1. Whenever the requirements for operating below DA/ DH or MDA are not met when the aircraft is below MDA, or upon arrival at the MAP and at any time after that until touchdown;
  2. Whenever an identifiable part of the airport is not visible to the pilot during a circling maneuver at or above MDA; or
  3. When so directed by ATC.


According to 14 CFR part 91, no pilot may land when the flight visibility is less than the visibility prescribed in the standard IAP being used. ATC provides the pilot with the current visibility reports appropriate to the runway in use. This may be in the form of prevailing visibility, runway visual value (RVV), or runway visual range (RVR). However, only the pilot can determine if the flight visibility meets the landing requirements indicated on the approach chart. If the flight visibility meets the minimum prescribed for the approach, then the approach may be continued to a landing. If the flight visibility is less than that prescribed for the approach, then the pilot must execute a missed approach regardless of the reported visibility.

The landing minimums published on IAP charts are based on full operation of all components and visual aids associated with the instrument approach chart being used. Higher minimums are required with inoperative components or visual aids. For example, if the ALSF-1 approach lighting system were inoperative, the visibility minimums for an ILS would need to be increased by one-quarter mile. If more than one component is inoperative, each minimum is raised to the highest minimum required by any single component that is inoperative. ILS glideslope inoperative minimums are published on instrument approach charts as localizer minimums. Consult the “Inoperative Components or Visual Aids Table” (printed on the inside front cover of each TPP) for a complete description of the effect of inoperative components on approach minimums.

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