Altitudes - Instrument Approaches

Prescribed altitudes may be depicted in four different configurations: minimum, maximum, recommended, and mandatory. The U.S. Government distributes approach charts produced by the FAA. Altitudes are depicted on these charts in the profile view with an underscore or overscore, or both to identify them as minimum, maximum, or mandatory, respectively.
  • Minimum altitudes are depicted with the altitude value underscored. Aircraft are required to maintain altitude at or above the depicted value (e.g., 3000).
  • Maximum altitudes are depicted with the altitude value overscored. Aircraft are required to maintain altitude at or below the depicted value (e.g., 4800).
  • Mandatory altitudes are depicted with the altitude value both underscored and overscored. Aircraft are required to maintain altitude at the depicted value (e.g., 5500).
  • Recommended altitudes are depicted without an underscore or overscore.

Note: Pilots are cautioned to adhere to altitudes as prescribed because, in certain instances, they may be used as the basis for vertical separation of aircraft by ATC. If a depicted altitude is specified in the ATC clearance, that altitude becomes mandatory as defined above.

Minimum Safe/Sector Altitude

Minimum Safe Altitudes are published for emergency use on IAP charts. MSAs provide 1,000 feet of clearance over all obstacles but do not necessarily assure acceptable navigation signal coverage. The MSA depiction on the plan view of an approach chart contains the identifier of the center point of the MSA, the applicable radius of the MSA, a depiction of the sector(s), and the minimum altitudes above mean sea level which provide obstacle clearance. For conventional navigation systems, the MSA is normally based on the primary omnidirectional facility on which the IAP is predicated, but may be based on the airport reference point (ARP) if no suitable facility is available. For RNAV approaches, the MSA is based on an RNAV waypoint. MSAs normally have a 25 NM radius; however, for conventional navigation systems, this radius may be expanded to 30 NM if necessary to encompass the airport landing surfaces.

Depicted on the Plan View of approach charts, a single sector altitude is normally established. However when it is necessary to obtain obstacle clearance, an MSA area may be further divided with up to four sectors.

Final Approach Fix Altitude

Another important altitude that should be briefed during an IAP briefing is the FAF altitude, designated by the cross on a non-precision approach, and the lightning bolt symbol designating the glideslope/glidepath intercept altitude on a precision approach. Adherence and cross-check of this altitude can have a direct effect on the success and safety of an approach.

Proper airspeed, altitude, and configuration, when crossing the FAF of a non-precision approach, are extremely important no matter what type of aircraft is being flown. The stabilized approach concept, implemented by the FAA within the SOPs of each air carrier, suggests that crossing the FAF at the published altitude is often a critical component of a successful non-precision approach, especially in a large turbojet aircraft.

The glideslope intercept altitude of a precision approach should also be included in the IAP briefing. Awareness of this altitude when intercepting the glideslope can ensure the flight crew that a “false glideslope” or other erroneous indication is not inadvertently followed. Many air carriers include a standard callout when the aircraft passes over the FAF of the non-precision approach underlying the ILS. The PM states the name of the fix and the charted glideslope altitude, thus allowing both pilots to cross-check their respective altimeters and verify the correct indications.

Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA), Decision Altitude (DA), And Decision Height (DH)

MDA—the lowest altitude, expressed in feet MSL, to which descent is authorized on final approach or during circle-to-land maneuvering in execution of a standard instrument approach procedure (SIAP) where no electronic glideslope is provided.

DA—a specified altitude in the precision approach at which a missed approach must be initiated if the required visual reference to continue the approach has not been established.

DH—with respect to the operation of aircraft, means the height at which a decision must be made during an ILS, MLS, or PAR IAP to either continue the approach or to execute a missed approach.

CAT II and III approach DHs are referenced to AGL and measured with a radio altimeter.

The height above touchdown (HAT) for a CAT I precision approach is normally 200 feet above touchdown zone elevation (TDZE). When a HAT of 250 feet or higher is published, it may be the result of the signal-in-space coverage, or there may be penetrations of either the final or missed approach obstacle clearance surfaces (OCSs). If there are OCS penetrations, the pilot has no indication on the approach chart where the obstacles are located. It is important for pilots to brief the MDA, DA, or DH so that there is no ambiguity as to what minimums are being used. These altitudes can be restricted by many factors. Approach category, inoperative equipment in the aircraft or on the ground, crew qualifications, and company authorizations are all examples of issues that may limit or change the height of a published MDA, DA, or DH.

For many air carriers, OpSpecs may be the limiting factor for some types of approaches. NDB and circling approaches are two common examples where the OpSpecs minimum listed altitudes may be more restrictive than the published minimums. Many Part 121 and 135 operators are restricted from conducting circling approaches below 1,000 feet MDA and 3 SM visibility by Part C of their OpSpecs, and many have specific visibility criteria listed for NDB approaches that exceed visibilities published for the approach (commonly 2 SM). In these cases, flight crews must determine which is the more restrictive of the two and comply with those minimums.

In some cases, flight crew qualifications can be the limiting factor for the MDA, DA, or DH for an instrument approach. There are many CAT II and III approach procedures authorized at airports throughout the United States, but RNP AR restricts their use to pilots who have received specific training, and aircraft that are equipped and authorized to conduct those approaches. Other rules pertaining to flight crew qualifications can also determine the lowest usable MDA, DA, or DH for a specific approach. 14 CFR Part 121, § 121.652, 14 CFR Part 125, § 125.379, and 14 CFR Part 135, § 135.225 require that some PICs, with limited experience in the aircraft they are operating, increase the approach minimums and visibility by 100 feet and one-half mile respectively. Rules for these “high-minimums” pilots are usually derived from a combination of federal regulations and the company’s OpSpecs. There are many factors that can determine the actual minimums that can be used for a specific approach. All of them must be considered by pilots during the preflight and approach planning phases, discussed, and briefed appropriately.

Pilots are cautioned to fully understand and abide by the guidelines set forth in 14 CFR § 91.175(c) regarding proper identification of the runway and runway environment when electing to continue any approach beyond the published DA/DH or MDA.

It is imperative to recognize that any delay in making a decision to execute the Missed Approach Procedure at the DA/DH or MDA/Missed Approach Point will put the aircrew at risk of impacting any obstructions that may be penetrating the visual obstacle clearance surface The visual segment of an IAP begins at DA or MDA and continues to the runway. There are two means of operating in the visual segment, one is by using natural vision under 14 CFR Part 91, § 91.175 (c) and the other is by using an Enhanced Flight Vision System under 14 CFR Part 91, § 91.176.

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