Terminal Radar Approach Control


  • Approach control is responsible for controlling all instrument flight operating within its area of responsibility
  • Approach control may serve one or more airfields, and control is exercised primarily by direct pilot and controller communications
  • Prior to arriving at the destination radio facility, instructions will be received from ARTCC to contact approach control on a specified frequency
  • Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) controls aircraft from the terminal to en-route traffic control to one or more airfields
    • Typically controls aircraft approaching and departing between 5 and 50 miles of the airport
    • Approach control may serve one or more airfields, and control is exercised primarily by direct pilot and controller communications
  • Radar equipment allows a controller to "see" the aircraft even at that distance
  • Sequences and separates IFR and participating VFR aircraft


  • When contacting approach call with location, altitude and ATIS information
    • Use of "with the numbers" implies you only have received the wind, runway and altimeter (WAR)
  • PILOT: "[Place] approach, [Callsign], [Level / Climbing To / Leaving / Descending To], [Altitude], with [Information], request"
  • Since you are talking to an approach control to reach an airport, they are going to give you clock directions until you spot it
  • Once you see it, report "field in sight"
  • Upon checking in you can expect:
    • Expected approach type
    • Runway to be used if different from approach
    • Surface magnetic wind
    • Ceiling and visibility if below VFR or the highest circling minimums
    • Altimeter
    • Weather
    • Pertinent information
    • Most military fields provide SFA (single frequency approach) for penetration approaches


  • Safety alerts
  • Traffic advisories
  • Limited radar vectoring (including assistance for VFR traffic) on a workload permitting basis
  • Sequencing at locations where procedures have been established for this purpose and/or when covered in a Letter of Agreement (LoA)
  • Will keep the pilot informed of the latest reported weather and actual field conditions such as current ceiling, runway visibility, surface winds, and runway conditions
  • Radar may be used to provide ASR/PARs and to provide vectors in conjunction with published non-radar approaches

Clearance Void Times:

  • May be given when operating from an airport without a control tower, which contains a provision for that clearance to be void if not airborne by a certain time
  • Advise ATC if unable to meet void time
  • 30 minutes after the clearance void time will result in the launch of SAR assets
  • Departing at or after your clearance void time violates FAR 91.173 (ATC clearance)

ATC: "Clearance void if not off by [Time] and, if required, if not off by [Time] advise [Facility] not later than [Time] of intentions"

Hold For Release:

  • ATC may issue "hold for release" instructions in a clearance to delay a departure (weather, traffic volume, etc)
  • When ATC states hold for release the pilot may not depart IFR until ATC allows
  • ATC will include information in accordance with why the delay is occurring
  • The pilot may depart VFR however should cancel IFR prior to takeoff

ATC: "[Callsign], cleared to [Destination] as filed, maintain [Altitude], and, if required [Additional Instructions]. Hold for release, expect [Time] departure delay"

Release Times:

  • A "release time" is a departure restriction issued to specify the earliest time an aircraft may depart
  • ATC will use release times in conjunction with traffic management procedures and/or to separate a departing aircraft from other traffic

ATC: "[Callsign], released for departure at [Time]"

Expect Departure Clearance Time (EDCT):

  • A runway release time assigned
  • Aircraft are expected to depart no earlier than 5 minutes before or 5 minutes after
  • If practical, pilots departing uncontrolled airports should obtain IFR clearances prior to becoming airborne when two-way communications with the controlling ATC facility is available

Tower En-Route Control (TEC):

  • Tower En Route Control (TEC) is an ATC program to provide a service to aircraft proceeding to and from metropolitan areas (tower to tower)
  • Learn more in the tower section

Radar Approach Control:

  • Where radar is approved for approach control service, it is used not only for radar approaches (Airport Surveillance Radar [ASR] and Precision Approach Radar [PAR]) but is also used to provide vectors in conjunction with published non-radar approaches based on radio NAVAIDs (ILS, VOR, NDB, TACAN). Radar vectors can provide course guidance and expedite traffic to the final approach course of any established IAP or to the traffic pattern for a visual approach. Approach control facilities that provide this radar service will operate in the following manner:
    • 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, when radar handoffs are effected between the ARTCC and approach control, or between two approach control facilities, aircraft are cleared to the airport or to a fix so located that the handoff will be completed prior to the time the aircraft reaches the fix. When radar handoffs are utilized, successive arriving flights may be handed off to approach control with radar separation in lieu of vertical separation
    • After release to approach control, aircraft are vectored to the final approach course (ILS, RNAV, GLS, VOR, ADF, etc.). Radar vectors and altitude or flight levels will be issued as required for spacing and separating aircraft. Therefore, pilots must not deviate from the headings issued by approach control. Aircraft will normally be informed when it is necessary to vector 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 will normally be issued with the final vector for interception of the final approach course, and the vector will be such as to enable the pilot to establish the aircraft on the final approach course prior to reaching the final approach fix
    • In the case of aircraft already inbound on the final approach course, approach clearance will be issued prior to the aircraft reaching the final approach fix. When established inbound on the final approach course, radar separation will be maintained and the pilot will be expected to complete the approach utilizing the approach aid designated in the clearance (ILS, RNAV, GLS, VOR, radio beacons, etc.) as the primary means of navigation. Therefore, once established on the final approach course, pilots must not deviate from it unless a clearance to do so is received from ATC
    • After passing the final approach fix on final approach, aircraft are expected to continue inbound on the final approach course and complete the approach or effect the missed approach procedure published for that airport
  • ARTCCs are approved for and may provide approach control services to specific airports. The radar systems used by these centers do not provide the same precision as an ASR/PAR used by approach control facilities and towers, and the update rate is not as fast. Therefore, pilots may be requested to report established on the final approach course
  • Whether aircraft are vectored to the appropriate final approach course or provide their own navigation on published routes to it, radar service is automatically terminated when the landing is completed or when instructed to change to advisory frequency at uncontrolled airports, whichever occurs first

Approach Clearance:

  • An aircraft which has been cleared to a holding fix and subsequently “cleared . . . approach” has not received new routing. Even though clearance for the approach may have been issued prior to the aircraft reaching the holding fix, ATC would expect the pilot to proceed via the holding fix (his/her last assigned route), and the feeder route associated with that fix (if a feeder route is published on the approach chart) to the initial approach fix (IAF) to commence the approach. WHEN CLEARED FOR THE APPROACH, THE PUBLISHED OFF AIRWAY (FEEDER) ROUTES THAT LEAD FROM THE EN ROUTE STRUCTURE TO THE IAF ARE PART OF THE APPROACH CLEARANCE
  • If a feeder route to an IAF begins at a fix located along the route of flight prior to reaching the holding fix, and clearance for an approach is issued, a pilot should commence the approach via the published feeder route; i.e., the aircraft would not be expected to overfly the feeder route and return to it. The pilot is expected to commence the approach in a similar manner at the IAF, if the IAF for the procedure is located along the route of flight to the holding fix
  • If a route of flight directly to the initial approach fix is desired, it should be so stated by the controller with phraseology to include the words “direct . . . ,” “proceed direct” or a similar phrase which the pilot can interpret without question. When uncertain of the clearance, immediately query ATC as to what route off light is desired
  • The name of an instrument approach, as published, is used to identify the approach, even though a component of the approach aid, such as the glideslope on an Instrument Landing System, is inoperative or unreliable. The controller will use the name of the approach as published, but must advise the aircraft at the time an approach clearance is issued that the inoperative or unreliable approach aid component is unusable, except when the title of the published approach procedures otherwise allows; for example, ILS Rwy 05 or LOC Rwy 05
  • The following applies to aircraft on radar vectors and/or cleared “direct to” in conjunction with an approach clearance:
    • Maintain the last altitude assigned by ATC until the aircraft is established on a published segment of a transition route, or approach procedure segment, or other published route, for which a lower altitude is published on the chart. If already on an established route, or approach or arrival segment, you may descend to whatever minimum altitude is listed for that route or segment
    • Continue on the vector heading until intercepting the next published ground track applicable to the approach clearance
    • Once reaching the final approach fix via the published segments, the pilot may continue on approach to a landing
    • If proceeding to an IAF with a published course reversal (procedure turn or hold-in-lieu of PT pattern), except when cleared for a straight in approach by ATC, the pilot must execute the procedure turn/hold-in-lieu of PT, and complete the approach
    • If cleared to an IAF/IF via a NoPT route, or no procedure turn/hold-in-lieu of PT is published, continue with the published approach
    • In addition to the above, RNAV aircraft may be issued a clearance direct to the IAF/IF at intercept angles not greater than 90 degrees for both conventional and RNAV instrument approaches. Controllers may issue a heading or a course direct to a fix between the IF and FAF at intercept angles not greater than 30 degrees for both conventional and RNAV instrument approaches. In all cases, controllers will assign altitudes that ensure obstacle clearance and will permit a normal descent to the FAF. When clearing aircraft direct to the IF, ATC will radar monitor the aircraft until the IF and will advise the pilot to expect clearance direct to the IF at least 5 miles from the fix. ATC must issue a straight-in approach clearance when clearing an aircraft direct to an IAF/IF with a procedure turn or hold−in−lieu of a procedure turn, and ATC does not want the aircraft to execute the course reversal
      • Refer to 14 CFR 91.175 (i)
    • RNAV aircraft may be issued a clearance direct to the FAF that is also charted as an IAF, in which case the pilot is expected to execute the depicted procedure turn or hold-in-lieu of procedure turn. ATC will not issue a straight-in approach clearance. If the pilot desires a straight-in approach, they must request vectors to the final approach course outside of the FAF or fly a published “NoPT” route. When visual approaches are in use, ATC may clear an aircraft direct to the FAF
      • In anticipation of a clearance by ATC to any fix published on an instrument approach procedure, pilots of RNAV aircraft are advised to select an appropriate IAF or feeder fix when loading an instrument approach procedure into the RNAV system
      • Selection of “Vectors-to-Final” or “Vectors” option for an instrument approach may prevent approach fixes located outside of the FAF from being loaded into an RNAV system. Therefore, the selection of these options is discouraged due to increased workload for pilots to reprogram the navigation system
  • An RF leg is defined as a constant radius circular path around a defined turn center that starts and terminates at a fix. An RF leg may be published as part of a procedure. Since not all aircraft have the capability to fly these leg types, pilots are responsible for knowing if they can conduct an RNAV approach with an RF leg. Requirements for RF legs will be indicated on the approach chart in the notes section or at the applicable initial approach fix. Controllers will clear RNAV-equipped aircraft for instrument approach procedures containing RF legs:
    • Via published transitions, or
    • On a heading or course direct to the IAF when a hold-in-lieu of procedure turn is published, and the pilot will execute the procedure, or
    • On a heading or course direct to the IAF/IF, at intercept angles no greater than 90 degrees and the distance to the waypoint beginning the RF leg is 6NM or greater, or
    • With radar monitoring, on a heading or course direct to any waypoint 3 miles or more from the waypoint that begins the RF leg, at an intercept angle not greater than 30 degrees (See FIG 5−4−14.)
      • Controllers will not clear aircraft direct to THIRD because that waypoint begins the RF leg, and aircraft cannot be vectored or cleared to TURNN or vectored to intercept the approach segment at any point between THIRD and FORTH because this is the RF leg
      • Controllers can clear Aircraft 1 direct to SCOND because the distance to THIRD, where the RF leg begins is 3NM or greater and the intercept angle will be 30 degrees or less and is radar monitored. Controllers can clear Aircraft 2 direct to FIRST because the intercept angle is 90 degrees or less, and the distance from FIRST to THIRD is 6NM or greater