Circling Approaches

Introduction:

Final Approach Obstacle Clearance

Circling-Only Approaches:

  • VOR-A Approach
    VOR-A Approach
  • Circling-only approaches are approaches not design for any specific runway, requiring a circle to land maneuver in the visual segment to land
  • Circling-only approaches are published any time the final approach course is not within 30° of the runway heading
  • Circling-only approach plates are labeled with the Navigation Aid (NAVAID) and a letter (i.e., VOR-A) [Figure 1]
    • Airports with more than one circling-only approach will increase the letter designation (i.e., VOR-A, VOR-B, etc.)
  • Fundamentally, circling-only approaches look like and are flown the same as all other approaches
  • VOR-A Approach
    VOR-A Approach

Circling Approach Depiction:

  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Published Circling Minimums
  • Circling Only Approach Minimums
    Circling Only Approach Minimums
  • Special Circling Instructions Example
    Special Circling Instructions
  • Instrument approach plates will publish circling minimums where the maneuver is permitted
    • Circling minimums are published at the bottom of the plate with the straight-in minimums
    • In the case of a straight-in approach where circling is permitted, straight-in and circling minimums will be published [Figure 2]
    • In the case of a circling-only approach, only the circling minimums will be published [Figure 3]
  • Where applicable, the pilot briefing and procedures notes section of the instrument approach plate publishes special instructions for circling [Figure 4]
  • To aid the pilot, the airport diagram on the instrument approach plate will have an arrow showing aircraft orientation to the airport when approaching the runway environment following the approach [Figure 5]
  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Published Circling Minimums
  • Circling Only Approach Minimums
    Circling Only Approach Minimums
  • Special Circling Instructions Example
    Special Circling Instructions
  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Approach Chart Airport Diagram

Circling Approach Minimums:

  • Any time pilots perform a circling maneuver, regardless if the approach is straight-in or circling-only, circling minimums apply
  • Circling minimums are higher than other minimums because the pilot is conducting a visual approach segment
  • Published minimums will provide a 300' obstacle clearance when pilots remain within the appropriate area of protection
    • Remember when you fly the approach, if you intend to circle to, descend to the circling Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA), not the straight-in MDAs (circling is typically higher than straight-in minimums)
    • If no circling minimums are published, then do not execute a circle to land; however, if authorized by Air Traffic Control (ATC), basic Visual Flight Rules (1000-3) is required
  • Pilots should remain at or above the circling MDA altitude until the aircraft is continuously in a position from which a descent to a landing on the intended runway can be made using normal maneuvers
    • This will typically be just inside the 180/abeam for most circling minimums would have you low on downwind

Circling Maneuver:

  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Circling Missed Approach
  • Final Approach Obstacle Clearance
    Final Approach Obstacle Clearance
  • Circling maneuvers are flown in the visual segment of the instrument approach
  • Depending on category, aircraft circle within specified proximity from the airport to a place to land on the desired runway
  • The circling maneuver is not part of an instrument approach as the follow-on action to completing a circling approach
  • Circling approaches are one of the most challenging flight maneuvers conducted in the National Airspace System, especially for pilots of Category (CAT) C and CAT D turbine-powered transport category airplanes. These maneuvers are conducted at low altitude, day and night, and often with precipitation present affecting visibility, depth perception, and the ability to assess the descent profile to the landing runway adequately [Figure 9]
  • There are no restrictions from passing over the airport or other runways [Figure 6]
  • Circling Approach Area Radii
    Circling Approach Area Radii
  • Circling Missed Approach
    Circling Missed Approach
  • Circling Techniques
    Circling Techniques

Circling Approach Clearance:

  • Once under approach control, you are ready to put in your request
    • Pilot: "[Agency], [Callsign], [Location], [Information], request"
    • Example: "Daytona Approach, Cessna One Seven Two Seven Victor, 10 miles to the west with information Charlie, request"
  • ATC will have you "standby" or tell you to "send your request"
    • Pilot: "[Callsign], request [Approach]"
    • Example: "One Seven Two Seven Victor requests LOC 7L, circle runway 16"
  • ATC will tell you to expect what you requested or give you modified instructions
  • Once under tower control, reiterate the approach request to ensure they are aware of your intentions
    • Pilot: "[Tower], [Callsign], [Location], on the [Approach], request circle to land [Runway]"
    • Example: "Daytona Tower, Cessna One Seven Two Seven Victor, 3 miles to the west on the LOC 7L approach, request circle to land runway 16"
  • ATC will either approve you or, if unable, request you continue on your current approach for the straight-in
    • ATC: "Cleared for [Approach], circle to land [Runway]"
    • Example: "Cleared for the LOC runway 7L approach, circle north to land runway 16"
  • If you forget, or you think you've heard contrary to the instructions you were expecting, read back for an added idiot check
    • Pilot: "Understand circling North?"

Circling Approach/Maneuver Procedure:

WARNING:
All procedures are GENERALIZED.
Always fly per Pilot Operating Handbook procedures,
observing any relevant Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)


  1. Commence the report, start the timer as necessary
  2. Maneuver on the shortest path to the base or downwind leg, as appropriate, considering existing weather conditions
    • Circling may be made in conjunction with other flight operations at the airport
    • Plan to use standard left turns to circle to land, unless ATC dictates otherwise
  3. Remain within the circling visibility minima during the circling approach
    • While there is no restriction from passing over the airport or other runways, restrictions may be imposed during training operations
  4. Remain at circling minimums until continuously in a position from which a normal descent rate to a landing on the intended runway using normal maneuvering
  5. When descending from circling minimums:
    • Callout, "Runway in Sight, Landing"
    • Set power to approach speed
    • Complete a GUMP (Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop) check
    • When appropriate, at or below VFE, set the flaps
  6. Complete the appropriate landing procedure

Missed Approach Considerations:

  • If visual reference with any identifiable part of the airport is lost while circling to land from an Instrument Approach Procedure, pilots must execute a missed approach (published or dictated by ATC)
  • Maintain distance limitations which are dependent on aircraft class [Figure 7/8]
  • Always make the initial climbing turn toward the landing runway and continue the turn until established on the missed approach course [Figure 6/9]

Circling Approaches Case Studies:

  • National Transportation Safety Board Identification: ANC07FA073:
    • The NTSB determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot's failure to maintain altitude/distance from obstacles during an Instrument Flight Rules circling approach and his failure to follow the instrument approach procedure. Contributing to the accident was clouds
  • National Transportation Safety Board Identification: NYC07FA130:
    • The NTSB determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot's failure to maintain airspeed, which resulted in an inadvertent stall and subsequent impact with terrain
  • National Transportation Safety Board Identification: DFW07FA067:
    • The NTSB determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot's failure to maintain clearance with terrain. Contributing factors were the below approach/landing minimums weather and the drizzle/mist weather conditions
  • National Transportation Safety Board Identification: ATL07FA013:
    • The NTSB determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot's failure to maintain airspeed while maneuvering with a low ceiling in instrument flight conditions, resulting in an inadvertent stall and collision with trees on the ground. Factors in the accident were the pilot's failure to follow the published missed approach procedures and the airplane's checklist procedures for a balked landing
  • National Transportation Safety Board Identification: DFW06LA073:
    • The NTSB determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot's loss of control while on approach to the runway. Contributing factors were the downdraft and the lack of suitable terrain for the off-airport landing

Circling Approaches Knowledge Quiz:

Conclusion:

  • Circling approaches and circling maneuvers are terms that often get used interchangeably
    • Circling approaches should refer to circling-only approaches (i.e., VOR-A), while the circling maneuver should refer to circling to a runway other than the runway named by an instrument approach
  • Arguably the most important aspect of a circling maneuver is to maintain visual with the airfield at all times
  • When circling, maneuver the shortest path to the base or downwind leg, as appropriate, considering existing weather conditions
  • Circling maneuvers may be made while VFR or other flight operations are in progress
    • If in Class G airspace, make all turns of that airplane to the left (with the intent to follow the flow of traffic) unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating right turns, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right
    • If in Class E or any towered airspace, circling instructions may be provided by ATC
      • In their absence, follow the same requirements as if in class G airspace
  • At airports without a control tower, it may be desirable to fly over the airport to observe wind and turn indicators, and other traffic may be on the runway or flying in the vicinity of the airport
    • When a stabilized approach is not flown, a bad landing is likely to result, giving way to the option of making an option approach for a lap in the pattern to the full stop
  • While circling approaches exist as a tool, given their complexity at low altitude in potentially low weather conditions, they should be considered a secondary option to conducting a straight-in approach unless for training or out of necessity
  • To learn more about instrument procedures, be sure to check out the Instrument Procedures Handbook online or in paperback
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