Circling Maneuver


  • Circling is a maneuver conducted after an instrument approach but not a type of approach itself
  • It is accomplished any time the final approach course is not within 30° of the runway or when landing on a different runway from the approach being flown
  • May be flown for a variety of reasons to include training or operational requirement, for example, if the weather is not VFR and you have the equipment to fly an approach to an inactive runway to break through, and then circle
  • Can be a very dangerous maneuver requiring a lot of situational awareness
    • You will be low, you will be slow, and the weather may be bad
    • You may have little time depending on the weather minimums to orient yourself

Instrument Approach Plates:

  • Circling Instructions Example
    Circling Instructions Example
  • Circling Instructions Example
    Circling Instructions Example
  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Published Circling Minimums
  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Published Circling Minimums
  • 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
  • It is always important to know where you are circling and to read the circling instructions, if published, in the Pilot Briefing and Procedure Notes section [Figure 1]
  • In the case of a VOR-A (circling only) type of approach plate, only the circling minimums will be published as that approach does not serve any specific runway [Figure 2]
  • The airport diagram on the instrument approach plate will have an arrow showing your orientation to the airport as you approach the runway environment [Figure 3]
  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Approach Chart Airport Diagram


  • Once handed-off to the 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 switched to the tower you should reiterate your 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 Minimums:

  • 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 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 ATC, basic VFR (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 Approach
    Circling Approach Area Radii
  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Circling Missed Approach
  • Approach Chart Airport Diagram
    Circling Missed Approach
  • Final Approach Obstacle Clearance
    Final Approach Obstacle Clearance

Missed Approach:

  • If visual reference with any identifiable part of the airport is lost while circling to land from an IAP, a missed approach (published or dictated by ATC) must be executed
  • Maintain distance limitations which are dependent on aircraft class [Figure 4]
  • Always make the initial climbing turn toward the landing runway and continue the turn until established on the missed approach course [Figure 5]

Circling Approach Procedure:

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

  1. 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
    • Use standard left turns, or ATC instructions must be considered when planning circling to land
  2. Remain within the circling visibility minima during the circling approach
    • While there is no restriction from passing over the airport or other runways, during training operations, restrictions may be imposed
  3. Remain at circling minimums until continuously in a position from which a normal descent rate to a landing on the intended runway can be made using normal maneuvering
  4. When descending from circling minimums:
    • Callout, "Runway in Sight, Landing"
    • Set power to approach speed
    • Complete a GUMP check
    • When appropriate, at or below VFE, set the flaps
  5. Complete the appropriate landing procedure
  6. Circling Techniques
    Circling Techniques

Circling Maneuver Safety:

  • Circling approaches are one of the most challenging flight maneuvers conducted in the NAS, especially for pilots of 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 adequately assess the descent profile to the landing runway


  • Maneuver the shortest path to the base or downwind leg, as appropriate, considering existing weather conditions
  • There are no restrictions from passing over the airport or other runways [Figure 6]
  • 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, maneuvering instructions may be provided
      • In their absence, follow the same guidance 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
    • Further, when a stabilized approach cannot be made, a bad landing is likely to result giving way to the option of doing an option approach for a lap in the pattern to the full stop
  • To learn more about instrument procedures, be sure to check out the Instrument Procedures Handbook online or on paperback
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