How IFR Pilots Return to Earth – Part 1

At the conclusion of any IFR flight, the pilot must determine how to transition from the enroute phase to the landing phase of the flight — there are five possible ways to do this. The method selected depends on the pilot, the weather, and the traffic.

  1. Canceling IFR. An IFR pilot on an IFR flight plan can at anytime they are in VFR conditions cancel their IFR flight plan and continue on as a VFR flight. Many times this expedites your arrival when the weather is good, but be careful…* Don’t cancel your IFR when there is any chance at all that IFR conditions will be re-encountered.
    * Don’t cancel IFR in the middle of the night when landing at an unattended airport. If you cancel and then have a problem on landing, nobody will come help you until the next morning.

    When you do cancel IFR in the air, listen for the controllers phrase, “IFR cancellation received…” Controllers will state this phrase loud and clear so there will be no misunderstanding and so it will be clearly heard on the tape recording.

  2. The Visual Approach. In instrument flight training, we spent a great deal of time working on instrument approaches, but in actual practice we try to avoid them. When the weather is good, pilots can ask for (or controllers can offer) a “visual approach.”Note 1: A visual approach is still part of an IFR clearance, so you must still cancel the IFR either in the air or on the ground. The visual approach allows you to by-pass an out-of-the-way instrument procedure and go straight to the airport.

    Note 2: Once at the airport you enter a traffic pattern and land as normal. A visual approach can only be offered by ATC when the visibility is at least 3 miles, the ceiling is at least 1,000 feet, and you must have the airport or preceding aircraft in sight.

  3. The Contact Approach. The contact approach is another way to get on the ground without flying an instrument approach procedure. A pilot must ask for a contact approach, but the controller cannot offer one. In order to get permission to conduct a contact approach, the ground visibility must be at least 1 statute mile and you must remain clear of clouds. If the weather is not good enough for a visual approach you can ask the controller to guide you directly over the airport in hopes of seeing it (turn on pilot controlled lights at night!). If you get the airport in sight and believe that you can keep the airport in sight as you maneuver to land then ask for a contact approach.
  4. The “Full” Approach. When the ceiling and/or visibility will not allow you to go VFR or to make either a visual or contact approach, then you must fly a published instrument approach procedure. One method is the “full” approach. This means that you would fly directly to the radio navigation fix that begins the approach. Then you would fly the entire procedure, which may include an entry like a procedure turn, a teardrop turn, or other course to the final approach.Tranlsation: The “full” approach is what happens at an airport that has no radar or poor radar coverage and therefore the controller cannot guide you — you must fly the approach on your own.
  5. The Vectored Approach. When the weather forces you to fly a published instrument approach procedure and the radar coverage is good, the controller will often guide you to intercept the final approach using vectors. Vectors are just a series of headings that lead you to a position where you can take it in on your own.Advantage: Controllers prefer the vectored approach because it keeps traffic flowing toward the airport. The “full” approach will have segments where the pilot must fly away from the airport, and this fouls up the flow.

As you near an airport, it will be vitally important that you understand which one of these methods will be required and the major differences…
The pilot takes the initiative with the visual approach, the contact approach, and by canceling IFR in the air, but
the controllers will make the determination between the “full” and vectored approach. If you are ever confused about what is going to happen talk to the controller and get a clarification.

Next week we continue the series on how IFR pilots get back to Earth. If you must fly a published instrument approach procedure, what are the rules concerning the final descent to land once you get out from under the clouds?