Say Again? #14:
ATC 202 — Instrument Approaches

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In the latest of his intermittent series of

Welcome back class. Now that we have you up in the air, we have to figure out a way to get you back down. As you have no doubt been told by your CFII, this part is not optional. Failure to successfully complete this section of the course will result in your termination. Permanently.

For those who have been daydreaming, staring out the window, or cutting class, I'll repeat myself: I'm an en route controller. What I write is from an en route/Center perspective. I know that many people think Center controllers have no business doing Approach Control work, but, alas, the FAA does not agree with them. We can and we do. No matter if we're more ponderous than our swivel-headed brethren in the Approach Controls. We get the job done.

Once again, the phraseology involved in approaches seems to buffalo pilots and controllers alike. Well, at least some Center controllers. We don't issue many approach clearances in the flight levels. But as the old saying goes, "Practice makes perfect." It's really nothing more than understanding what exactly is going on, and pure repetition. It's amazing how easy something becomes once you've done it a hundred times.

Book Learnin'

As you enter the sector that controls your destination airport, you will hear the controller apply the following paragraph from the FAA 7110.65:


a. Both en route and terminal approach control sectors shall provide current approach information to aircraft destined to airports for which they provide approach control services. This information shall be provided on initial contact or as soon as possible thereafter. Approach information contained in the ATIS broadcast may be omitted if the pilot states the appropriate ATIS code or items 3-5 below may be omitted for pilots destined to uncontrolled airports when they advise receipt of the automated weather; otherwise, issue approach information by including the following: ....

ASOS System

In that ATIS, AWOS, and/or ASOS are almost universal for airports with weather information (at least in my neck of the woods), I'll spare you all the details.

Controllers, please note the highlighted change in subparagraph b of section 4-7-10:

b. Upon pilot request, controllers shall inform pilots of the frequency where automated weather data may be obtained and, if appropriate, that airport weather is not available.

In other words, you don't have to read the ASOS/AWOS frequency to the pilots anymore, unless they ask for it.

FAA Headquarters-types please note: We need some standard phraseology similar to what is used for the ATIS.

"Metro Approach, Airliner123 level one one thousand with information Bravo"

is infinitely preferable to

"Atlanta Center this Cherokee 23456 with you. We're descending to six thousand and we have the Hickory AWOS and we'd like to get vectors to the ILS for runway two four if you've got the time."

Where Are You Going?

Once we get all the preliminaries out of the way, it's time to get down to business. Depending on what type of approach you request (or the controller offers), you're probably going to get an amended clearance. Once again, GPS/advanced navigation rears its ugly head. There aren't many instrument approaches that start at the airport. But that's what most people are filing these days: direct to the airport. Makes you wonder what pilots are going to do if they go NORDO doesn't it? But I digress ...

If you want to go direct to the outer marker, initial approach fix, or whatever ... please make sure you have a clearance to do so. It's becoming common practice to see aircraft proceeding direct to various and assorted approach fixes when their clearance is still direct to the airport. There is a difference. Sometimes it's a minor difference, sometimes it isn't.

The Cookie Mold

Because of the way the 7110.65 is written, I'm going to work my way backwards from the approach clearance. All instrument approach clearances are issued from the same cookie-cutter mold no matter what type:

  1. callsign
  2. position
  3. course to be flown
  4. altitude to maintain until established on a published segment of the approach
  5. approach clearance


"(1) Cherokee 23456 (2) four miles from MIRTY (3) fly heading two seven zero join the localizer (4) maintain three thousand four hundred until MIRTY (5) cleared ILS runway two four approach Hickory."

"(1) Cessna 12345 (2) eight miles from Fiddlers (4) maintain five thousand until Fiddlers outbound (5) cleared localizer runway three approach Morganton."

As you'll notice, item (3) was left out of the second clearance because the aircraft would have been cleared direct Fiddlers after the type of approach the pilot was requesting had been determined. There was no course change, so no "course to fly" was issued.

A Sign Meant VFR

While we're here, let me mention something that (for some reason or other) throws controller trainees for a loop: practice approaches by VFR aircraft. The phraseology is exactly the same. What throws the trainees is the altitude part. It's easy. The altitude assignment is VFR.

Cessna 12345, three miles from MIRTY, turn right heading two one five join the localizer, maintain VFR, cleared ILS runway two four approach Hickory.

See, I told you it was simple.

More Book Learnin'

Now for the part that isn't so simple. The rules governing approaches for air traffic controllers are scattered throughout the FAA 7110.65. First, you have:


a. Clear aircraft for "standard" or "special" instrument approach procedures only. To require an aircraft to execute a particular instrument approach procedure, specify in the approach clearance the name of the approach as published on the approach chart ... Standard Instrument Approach Procedures shall commence at an Initial Approach Fix or an Intermediate Approach Fix if there is not an Initial Approach Fix. Where adequate radar coverage exists, radar facilities may vector aircraft to the final approach course in accordance with para 5-9-1, Vectors to Final Approach Course.

If you look at 5-9-1, you'll note that it's in the "Radar" chapter. In the first sentence, it refers you to 7-4-2. Chapter 7 is entitled "Visual." You'll also find information in Chapter 6: "Nonradar." Before your eyes glaze over, we'll just say it's complicated and move on.

Practice, Practice, Practice


In that this is a basic course, let's use a scenario of practice approaches. Students provide an endless source of entertainment, frustration, and education to controllers. The same mistake can cause controllers to laugh or to tear their hair out depending upon the circumstances. Don't worry about it. We expect students to make mistakes. Just try to keep them to a minimum.

The first thing you'll need to do is file the appropriate flight plan. Most of these are what we call a "round robin." I don't know where the term came from (I'm sure someone is going to tell me), but it just means that your departure airport and destination airport are the same. For instance, if you were going to shoot approaches at Hickory, N.C., (KHKY), you might file something like this:


BZM is the VOR serving the HKY airport. So your clearance might sound somewhat odd

"Cleared from the Hickory airport to the Hickory airport via ..."

but you'll get used to it.

Some pilots put "PLA" in the remarks section. Controllers have taken to referring to PLA as "play" but it is actually a contraction from the NOTAM system and stands for Practice Low Approach. Some pilots just put "PRACTICE APPROACHES" in the remarks section. However you do it, it's nice to know ahead of time that you're requesting multiple approaches.

Off We Go

You hop in your plane, get your clearance, the Tower clears you for takeoff and then tells you to,

"Contact Atlanta Center 125.15."

You switch over, listen, and then call,

"Atlanta Center, Skyhawk 12345, leaving two thousand one hundred climbing to five thousand."

"Skyhawk 12345, Atlanta Center radar contact, say intentions."

Right here, some folks panic. I don't know why the phrase "say intentions" strikes fear in the hearts of pilots, but it does. It's simply a controller's way of saying "What would you like to do?"

We interrupt this lesson for an important message about phraseology.

Pull out your AIM or your 7110.65 and find me a phraseology example with a question mark. Well? There might be one or two intrepid students who find an example, but it will take a while. Spoken questions depend a lot on voice inflection. That's a good way to get into trouble on a radio that's prone to static and interference. It's "request vectors ILS runway two four Hickory" not "Can we get vectors to the ILS at Hickory?" It's "say type approach requested" not "What kind of approach would y'all like today?"

We now return you to your regularly scheduled lesson.

Q & A, MEA, and FYI

Hickory VOR/DME Rwy 24 Approach Chart
(click for larger chart)

Where were we? Oh yeah,

"Skyhawk 345 say intentions."

"Skyhawk 345, request VOR/DME runway two four approach Hickory."

"Skyhawk 345 roger."

Now you're thinking, "Well? Can we turn direct BZM?" Were you cleared direct BZM? No? What were you cleared to do? Fly heading 340 and climb to 5,000? Then why don't you just do that for now? I know you want to get "on course." I know you're burning gas and the meter is ticking. The same can be said for every airplane that I'm working. But here's what's going on, in case you're wondering.

When you depart Hickory on runway 24 and are assigned a heading of 340, you will immediately enter an area where the minimum en route altitude (MEA) is 3,600. To turn you on course, I need you to be out of 3,600 for terrain. What's that? Why don't I just say "leaving 3,600 cleared direct BZM?" That would be because I don't know where you're going to leave 3,600. If you climb slow enough, that 340 heading will take you into an area where the minimum en route altitude in 4,300.

Now let me ask you a couple of questions. Why do you think you were assigned a heading of 340? Controller amusement? How about traffic? Why do you think you're climbing to 5,000 when the VOR approach starts at 4,000 and all the other approaches start below that? Once again, there's that one-word answer: traffic. Now, do you want to play twenty questions or do you want to shoot some approaches? That's what I thought.

The Approach

"Skyhawk 345, leaving 4,300 cleared direct BZM, expect VOR/DME runway two four approach Hickory."

"Skyhawk 345, leaving 4,300 direct BZM."

Out of 4,300 you turn east, direct BZM, and level off at 5,000. A few miles from BZM you'll hear,

"Skyhawk 345 six miles from BZM, maintain 4,300 until BZM outbound, cleared VOR/DME runway two four HKY."

You reply, "Skyhawk 345, maintain 4,300 until BZM outbound cleared VOR/DME runway two four HKY."

While you're turning outbound, the controller will be on the phone coordinating the approach with HKY Tower, and it will dawn on him that he doesn't know if you'll be landing or executing the missed approach.

"Skyhawk 345 will this be a full stop or a missed approach?"

Yeah, sometimes you have to ask a question. Just don't make it a habit.

"Skyhawk 345 will be shooting a missed approach."


We'll go back to coordinating and you'll go back to flying.

Somewhere close to BZM you'll hear,

"Skyhawk 345, no traffic observed, radar service terminated, contact HKY Tower 128.15."

You'll acknowledge the frequency change and spend the rest of the approach with the Tower. When you tell the Tower that you're missed approach, they'll switch you back over to us at the Center and we'll start the whole thing over again.

Missed Approach


"Atlanta Center, Skyhawk 12345 missed approach, leaving two thousand two hundred climbing to four thousand."

"Skyhawk 345, Atlanta Center roger, radar contact."

Now, I'll probably say something else (like "say intentions") most of the time (especially when you don't comply with the AIM 5-4-19-e). But just for fun, what are you going to do if I don't? Perhaps a better way to phrase that question is: What have you been cleared to do?

Every IFR approach clearance authorizes you to conduct the missed approach portion of the approach procedure.


Except in the case of a VFR aircraft practicing an instrument approach, an approach clearance automatically authorizes the aircraft to execute the missed approach procedure depicted for the instrument approach being flown.

In the case of our example, from the approach plate for the HKY VOR/DME Rwy 24:

MISSED APPROACH Climbing right turn to 4000 via heading 340 and BZM-274 to BZM VOR/DME and hold.

Stay on the Path

If that procedure works with my traffic, then that's what I'm going to let you do. In that my personal philosophy of working traffic is to try to work with the procedures instead of against or around the procedures, in all likelihood that's what you are going to do. There's no need to issue a new clearance. The only thing that I'd need to issue would be an EFC (expect further clearance) time if I intended to let you hold at BZM (which I don't).

Now play along with me a minute and let me show you some things. You're on the 340 heading and you're about to turn east as you join the BZM 274 radial to BZM. You're leveling off at 4,000 and you hear,

"Skyhawk 345 say intentions."

"Skyhawk 345 requests vectors ILS runway two four HKY."

Instead of giving you a vector, you get the same old response:

"Skyhawk 345 roger."

For the folks that have been paying attention you might now be wondering about the altitude difference. The missed approach altitude assignment is 4,000. The minimum en route altitude (MEA) for this area (as you learned on the initial departure from HKY) is 4300. In order for me to say "fly heading" I'd first have to climb you to 4,300. I know it doesn't make sense in this particular case but those are the rules. And the rules are there for reasons.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

On the other hand, if I leave you on the missed approach procedure you'll come out of the 4300 MEA about 3-4 miles west of BZM. You'll also be very close to the turn-on point for the ILS. In other words, I really couldn't vector you to a better spot. So instead of giving myself something else to do (a climb clearance and a vector) I'll let you fly the missed approach procedure until you're about 3 miles west of BZM. At that point you'll hear,

"Skyhawk 345 turn left heading zero six zero, radar vector ILS runway two four Hickory, descend and maintain three thousand four hundred."

The point of all this is that all airspace has little quirks. The controllers who work your local airspace know these quirks, and they also know how to make the most of them. Keep in mind that the controller has probably worked hundreds, if not thousands, of approaches, and that rarely (if ever) are you going to be the only airplane that the controller has to work into the plan.

The subject of instrument approaches is very complicated, as I'm sure you can tell. There are dozens of rules that we need to talk about, and an infinite number of situations where we have to apply those rules. I hope the small portion that I've covered in this article will inspire you to open up the books and read. Every time I write one of these articles I have to refer to the books. And every time, without fail, I learn something new. You will too.

Have a safe flight!

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC