Sea fog is an old nemesis of sailors and aviators alike. I’ve worked coastal airports where the stuff would form offshore and then spread over the airfield. One minute, beautiful VFR. The next, hangars and runways were being smothered in mist.
On days like those, instrument approaches were the usual solution. However, we also got to use visual procedures designed for such situations. Special VFR was a big one. VFR on top was pretty common too.
But we seldom were asked for a contact approach, SVFR’s IFR cousin. It’s possible that many instrument pilots, so attuned to riding localizers and RNAV waypoints, don’t even register the contact approach as an option.
A contact approach allows a pilot to fly to an airport visually in reduced-visibility conditions, instead of getting circuitous vectors for an instrument approach. Under the right circumstances, it can be a great timesaver. That convenience, though, brings with it quite a few requirements for pilots and controllers.
The AIM strongly emphasizes pilot compliance with ATC instructions. That said, there are boundaries to what controllers can expect from the pilots under their oversight. One obvious illustration is allowing a pilot to say “unable” if executing an ATC instruction endangers them or forces them to violate a rule.
In line with that philosophy, controllers may not initiate or suggest certain procedures that could push pilots beyond their comfort zones. A contact approach is one such example. The pilot must explicitly request one, thereby acknowledging they know what’s entailed.
Why? Contact approaches generally involve flying low to the ground in diminished visibility. A pilot unfamiliar with these expectations could easily get into trouble. The ATC regulations book, FAA Order 7110.65, lays out ATC’s contact approach requirements in section 7-4-6. “Clear an aircraft for a contact approach only if the following conditions are met….” The first condition? “a. The pilot has requested it.”
The AIM’s contact approach section, 5-4-25, reflects that as well under b. “Controllers may authorize a contact approach provided: 1. The contact approach is specifically requested by the pilot. ATC cannot initiate this approach.”
Not clear yet? Apparently, the FAA didn’t think so and included a long note in 7110.65 section 7-4-6 expanding on the dangers of a contact approach. “When executing a contact approach, the pilot is responsible for maintaining the required flight visibility, cloud clearance, and terrain/obstruction clearance. Unless otherwise restricted, the pilot may find it necessary to descend, climb, and/or fly a circuitous route to the airport to maintain cloud clearance and /or terrain/obstructions clearance.”
The note ends with: “It is not in any way intended that controllers will initiate or suggest a contact approach to a pilot.” Can we consider that point made?
A Translucent Test
Before you get a contact approach, some more boxes need to be checked, starting with weather minimums on par with Special VFR and Class G airspace. AIM 5-4-25 kicks off with them: “Pilots operating in accordance with an IFR flight plan, provided they are clear of clouds and have at least one mile flight visibility and can reasonably expect to continue to the destination airport in those conditions, may request ATC authorization for a contact approach.”
What does “clear of clouds” mean for you? In practice, it means you can’t use a contact approach as a cheat to punch down through an overcast or broken layer. Fly in haze and mist? Yes. Fly through the puffy stuff that whites out your windshield? No. Like any visual-based approach, you must remain clear of clouds. If you can’t see at all, that negates the “visual” part of it.
Both the ATC regs and the AIM specifically emphasize visibility. In 7110.65 7-4-6, the second requirement for a controller to authorize a contact approach is: “The reported ground visibility is at least one statute mile.” There’s further clarification in AIM 5-4-25 b.2.: “The reported ground visibility at the destination airport is at least one statute mile.” So, you need a mile of vis, both in flight and specifically where you’re landing.
Unlike a visual approach, you don’t need to initially report the airport in sight. Given the low visibility minimum, that makes sense. Using landmarks, GPS, or navaids, you can navigate to the airport. I’ve known pilots who dialed in the localizer to help get lined up on a runway they couldn’t see yet.
Here’s possibly the most important requirement of all: you must “…reasonably expect to continue to the destination airport in those conditions.” Let’s talk about this last one. Both visibility and ceilings are concrete values. If I’m working your flight and your destination’s airport METAR shows a half-mile of visibility with an 800 foot solid overcast, I can outright deny a contact approach. Authorizing one violates our 7110.65.
What about “reasonably” expecting to continue to the airport? That’s something far more nebulous—a question only you can answer. However, consider this sentence in AIM 5-4-25 c.: “In the execution of a contact approach, the pilot assumes the responsibility for obstruction clearance.” It’s all on you.
Imagine you’re flying into your home ‘drome, a coastal airport, and that pesky sea fog is rolling in. Visibility is two miles. You’re downwind for the ILS. As you pass abeam the field, you spot the runway. The mist hasn’t reached it yet and, it being home, you’re familiar with the area. That might be a reasonable time to request a contact approach.
However, what if thick fog’s already smearing across the runway? Perhaps, instead, a nearby wildfire has thick smoke saturating the air? Or, maybe fast-moving rain showers are building on top of the airport. Are you instead flying into an unfamiliar airport with unseen obstructions awaiting? Can you “reasonably expect” to arrive safely at the airport in such conditions? No controller can answer that for you. We can’t see what you’re seeing. It’s all on you.
Since the core of a contact approach is essentially a judgment call, the regulations have a built-in “out” in case the calculated risk doesn’t pay off. This third requirement for a contact approach is established in AIM 5-4-25 b.3.: “The contact approach will be made to an airport having a standard or special instrument approach procedure.” This provides a more certain path to the airport.
This is an important note. There are countless airports without instrument approach procedures, meaning you can’t even get a contact approach to them.
But a published approach isn’t enough; it has to be actually working. The ATC requirements outline that point in 7110.65 7-4-6 c. A contact approach can only be issued if “a standard or special instrument approach procedure has been published and is functioning for the airport of intended landing.” That’s reemphasized in AIM 5-4-25 c.: “[A contact approach] is not intended for use by a pilot on an IFR flight clearance to operate to an airport not having a published and functioning IAP.”
A contact approach only goes so far as a shortcut. Imagine your destination airport has only a VOR approach, but the VOR is down for maintenance. ATC can’t clear you for a contact approach if that “plan B” isn’t available.
In a Protective Bubble
How do contact approaches fit in with other traffic? That’s handled in the next restriction. To get some context, let’s revisit a key phrase in 7110.65 7-4-6: “…the pilot may find it necessary to descend, climb, and/or fly a circuitous route to the airport to maintain cloud clearance….”
Controllers aren’t fans of chaos. We wage war on disorder by issuing vectors, routes, and altitude assignments to aircraft that deconflict them from other traffic. Having an IFR aircraft swooping all over the place in poor visibility is rather counterintuitive to that goal, considering we need at least 1000 feet vertical or three miles horizontal between them and other IFR airplanes.
The 7110.65 only allows us to authorize a contact approach when “Approved separation is applied between aircraft so cleared and other IFR or SVFR aircraft. When applying vertical separation, do not assign a fixed altitude but clear the aircraft at or below an altitude which is a least 1000 below any IFR traffic but not below the minimum safe altitude, prescribed in 14 CFR Section 91.119.”
The easiest method is an altitude assignment. If there are obstructions, a common technique is assigning an altitude no higher than 1000 feet above the tallest obstacle. Then we’ll keep any other IFR traffic at least 1000 feet above the contact approach’s assigned altitude. That gives us our separation and lets the contact approach do his thing safely.
What about separation from traffic operating around the airport itself? Given the unpredictable nature of a contact approach, the safest method is just to sterilize the airspace. No one departs, transitions, or lands at the airport until the contact approach is on the ground. Because of this, don’t expect ATC to authorize a contact approach at a busier airport. We’re not going to delay other aircraft just for one aircraft’s shortcut if an instrument approach is available.
So, we’ve covered the expectations and you’ve decided you want the contact approach. Before the approach radar controller can issue you a contact approach clearance, what must you do?
“Approach, N123AB,” you say. “Request contact approach.” Cool! Now you’ve set the wheels in motion. It’s unlikely I can clear you right away. I’ll first need to separate you from other traffic and sterilize some airspace. That involves coordinating with other radar controllers and, if applicable, the tower. Depending on what’s going on, I may have to say, “Unable contact approach.”
Today you’re getting your shortcut. But there’s one last rule we haven’t discussed. (Sigh. I know. It’s always something.) It’s a requirement listed in 7110.65 7-4-6 e.: “An alternative clearance is issued when weather conditions are such that a contact approach may be impractical.” Is the meteorological situation truly marginal? Let ATC know so they can issue you what are essentially missed approach instructions. (In the event you’re not issued an alternative clearance and do go around, I suggest climbing up to the altitude restriction and contacting ATC as soon as possible.)
Alright, clearance time. If there’s a tower, I’ll clear you to the applicable runway. Let’s say there are some 1500-foot antennas near the airport, so I pad their altitude by 1000 feet. “N123AB, cleared contact approach, Runway 9, at or below 2500. If not possible, fly heading 090, maintain 2500, and advise.” You’ve got a clearance, an altitude, and a contingency plan. I’ll switch you to the tower when appropriate. If you miss, you’ll advise whichever controller you’re in contact with, either the tower or myself.
No tower? “N123AB, cleared contact approach, [airport name], at or below 2500. If not possible, enter controlled airspace heading 090, maintain 2500, and advise this frequency.” I want you to call me back on my frequency if you go around. I’d also issue standard IFR cancellation instructions, like, “Report cancellation of IFR on the ground via [frequency/phone/etc.].” Then I change you to advisory frequency, await your cancellation, and protect for your possible go-around. Hopefully, your “reasonable expectations” were met and you landed just fine.
The convenience of a contact approach may be tempered by its caveats. Still, you get another IFR approach option beyond visuals and instrument approaches. When the pieces safely fall into place and ATC can approve one, it can be quite the handy shortcut.
Cheaters Never Win
While a contact approach may feel a little bit like cheating, it’s a perfectly legal approach. However, it has the potential to be used to beat the system.
The AIM attempts to cut that off from the start with this block in 5-4-25 c. a contact approach “is not intended for use by a pilot on an IFR flight clearance to operate to an airport not having a published and functioning IAP (instrument approach procedure). Nor is it intended for an aircraft to conduct an instrument approach to one airport and then, when ‘in the clear,’ discontinue that approach and proceed to another.”
For an example, take a look at New Century Aircenter Airport (KIXD), a Class D towered airport just southwest of Kansas City, MO. Its weather is two miles visibility and BKN012. In a notch to its southwest is Gardner Municipal Airport (K34), non-towered, with no IAP.
Here comes an enterprising pilot, IFR to KIXD. He requests the ILS 36 into KIXD. As he rides the glideslope below the 1200 broken layer, he suddenly tells ATC he wants to break off the ILS and do a contact approach to Gardner.
First off, Gardner lacks instrument approaches. That alone prohibits the contact approach. Second, even if Gardner had an IAP, he’s giving ATC no time to sterilize the airspace for his clear-of-clouds maneuvering. Third, his clearance limit is KIXD, not K34, so he’d need to be re-cleared.
It’s an underhanded move that can create a lot of chaos. If an aircraft attempted that on my watch, I’d simply say “unable contact approach” and ask him to state intentions.
Nothing good comes from a last-second switcheroo like that. It goes against both the stated regulatory intentions and simple good faith. —TK
While he misses those pretty coastal sunrises and sunsets, Tarrance Kramer still has fun working traffic out in the Midwest.