Air traffic control has its challenges. That’s obvious when we controllers are working heavy traffic that tests our planning, reflexes, and intestinal fortitude. However, even off position, we’re sometimes put on the spot about our aviation knowledge.
And so it was the other day when a pilot friend called me out of the blue with an ATC question. I like fielding questions from pilots. They make me dig deep into my understanding of our rules and procedures. It’s always worthwhile to challenge any previously held assumptions and revisit exactly what the regulations say.
This scenario—which I’ll cover shortly—had us on opposing viewpoints. It showed how what might seem logical might not be at all legal, and, in fact, could land you in trouble.
The Low Down
Here’s the scenario. Imagine you’re in a Cirrus on an IFR flight plan. The weather is great. You’re 10 miles north of the airport, assigned heading 180 at 3000 feet, vectored straight-in for the visual approach to Runway 18.
Approach has already pointed out the airport and a Cherokee to follow. You spot the airport and the traffic. “N123AB has the field and traffic in sight,” you report. Before replying to you, the controller calls another aircraft, then many others. There’s no dead air on frequency today. Vectors, clearances and flight following requests are flying fast and furious.
Meanwhile, you’re getting closer to the airport. With no break in the flood of transmissions, Approach tells you, sharply, “N123AB, contact Tower.” And off he goes to handle another aircraft.
What just happened? You were on a vector and an assigned altitude. The controller pointed out the field and preceding traffic. You reported both in sight. Finally, you were told to contact the control tower.
These are all boxes that you need to check before landing. However, one critical thing is missing: an approach clearance. The controller was so busy he forgot to clear you for the visual approach. What do you do?
Wait a Minute…
So, this is where my friend’s question comes into play. “If I call Tower,” he said, “and they clear me to land without an approach clearance, I can just land, right?” Logic says all the pieces are in place for it. Beautiful VFR day. Airport and traffic in sight. He could just close the distance on the Cherokee, and match speed to space himself all the way to the runway. Sounds like common sense.
I’m going to state, right away, as clearly as I can, that he’s wrong in that assumption. Just because ATC messed up doesn’t negate his requirement to obtain an approach clearance on an IFR flight plan.
In AIM 5-5-11, section a, Visual Approach, it lists the following pilot responsibilities: “2. Complies with controller’s instructions for vectors toward the airport of intended landing or to a visual position behind a preceding aircraft.” That’s followed by: “3. The pilot must, at all times, have either the airport or the preceding aircraft in sight.” Okay. Got that.
Now, to the juicy meat of the issue. That third clause continues with this: “After being cleared for a visual approach, proceed to the airport in a normal manner or follow the preceding aircraft. Remain clear of clouds while conducting a visual approach.”
Note the key word here: after. “After being cleared for a visual approach….” Until you hear the words “cleared visual approach,” you’re not authorized to come off the assigned heading or altitude and “proceed to the airport in a normal manner.” Doing so violates the regulations. If Approach realizes they forgot to clear you, and they see you commencing an approach anyway, that’s a pilot deviation.
The problems don’t end there. Let’s keep following the regs. I know, I know… going through the regulations is no fun—I hate it myself—but that stack of rules isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So, let’s keep going down the rabbit hole.
AIM 4-4-10 says, “When air traffic clearance has been obtained under either visual or instrument flight rules, the pilot−in−command of the aircraft must not deviate from the provisions thereof unless an amended clearance is obtained. When ATC issues a clearance or instruction, pilots are expected to execute its provisions upon receipt.”
Short version: when we controllers issue you an instruction, you’re expected to do it until we give a new instruction. As outlined in the ATC rulebook—2-1-1 of FAA Order 7110.65—the primary purpose of those instructions is to “prevent a collision involving aircraft” and to provide “a safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic.” That’s our mission: keep you safe and sequenced.
However, what if a controller inadvertently puts you in a bad spot? AIM section 4−4−1 b. addresses that, starting with a reminder quote from the regs. “14 CFR Section 91.3(a) states: ‘The pilot−in−command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.’ If ATC issues a clearance that would cause a pilot to deviate from a rule or regulation, or in the pilot’s opinion, would place the aircraft in jeopardy, IT IS THE PILOT’S RESPONSIBILITY TO REQUEST AN AMENDED CLEARANCE.”
That uppercase emphasis is the FAA’s, not mine. They want it crystal clear that it’s your responsibility to ask for a new clearance if something’s awry. An obvious example is a turn towards a nasty storm that “would place the aircraft in jeopardy.” ATC may not see it on their radar. You must let them know so they can approve deviations or a different heading.
There’s no immediate physical threat here. So, our issue becomes a clearance that “would cause a pilot to deviate from a rule or regulation.” That’s right: if an ATC instruction will make you break an aviation regulation, again, it’s your responsibility to speak up.
If Tower clears you to land, unaware you have no approach clearance, and you knowingly then proceed to maneuver and land—without saying anything—you’re breaking not one, but two rules: the “After being cleared for a visual approach, proceed to the airport in a normal manner…” from AIM 5-5-11 and the all-caps “IT IS THE PILOT’S RESPONSIBILITY TO REQUEST AN AMENDED CLEARANCE.” from AIM 4-4-1.
We’ve Got a Problem
Back to our scenario. Approach says, “N123AB, contact Tower.” Knowing what you do now, how do you proceed? Per the regs, before anything, you must tell ATC something is amiss.
First option: immediately follow up with the approach controller. “Verify we’re cleared for the visual approach?” Hopefully, he responds quickly and clears you. However, they may be overloaded already and you can’t break through the wall of radio transmissions.
What if you can’t get a word in edgewise with Approach? Option two: contact the Tower, but continue sticking to the last clearance. Here, it was “fly heading 180 and maintain 3000.” Continue doing that. If they told you, “Join the localizer and track it inbound, maintain 2000,” do that. On a base leg vector? Keep flying that base, even if it’s through final.
Now, when you call Tower, don’t just do a normal check-in. If I’m working Tower and you contact me and just say, “Tower, N123AB, straight in, Runway 18,” I’m just going to clear you to land. Unless you’re in a weird location, heading in the wrong direction, or I see some other red flag, I’m going to assume you’ve been cleared for an approach.
Instead, tell Tower right off the bat what’s going on. “Tower, N123AB, assigned heading 180 at 3000. Approach did not clear me for an approach yet.” Now you’ve satisfied both the AIM 5-5-11 and 4-4-1 requirements. Now the tower controller’s aware something’s amiss, and can act accordingly.
Let’s Think This Through
Depending on your distance from the runway, and Tower’s relationship with Approach, Tower has options. Everyone must remain flexible on what comes next, to, hopefully, get you to land.
The clearance delay may already have left you too high too close to the airport. If it’s looking dicey, ask yourself, “If I was given a clearance right now, from my current position, can I safely descend and land?” If the answer is anything less than a confident affirmative, tell Tower right away. Plain English works fine. “Tower, we’re already too close to get down.” If you think a 360 or S-turns could buy you needed space, you might ask for those as well.
Tower may be ahead of the game on this too. Controllers handle many types of aircraft daily, and we are pretty familiar with their performance profiles. The second you tell Tower you haven’t been cleared, he may flat-out ask you, “Are you able to make the descent, or do you need to maneuver?”
It’s not your fault you’re in this position. Don’t let pride cloud good judgment and make a promise your skills and your airplane can’t keep.
One day, working approach control, I had to keep a single-engine GA prop high for conflicting traffic. Once he passed the other aircraft, he was only six miles from the runway, at 3000 feet. I asked him if he wanted some vectors for descent, or if he could make it down from there. “Oh yeah, we can make it!” He said with much bravado. He seemed confident, so I cleared him for the visual and switched him to the control tower.
Well, he dive-bombed for the runway, couldn’t stabilize the approach, bounced, and pranged his prop. Besides damaging his aircraft, his pride, and his wallet, it closed the airport for an hour and delayed a number of arrivals. Thankfully, no one was hurt. In the end, the pilot had been given options, and the choice and responsibility to proceed with the landing were ultimately his. Like the line from Top Gun, don’t try “writing checks your body can’t cash.” Take the vectors or maneuvers if you even think you might need them.
The Perils of Expectation Bias
How can someone forget to issue an approach clearance? Easy! By being human. And what do you do if you were expecting an instrument approach instead of a visual one? Also easy! The same thing as with a visual: follow the last ATC instruction until you get an amended clearance.
One day, I had five different aircraft shooting practice approaches to the same airport. Meanwhile, I had lots of other fires to put out, with overflights, arrivals, and departures into surrounding airports. I was nearing my limits.
Round-and-round the approaches went. One, a Cherokee, was on a base vector for his third ILS and getting close to the localizer. I needed to handle some other traffic, but I didn’t want the Cherokee to blow through final. I told him, “Cherokee 456, turn left heading 150, join the localizer, track it inbound, maintain 1800.” He read it back.
I continued working my other planes, talking non-stop. While scanning my targets, I went back to the Cherokee. He was on the localizer, at the correct FAF altitude, looking just like the last two times he’d shot the same approach. My saturated brain falsely assumed that I’d already cleared him this time, so I told him, “Contact Tower.”
A minute later, mid-transmission to another airplane, I realized my error. I reached out to the Cherokee, but of course he’d already switched to Tower. I called Tower and told them to switch him back to me. Once the pilot checked in, I cleared him and switched him back to Tower. All fixed.
Thankfully, he hadn’t crossed the FAF yet. If he had, I would’ve had to break him out for re-sequence. Why? Until he received new instructions, he would’ve been expected to stay on the localizer, maintain 1800, not descend on the glideslope, and advise either me or Tower that he hadn’t been cleared. Maintaining the FAF altitude inside the FAF would’ve left him well above the glideslope, and unable to make a proper descent.
It’s decision time. Make the land/no land call, and advise Tower of your intentions ASAP.
If you choose to land, the tower controller may have blanket permission from Approach to issue the visual approach clearances on his own. Our book section 7-4-3 (Clearance for Visual Approaches) says, “Towers may exercise this authority when authorized by a LOA (letter of agreement) with the facility that provides the IFR service….” If that’s the case, they’ll say, “Cleared visual approach Runway 18. Cleared to land Runway 18.” It’s all yours. One stop shop.
If the tower hasn’t been granted that written authority—very likely in smaller Class C and D airports—the controller must call their radar counterpart for permission to clear you. When Approach answers, the tower guy says, “N123AB said he wasn’t cleared for the visual. Can I go ahead and clear him?” Hopefully the radar controller says, “Approved as requested.” Then Tower should issue the approach and landing clearances.
Are you too high and request some maneuvering? Approval will be traffic-permitting. Other aircraft could be following you. Doing a donut back into their face or having them fly up your tail is no fun. Tower might just deny the request outright if they see it’s not going to work, or call Approach to see if they can slow or delay-vector the aircraft behind you.
Finally, if you decide not to attempt a landing—a perfectly sensible option—or Tower can’t approve the descent maneuvers, you’ll be handled like a standard missed approach. Towers and their relevant radar facilities have internal pre-approved procedures for go-arounds that typically involve a standard heading and altitude away from other arrivals and departures. They’ll assign you those instructions, advise Approach of your go-around, and switch you back to them for resequencing.
As I told my friend, getting left high and dry by ATC is understandably a real inconvenience, but don’t get yourself hit with a possible pilot deviation by violating the regulations. Just like a controller is responsible for bad outcomes when they miss a pilot’s incorrect readback, it’s your obligation to ensure all of your own approach requirements are satisfied.
Tarrance Kramer keeps shooting for that ever-elusive perfection while working traffic in the Midwest.