Pilot Counsel:

The IFR ‘look-see’ privilege

July 1, 2011

John YodiceFor a long time, it has been my opinion that FAR 91.175 (formerly FAR 91.116) allows a pilot shooting a standard instrument approach in a noncommercial IFR operation to take a “look see” that the flight visibility is at or above the minimum prescribed for the approach—regardless of the officially reported visibility. This opinion has recently been reaffirmed by FAA Chief Counsel Interpretation No. 2010-37.

My opinion was originally based on a 1981 opinion of the NTSB that involved the pilot of a Beech Baron who made an ILS approach to, and landing at, Runway 5 at the Tri-City Airport in Saginaw, Michigan. The ILS Runway 5 approach chart specified a visibility minimum of 2,400 feet runway visual range (RVR). During the approach, the RVR was variously reported by the controller as between 2,800 feet and 1,800 feet. When the approach controller reported that the RVR had changed from 2,400 to 2,200 and then to 2,000 feet, the pilot advised: “We’re gonna continue and…see what happens.” After that, the RVR dropped to 1,800 feet before increasing to 2,000 feet and then 2,200 feet, the final figure given to the pilot before he landed. Prior to reaching decision height (DH), the pilot could not see the runway and was expecting to execute a missed approach. But when he reached DH, he spotted the approach lights, the runway end, and the high-intensity runway lights. He reported the runway environment in sight, completed the approach, and landed.

An FAA inspector was not happy about that. He moved to suspend the pilot’s commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates, alleging that the pilot busted minimums and had acted carelessly or recklessly. The pilot appealed the suspension to the NTSB. The appeal squarely presented the issue of the “look-see” privilege. At a hearing before an NTSB law judge the FAA inspector testified that in his opinion, a pilot may not approach and land legally if RVR is reported below minimum. The judge agreed. “Whether the RVR is precisely accurate at the time or not, whether the pilot believes his eyes are more accurate than the actual runway visual range or not, the RVR minimums are mandatory.” The dissatisfied pilot appealed the judge’s decision to the full board, and the board reversed, relying heavily on a 1980 FAA proposed rulemaking. The rulemaking clarified that the visibility referred to in the rule is visibility from the aircraft, not reported visibility. The pilot ultimately prevailed; the “look-see” privilege was upheld.

To review the rule, it is FAR 91.175 that establishes the conditions that must be present for a pilot to continue operations below decision altitude (DA)/DH or MDA. In my 1989 column I named the three conditions, all of which must be met:

  • The runway environment is distinctly visible and identifiable to the pilot. (Any one of the visual references listed in the rule that identify the runway environment may be used. They include the runway itself, or runway markings, or runway lights, the runway threshold or lights, the visual approach slope indicator, the runway end identifier lights, and the runway touchdown zone or lights. The approach light system may also be used to identify the runway environment with certain descent limitations that are intended to assure identification of the runway end).
  • The aircraft is continuously in a position from which a descent to a landing on the intended runway can be made at a normal rate of descent using normal maneuvers.
  • The flight visibility is equal to or greater than the minimum prescribed for the IAP. A pilot must have this flight visibility from descent below MDA or DA/DH until touchdown.

What has continued to cause confusion is the condition in the rule that “flight visibility is not less than the visibility prescribed in the standard instrument approach being used.” What is sometimes not readily understood is that the visibility referred to is not officially reported ground visibility but rather flight visibility as measured from the cockpit of the aircraft.

Here is the question that was put to the FAA chief counsel: “Whether a pilot may operate an aircraft below a published decision height or minimum descent altitude if the pilot has the runway in sight, but the RVR is reported at less than the published minimum RVR for the approach.” The answer given is “yes,” and that is “because the pilot has determined that the flight visibility [is at or above the minimum] and the runway, one of the enumerated visual references [in the rule], is in sight.” I believe this interpretation reaffirms the “look-see” privilege.

A word of caution. In an earlier rulemaking the FAA cautioned that the wording of the rule “is not an encouragement for pilots to deliberately misestimate visibility to land in unsafe conditions with ground…visibility or RVR reported below minimums.” The FAA “intends to closely review the circumstances related to any landings made when weather is reported below minimums.” If that review has been happening over the past decades, it is clear that pilots are not abusing the privilege. We have not seen any significant FAA enforcement of abuses. We expect that pilots will continue to apply the privilege reasonably and safely.

John S. Yodice serves as secretary to the AOPA Board of Trustees.

John S. Yodice