IFR Fix: 'Confusion reigned'

February 3, 2014

With a minute and 30 seconds to go before crossing the final approach navaid, the instrument student and instructor fretted that their 3,000-foot altitude would leave them too high above the VOR. Did the controller vectoring the Cessna 172 expect it to fly the full approach? Time to find out.

"I asked 'are we cleared for the straight in?' for clarification as to whether or not the procedure turn should be flown," the CFII reported to the Aviation Safety Reporting System. "To which she replied, 'No, Cleared for the VOR 16, circle to land 7L.'"

Can you identify the misunderstanding that was developing between the parties during an approach to Florida’s Daytona Beach International Airport?

The flight turned outbound for the procedure turn. That prompted a query from ATC.

"I replied with, 'You told us not cleared for the straight in,' the CFII wrote. "To which she replied, 'No, you're not cleared for straight-in 16, you're cleared for the circle. I thought you were asking if you were cleared for the straight in landing on 16.'"

The flight was instructed to re-intercept the final. It concluded "with no further issues." Defending their actions in the ASRS report, the instructor pointed out an alternative meaning of “straight-in” from Section 5-39 of the FAA’s Instrument Procedures Handbook.  It explains that a controller can use "cleared straight-in" as a way "to ensure that the pilot understands that the procedure turn or hold-in-lieu-of-PT is not to be flown."  

Not hearing those words, the CFII concluded that a procedure turn should be flown; as the ASRS report synopsis put it, "confusion reigned" between the parties.

A more lethal brand of confusion reigned in February 2008 as a Cessna 340A with four aboard entered a mountain pass under VFR near Cabazon, Calif. ATC, terminating radar service, notified the pilot to remain northwest of a highway where opposite-direction traffic would be passing on the other side. The Cessna’s pilot later radioed, "asking if he still needed to remain on a northwesterly heading."

The controller "replied that he never assigned a northwesterly heading," said a National Transportation Safety Board accident report, discussing the crash that occurred a short time later, following a series of radar-observed maneuvers, and a probable encounter with instrument meteorological conditions.

Two misunderstandings, both followed by attempts at clarification. The mixed results offer a stark reminder never to let doubts fester.