Fly like a fighter: Circling approach

January 8, 2014

Fly like a fighter

When I flew the F-15 we did not have to maintain currency in instrument circling approaches, so we never practiced them. That meant that the last time I ever flew one was years earlier as a student in pilot training. Needless to say, I was quite rusty on even the procedures and techniques to fly them. Out of a sense of maintaining my own overall aviation skill set, I decided it was time to practice a circling approach again.

Larry BrownI started by reviewing the regulations, re-studied the particular approach plate with an eye toward the circling minimums themselves, then did some chair flying to mentally fly myself through the sequence and radio calls I would use in the air.

After a local mission I coordinated with the tower for the practice circling approach. Over the runway numbers with the gear and flaps down, I began my circling turn. This took me past the control tower and over the central part of the Air Force base where I was stationed. In fact, unknown to me, it took me directly over the command building and provided an excellent view for all the senior leaders to watch me during their staff meeting. So much so that they had to temporarily halt the meeting because the jet noise made it too loud for them to hear.

That was when the phone rang in the tower.

I successfully completed the circling approach, did two more VFR patterns, then landed. After clearing the runway, I was told to call the commander. Uh-oh. I then had visions of the scene in Top Gun where Maverick and Goose were severely chewed out after their stunt of a fly-by next to the tower.

After taking care of my post-flight paperwork, I went to the commander’s office to see him in person. In my mind, this is always a better way to communicate than over the phone.  He wasn’t in, nor was his deputy. So I went back to my office and agonized for three long hours before the commander got back. Finally I was able to speak with him.

The conversation went like this:

Me: “Sir, I’m sorry I interrupted your staff meeting earlier. I was practicing a circling approach.”

Commander: “You didn’t interrupt the meeting. And I knew what you were doing. As a matter of fact, we need to practice circling approaches more often. Good job!”


I later found out that it was the deputy who called the tower during my circle, assuming the commander would be upset—and also not sure what kind of “stunt” I was trying to pull.

Even if 95 percent of your flying is short hops for the $200 hamburger, to maintain your overall aviation skill set it will never hurt to practice some of those maneuvers you may not have seen since your private pilot checkride. At the least, practice them every so often so they don’t become unrecognizable to you—like the circling approach had become to the deputy commander. 

Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,700 hours total time during his 33 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40. See previous installments of “Fly like a fighter.”