IFR Fix: Expect a visual approach

January 21, 2014

The destination weather is great. Visual approaches are in use. Happily you inform the passengers, all weary from hours of clouds and bumps, that they will be on the ground a few minutes early.

That makes them relax. Don’t do the same.

With the airport in sight, don’t relax so much that you discard your aircraft’s electronic navigation capabilities. Redundancy—whether for basic attitude-instrument flying, or in navigation—is your friend. And friends don’t let friends land on the wrong strip of pavement.

Readers of the Oct. 21, 2013, IFR Fix "The runway seemed very close" read the account of a flight crew whose growing awareness that their eyes were lying—as revealed on various instruments—spared them from landing at the wrong airport in Oklahoma City, Okla. Recently, things did not work out as well in a case of visual identification of an airport in Branson, Mo., as described in an update from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is now investigating.

So, here’s a quick coffeehouse quiz: Just what is a visual approach—a VFR operation, or an IFR procedure?

Good job if you summarized Aeronautical Information Manual language stating that "ATC may authorize this type approach when it will be operationally beneficial. Visual approaches are an IFR procedure conducted under IFR in visual meteorological conditions." Weather minimums apply, and the pilot must have "the airport or the preceding identified aircraft" in sight.

OK, if there are weather minimums, and a requirement for ATC authorization, and an active IFR flight plan in effect, does that mean a visual approach is an instrument approach procedure? (Hint: What if you have to miss for some reason?)

"A visual approach is not an IAP and therefore has no missed approach segment. If a go around is necessary for any reason, aircraft operating at controlled airports will be issued an appropriate advisory/clearance/instruction by the tower. At uncontrolled airports, aircraft are expected to remain clear of clouds and complete a landing as soon as possible." explains AIM 5-4-23(e).

IFR flying is a cockpit-focused operation. Pilots may not be looking for the runway until a runway is needed. With the risks of that scenario sometimes exposed and currently under review, remember to use all available cockpit resources to verify that the runway you see is the runway you want, and not a close second.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.