Fly a contact approach from Pilot Workshops

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
5 min read

Editor’s Note: The following scenario is from the IFR Procedures Manual from Pilot Workshops.


  1. Understand what’s required.
  2. Pick your battles.
  3. Plan for a missed approach.
  4. Request the approach.
  5. Navigate to the airport.


Understand What’s Required

enroute chart airport

You can’t fly a contact approach to Martin Field (S95) because it lacks any published approaches. What about flying a contact approach to Walla Walla (KALW) but breaking off to land at S95 when you have it in sight? Not unless you cancel IFR first. The AIM specifically states this practice is an inappropriate use of a contact approach.

A contact approach is probably the most versatile—and most underutilized—IFR tool. Like a visual approach, you’ll navigate to the airport visually and must remain clear of clouds with no minimum cloud distance. Unlike a visual approach, it only requires 1 SM visibility reported at the airport and you don’t need the airport in sight. You only need reasonable confidence that you can reach the airport visually.

There’s one additional requirement: The airport must have at least one functioning instrument approach. That’s best interpreted as “an approach you could legally fly.” So if the airport only has RNAV approaches and your GPS database is out of currency, requesting a contact approach is not allowed.

If weaving through clouds, close to the ground, with a mile of visibility and no airport in sight sounds sketchy—that’s because it is. Using a contact approach to scud run to an unfamiliar airport is asking for trouble. Doing so at night is a death wish. However, contact approaches can be the perfect tool with the right weather and airport configuration.

TIP – Most approaches require flight visibility above the published minimums. Contact approaches require the reported ground visibility to be at least 1 SM.

Pick Your Battles

Consider this scenario: You’re heading 100° direct to Hermiston, OR (KHRI). The airport is 6 miles ahead, but it’s obscured by a scattered to broken cloud layer. The KHRI ASOS reports 1500 feet broken with visibility of 10 miles.

You’re skimming the cloud tops at 3500 feet, which is 2900 feet AGL You ask Approach for lower, but the controller says you’re already at the MVA for the area so you can’t get lower.

You can’t request a visual approach because you don’t have the airport in sight, even though you know you’ll have it in sight once you maneuver past the scattered-to-broken cloud deck. You can’t cancel IFR, because you won’t be able to maintain VFR cloud clearance requirements. The only instrument approaches are from the southeast and would require flying to an IAF 15.5 NM past the airport only to turn around and come back.

Approval for a contact approach lets you make a legal, visual descent to land without fuss and while retaining your IFR status.

There are many other uses: Fog obscuring part of the airport but the rest is in the clear; the published approach is from the opposite direction of your arrival; you know the airport location by GPS, but you don’t see it yet; you want to generally follow a published approach course but want freedom to deviate at will to stay out of potentially icy or turbulent clouds … the list goes on.

The conditions must be good enough to stay visual, avoid obstacles, and find the airport. The flexibility you gain comes at the expense of the assured obstacle protection provided by a published approach.

Plan for a Missed Approach

terrain awareness

It’s good practice to have terrain awareness active for any instrument approach, but it’s an especially important safeguard with contact approaches. Synthetic vision also helps with a more head-up view of hazards and airport location as you maneuver.

If you misjudge your ability to navigate visually, you’ll need a missed approach. There’s no specific procedure for that, but the most important step is climbing. You’ll also want to point toward the nearest obstacle-free area. Usually turning generally toward the airport you were trying to land at is a good start.

Stack the deck in your favor by briefing the most appropriate missed approach procedure from one of the airport’s published approaches. Those begin from the MAP, which is probably not where you’ll be when you abort the contact approach. Connect them by briefing the shortest, best path from your contact approach route to join the published missed approach procedure.

Another option is briefing the obstacle departure procedure as a missed approach plan. If the tops are low and the terrain is flat, a simple climb may be sufficient. Just ensure you have something at the ready. Or better yet, don’t make a contact approach if you’re not certain you’ll make it to the airport.

Request the Approach

Initiating a contact approach is entirely up to the pilot. Controllers are forbidden from suggesting one (just like they can’t suggest Special VFR). That’s prob-ably because FAA legal gets hives while envisioning an endorsed scud-run operation.

Make your request to your Approach or Center controller before being cleared for a published approach by saying, “Request contact approach.” Include the runway you’d like to use when the destination is a towered airport. If the conditions and traffic permit, you’ll be given the clearance along with instructions for how to proceed if you’re unable to land success-fully. Those instructions don’t imply obstacle clearance, so be sure that they conform with your missed approach plan and negotiate if necessary.

Because contact approaches are underutilized, there may be a delay while the controller asks the supervisor what a contact approach is. Be patient.

You may begin your descent once you’re cleared, un-less ATC instructed otherwise.

The contact approach lacks any assurance of obstacle clearance. You must have an awareness of terrain and obstacles on your proposed path to the airport. A tall TV tower along your chosen visual path could really spoil your day. Use whatever tools you have in the cockpit to supplement your visual avoidance of obstacles and terrain.

You can also incorporate instrument guidance where possible. That could include following a portion of a published instrument approach or using the visual approach feature of your GPS.

Pilot Workshops
Latest posts by Pilot Workshops (see all)
3 replies
  1. John Opalko says:

    Regarding the KHRI scenario above, if fuel wasn’t an issue (and it shouldn’t be, given proper planning), I would fly the extra 31 miles. It’s an additional 20 minutes in the logbook and contact approaches give me the heebie-jeebies.

Comments are closed.