Aviation In Canada

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Missed Approach on a Visual Approach

Eric wrote in and asked a few questions about today's title subject. This is not a cut and dry issue, and I expect plenty of debate about this. At least, there is in other circles where I've had discussions about this. For the American readers, remember that what I write below is out of Canadian rule books and may differ from your procedures somewhat.

His question revolved around the opening statement, "On an IFR flight plan, after you have been cleared for a visual approach, controlled or uncontrolled airport, what is ATC expecting the pilot to do in case of a go around?" Actually, there is a difference between controlled and uncontrolled aerodromes. At a controlled airport, remembering that a controlled airport is one with an ATC tower in operation, the tower will give appropriate instructions and clearances which will tell the pilot what to do, or let the pilot do what he wants to do. That's pretty simple. It's at an uncontrolled airport where things become a little less than clear.

At an uncontrolled airport (served by FSS, CARS, etc), pilots are expected to operate clear of cloud and complete a landing as soon as possible. If a landing is not possible, the AIP tells aircrews that they must remain clear of cloud and contact ATC as soon as possible for further clearance. Sounds good, right? Then it goes on to state that "ATC separation from other IFR aircraft will be maintained under these circumstances." As a controller, I can envision some circumstances that that prove this last statement wrong, even though they are supported by ATC rule books.

The visual approach is not an instrument approach procedure. It is an IFR approach, though. An IFR aircraft on a visual approach is still an IFR aircraft, though he is no longer flying by reference to his instruments, such as while on an ILS approach. Since it is not an instrument approach procedure, there is no missed approach segment for such an approach. ATC does provide separation from other IFR aircraft on instrument approach procedures, but not for visual approaches. At controlled airports, the tower will look after it, as mentioned above. At uncontrolled airports, ATC will not clear the second aircraft for an approach until one of these following happens: 1) the #1 aircraft lands, 2) #1 cancels IFR, or 3) #2 reports seeing #1 and is cleared for a visual approach and instructed to follow (if using the same runway) or maintain visual separation from (if using a different runway) the preceding aircraft. Now here's the set up. What if the aircraft can't land? Perhaps a VFR aircraft crashes on the runway, forcing both aircraft to go around. How is ATC expected to provide separation between these two aircraft? The aircraft may not be on radar any longer, and therefore ATC may have nothing else to rely on.

Admittedly, after 11 years in the ACC, I haven't seen any circumstances actually happen where this has become an issue. Despite theoretical arguments and hypothetical situations, it just hasn't come up. I'm pretty sure someone has had to deal with it, but I haven't heard the story myself.

Sorry, Eric, but I can't answer all of your questions directly. Technically, the visual approach clearance is an IFR procedure, and therefore accepting a visual approach clearance doesn't cancel your IFR flight plan. However, there is no missed approach procedure, and effectively, if you have to go around, you're operating as if you are VFR since you're not allowed to enter cloud until you contact ATC and receive a further clearance. Since there is no missed approach segment for a visual approach, and you weren't cleared for any other instrument procedure, I think you'd be hard pressed to justify flying an instrument missed approach procedure, especially if it would take you into cloud. I can say this about separation: The pilot becomes responsible for his own separation from other VFR aircraft (and preceding IFR aircraft if cleared for a visual and instructed regarding it as mentioned above), as well as providing his own separation with respect to wake turbulence, obstructions, terrain, and Class F airspace. The pilot must also assume responsibility for adherence to noise abatement procedures. At a controlled airport, the pilot should operate as cleared or directed by the tower, who also looks after the other aircraft around him in the usual fashion.

Any other thoughts? How about comments? Let the discussion begin.