Aviation In Canada

Monday, September 12, 2005

Unrestricted Approach Clearance

I've seen a number of questions about the clearance, "...cleared to the Sumspot Airport for an approach," and what it means. I'm hoping to shed some light.

A long time ago, a Northwest Airlink airline (strangely, their callsign was Northeast) who flew in the Moncton FIR often received these clearances as some of the flights were after hours when traffic is light. After several months of flying in the region, one pilot asked about this clearance. He said, "Moncton, do you keep giving us that approach clearance because we're Americans?" Uh, no. That's, "For an approach", not, "foreign approach."

Seriously, though, the unrestricted approach clearance gives the pilot the right to conduct any published instrument approach procedure, and includes the right to navigate from any point on his flight plan route (including present position, of course) to any fix associated with the approach or any published transitions. For example, they may leave an airway and fly RNAV direct to an IF for a straight-in approach. They may fly to a fix on a DME arc and fly the arc for a straight-in. They may fly to a fix associated with an RNAV approach. Whatever. There are two approaches that are conspicuous in their absences from this right: Visual and Contact approaches. While they are IFR approaches, they are not instrument approach procedures and hence are not included in the authorization when in receipt of a clearance for "an approach." Pilots wishing to conduct either of these must ask for authorization from ATC if in controlled airspace prior to leaving a published instrument approach procedure or transition. Controllers and pilots alike seem to agree on this as being a little silly. If a controller has traffic at an airport, he would likely issue a specific approach clearance rather than unrestricted, so why can't a pilot fly a visual if he wants to? Rules are rules, I suppose...

Another rule about the unrestricted approach clearance is that a pilot is required to inform ATC as soon as possible of the approach that will be conducted, and method of transition to be used. I'd say we're running about 50% compliance on this. Also, once stated, a pilot is not supposed to deviate from the approach procedure he notified ATC he would use without prior authorization.

In short, clearance for, "an approach," may be issued at times when traffic is light or if ATC doesn't have the facilities to allow arrival vs. departure style separation. A pilot is supposed to inform ATC what procedure is to be used, and then stick to it unless he receives approval for something else. And a pilot may not conduct a visual or contact approach unless he requests it (and obtains approval) from ATC. Informing a flight service station or other type of facility at destination that you want to do a visual/contact approach doesn't count as asking for, and receiving approval from, ATC. When relayed through an FSS, a clearance would actually be prefixed with, "ATC clears..."