It’s a grayish winter day with a 900-foot ceiling and two miles visibility as you break out of the clouds on an instrument approach to a nontowered airport. Now the runway is in sight—and you belatedly realize there’s an airplane touching down on it.
What happens next in this scenario that’s been reverse-engineered from the real-life events recounted in the Dec. 3, 2018, IFR Fix may unfold in a straightforward, methodical fashion or may introduce raw chaos to your flight. That depends on a key decision you made in the past few seconds.
That’s where complications set in: If you are still on your IFR flight plan, simply execute a missed approach—and let’s hope you briefed it beforehand and didn’t toss your approach plate over your shoulder or set aside your tablet the instant you spotted the runway (but missed the landing airplane before making the call).
Now suppose that to save time later your first response to sighting the runway environment was to call air traffic control and cancel your IFR flight plan. That leaves you with more limited options, and whatever you decide to do, the improvisation factor will be high.
In that instance you must choose between two sketchy alternatives: Commencing the missed approach while working to remain in VFR conditions and radioing ATC to air-request a new IFR approach clearance; or cobbling together a visual conclusion to the flight at a nonstandard pattern altitude beneath a low ceiling.
Would having placed yourself in this predicament mean the early cancellation of your IFR flight plan was—as they say in tennis—an unforced error?
Not necessarily. In nontowered-airport arrival scenarios when ATC communications may be lost at low altitude, canceling IFR promptly is considered good technique. Official guidance in Section 5-1-15 of the Aeronautical Information Manual advises that “the pilot should, weather conditions permitting, cancel the IFR flight plan while still airborne and able to communicate with ATC by radio. This will not only save the time and expense of canceling the flight plan by telephone but will quickly release the airspace for use by other aircraft.”
Fine, but before calling to cancel IFR, make sure to verify that the runway is both in sight, and available for landing.