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The contact approach: Barely legal

Flying visually to an airport in IMC

One of the many benefits of flying under instrument flight rules is the knowledge that you’ll be flying at safe altitudes, along prescribed tracks, and following standardized procedures—all the while under the gaze of helpful ATC controllers.
Illustration by Oliver Burston
Illustration by Oliver Burston

And yet, there are ways around these typical by-the-book routines. One of them can be invoked in instrument meteorological conditions (ceilings below 1,000 feet, visibilities below three miles), at low altitude, with nearby terrain and obstacles, day or night, and along a flight path of your choosing—all of this while maneuvering to land at your destination airport. Which may or may not have a control tower. You can think of it as a form of legalized scud-running, or rogue IFR.

This is the contact approach. To legally ask for one, you need only have at least one-mile flight visibility, fly clear of clouds, and reasonably expect to continue to fly like this to your destination.

If you learned about this approach, it was probably while in class or planted in front of a computer screen. There’s a good reason for that. Contact approaches can be flat-out dangerous.If you learned about this approach, it was probably while in class or planted in front of a computer screen. There’s a good reason for that. Contact approaches can be flat-out dangerous for a few reasons. First off, the “contact” in the name is a reference to flying by ground contact—in other words, navigating by means of the terrain and other ground features immediately around you. At worst, this could be a patch of ground as small as that within a wingspan’s radius around your airplane. In other words, right below you.

Everyone knows that the contact approach is risky. It leaves so much to the pilot and relies on his or her intimate knowledge of the local topography. Any procedure that hangs so heavily on knowing, for example, that to reach the airport you need to fly down the river until reaching a sand bar, follow a fence line to a four-way stoplight, then make a left at the McDonald’s is asking for it. Lose sight of the McDonald’s, and what then?

Even ATC doesn’t like contact approaches. They won’t offer one, so as to protect against liability. That’s why pilots must ask for them. If a controller comes back with a simple “Cleared contact approach,” adding if required (per ATC order 7110.65Y) “at or below” a certain altitude, or along a certain routing, and “if not possible” providing an alternative procedure, along with “and advise.” So that first line—the “cleared contact approach” part—is the bare-minimum clearance. The rest—concerning altitude, routing, and alternative procedure—is optional, and invoked if weather conditions are such that ATC deems a contact approach may be impractical.

Here are some other ground rules for ATC to issue a contact approach:

  • The reported ground visibility at the destination airport must be at least one statute mile.
  • A standard or special instrument approach procedure must be established and operating at the destination.
  • ATC will provide separation services between other IFR or special VFR (SVFR) aircraft.

For vertical separation, ATC won’t assign a fixed altitude. Instead, controllers will clear the aircraft at or below an altitude that’s at least 1,000 feet below any IFR traffic—but not below the specified minimum safe altitude. (Helicopters are allowed to fly lower than the minimum safe altitude as long as there’s no hazard to persons or property on the ground.) There are a couple of positives in those prerequisites. An instrument approach is available in case things fall apart. On the other hand, if there’s a one-mile visibility, chances are that the weather is so lousy it could go lower than that. But you’re still on an IFR flight plan, so you can always throw in the towel and request a conventional approach. And yes, you’ll have separation from other traffic. But the route to the airport is up to you, and you could still find yourself flying at an uncomfortably low altitude, hemmed in by clouds and with limited slant-range visibility.

Contact approaches aren’t bad by definition. They can be useful shortcuts when visibilities are good and clouds are above VFR limits. One the other hand, they can be misused. They’re not meant as a chintzy way to fly IFR to an airport without shooting a conventional approach. Nor should they be used to descend below a cloud layer at the “destination,” then fly to a nearby airport and land without an approach procedure.

The airlines, charter operations, freight haulers, flight schools, and flying clubs look down on contact approaches. Virtually all instrument flight instructors warn against them. Unless the weather’s good and you know the lay of the land, you should too. When you’re flying at the hairy, low end of the contact approach envelope, dodging clouds and scanning the ground, you’re in a half-IFR, half-VFR world. Your attention is divided between the panel and what may be a waning view outside. Where is that McDonald’s, anyway?

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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