Contact Approaches

Contact Approaches


Almost all IFR pilots are familiar with visual approaches and what the requirements are in order to fly a visual approach. As a refresher, the Instrument Procedures Handbook defines a Visual Approach as “an ATC authorization for an aircraft on an IFR flight plan to proceed visually to the airport of intended landing; it is not an [Instrument Approach Procedure]” (page 4-56).

For ATC to issue a Visual Approach, the pilot must have the airport or the traffic to follow in sight. Once the pilot reports the airport or the traffic in sight, ATC can clear the aircraft for a visual approach.

A limiting factor for a visual approach is ATC’s Minimum Vectoring Altitude. “This altitude, based on terrain and obstruction clearance, provides controllers with minimum altitudes to vector aircraft in and around a particular location” (Instrument Procedures Handbook page 1-42). ATC has to restrict aircraft to these MVAs, which can sometimes be quite high due to terrain or obstacles in the vicinity of the airport.

Every pilot has been in a situation with a high MVA that ATC can’t get them below, but it’s solidly MVFR or VFR at the destination airport. The MVA keeps the pilot in the clouds, so a visual approach isn’t possible since the pilot can’t see the airport or the traffic to follow. This can lead to extra time to go out and fly an approach.

Enter a Contact Approach. A Contact Approach is different then a Visual Approach. “The main differences between a visual approach and a contact approach are: a pilot must request a contact approach, while a visual approach may be assigned by ATC or requested by the pilot; and a contact approach may be approved with 1sm visibility if the flight can remain clear of clouds, while a visual approach requires the pilot to have the airport in sight, or a preceding aircraft to be followed, and the ceiling must be at least 1,000 feet AGL with at least 3sm visibility” [Instrument Procedures Handbook page 4-57].

Here’s the simplified explanation: A pilot does not have to have the airport in sight to request a contact approach. All that is required is for the airport to be reporting at least 1sm visibility and for the pilot to remain clear of clouds.

When would this be helpful for an IFR pilot? Good question. Here’s a scenario.

Pilot Smalls is about 20 minutes from his destination, which is an uncontrolled airport with only one approach to runway 17. He is approaching from the south and the initial approach fix for the approach to 17 is about 15 miles north of the airport. The airport is under Center control. When he has arrived at this destination in the past, Center usually could only vector him down to 4,000 AGL. He is very familiar with this airport and the surrounding area as he comes to this destination at least 2-3 times a month for business.

Pilot Smalls listens to the AWOS, which is reporting a 2500 foot scattered layer and 10 miles visibility. He knows it is right traffic for 17 since there is a 2,000 foot antenna on the east side of the field. There is some hilly terrain around, but all the terrain is well below pattern altitude and doesn’t cause a safety issue.

Looking out at the clouds, Pilot Smalls observes that the cloud layer is scattered to broken, but more scattered on the west side of the airport, with several large openings that he can see the ground through. Center asks for his approach request and Pilot Smalls requests a visual approach. Center gives him a descent to 4,000 AGL, their MVA for the area. They tell him to report the airport in sight for the visual approach.

At 4,000 AGL, Pilot Smalls is going through the scattered layer of clouds, but can see the ground in between the clouds and deems he has room to maneuver safely between the clouds and stay clear of them. He can’t see the airport, so a visual approach seems unlikely. He can’t cancel IFR because then he would have to keep the VFR cloud clearance and visibility requirements in Class E airspace (1,000 feet above, 500 below and 2sm horizontally), which isn’t possible in this case.

5 miles from the airport, ATC states, “N12345, I’m going to have to send you out for the approach since you don’t have the airport in sight.” Pilot Smalls then requests a Contact Approach. ATC clears him for the Contact Approach to his destination, so Pilot Smalls descends through a break in the clouds, remaining clear of clouds, until he gets below the base of the ceiling. He maneuvers onto the right downwind, lands and cancels IFR.

Contact approaches can be useful at controlled and uncontrolled airports. The first time you request one, do so with a higher ceiling and some room to maneuver to keep your safety margins. After you’ve done a few, you can determine what your personal minimums are for a Contact Approach.

I would not recommend doing a Contact Approach at an airport you are unfamiliar with. It’s vital to know what obstacles are around since on a Contact Approach, the pilot is now responsible for traffic avoidance and terrain avoidance, whereas on a visual approach, ATC resumes that responsibility.

For more reading on Contact Approaches and another good scenario, check out Bold Method’s article on Contact Approaches.

MMOPA Safety Stand Down Rescheduled for Online


April 18th, 2020 was supposed to mark the MMOPA Spring Safety Stand Down, an event held around the country for PA46 owners which counted toward the Master Aviator program. Sadly, due to the COVID-19 repercussions, the in person event had to be canceled.

Thankfully, due to modern technology, the event has been rescheduled to a nationwide webcast. The date for the Online MMOPA Safety Standdown in Saturday, August 8th. Joe Casey and Travis Holland will be hosting the MMOPA Safety Standdown.

The cost is free. To register, please click here.

2020 Texas Top Aviation Santa Fe Golf Fly In Rescheduled


The 2020 Texas Top Aviation Santa Fe Golf Fly In has been re-scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. The new date is September 3rd-5th at the Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder Resort and Towa Golf Club.

For more information on the event and to register, please click here.

FICON Reports


Field Condition, or FICON, reports show up in NOTAMs both during the summer time and the winter time. In the southern states, FICON reports are seen more in the summertime during and after hard rains and thunderstorms. In northern states, FICON reports are seen during the winter time during and after snow storms.

The question is, what do those codes mean in the FICON report? You could see 5/5/5, 3/3/3, 3/4/4 and any combination thereof. And why are there three numbers?

Let’s start with the second question first. The three different numbers in the FICON report indicate the 3 different sections of the runway: the touchdown third, midpoint third, and rollout third of the runway.

Now, what are those numbers describing? The three numbers are the indication of how slippery that portion of the runway is. This is referred to as a Runway Condition Code (or RCC). The lower the number, the more slippery the runway is. The higher the number, the dryer the runway. The scale is 0-6, with 6 being completely dry and zero being no traction at all.

Here is the FAA table for the RCCs.

Now, in order for those RCC codes to generate, at least 25% of the surface must be wet. If there are just spots of standing water, slush or snow, a FICON report will be issued to report the contaminants, but no codes will be generated.

The Runway Condition Codes are only part of a FICON report. In addition to the codes, a descriptor in the NOTAM will be published describing what percentage of the portion of the runway is affected and by what.


Deciphered, that is saying that all sections of Runway 28 has braking deceleration that is noticeably reduced or direction control is noticeably reduced and 100% of each section has 2 inches of dry snow over compacted snow. Sounds like a runway to avoid!

Braking action reports are separate from FICON reports, but also issued via NOTAM. Braking action reports are issued by the airport manager whereas the FICON reports are computer generated.

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