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.