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Visual Approaches Vs Contact Approaches

| June 24, 2021 | By: Severe VFR
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Visual and Contact approaches are two types of approaches that allow a pilot to perform an approach visually while under an IFR clearance.

While similar in nature, a pilot should be knowledgeable of the requirements, advantages, drawbacks, expectations, and differences between the Visual and Contact approach.

The Visual Approach

visual approach is an approach authorized by ATC for an aircraft on an IFR flight plan to proceed visually and clear of clouds to an airport of intended landing. 

Most IFR flights will end with a visual approach due to the visual approach's ability to increase traffic flow, save on time, fuel, and promote more efficient airspace use than an instrument approach.

However, some pilots of larger jets state that a visual approach is more demanding than an instrument approach. This is because while performing a visual approach, there are no indications in the cockpit, such as the localizer and glideslope, to guide the pilot. Therefore, to increase operational safety, some airlines require their pilots to have a traditional instrument approach programmed and briefed while performing a visual approach for a runway of intended landing.

Vectors For The Visual Approach

A controller may initiate vectors for a visual approach if the reported ceiling at the airport of intended landing is at least 500ft above the Minimum Vectoring Altitude / Minimum IFR Altitude with a visibility of at least 3 miles.

Unlike a contact approach, a visual approach may be initiated by both the controller and the pilot. If the controller initiates a visual approach and it is not desired, the pilot should advise ATC of the request to perform a different type of approach. 

If the airport of intended landing does not have weather reporting capabilities, the controller must inform the pilot that weather information is not available. In this case, the controller must establish reasonable assurance that the descent and flight to the airport can be made under visual conditions before initiating vectors for a visual approach. 

The controller can determine reasonable assurance through area weather reports, PIREPs, and similar weather products. Reasonable assurance is also implied when the pilot requests a visual approach, implying that the descent and flight to the airport can be made visually and clear of clouds. Upon pilot request, the controller may advise the pilot of a nearby AWOS/ASOS frequency to receive weather information. 

When being issued vectors for a visual approach, the controller will use the following phraseology:


(If appropriate) 


Clearance For A Visual Approach

While a vector for a visual approach may be initiate when the reported ceiling at the airport is 500ft or more above the MVA/MIA with visibility of at least 3 miles, clearance for a visual approach can only be granted if the reported weather at the airport is 3 miles or greater, with a ceiling at or above 1,000ft, or a reasonable assurance is made.

In areas where MVA's are not available, visual approaches are still allowed if the weather at the airport has a ceiling at or above 1,000ft and a visibility of 3 miles or greater.  

To be cleared for a visual approach, the pilot must report either

  • The airport or runway in sight at airports with operating control towers; or
  • The airport in sight at airports without a control tower.

If the pilot is requested to report the destination airport in sight, or during instances where airports are located within close proximity of one another, the controller may provide the airport's location in relation to the aircraft to reduce pilot confusion. 

Cessna Five Six November, Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport is at 12 o'clock, 5 miles.

Additionally, an aircraft may only be cleared for a visual approach when:

  • The aircraft is number one in the approach sequence, or
  • The aircraft follows a preceding aircraft at locations with an operating control tower, and the pilot reports the aircraft ahead in sight. (A pilot does not need to report the airport in sight while following another aircraft)
  • At locations with an operating control tower, the pilot reports the airport or runway in sight but not the preceding aircraft. In this case, radar separation must be maintained until the preceding aircraft is reported in sight and visual separation is provided. 

Note: Visual separation is not allowed when the leading aircraft is categorized as a super in regards to wake turbulence. 

Controllers will advise pilots operating under a visual approach clearance the speed at which they are overtaking another aircraft and the distance to the aircraft ahead of them. Controllers must also advise all aircraft following a heavy, or a small aircraft following a B757, of the airplane manufacture and/or model. 

The following phraseology is used when a controller issues a visual approach: 

Call sign) (control instructions as required) CLEARED VISUAL APPROACH RUNWAY (number);or

(Call sign) (control instructions as required) CLEARED VISUAL APPROACH TO (airport name)

(and if appropriate)



Once cleared for a visual approach, it is the pilot's responsibility to proceed to the airport in a normal manner or follow a preceding aircraft while remaining clear of clouds. If the pilot is following another aircraft, the pilot must establish a safe landing interval behind the leading aircraft and is responsible for maintaining wake turbulence separation. 

The pilot should advise ATC immediately if they are unable to continue following the preceding aircraft, cannot remain clear of clouds, needs to climb, or loses sight of the airport. 

Pilots should also be aware that radar service is terminated automatically upon being instructed to change to advisory frequency even if not advised by ATC, and that there may be other traffic in the traffic pattern, or the landing sequence may differ from the traffic sequence assigned by a center or approach controller. 

Performing A Go-Around During A Visual Approach

While an aircraft is still considered on an IFR flight plan while performing a visual approach, a visual approach is not a standard instrument approach procedure. Therefore the biggest drawback of a visual approach is that it does not have any missed approach segment or missed approach instructions should a missed approach occur. Additionally, the pilot must also remain clear of clouds during a go-around since a visual approach has no missed approach segment. 

If an aircraft cannot complete a landing from a visual approach, they are treated as any other go-around traffic, with appropriate IFR separation provided until the aircraft lands or the pilot cancels their IFR flight plan. 

At airports with an operating control tower, pilots that perform a go-around may be requested by the controller to enter the traffic pattern to return for landing. In this case, the pilot is expected to climb to pattern altitude and is required to maintain terrain and obstruction clearance. An altitude assignment may not be given in this case. However, the controller will still be required to maintain the required separation from other traffic. 

Compliance With Regulations

In the past, there have been several instances of pilots accepting and flying a visual approach in marginal conditions. To receive the clearance, the pilot must have either the airport or lead aircraft in sight, and a ceiling of at least 1,000ft, and a visibility of 3 miles or greater. It is of the utmost importance that a pilot understands that a visual approach allows a pilot flying under IFR to proceed visually to an airport while remaining clear of clouds. Even a thin scattered or isolated layer could prevent a pilot from remaining clear of clouds, even more so during a go-around. 

Additionally, even though the pilot is proceeding visually, a visual approach is considered an IFR procedure, and the pilot must comply with all applicable IFR rules. If the pilot wishes to fly under VFR after receiving clearance for the Visual Approach, it is the pilot's responsibility to notify ATC and cancel the IFR flight plan.

The Contact Approach

contact approach is an approach procedure that may be used by a pilot (with prior authorization from ATC) in lieu of conducting a standard or special instrument approach procedure to an airport. 

Contact approaches inherently pose a greater operational risk (similar to a Special VFR clearance) and are useful for specific circumstances but should not be considered the main plan of action. 

Contact approaches are not intended for use by a pilot on an IFR flight clearance to operate to an airport without a published or functional instrument approach procedure. 

They are also not intended for an aircraft to fly an instrument approach to one airport and then, when "in the clear," discontinue that approach and proceed to another airport. 

Requirements For A Contact Approach

For a pilot to conduct a Contact Approach, the following requirements must be met:

  • The pilot specifically requested a Contact Approach
  • The reported ground visibility is at least one statute mile
  • Remain clear of clouds
  • The pilot has visual reference to the surface
  • There is a reasonable expectation that a contact approach can be made to the destination airport in current conditions
  • A standard or special instrument approach procedure has been published and is functioning for the airport of intended landing
  • Approved separation is applied between aircraft conducting a Contact Approach and other IFR or SVFR aircraft. 
  • An alternative clearance is issued if weather conditions may make a contact approach impracticable.

Pilot Responsibilities During A Contact Approach

The first responsibility during a Contact Approach is understanding the risks associated with a contact approach. The FAA does not allow controllers to offer or solicit the use of a Contact Approach voluntarily. Therefore, when a pilot requests a Contact Approach, it is implied that the pilot understands the requirements, risks, and expectations of a Contact Approach. Controllers are also allowed to deny any request to perform a Contact Approach at any time. 

By requesting a contact approach, the pilot indicates that the flight is operating clear of clouds, has at least one-mile flight visibility, and reasonably expects to continue to the destination airport in those conditions.

While performing a contact approach, the pilot assumes the responsibility for instruction clearance while conducting a contact approach. Pilots may find it necessary to descend, climb, or fly a circuitous route to the airport to maintain cloud clearance and terrain/obstruction clearance. 

Pilots should be aware that radar services may be automatically terminated upon contacting the tower and automatically terminated when the pilot is instructed to change to an advisory frequency. 

Pilots also must advise ATC immediately if they cannot continue the contact approach or if they encounter a flight visibility of less than 1 mile. It should be noted that there are no published missed instructions for a Contact Approach. Pilots should be highly aware of this and only request a contact approach if they are highly certain the approach can be completed. 

Controller Responsibilities During A Contact Approach

Controllers may only issue a contact approach when requested by the pilot. They can not solicit or voluntarily offer a contact approach to a pilot. 

Controllers should verify that the reported ground visibility at the destination airport is at least 1 mile and should provide approved separation between an aircraft performing a contact approach and other IFR or Special VFR aircraft. 

Controllers may not assign a fixed altitude to perform a contact approach. Instead, a controller will clear an aircraft at or below an altitude at least 1,000ft below any IFR traffic but not below the Minimum Safe Altitudes listed in 14 CFR part 91.119. 

If the controller makes a judgment that the current weather conditions may make a contact approach impracticable, they may deny the request for the contact approach or may issue alternative instructions to the pilot. 

A controller will issue a Contact Approach with the following phraseology: 


And if required,

AT OR BELOW (altitude) (routing).

IF NOT POSSIBLE, (alternative procedures), AND ADVISE. 


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