The communication strip provided near the top of FAA approach charts gives flight crews the frequencies that they can expect to be assigned during the approach. The frequencies are listed in the logical order of use from arrival to touchdown. Having this information immediately available during the approach reduces the chances of a loss of contact between ATC and flight crews during this critical phase of flight.

It is important for flight crews to understand their responsibilities with regard to communications in the various approach environments. There are numerous differences in communication responsibilities when operating into and out of airports without ATC towers as compared to airports with control towers. Today’s pilots face an increasing range of ATC environments and conflicting traffic dangers, making approach briefing and preplanning more critical. Individual company operating manuals and SOPs dictate the duties for each crewmember.

FAA AC 120-71, Standard Operating Procedures for Flight Deck Crewmembers, contains the following concerning ATC communications: SOPs should state who (Pilot Flying (PF), Pilot Monitoring (PM), Flight Engineer (FE/SO)) handles the radios for each phase of flight, as follows:

  • PF makes input to aircraft/autopilot and/or verbally states clearances while PM confirms input is what he or she read back to ATC.
  • Any confusion in the flight deck is immediately cleared up by requesting ATC confirmation.
  • If any crewmember is off the flight deck, all ATC instructions are briefed upon his or her return. Or, if any crewmember is off the flight deck, all ATC instructions are written down until his or her return and then passed to that crewmember upon return. Similarly, if a crewmember is off ATC frequency when making a precision approach (PA) announcement or when talking on company frequency, all ATC instructions are briefed upon his or her return.
  • Company policy should address use of speakers, headsets, boom microphone, and/or hand-held microphone.
  • SOPs should state the altitude awareness company policy on confirming assigned altitude.

Example: The PM acknowledges ATC altitude clearance. If the aircraft is on the autopilot, then the PF makes input into the autopilot/altitude alerter. PF points to the input while stating the assigned altitude as he or she understands it. The PM then points to the input stating aloud what he or she understands the ATC clearance to be confirming that the input and clearance match. If the aircraft is being hand-flown, then the PM makes the input into the altitude alerter/ autopilot, then points to the input and states clearance. PF then points to the alerter stating aloud what he or she understands the ATC clearance to be confirming that the alerter and clearance match.

Example: If there is no altitude alerter in the aircraft, then both pilots write down the clearance, confirm that they have the same altitude, and then cross off the previously assigned altitude.

Approach Control

Approach control is responsible for controlling all instrument flights operating within its area of responsibility. Approach control may serve one or more airports. Control is exercised primarily through direct pilot and controller communication and airport surveillance radar (ASR). Prior to arriving at the initial approach fix (IAF), instructions will be received from the air route traffic control center (ARTCC) to contact approach control on a specified frequency. Where radar is approved for approach control service, it is used not only for radar approaches, but also for vectors in conjunction with published non-radar approaches using conventional NAVAIDs or RNAV/GPS.

When radar handoffs are initiated between the ARTCC and approach control, or between two approach control facilities, aircraft are cleared (with vertical separation) to an outer fix most appropriate to the route being flown and, if required, given holding instructions. Or, aircraft are cleared to the airport or to a fix so located that the handoff is completed prior to the time the aircraft reaches the fix. When radar handoffs are used, successive arriving flights may be handed off to approach control with radar separation in lieu of vertical separation.

After release to approach control, aircraft are vectored to the final approach course. ATC occasionally vectors the aircraft across the final approach course for spacing requirements. The pilot is not expected to turn inbound on the final approach course unless an approach clearance has been issued. This clearance is normally issued with the final vector for interception of the final approach course, and the vector enables the pilot to establish the aircraft on the final approach course prior to reaching the FAF.

Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC)

ARTCCs are approved for and may provide approach control services to specific airports. The radar systems used by these centers do not provide the same precision as an ASR or precision approach radar (PAR) used by approach control facilities and control towers, and the update rate is not as fast. Therefore, pilots may be requested to report established on the final approach course. Whether aircraft are vectored to the appropriate final approach course or provide their own navigation on published routes to it, radar service is automatically terminated when the landing is completed; or when instructed to change to advisory frequency at airports without an operating ATC tower, whichever occurs first. When arriving on an IFR flight plan at an airport with an operating control tower, the flight plan is closed automatically upon landing.

The extent of services provided by approach control varies greatly from location to location. The majority of Part 121 operations in the NAS use airports that have radar service and approach control facilities to assist in the safe arrival and departure of large numbers of aircraft. Many airports do not have approach control facilities. It is important for pilots to understand the differences between approaches with and without an approach control facility. For example, consider the Durango, Colorado, ILS DME RWY 2 and low altitude en route chart excerpt shown in Figure.

Communications during Aircraft Instrument Approaches
Durango approach and low altitude en route excerpt

High or Lack of Minimum Vectoring Altitudes (MVAs)

Considering the fact that most modern commercial and corporate aircraft are capable of direct, point-to-point flight, it is increasingly important for pilots to understand the limitations of ARTCC capabilities with regard to minimum altitudes. There are many airports that are below the coverage area of Center radar, and; therefore, off-route transitions into the approach environment may require that the aircraft be flown at a higher altitude than would be required for an on-route transition. In the Durango example, an airplane approaching from the northeast on a direct route to the Durango VOR may be restricted to a minimum IFR altitude (MIA) of 17,000 feet MSL due to unavailability of Center radar coverage in that area at lower altitudes. An arrival on V95 from the northeast would be able to descend to a minimum en route altitude (MEA) of 12,000 feet, allowing a shallower transition to the approach environment. An off-route arrival may necessitate a descent into holding in order to avoid an unstable approach to Durango.

Lack of Approach Control Terrain Advisories

Flight crews must understand that terrain clearance cannot be assured by ATC when aircraft are operating at altitudes that are not served by Center or approach radar. Recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigations have identified several accidents that involved controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) by IFR rated and VFR pilots operating under visual flight conditions at night in remote areas. In many of these cases, the pilots were in contact with ATC at the time of the accident and receiving radar service. The pilots and controllers involved all appear to have been unaware that the aircraft were in danger. Increased altitude awareness and better preflight planning would likely have prevented all of these accidents. How can pilots avoid becoming involved in a CFIT accident?

CFIT accidents are best avoided through proper preflight planning.

  • Terrain familiarization is critical to safe visual operations at night. Use sectional charts or other topographic references to ensure that your altitude safely clears terrain and obstructions all along your route.
  • In remote areas, especially in overcast or moonless conditions, be aware that darkness may render visual avoidance of high terrain nearly impossible and that the absence of ground lights may result in loss of horizon reference.
  • When planning a nighttime VFR flight, follow IFR practices, such as climbing on a known safe course, until well above surrounding terrain. Choose a cruising altitude that provides terrain separation similar to IFR flights (2,000 feet AGL in mountainous areas and 1,000 feet above the ground in other areas.)
  • When receiving radar services, do not depend on ATC to warn you of terrain hazards. Although controllers try to warn pilots if they notice a hazardous situation, they may not always be able to recognize that a particular VFR aircraft is dangerously close to terrain.
  • When issued a heading along with an instruction to “maintain VFR,” be aware that the heading may not provide adequate terrain clearance. If you have any doubt about your ability to visually avoid terrain and obstacles, advise ATC immediately and take action to reach a safe altitude if necessary.
  • ATC radar software can provide limited prediction and warning of terrain hazards, but the warning system is configured to protect IFR flights and is normally suppressed for VFR aircraft. Controllers can activate the warning system for VFR flights upon pilot request, but it may produce numerous false alarms for aircraft operating below the MIA, especially in en route center airspace.
  • If you fly at night, especially in remote or unlit areas, consider whether a GPS-based terrain awareness unit would improve your safety of flight.
  • Lack of approach control traffic advisories—if radar service is not available for the approach, the ability of ATC to give flight crews accurate traffic advisories is greatly diminished. In some cases, the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) may be the only tool available to enhance an IFR flight’s awareness of traffic at the destination airport. Additionally, ATC will not clear an IFR flight for an approach until the preceding aircraft on the approach has cancelled IFR, either on the ground, or airborne once in visual meteorological conditions (VMC).

Airports With an ATC Tower

Control towers are responsible for the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of all traffic that is landing, taking off, operating on and in the vicinity of an airport and, when the responsibility has been delegated, towers also provide for the separation of IFR aircraft in terminal areas. Aircraft that are departing IFR are integrated into the departure sequence by the tower. Prior to takeoff, the tower controller coordinates with departure control to assure adequate aircraft spacing.

Airports Without A Control Tower

From a communications standpoint, executing an instrument approach to an airport that is not served by an ATC tower requires more attention and care than making a visual approach to that airport. Pilots are expected to self-announce their arrival into the vicinity of the airport no later than 10 NM from the field. Depending on the weather, as well as the amount and type of conflicting traffic that exists in the area, an approach to an airport without an operating ATC tower increases the difficulty of the transition to visual flight.

In many cases, a flight arriving via an instrument approach needs to mix in with VFR traffic operating in the vicinity of the field. For this reason, many companies require that flight crews make contact with the arrival airport CTAF or company operations personnel via a secondary radio over 25 NM from the field in order to receive traffic advisories. In addition, pilots should attempt to listen to the CTAF well in advance of their arrival in order to determine the VFR traffic situation.

Since separation cannot be provided by ATC between IFR and VFR traffic when operating in areas where there is no radar coverage, pilots are expected to make radio announcements on the CTAF. These announcements allow other aircraft operating in the vicinity to plan their departures and arrivals with a minimum of conflicts. In addition, it is very important for crews to maintain a listening watch on the CTAF to increase their awareness of the current traffic situation. Flights inbound on an instrument approach to a field without a control tower should make several self-announced radio calls during the approach:

  • Initial call within 4-10 minutes of the aircraft’s arrival at the IAF. This call should give the aircraft’s location as well as the crew’s approach intentions.
  • Departing the IAF, stating the approach that is being initiated.
  • Procedure turn (or equivalent) inbound.
  • FAF inbound, stating intended landing runway and maneuvering direction if circling.
  • Short final, giving traffic on the surface notification of imminent landing.

When operating on an IFR flight plan at an airport without a functioning control tower, pilots must initiate cancellation of the IFR flight plan with ATC or an AFSS. Remote communications outlets (RCOs) or ground communications outlets (GCOs), if available, can be used to contact an ARTCC or an AFSS after landing. If a frequency is not available on the ground, the pilot has the option to cancel IFR while in flight if VFR conditions can be maintained while in contact with ARTCC, as long as those conditions can be maintained until landing. Additionally, pilots can relay a message through another aircraft or contact flight service via telephone.