A thorough instrument approach briefing greatly increases the likelihood of a successful instrument approach. Most Part 121, 125, and 135 operators designate specific items to be included in an IAP briefing, as well as the order in which those items are briefed.

Before an IAP briefing can begin, flight crews must decide which procedure is most likely to be flown from the information that is available to them. Most often, when the flight is being conducted into an airport that has ATIS information, the ATIS provides the pilots with the approaches that are in use. If more than one approach is in use, the flight crew may have to make an educated guess as to which approach will be issued to them based on the weather, direction of their arrival into the area, any published airport NOTAMs, and previous contact with the approach control facility. Aircrews can query ATC as to which approach is to be expected from the controller. Pilots may request specific approaches to meet the individual needs of their equipment or regulatory restrictions at any time and ATC will, in most cases, be able to accommodate those requests, providing that workload and traffic permit.

If the flight is operating into an airport without a control tower, the flight crew is occasionally given the choice of any available instrument approach at the field. In these cases, the flight crew must choose an appropriate approach based on the expected weather, aircraft performance, direction of arrival, airport NOTAMs, and previous experience at the airport.

Navigation and Communication Radios

Once the anticipated approach and runway have been selected, each crewmember sets up their side of the flight deck. The pilots use information gathered from ATIS, dispatch (if available), ATC, the specific approach chart for the approach selected, and any other sources that are available. Company regulations dictate how certain things are set up and others are left up to pilot technique. In general, the techniques used at most companies are similar. This section addresses two-pilot operations. During single-pilot IFR flights, the same items must be set up and the pilot should still do an approach briefing to verify that everything is set up correctly.

The number of items that can be set up ahead of time depends on the level of automation of the aircraft and the avionics available. In a conventional flight deck, the only things that can be set up, in general, are the airspeed bugs (based on performance calculations), altimeter bug (to DA, DH, or MDA), go around thrust/power setting, the radio altimeter bug (if installed and needed for the approach), and the navigation/communication radios (if a standby frequency selector is available). The standby side of the PF navigation radio should be set to the primary NAVAID for the approach and the PM navigation radio standby selector should be set to any other NAVAIDs that are required or available, and as dictated by company procedures, to add to the overall situational awareness of the crew. The ADF should also be tuned to an appropriate frequency as required by the approach, or as selected by the crew. Aircrews should, as much as possible, set up the instruments for best success in the event of a vacuum or electrical failure. For example, if the aircraft will only display Nav 1 on battery or emergency power, aircrews should ensure that Nav 1 is configured to the primary NAVAID for the final approach to be flown.

Flight Management System (FMS)

In addition to the items that are available on a conventional flight deck aircraft, glass flight deck aircraft, as well as aircraft with an approved RNAV (GPS) system, usually give the crew the ability to set the final approach course for the approach selected and many other options to increase situational awareness. Crews of FMS equipped aircraft have many options available as far as setting up the flight management computer (FMC), depending on the type of approach and company procedures. The PF usually programs the FMC for the approach and the PM verifies the information. A menu of available approaches is usually available to select from based on the destination airport programmed at the beginning of the flight or a new destination selected while en route.

The amount of information provided for the approach varies from aircraft to aircraft, but the crew can make modifications if something is not pre-programmed into the computer, such as adding a MAP or even building an entire approach for situational awareness purposes only. The PF can also program a VNAV profile for the descent and LNAV for segments that were not programmed during preflight, such as a standard terminal arrival route (STAR) or expected route to the planned approach. Any crossing restrictions for the STAR might need to be programmed as well. The most common crossing restrictions, whether mandatory or “to be expected,” are usually automatically programmed when the STAR is selected, but can be changed by ATC at any time. Other items that need to be set up are dictated by aircraft-specific procedures, such as autopilot, auto-throttles, auto-brakes, pressurization system, fuel system, seat belt signs, anti-icing/ deicing equipment, and igniters.

Autopilot Modes

In general, an autopilot can be used to fly approaches even if the FMC is inoperative (refer to the specific aircraft’s minimum equipment list (MEL) to determine authorization for operating with the FMC inoperative). Whether or not the FMC is available, use of the autopilot should be discussed during the approach briefing, especially regarding the use of the altitude pre-selector and auto-throttles, if equipped. The AFM for the specific aircraft outlines procedures and limitations required for the use of the autopilot during an instrument approach in that aircraft.

There are just as many different autopilot modes to climb or descend the aircraft, as there are terms for these modes. Some examples are level change (LVL CHG), vertical speed (V/S), VNAV, and takeoff/go around (TO/GA). The pilot controls the aircraft through the autopilot by selecting pitch modes and/or roll modes, as well as the associated auto-throttle modes. This panel, sometimes called a mode control panel, is normally accessible to both pilots. Most aircraft with sophisticated auto-flight systems and auto-throttles have the capability to select modes that climb with maximum climb thrust and descend with the throttles at idle (LVL CHG, flight level change (FL CHG), and manage level). They also have the capability to capture, or level off at pre-selected altitudes, as well as track a LOC and glideslope (G/S) or a VOR course. If the aircraft is RNAV-equipped, the autopilot also tracks the RNAV-generated course. Most of these modes are used at some point during an instrument approach using the autopilot. Additionally, these modes can be used to provide flight director (FD) guidance to the pilot while hand-flying the aircraft. For the purposes of this precision approach example, the auto-throttles are engaged when the autopilot is engaged and specific airspeed and configuration changes are not discussed. The PF controls airspeed with the speed selector on the mode control panel and calls for flaps and landing gear as needed, which the PM selects. The example in Figure begins with the airplane 5 NM northwest of KNUCK at 4,500 feet with the autopilot engaged, and the flight has been cleared to track the Rwy 12 LOC inbound. The current roll mode is LOC with the PF’s NAV radio tuned to the LOC frequency of 109.3; and the current pitch mode is altitude hold (ALT HOLD). Approach control clears the aircraft for the approach. The PF makes no immediate change to the autopilot mode to prevent the aircraft from capturing a false glideslope; but the PM resets the altitude selector to 1,700 feet. The aircraft remains level because the pitch mode remains in ALT HOLD until another pitch mode is selected. Upon reaching KNUCK, the PF selects LVL CHG as the pitch mode. The auto-throttles retard to idle as the airplane begins a descent. Approaching 1,700 feet, the pitch mode automatically changes to altitude acquire (ALT ACQ) then to ALT HOLD as the aircraft levels at 1,700 feet. In addition to slowing the aircraft and calling for configuration changes, the PF selects approach mode (APP). The roll mode continues to track the LOC and the pitch mode remains in ALT HOLD; however, the G/S mode arms. Selecting APP once the aircraft has leveled at the FAF altitude is a suggested technique to ensure that the aircraft captures the glideslope from below and that a false glideslope is not being tracked.

Instrument Approach Procedure (IAP) Briefing
Example approaches using autopilot
The PF should have the aircraft fully configured for landing before intercepting the glideslope to ensure a stabilized approach. As the aircraft intercepts the glideslope the pitch mode changes to G/S. Once the glideslope is captured by the autopilot, the PM can select the missed approach altitude in the altitude pre-selector, as requested by the PF. The aircraft continues to track the glideslope. The minimum altitude at which the PF is authorized to disconnect the autopilot is aircraft specific. For example, 50 feet below DA, DH, or MDA but not less than 50 feet AGL. The PF can disconnect the autopilot at any time prior to reaching this altitude during a CAT I approach. The initial missed approach is normally hand flown with FD guidance unless both autopilots are engaged for auto-land during a CAT II or III approach.

The differences when flying the underlying non-precision approach begin when the aircraft has leveled off at 1,700 feet. Once ALT HOLD is annunciated, the MDA is selected by the PM as requested by the PF. It is extremely important for both pilots to be absolutely sure that the correct altitude is selected for the MDA so that the aircraft does not inadvertently descend below the MDA. For aircraft that the altitude pre-selector can only select 100 foot increments, the MDA for this approach must be set at 700 feet instead of 660 feet.Vertical speed mode is used from the FAF inbound to allow for more precise control of the descent. If the pilots had not selected the MDA in the altitude pre-selector window, the PF would not be able to input a V/S and the aircraft would remain level. The autopilot mode changes from ALT ACQ to ALT HOLD as the aircraft levels at 700 feet. Once ALT HOLD is annunciated, the PF calls for the missed approach altitude of 5,000 feet to be selected in the altitude pre-selector window. This step is very important because accurate FD guidance is not available to the PF during a missed approach if the MDA is left in the window.

Note: See“Maximum Acceptable Descent Rates”under the heading “Descent Rates and Glide paths for Non-precision Approaches.”