Approaches (Part One)

Approach Planning

Depending on speed of the aircraft, availability of weather information, and the complexity of the approach procedure or special terrain avoidance procedures for the airport of intended landing, the in-flight planning phase of an instrument approach can begin as far as 100-200 NM from the destination. Some of the approach planning should be accomplished during preflight. In general, there are five steps that most operators incorporate into their flight standards manuals for the in-flight planning phase of an instrument approach:

  • Gathering weather information, field conditions, and Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) for the airport of intended landing.
  • Calculation of performance data, approach speeds, and thrust/power settings.
  • Flight deck navigation/communication and automation setup.
  • Instrument approach procedure (IAP) review and, for flight crews, IAP briefing.
  • Operational review and, for flight crews, operational briefing.

Although often modified to suit each individual operator, these five steps form the basic framework for the in-flight planning phase of an instrument approach. The extent of detail that a given operator includes in their SOPs varies from one operator to another; some may designate which pilot performs each of the above actions, the sequence, and the manner in which each action is performed. Others may leave much of the detail up to individual flight crews and only designate which tasks should be performed prior to commencing an approach. Flight crews of all levels, from single-pilot to multi-crewmember Part 91 operators, can benefit from the experience of commercial operators in developing techniques to fly standard instrument approach procedures (SIAPs).

Determining the suitability of a specific IAP can be a very complex task, since there are many factors that can limit the usability of a particular approach. There are several questions that pilots need to answer during preflight planning and prior to commencing an approach. Is the approach procedure authorized for the company, if Part 91, subpart K, 121, 125, or 135? Is the weather appropriate for the approach? Is the aircraft currently at a weight that will allow it the necessary performance for the approach and landing or go around/ missed approach? Is the aircraft properly equipped for the approach? Is the flight crew qualified and current for the approach? Many of these types of issues must be considered during preflight planning and within the framework of each specific air carrier’s OpSpecs, or Part 91.

Weather Considerations

Weather conditions at the field of intended landing dictate whether flight crews need to plan for an instrument approach and, in many cases, determine which approaches can be used, or if an approach can even be attempted. The gathering of weather information should be one of the first steps taken during the approach-planning phase. Although there are many possible types of weather information, the primary concerns for approach decision-making are windspeed, wind direction, ceiling, visibility, altimeter setting, temperature, and field conditions. It is also a good idea to check NOTAMs at this time, in case there were any changes since preflight planning.

Windspeed and direction are factors because they often limit the type of approach that can be flown at a specific location. This typically is not a factor at airports with multiple precision approaches, but at airports with only a few or one approach procedure, the wrong combination of wind and visibility can make all instrument approaches at an airport unavailable. Pilots must be prepared to execute other available approaches, not just the one that they may have planned for. As an example, consider the available approaches at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (KEAU) in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. [Figure 4-1] In the event that the visibility is reported as less than one mile, the only useable approaches for Category C aircraft is the Instrument Landing System (ILS) and Lateral navigation (LNAV)/vertical navigation (VNAV) to Runway 22. This leaves very few options for flight crews if the wind does not favor Runway 22; and, in cases where the wind restricts a landing on that runway altogether, even a circling approach cannot be flown because of the visibility.

Figure 4-1. Chippewa Regional Airport (KEAU), Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Figure 4-1. Chippewa Regional Airport (KEAU), Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Weather Sources

Most of the weather information that flight crews receive is issued to them prior to the start of each flight segment, but the weather used for in-flight planning and execution of an instrument approach is normally obtained en route via government sources, company frequency, or Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).


Air carriers and operators certificated under the provisions of Part 119 (Certification: Air Carriers and Commercial Operators) are required to use the aeronautical weather information systems defined in the OpSpecs issued to that certificate holder by the FAA. These systems may use basic FAA/National Weather Service (NWS) weather services, contractor or operator-proprietary weather services, and/or Enhanced Weather Information System (EWINS) when approved in the OpSpecs. As an integral part of EWINS approval, the procedures for collecting, producing, and disseminating aeronautical weather information, as well as the crewmember and dispatcher training to support the use of system weather products, must be accepted or approved.

Operators not certificated under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 119 are encouraged to use FAA/NWS products through the Flight Service Stations (FSS). FSS provide pilot weather briefings, en route weather, receive and process instrument flight rule (IFR) and visual flight rule (VFR) flight plans, relay air traffic control (ATC) clearances, and issue NOTAMs. They also provide assistance to lost aircraft and aircraft in emergency situations and conduct VFR search and rescue services.

Direct User Access Terminal System (DUATS), funded by the FAA, allows any pilot to access weather information and file a flight plan via computer. Two contract vendors currently provide information services within the DUATS system, and can be accessed via the Internet at or The current vendors of DUATS II service and the associated phone numbers are listed in Chapter 7 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).

Flight Information Service—Broadcast (FIS-B) provides certain aviation weather and other aeronautical information to aircraft equipped with an appropriate flight deck display. Reception of FIS-B services can be expected within a ground station coverage volume when line-of-sight geometry is maintained between the aircraft and ground station. National Airspace System (NAS) wide service availability was targeted for 2013 and is currently available within certain regions. FIS-B provides the following textual and graphical aviation weather and aeronautical products free-of-charge. A detailed description of these products can be found in the AIM.

  • Aviation Digital Data Services (ADDS) provides the aviation community with text, digital and graphical forecasts, analyses, and observations of aviation related weather variables. ADDS is a joint effort of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Research Applications Laboratory (RAL), and the Aviation Weather Center (AWC).
  • Hazardous In-flight Weather Advisory Service (HIWAS) is a national program for broadcasting hazardous weather information continuously over selected navigation aids (NAVAIDs). The broadcasts include advisories such as Airman’s Meteorological Information (AIRMETs), Significant Meteorological Information (SIGMETs), convective SIGMETs, and urgent pilot weather reports (PIREPs/UUA). These broadcasts are only a summary of the information, and pilots should contact an FSS for detailed information.
  • Telephone Information Briefing Service (TIBS) is a service prepared and disseminated by Flight Service. It provides continuous telephone recordings of meteorological and aeronautical information. Specifically, TIBS provides area and route briefings, as well as airspace procedures and special announcements, if applicable. It is designed to be a preliminary briefing tool and is not intended to replace a standard briefing from a flight service specialist. The TIBS service is available 24 hours a day and is updated when conditions change, but it can only be accessed by a touch tone phone. The phone numbers for the TIBS service are listed in the Chart Supplement, formerly the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD). TIBS should also contain, but is not limited to: surface observations, terminal aerodrome forecast (TAFs), and winds/temperatures aloft forecasts.

The suite of available aviation weather product types is expanding with the development of new sensor systems, algorithms, and forecast models. The FAA and NWS, supported by the NCAR and the NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory (FSL), develop and implement new aviation weather product types through a comprehensive process known as the Aviation Weather Technology Transfer process. This process ensures that user needs and technical and operational readiness requirements are met as experimental product types mature to operational application.

The development of enhanced communications capabilities, most notably the internet, has allowed pilots access to an increasing range of weather service providers and proprietary products. It is not the intent of the FAA to limit operator use of this weather information. However, pilots and operators should be aware that weather services provided by entities other than the FAA, NWS, or their contractors (such as the DUATS and flight information services data link (FISDL) providers) may not meet FAA/ NWS quality control standards.