Arrivals (Part Five)

Interpreting the STAR

STARs use much of the same symbology as departure and approach charts. In fact, a STAR may at first appear identical to a similar graphic DP, except the direction of flight is reversed and the procedure ends at a fix. The STAR arrival route, also called the basic STAR procedure or the common route or common point, begins at the common NAVAID, intersection, or fix where all the various (en route) transitions to the arrival come together. A STAR en route transition is a published segment used to connect one or more en route airways, jet routes, or RNAV routes to the basic STAR procedure. It is one of several routes that bring traffic from different directions into one STAR. This way, arrivals from several directions can be accommodated on the same chart, and traffic flow is routed appropriately within the congested airspace.


To illustrate how STARs can be used to simplify a complex clearance and reduce frequency congestion, consider the following arrival clearance issued to a pilot flying to Seattle, Washington, depicted in Figure 3-11: “Cessna 32G, cleared to the Seattle/Tacoma International Airport as filed. Maintain 12,000. At the Ephrata VOR, intercept the 221° radial to CHINS Intersection. Intercept the 284° radial of the Yakima VOR to RADDY Intersection. Cross RADDY at 10,000. Continue via the Yakima 284° radial to AUBRN Intersection. Expect radar vectors to the final approach course.”

Figure 3-11. STAR interpretation.

Figure 3-11. STAR interpretation. [click image to enlarge]

Now consider how this same clearance is issued when a STAR exists for this terminal area. “Cessna 32G, cleared to Seattle/Tacoma International Airport as filed, then CHINS EIGHT ARRIVAL, Ephrata Transition. Maintain 10,000 feet.” A shorter transmission conveys the same information.


Safety is enhanced when both pilots and controllers know what to expect. Effective communication increases with the reduction of repetitive clearances, decreasing congestion on control frequencies. To accomplish this, STARs are developed according to the following criteria:

  • STARs must be simple, easily understood and, if possible, limited to one page.
  • A STAR transition should be able to accommodate as many different types of aircraft as possible.
  • VHF Omnidirectional Range/Tactical Aircraft Control (VORTACs) are used wherever possible, with some exceptions on RNAV STARs, so that military and civilian aircraft can use the same arrival.
  • DME arcs within a STAR should be avoided since not all aircraft operating under IFR are equipped to navigate them.
  • Altitude crossing and airspeed restrictions are included when they are assigned by ATC a majority of the time. [Figure 3-12]

Figure 3-12. Reducing pilot/controlling workload.

Figure 3-12. Reducing pilot/controlling workload. [click image to enlarge]

STARs usually are named according to the point at which the procedure begins. In the United States, typically there are en route transitions before the STAR itself. So the STAR name is usually the same as the last fix on the en route transitions where they come together to begin the basic STAR procedure. A STAR that commences at the CHINS Intersection becomes the CHINS SEVEN ARRIVAL. When a significant portion of the arrival is revised, such as an altitude, a route, or data concerning the NAVAID, the number of the arrival changes. For example, the CHINS SEVEN ARRIVAL is now the CHINS EIGHT ARRIVAL due to modifications in the procedure.


Studying the STARs for an airport may allow pilots to perceive the specific topography of the area. Note the initial fixes and where they correspond to fixes on the Aeronautical Information Services en route or area chart. Arrivals may incorporate step-down fixes when necessary to keep aircraft within airspace boundaries or for obstacle clearance. Routes between fixes contain courses, distances, and minimum altitudes, alerting aircrews to possible obstructions or terrain under their arrival path. Airspeed restrictions also appear where they aid in managing the traffic flow. In addition, some STARs require that pilots use DME and/or ATC radar. Aircrews can decode the symbology on the PAWLING TWO ARRIVAL by referring to the legend at the beginning of the TPP. [Figure 3-13]

Figure 3-13. STAR symbology.

Figure 3-13. STAR symbology. [click image to enlarge]

STAR Procedures

Pilots may accept a STAR within a clearance or they may file for one in their flight plan. As the aircraft nears its destination airport, ATC may add a STAR procedure to its original clearance. Keep in mind that ATC can assign a STAR even if the aircrew has not requested one. Use of a STAR requires pilot possession of at least the approved chart. RNAV STARs must be retrievable by the procedure name from the aircraft database and conform to charted procedure. If an aircrew does not want to use a STAR, they must specify “No STAR” in the remarks section of their flight plan. Pilots may also refuse the STAR when it is given to them verbally by ATC, but the system works better if the aircrew advises ATC ahead of time.


Preparing for the Arrival

As mentioned before, STARs include navigation fixes that are used to provide transition and arrival routes from the en route structure to the final approach course. They also may lead to a fix where radar vectors are provided to intercept the final approach course. Pilots may have noticed that minimum crossing altitudes and airspeed restrictions appear on some STARs. These expected altitudes and airspeeds are not part of the clearance until ATC includes them verbally. A STAR is simply a published routing; it does not have the force of a clearance until issued specifically by ATC. For example, minimum en route altitude (MEAs) printed on STARs are not valid unless stated within an ATC clearance or in cases of lost communication. After receiving the arrival clearance, the aircrew should review the assigned STAR procedure and ensure the FMS has the appropriate procedure loaded (if so equipped). Obtain the airport and weather information as early as practical. It is recommended that pilots have this information prior to flying the STAR. If you are landing at an airport with approach control services that has two or more published instrument approach procedures, you will receive advance notice of which instrument approaches to expect. This information is broadcast either by ATIS or by a controller. [Figure 3-14] It may not be provided when the visibility is 3 SM or better and the ceiling is at or above the highest initial approach altitude established for any instrument approach procedure for the airport.

Figure 3-14. Arrival clearance.

Figure 3-14. Arrival clearance. [click image to enlarge]

For STAR procedures charted with radar vectors to the final approach, look for routes from the STAR terminating fixes to the IAF. If no route is depicted, you should have a predetermined plan of action to fly from the STAR terminating fix to the IAF in the event of a communication failure.