Arrivals (Part One)

Navigation in the Arrival Environment

The most significant and demanding navigational requirement is the need to safely separate aircraft. In a non-radar environment, ATC does not have an independent means to separate air traffic and must depend entirely on information relayed from flight crews to determine the actual geographic position and altitude. In this situation, precise navigation is critical to ATC’s ability to provide separation.


Even in a radar environment, precise navigation and position reports, when required, are still a primary means of providing separation. In most situations, ATC does not have the capability or the responsibility for navigating an aircraft. Because they rely on precise navigation by the flight crew, flight safety in all IFR operations depends directly on the pilot’s ability to achieve and maintain certain levels of navigational performance. ATC uses radar to monitor navigational performance, detect possible navigational errors, and expedite traffic flow. In a non-radar environment, ATC has no independent knowledge of the actual position of the aircraft or its relationship to other aircraft in adjacent airspace. Therefore, ATC’s ability to detect a navigational error and resolve collision hazards is seriously degraded when a deviation from a clearance occurs.

The concept of navigation performance, previously discussed in this book, involves the precision that must be maintained for both the assigned route and altitude. Required levels of navigation performance vary from area to area depending on traffic density and complexity of the routes flown. The level of navigation performance must be more precise in domestic airspace than in oceanic and remote land areas since air traffic density in domestic airspace is much greater. For example, there are three million flight operations conducted within Chicago Center’s airspace each year. The minimum lateral distance permitted between co-altitude aircraft in Chicago Center’s airspace is eight nautical miles (NM) (3 NM when radar is used). The route ATC assigns an aircraft has protected airspace on both sides of the centerline, equal to one-half of the lateral separation minimum standard. For example, the overall level of lateral navigation performance necessary for flight safety must be better than 4 NM in Center airspace. When STARs are reviewed subsequently in this category, it is demonstrated how the navigational requirements become more restrictive in the arrival phase of flight where air traffic density increases and procedural design and obstacle clearance become more limiting.

The concept of navigational performance is fundamental to the code of federal regulations and is best defined in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) Part 121, § 121.103 and 121.121, which state that each aircraft must be navigated to the degree of accuracy required for ATC. The requirements of 14 CFR Part 91, § 91.123 related to compliance with ATC clearances and instructions also reflect this fundamental concept. Commercial operators must comply with their Operations Specifications (OpSpecs) and understand the categories of navigational operations and be able to navigate to the degree of accuracy required for the control of air traffic.

In the broad concept of air navigation, there are two major categories of navigational operations consisting of Class I navigation and Class II navigation. Class I navigation is any en route flight operation conducted in controlled or uncontrolled airspace that is entirely within operational service volumes of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standard navigational aids (NAVAIDs) (very high frequency (VHF) omnidirectional radio range (VOR), VOR/ distance measuring equipment (DME), non-directional beacon (NDB), etc.).


Class II navigation is any en route operation that is not categorized as Class I navigation and includes any operation or portion of an operation that takes place outside the operational service volumes of ICAO standard NAVAIDs. For example, aircraft equipped only with VORs conducts Class II navigation when the flight operates in an area outside the operational service volumes of federal VORs. Class II navigation does not automatically require the use of long-range, specialized navigational systems if special navigational techniques are used to supplement conventional NAVAIDs. Class II navigation includes transoceanic operations and operations in desolate and remote land areas, such as the Arctic. The primary types of specialized navigational systems approved for Class II operations include inertial navigation system (INS), Doppler, and global positioning system (GPS). Figure 3-1 provides several examples of Class I and II navigation.

Figure 3-1. Example of Class I and II navigation.

Figure 3-1. Example of Class I and II navigation. [click image to enlarge]

Descent Planning

Planning the descent from cruise is important because of the need to dissipate altitude and airspeed in order to arrive at the approach gate properly configured. Descending early results in more flight at low altitudes with increased fuel consumption, and starting down late results in problems controlling both airspeed and descent rates on the approach. Prior to flight, pilots need to calculate the fuel, time, and distance required to descend from the cruising altitude to the approach gate altitude for the specific instrument approach at the destination airport. While in flight prior to the descent, it is important for pilots to verify landing weather to include winds at their intended destination. Inclimate weather at the destination airport can cause slower descents and missed approaches that require a sufficient amount of fuel that should be calculated prior to starting the descent. In order to plan the descent, the pilot needs to know the cruise altitude, approach gate altitude or initial approach fix altitude, descent groundspeed, and descent rate. This information must be updated while in flight for changes in altitude, weather, and wind. The approach gate is an imaginary point used by ATC to vector aircraft to the final approach course. The approach gate is established along the final approach course 1 NM from the final approach fix (FAF) on the side away from the airport and is located no closer than 5 NM from the landing threshold. Flight manuals or operating handbooks may also contain a fuel, time, and distance to descend chart that contains the same information.


One technique that is often used is the descent rule of thumb, which is used to determine when you need to descend in terms of the number of miles prior to the point at which you desire to arrive at your new altitude. First, divide the altitude needed to be lost by 300. For example, if cruising altitude is 7,000 feet and you want to get down to a pattern altitude of 1,000 feet. The altitude you want to lose is 6,000 feet, which when divided by 300 results in 20. Therefore, you need to start your descent 20 NM out and leave some extra room so that you are at pattern altitude prior to the proper entry. It is also necessary to know what rate-of-descent (ROD) to use.

To determine ROD for a three-degree path, simply multiply your groundspeed by 5. If you are going 120 knots, your ROD to fly the desired path would be 600 fpm (120 × 5 = 600). It was determined in the previous example that a descent should be initiated at 20 NM to lose 6,000 feet. If the groundspeed is 120 knots, that means the aircraft is moving along at 2 NM per minute. So to go 20 NM, it takes 10 minutes. Ten minutes at 600 fpm means you will lose 6,000 feet.

The calculations should be made before the flight and rules of thumb updates should be applied in flight. For example, from the charted STAR pilots might plan a descent based on an expected clearance to “cross 40 DME West of Brown VOR at 6,000” and then apply rules of thumb for slowing down from 250 knots. These might include planning airspeed at 25 NM from the runway threshold to be 250 knots, 200 knots at 20 NM, and 150 knots at 15 NM until gear and flap speeds are reached, never to fall below approach speed.