Arrivals (Part Three)

Descending From the En Route Altitude

Making the transition from cruise flight to the beginning of an instrument approach procedure sometimes requires arriving at a given waypoint at an assigned altitude. When this requirement is prescribed by a published arrival procedure or issued by ATC, it is called a crossing restriction. Even when ATC allows a descent at the pilot’s discretion, aircrews need to choose a waypoint and altitude for positioning convenient to start the approach. In either case, descending from a cruising altitude to a given waypoint or altitude requires both planning and precise flying.


ATC may ask the pilot to descend to and maintain a specific altitude. Generally, this clearance is for en route traffic separation purposes, and pilots need to respond to it promptly. Descend at the optimum rate for the aircraft being flown until 1,000 feet above the assigned altitude, then descend at a rate between 500 and 1,500 fpm to the assigned altitude. If at any time, other than when slowing to 250 KIAS at 10,000 feet MSL, the pilot cannot descend at a rate of at least 500 fpm, advise ATC.

The second type of clearance allows the pilot to descend “… at pilot’s discretion.” When ATC issues a clearance to descend at pilot’s discretion, pilots may begin the descent whenever they choose and at any rate of their choosing. Pilots are also authorized to level off, temporarily, at any intermediate altitude during the descent. However, once the aircraft leaves an altitude, it may not return to that altitude.

A descent clearance may also include a segment where the descent is at the pilots’ discretion—such as “cross the Joliet VOR at or above 12,000, descend and maintain 5,000.”This clearance authorizes pilots to descend from their current altitude whenever they choose, as long as they cross the Joliet VOR at or above 12,000 feet MSL. After that, they are expected to descend at a normal rate until they reach the assigned altitude of 5,000 feet MSL.

Clearances to descend at pilots’ discretion are not just an option for ATC. Pilots may also request this type of clearance so that they can operate more efficiently. For example, if a pilot was en route above an overcast layer, he or she might ask for a descent at his or her discretion to allow the aircraft to remain above the clouds for as long as possible. This might be particularly important if the atmosphere is conducive to icing and the aircraft’s icing protection is limited. The pilot’s request permits the aircraft to stay at its cruising altitude longer to conserve fuel or to avoid prolonged IFR flight in icing conditions. This type of descent can also help to minimize the time spent in turbulence by allowing pilots to level off at an altitude where the air is smoother.


Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT)

Inappropriate descent planning and execution during arrivals has been a contributing factor to many fatal aircraft accidents. Since the beginning of commercial jet operations, more than 9,000 people have died worldwide because of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). CFIT is described as an event in which a normally functioning aircraft is inadvertently flown into the ground, water, or an obstacle. Of all CFIT accidents, 7.2 percent occurred during the descent phase of flight.

The basic causes of CFIT accidents involve poor flight crew situational awareness, or SA. One definition of SA is an accurate perception by pilots of the factors and conditions currently affecting the safe operation of the aircraft and the crew. The causes of CFIT are the flight crews’ lack of vertical position awareness or their lack of horizontal position awareness in relation to the ground, water, or an obstacle. More than two-thirds of all CFIT accidents are the result of an altitude error or lack of vertical SA. CFIT accidents most often occur during reduced visibility associated with instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), darkness, or a combination of both.

The inability of controllers and pilots to properly communicate has been a factor in many CFIT accidents. Heavy workloads can lead to hurried communication and the use of abbreviated or non-standard phraseology. The importance of good communication during the arrival phase of flight was made evident in a report by an air traffic controller and the flight crew of an MD-80.

The controller reported that he was scanning his radarscope for traffic and noticed that the MD-80 was descending through 6,400 feet. He immediately instructed a climb to at least 6,500 feet. The pilot returned to 6,500 feet, but responded to ATC that he had been cleared to 5,000 feet. When he had read back 5,000 feet to the controller, he received no correction from the controller. After almost simultaneous ground proximity warning system (GPWS) and controller warnings, the pilot climbed and avoided the terrain. The recording of the radio transmissions confirmed that the aircraft was cleared to 7,000 feet and the pilot mistakenly read back 5,000 feet then attempted to descend to 5,000 feet. The pilot stated in the report: “I don’t know how much clearance from the mountains we had, but it certainly makes clear the importance of good communications between the controller and pilot.”

ATC is not always responsible for safe terrain clearance for the aircraft under its jurisdiction. Many times ATC issue en route clearances for pilots to proceed off airway direct to a point. Pilots who accept this type of clearance also are accepting the shared responsibility for maintaining safe terrain clearance. Know the height of the highest terrain and obstacles in the operating area and your position in relation to the surrounding high terrain. The following are excerpts from CFIT accidents related to descending on arrival: “…delayed the initiation of the descent…”; “Aircraft prematurely descended too early…”; “…late getting down…”; “During a descent…incorrectly cleared down…”; “…aircraft prematurely let down…”; “…lost situational awareness…”; “Premature descent clearance…”; “Prematurely descended…”; “Premature descent clearance while on vector…”; “During initial descent…” [Figure 3-9]

Figure 3-9. Altitude management when cleared direct.

Figure 3-9. Altitude management when cleared direct. [click image to enlarge]

Practicing good communication skills is not limited to just pilots and controllers. In its findings from a 1974 air carrier accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wrote, “…the extraneous conversation conducted by the flight crew during the descent was symptomatic of a lax atmosphere in the flight deck that continued throughout the approach.” The NTSB listed the probable cause as “… the flight crew’s lack of altitude awareness at critical points during the approach due to poor flight deck discipline in that the crew did not follow prescribed procedures.”


In 1981, the FAA issued 14 CFR Part 121, § 121.542 and Part 135, § 135.100, Flight Crewmember Duties, commonly referred to as “sterile flight deck rules.”The provisions in this rule can help pilots, operating under any regulations, to avoid altitude and course deviations during arrival. In part, it states: (a) No certificate holder should require, nor may any flight crewmember perform, any duties during a critical phase of flight except those duties required for the safe operation of the aircraft. Duties such as company required calls made for such purposes as ordering galley supplies and confirming passenger connections, announcements made to passengers promoting the air carrier or pointing out sights of interest, and filling out company payroll and related records are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft. (b) No flight crewmember may engage in, nor may any pilot in command permit, any activity during a critical phase of flight that could distract any flight crewmember from the performance of his or her duties or which could interfere in any way with the proper conduct of those duties. Activities such as eating meals, engaging in nonessential conversations within the flight deck and nonessential communications between the cabin and flight deck crews, and reading publications not related to the proper conduct of the flight are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft. (c) Critical phases of flight include all ground operations involving taxi, takeoff and landing, and all other flight operations conducted below 10,000 feet, except cruise flight.