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How To Fly Circle-To-Land Approaches More Safely

The best bet might be to avoid them entirely, but when you need to fly them, here are some tips to help mitigate the risk.

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A stabilized approach is, without a doubt, more likely to result in a safe landing than one that becomes unstabilized. Most of us know this intuitively. The accident data has proven it over the years, also. This becomes especially true when flying an instrument approach coming out of IMC conditions to a circle-to-land. Circle-to-land approaches are a misnomer. They can be rectangles, squares or trapezoids. The common denominator is that they all require the pilot on an instrument approach to do some serious maneuvering after clearing the clouds, sometimes with that cloud cover just over-head. If this sounds risky, you’re right. Some charter and business operators prohibit circle-to-land approaches outright, and just about all of them prohibit this kind of approach at night.

Here’s why they are cause for an extra measure of caution.

Flying an instrument approach that will then require a pilot to circle-to-land requires a transition from a stabilized approach to a visual maneuver. Even worse, it is done at low altitude and potentially with low visibility or cloud clearance. 

The accident rates in circle-to-land procedures are sufficiently higher than on stabilized approaches that many airlines do not allow their aircraft and pilots to conduct them except in very limited conditions.

If airlines, with highly qualified, current pilots, don’t think it is an acceptable risk to conduct circle-to-land procedures, why do many general aviation pilots? Do we think we are better than those professionals?

Most of us are not.

So, does that mean we should never fly an approach from instrument conditions and then circle-to-land on a different runway?

Well, I won’t go that far, but there are some considerations we can make and some mitigations that might limit the risks associated with doing this if we find a real need to circle-to-land.

First, let’s talk about why it is risky. Any time we transition from IFR conditions, especially conditions near minimums, we risk the potential of having reduced visibility.

EVALUATE THE WEATHER
A circle-to-land with stable ceilings that aren’t at absolute minimums with good visibility is one thing. Doing the same thing with 1-mile visibility to absolute minimums is something completely different. If you are thinking about flying a circle-to-land, you might mitigate some of the risks by setting personal minimums, such as having ceilings at least 500 feet greater than the minimums and no less than 5 miles’ visibility. You might want to make it more than that if you aren’t flying regularly.

But decide ahead and know what your acceptable minimums would be, and don’t break them. If the AWOS or ATIS is reporting less, it’s time to come up with an alternate plan.

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KNOW WHAT TO DO IF YOU LOSE SIGHT OF THE AIRPORT DURING THE CIRCLE-TO-LAND
If you are flying the approach and then circling, you may find that clouds are ragged or visibility unreliable. If you happen to lose sight of your landing environment after starting a circle-to-land, you need to know what to do.

A missed approach will need to be executed, sure, but it is also important to know that published missed approach procedures begin at a specific point. Sometimes, this is over the airport; sometimes, it is at a point just before the airport. If you have already started the circle-to-land, you may need to transition back to over the airport or an alternatively designated missed approach point to then transition to the actual missed approach procedure. This can be a little confusing and require some perhaps overly complicated buttonology to make it work in many GPS systems. All the while, you are trying to fly a plane close to the ground without hitting things.

FLY DOWN ONLY TO AN ALTITUDE THAT ALLOWS YOU TO FLY A STANDARD VFR PATTERN
A commonly accepted practice by many charter operators and professionally flown corporate aircraft is to only conduct a circle-to-land action if it can be done under normal VFR pattern conditions. This is most applicable when a pilot finds themselves needing to just descend through a layer from the en route environment to land at an airport that generally has better than IFR weather conditions.

If we think about this in a real-world scenario, we could imagine flying into an airport that was reporting a 2,000 foot-ceiling with 10 miles’ visibility. A normal pattern would typically be flown at 1,000 feet AGL, so the pilot would expect to break out on the approach with enough clearance to fly a normal traffic pattern but would have needed the approach to get down to that point from the en route environment.

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In this case, the pilot may need to start an approach but will quickly transition to a VFR approach to the airport. This offers a greater safety margin when circling to land on a runway other than the one to which the approach is designated.

Holding to a personal minimum of only circling with minimums higher than normal traffic patterns certainly decreases some of the risks.

GO TO A NEARBY AIRPORT THAT HAS A STRAIGHT-IN APPROACH
When the conditions are IFR, and the winds are such that an approach to a directly served runway isn’t safe, many times the best option is to just go to another airport that has a straight-in approach. I know it may not be ideal, but landing at an airport 20, 50 or even 100 miles away is certainly better than a stall-spin on base to final after losing sight of the airport in a circle-to-land attempt with lousy weather conditions. I know that may sound morbid, but it has happened too many times.

EXPECT FEWER CIRCLE- TO-LAND PROCEDURES TO BE PUBLISHED
As our national airspace system transitions to more GPS-based approaches, dependence on ground-based approach equipment becomes less critical. This allows the FAA to certify and publish approaches that directly approach more runways instead of having to use something

such as a VOR to approach an airport and then require circling to a runway that is not aligned with the navigation aid.

It certainly appears the FAA and its flight procedures staff are working hard to make straight-in GPS-based approaches available to more runways and limit the need for circle-to-land operations. This reduces risks associated with circling and, at the same time, means pilots fly them less often, generating less proficiency through lack of use.

HAND-FLYING DANGERS
Many of us routinely fly approaches using our advanced autopilots. And that’s great, but it does degrade some of our hand-flying skills. To the best of my knowledge, an autopilot that can fly a circle-to-land doesn’t exist.

I don’t mean to say you need to start hand-flying every approach to keep those skills sharp. Using the systems in our aircraft, autopilots included, offers us the ability to stabilize and monitor our flying instead of oversaturating our skills in some cases. But it seems logical to think the more we do this, the less proficient we will be with hand-flying the aircraft during an activity such as a circle-to-land. This might be just one more factor in a pilot’s decision to mitigate the risks of conducting, or avoiding conducting, circle-to-land procedures.

Often-published circling minimums are lower than traffic pattern minimums, and pilots actually flying down to a minimum published altitude will find themselves very close to the ground or terrain. Trying to turn this procedure into a safe landing has resulted in tragedy too many times.

Avoid doing this to yourself and/or your passengers by just taking a few of the tips in this article to mitigate the risks. PP

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