If you’ve ever wondered about the intricacies of circling approaches in aviation and whether it’s your best option, we’ve got you covered. Explore this vital aspect of aviation and get ready to enhance your understanding of circling approaches, their significance, and why they matter in aviation. Continue reading to enhance your knowledge of the circling approach and determine if it’s a good choice for you!
Circling approaches are the most dangerous of all approaches, especially when flown at night or in marginal weather conditions. As an extension of an instrument approach, a circling approach is the “visual segment of an approach” often flown at low altitude, low airspeed, and with no lateral or vertical guidance to a runway. Accepting a clearance to fly a circling approach is risky business and there is no room for error.
Since 2008, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), there have been 10 major accidents involving Part 91 and Part 135 aircraft flying a circling approach. On average, that is one fatal accident every 18 months, where an aircraft either loses control or impacts terrain while attempting a circling approach.
According to a Flight Safety Foundation study, a straight-in instrument approach is a much better alternative and is 25 times safer than a circling approach; adding vertical guidance to an approach will increase the safety margin by another eight times.
For reasons unknown, other than convenience or “operational flexibility,” some operators and pilots of business aircraft continue to accept the risk of flying a circling approach, while other operators take a much more conservative route and either prohibit them or place restrictions on circling approaches.
In March 2023, following a series of business jet accidents, the NTSB issued a safety alert (NTSB Safety Alert Number 84) that cautioned pilots of the complexities and risks associated with flying a circling approach. The NTSB advises pilots to “know the risks, before conducting a circling approach, to be sure that it is the best and safest option, and to brief the approach, plan its execution and acknowledge your own limitations.”
Prior to the publication of the NTSB safety alert, the FAA cautioned pilots of the dangers of flying a circling approach in its Instrument Procedures Handbook and in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).
The Instrument Procedures Handbook states, “Circling approaches are one of the most challenging flight maneuvers in the NAS, especially for pilots of Category C and Category D turbine-powered transport category airplanes. These maneuvers are conducted at low altitude, day and night, and often with precipitation present affecting visibility, depth perception, and the ability to adequately assess the descent profile to the landing runway.”
The AIM 5-4-20(f) further cautions, “Circling may require maneuvers at low altitude, at low airspeed, and in marginal weather conditions. Pilots must use sound judgment, have an in-depth knowledge of their capabilities, and fully understand the aircraft performance to determine the exact circling maneuver since weather, unique airport design, and the aircraft position, altitude, and airspeed must all be considered.”
In its safety alert, the NTSB highlights three recent fatal accidents involving business jets flying circling approaches. In each case, the flight crews of the accident aircraft followed a disastrous script that was eerily similar to the cautions published earlier by the FAA.
NTSB Identifies the Problem
Circling approaches, according to the NTSB (and as demonstrated in these accidents), are problematic for the following four reasons:
- Circling approaches can be riskier than other types of approaches because they often require maneuvering at low altitude and low airspeed during the final segment of the approach, increasing the opportunity for loss of control or collision with terrain. These risks are heightened when conducting circling approaches in marginal or reduced visibility conditions and increased focus is required.
- While circling approaches might be necessary to accommodate traffic flow at airports, or are advantageous due to wind conditions, pilots sometimes do not evaluate the risks of these approaches fully before accepting them, which can result in unstabilized approaches.
- Often, circling approaches do not allow for stabilized approach criteria to be met. Approaches should be stabilized by 1,000 feet height above touchdown (HAT) in instrument conditions, and by 500 feet HAT in visual conditions.
- When circling approaches are conducted in IMC, transitioning from instruments to ground references can cause the “illusion of high speed” if the instruments are not properly monitored.
Operators are encouraged to establish, publish, and adhere to stabilized approach criteria; these criteria may restrict or prohibit an operator from circling approaches.