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Introduction to Instrument and Visual Approaches — Approach Clearances Last updated: 2018-01-23

Section 4 vs. Section 5

The first question to ask when dealing with an instrument approach is which section(s) of the 7110.65 is applicable. All approach clearances must comply with section 4-8. Aircraft vectored to the final approach course must receive approach clearances that also comply with section 5-9. We’ll look at each of those sections separately. The main distinction between these sections is that approach clearances issued using the phraseology in 4-8 must have the aircraft routed over an initial approach fix or feeder fix. If the aircraft will not overfly an initial approach fix/feeder fix, its approach clearance must use the phraseology prescribed by section 5-9.

Section 4-8 (Approach will begin at an IAF)

If a pilot will overfly an IAF or feeder fix on his route (in the case of an RNAV approach, this same section can be used for aircraft routed over an intermediate fix as well), the approach clearance can be issued using this section. This section is very straight-forward, and there is no difference between non-precision and precision approaches; all approaches are handled in the same way. If the pilot is flying a published route (airway, SID, or STAR) which includes minimum altitude information all the way to the IAF or feeder fix, the pilot just needs to be cleared for the approach. This can be done in a few different ways:

  • Cleared Approach” - This authorizes the pilot to fly any instrument approach (note that a visual approach would require a separate clearance) at the airport; obviously, it should only be used when the controller doesn’t care which instrument approach the pilot flies.
  • Cleared ILS Approach” - If there’s only one ILS approach (or VOR/NDB/RNAV, etc) at the airport, then the runway information is not required.
  • Cleared ILS runway Two Five Left approach” - If there’s more than one type of an approach at an airport (like at LAX, where there are eight ILS approaches), then the runway information must be included.

Depending on the type of approach and the direction from which the pilot approaches, the pilot may or may not have to perform some type of course reversal (procedure turn, holding pattern reversal, or teardrop). We will cover some scenarios involving what to expect from the pilot later in this article.

If the pilot is not flying a published route (i.e. the pilot is not routed on an airway, SID, or STAR), then the pilot does not have minimum altitude information like he would if he was flying a published route. In that case he must be assigned an altitude restriction to keep him safely above the terrain until he is established on a published route, then cleared for the approach using the same phraseology as above. This can be phrased a few different ways, but normally will be something like, “cross XXX at or above 5000, cleared VOR approach.” Unlike vectored approach clearances, when issuing clearances under this section, distance from a fix is not required in the approach clearance.

Section 5-9 (Approach does not begin at an IAF)

If a pilot will not overfly an IAF or feeder fix on his route, then he will be radar vectored to the final approach course. Even though he might be navigating direct to a fix on final, his approach clearance is still governed by this section. There are times when a controller may not radar vector to final (discussed below); in those cases, the pilot must be issued a clearance so that he will overfly an IAF and issued an approach clearance using the phraseology above.

Requirements to Vector an aircraft to final

Section 5-9 has a long list of rules to be used when vectoring to final. We’ll look at each paragraph and discuss its meaning below.

  • Paragraph 5-9-1-a: “Vector arriving aircraft to intercept the final approach course...at least 2 miles outside the approach gate” 
    This provision has been established to permit the pilot an opportunity to become oriented on the approach. The approach gate is 1 mile from the final approach fix, so the vector to final must intercept final at least 3 miles from the final approach fix. Note the emphasis on the word “intercept.” It’s not that the pilot must be issued the turn to final 3 miles from the FAF, but that the pilot must intercept 3 miles from the FAF. Obviously, the turn to final will need to be made further out. There are two exceptions to this rule. One is for good weather, the other is if the pilot requests to be turned on closer to the FAF; see section 5-9 for more information.
  • Paragraph 5-9-1-b: “For a precision approach, at an altitude not above the glideslope/glidepath or below the minimum glideslope intercept altitude specified on the approach procedure chart” 
    This is fairly self explanatory, but one issue that comes up from time-to-time is how to figure out what altitude is “not above the glideslope.” The easiest way to comply with this rule is to vector to intercept at or below the altitude published for the next fix on the approach. At some airports, the MVA will be higher than the minimum altitude charted. In that case, you can use a little math to estimate where the glideslope is. Most glideslopes have an angle of three degrees. That works out to about 300’ per mile. So if the aircraft will intercept final on a 10 mile final, he should be no higher than 3000’ above the airport elevation. We’ll see a few examples of applying this rule later.
  • Paragraph 5-9-1-c: “For a nonprecision approach, at an altitude which will allow descent in accordance with the published procedure” 
    This rule is a little more vague. However, you can comply with it using the same rules-of-thumb give above for precision approaches. Either vector to final at the next charted minimum altitude on the procedure, or use the 300’ per mile rule. Again, several examples are provided later.
  • Paragraph 5-9-2-a: “Assign headings that will permit final approach course interception on a track that does not exceed [a 30 degree angle to the final approach course]” 
    This quote is paraphrased since the 7110.65 paragraph is slightly more complex. But, in almost all cases, you must vector to the aircraft to intercept final at no more than a 30 degree angle to final. The only exception is for helicopters, which may be vectored to intercept at up to a 45 degree angle. The 20 degree intercept described in this paragraph doesn’t apply to ZLA as long as you comply with item 1 in this list.
  • Paragraph 5-9-3: “Inform the aircraft whenever a vector will take it across the final approach course and state the reason for such action” 
    This is self explanatory...the phraseology should be “N123SX, fly heading 180, vector across final for spacing.”

As you can see there’s a lot to think about when vectoring to final. It can be especially challenging at certain airports which we’ll discuss later.

Phraseology for vectored approach clearances

The phraseology required for vectored approaches to final is a little more complex than for approaches from an IAF. The basic phraseology uses the PTAC phraseology. In a standard case, the aircraft must be issued its Position relative to a fix on the approach, a Turn to intercept the final approach course (generally must be a 30 degree intercept angle or less as discussed above), an Altitude to maintain until established on the approach, and finally issued the Clearance for the approach. For example:

“N123SX, Six miles from JETSA, turn right heading two three zero, maintain two thousand five hundred until established on the localizer, cleared I-L-S runway two four right approach.” 

 “N123SX, Five miles from BEVEY, turn left heading two four zero, maintain three thousand until established on the final approach course, cleared V-O-R Alpha approach.”

In some cases, it isn’t necessary to issue all elements of the “PTAC.” All vectored approach clearances must include at least the “P” and “C” of PTAC. If the aircraft is already established on the approach, then a turn is not needed (because the pilot is already tracking the approach course) and an altitude isn’t necessary (since this information is published on the approach chart). The phraseology should be:

“N123SX, Eight miles from BUDDE, cleared I-L-S runway eight approach.”

You might also clear an aircraft direct to a fix on the approach (if this fix is not an IAF, then it’s still considered a vector, so the intercept angle must be no more than 30 degrees). If an aircraft has been cleared direct to a fix on the approach, then the “T” of PTAC isn’t required:

“N123SX, Five miles from PETIS, cross PETIS at/or above four thousand two hundred, cleared I-L-S runway two six left approach.” 


 “N123SX, Five miles from PETIS, maintain four thousand two hundred until established on the localizer, cleared I-L-S runway two six left approach.”

If the aircraft is already assigned a heading that will permit an appropriate intercept angle, then the heading may be omitted:

“N123SX, Seven miles from KOAKS, maintain five thousand until established on the final approach course, cleared Localizer D-M-E Backcourse Alpha approach.”