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Advanced Topics — Contact Approach Last updated: 2018-01-23

Contact approaches are rarely used, but a controller needs to know about them. A contact approach is similar to a visual approach in that the pilot will take responsibility for his routing and terrain separation to the airport. There are three main requirements to issue a contact approach clearance; first, it must be requested by the pilot, never solicited by the controller; second, the destination airport’s visibility must be at least one mile; finally, the airport must have an operational instrument approach procedure. Like any other time, you must provide standard IFR separation between other IFR aircraft, as well as any VFR or special VFR aircraft.

From the controllers standpoint the contact approach is very simple. If a pilot requests a contact approach and the operation will meet the three criteria above, you may clear him for the approach using phraseology like “cleared contact approach to Santa Maria airport.” The pilot does not need to report the airport in sight; his request is an indication that he can safely complete the approach to the airport based on his observations. Like always, your main concern is ensuring he is separated from other aircraft as appropriate.

Although a contact approach may be requested and approved in any weather condition (so long as the visibility is 1 mile or more), the time a contact approach is most valuable is when weather conditions do not permit a visual approach (ceiling < 1000’ or visibility < 3 miles). In this case a pilot can request a contact approach and proceed to land at his discretion. Keep in mind that a contact approach allows the pilot complete discretion over his route and altitude; always make sure you can reserve a large block of airspace for a contact approach operation.

{Reference: 7110.65 7-4-6 “Contact Approach”, AIM 5-4-25 “Contact Approach”}