Briefing The Approach

Taking a focused moment to prepare the cockpit for an approach also help prepare the pilot for the transition from en route environment to landing. Heres how.


If your initial instrument training was anything like mine, you started flying approaches on the first or second lesson. Usually the CFII would set up the radios, say something about minimums and let me chase the needles. As I progressed toward the rating, I did more and more of the set-up myself, quickly becoming (what I thought was) expert at reading approach charts. Im not faulting my double-I-this was just the way it was done in that part of the country at that time.

No one taught me a systematic way to brief an instrument approach; I just made it up as I went along. Without an alternative, I passed this along to my first generation of IFR students. I hope they, like me, have learned better.

Why a formal brief?

Pausing to ritualistically brief for an approach helps an aircrew literally “get on the same page” regarding how they will fly the procedure. It helps them divide their duties and pick out information vital for the specific approach to be flown. It forms a distinct break between the en route phase and the final, critical parts of a flight.

Single-pilot operators, though not frequently taught to formally brief for an approach, can benefit from a systematic review of the procedure as well. Theres a lot that goes on during an instrument approach, and theres a great deal of information on an approach chart to sift through, gleaning whats important in those particular conditions in that specific aircraft on that day. Taking a moment to brief for the approach probably makes more sense in a single-pilot airplane than it does in a crew, because the pilot flying alone has no one to look things up once the approach has begun, or to catch a missed item or mistaken assumption while the airplane is by necessity on a blind course on a path converging with the ground.

Briefing Technique

One technique for briefing for an approach is to simply take the approach chart and review it, item by item, from the top of the page down to the bottom. This will of course cover every item, although the order of presentation (and therefore the ease of remembering) may not be optimal. Jeppesen charts, in particular, are arranged to make the top-down method work pretty well. Certainly if you use this technique (and it works for you) theres no need to change now, but humor me and my editors and read on anyway. If youre looking for what may be a better way-and especially if you have no set approach briefing procedure at all-you might consider briefing by task and hazard.

By “task and hazard,” I mean a review of the approach chart by looking specifically at what tasks you need to do to fly the procedure safely and the hazards that present themselves at various phases of the approach (or if an emergency causes you to deviate from the procedure).

Approach Weather Data

The task here is to listen to ATIS, AWOS, ASOS or any other source of weather information as far out from the destination as possible. If none is available, review your preflight briefing information and use the Area Forecast or Terminal Area Forecasts for nearby airports. Dial in the appropriate altimeter setting. Knowing the weather will help you anticipate if an instrument approach is necessary, and the approach in use if the airport has multiple approaches.

Often, one can predict the approach in use during the preflight weather briefing. One hazard here is falling into the trap of pulling only that approach from the book and leaving the rest out of reach in the airplane, or of printing out only the approaches you think youre going to fly if pulling your charts from electronic sources. Rapidly changing weather or runway closures may mean a different approach than youre expecting. ATC will ask you which approach you want at non-towered airports. The source of your altimeter setting may affect the minimums for the approach.

Use the Correct Chart

Confirm the airport, the runway and the specific procedure youre looking at is the one you are going to fly. Be careful about left/right runways (e.g., ILS 1L and ILS 1R) and reciprocals (ILS 1L and ILS 19L) at the same airport. Also, charts go out of date. You should have checked the currency of your approach charts before you ever left the ground.

Primary Nav Freq.

Locate and dial in the primary navigation frequency for the approach (e.g., the localizer). Depending on when in your flight youre doing this and the equipment on board your airplane, you may load the frequency into a standby or you may even have to defer this task until you get closer to the airport.

As appropriate, identify the frequency-listen to the Morse code signal and compare it to whats printed on the chart-as soon as possible to confirm you have the proper frequency dialed in and youre receiving it. Ensure that GPS/LOC selectors are set correctly for the type of approach youll fly.

Supporting Frequencies

Every nav radio in your airplane has potential for helping orient yourself on the approach. Look at the chart and see if theres a use for a second VOR or an ADF, if you still have one. Dial in frequencies for offset navaids that provide cross-bearings for marker locations, initial approach fixes, etc.

Much of the need to identify step-down and other fixes on an approach is bypassed in the modern world of moving-map displays but, like anything else, maps can fail at inopportune times. Even with a moving map, the more confirming information you have, the better. All the hazards of tuning and identifying primary navaids apply to supporting frequencies as well.

Set the Needles

When other navigation uses for your avionics permit, set your primary navigation indicator (HSI, #1 VOR, etc.) to the inbound course. Set supporting indicators for cross-radials. Turn on and test the marker beacon indicator, especially its audio.

Its not unusual to inadvertently dial in reciprocal headings or course settings, or set “030” when you mean “300”, etc. Pay attention and cross-check this stuff, especially when it can lead you astray.

Comm Frequencies

Set the anticipated approach control frequency, if appropriate, in the standby on your primary comm radio. If already on approach (or the last controller before local control) dial the tower frequency into the standby, or the CTAF (Unicom, multicom) if flying into a nontowered airport. Itll get busy close to the airport, so the more you can prepare here the easier itll be when youre flying the approach.

Keep in mind that pilots who fly into the same airports frequently often tune comm radios from memory. Frequencies change, however, and memory can lapse; you might be thinking “Downtown” frequencies when flying into “Municipal.”

Hand-Fly or Coupled?

Will you hand-fly the approach, use a flight director, or fly a fully coupled instrument approach? Incomplete knowledge of your autopilot or flight director can be less safe than flying by hand. Too, overusing autopilots may erode pilot skills to the point a safe recovery cannot be made if the autopilot fails. Conversely, automation may be the safest route when the weather is truly at minimums. A few instrument approach procedures are placarded against using an autopilot or flight director, so read the fine print.

PLAN Your Turns

What is your initial approach fix, and from what direction will you hit it? If on vectors, where are you in relation to the inbound course, and how will ATC route you to intercept? Waiting until youre at the IAF before deciding which way youll need to turn to join the final approach course can put you too far behind the airplane. Pilots sometimes blindly follow ATC vectors without mentally following where they are and whats likely to come next. Controllers can and do “forget” a pilot or delay additional vectors because of workload, aiming the flight at obstacles or through the final approach course. You have to visualize where you are at all times, even when on vectors.

Confirm Initial Altitudes

Looking at the procedure, including terrain depictions and the Minimum Safe Altitude (MSA) circle, anticipate the altitudes youll fly for each segment of the approach (including vectors) up to the Final Approach Fix. Keep in mind you are not cleared to fly the depicted altitudes until you are cleared for the approach and established on the appropriate segment. A controller may assign other altitudes, but question ATC aggressively if an assigned altitude is lower than one depicted on the procedure. The aforementioned hazards of blindly accepting vectors without monitoring your current and projected position relative to terrain and obstacles apply.

Identify the FAF

Flight Approach


Check what determines the Final Approach Fix and the correct altitude when you arrive there. On precision approaches, often there is a depicted altitude for crossing the FAF while centered on the glideslope. Glideslope intercept on a precision approach does not always occur precisely at the FAF. If cleared for the approach it is correct to begin descending when the glideslope centers, but approach timing, DME, MSA obstacle clearance, etc. is based on the actual FAF and not the glideslope intercept point.

Anticipate the Descent Rate

On non-precision approaches, will you fly a constant-angle descent to the missed approach point, or will you fly the Practical Test Standards rapid descent and level-off at the minimum descent altitude? If its a precision approach or a visual approach with descent guidance, is the descent angle steeper than the standard three degrees?

Failing to anticipate the necessary rate of descent will force you to “chase” indications on the approach, destabilizing your efforts and making success less likely.

Anticipate the Weather

Will a strong headwind or tailwind change the rate of descent necessary to reach decision altitude or minimum descent altitude in a position to land? Based on available weather information, at what point should you expect to go visual?

Wind velocity often changes between FAF altitude and minimum altitudes on the approach, requiring active changes in wind correction. Anticipate the “break-out” altitude but prepare to fly the whole approach to the missed approach point and beyond.

Minimum Altitude?

Determine the Decision Height/Decision Altitude/Minimum Descent Altitude for the approach early on. The lowest safe altitude for an approach may differ based on the type of approach, where you obtain the altimeter setting, the equipment on board (e.g., WAAS vs. non-WAAS GPS approaches) and the airplanes approach category based on the groundspeed for that approach. Having this value firmly in mind-or written down-eliminates guesswork close to the ground.

Pilot-Controlled Lighting?

Forgetting to activate pilot-controlled lighting (PCL) may mean the difference between seeing the runway environment and having to miss the approach. Sometimes PCL is activated on a frequency other than the CTAF; youll need to check the Airport/Facilities Directory or another reference before takeoff to know for sure.

I.D. the MAP

What, specifically, determines the missed approach point? Reaching a specific altitude? A GPS waypoint? Crossing a navaid or a fix? DME? Time? Use as many different ways as possible to identify when youre coming up on and reaching the MAP.

Review the Miss

Set navaids for the missed at the same time you set up for the approach. Misidentifying initial headings or failing to tune navaids necessary for the missed procedure are common failings. The hazardous aspect of a missed approach, however, comes when the pilot fails to realize that the “miss” is an essential part of every instrument approach procedure and fails to adequately prepare for it as a natural part of approach set-up.

Identify any VDP

Does a visual descent point exist for the approach? How is the VDP identified? Obstacles or other factors may require you to maintain the minimum descent altitude until a certain distance from the runway, even if you have the runway environment in sight and otherwise might be able to make a normal descent to touchdown.


Will this be a circling approach? A circling approach is essentially a legal, scud-running visual traffic pattern, often flown much lower than typical. Visual cues will be unusual and you may get disoriented. There may be obstacles you normally would not be concerned with in a visual approach. You may be tempted to descend before its safe; low, close-to-the-runway turns may get dangerously steep if youre not careful. If you lose sight of the airport and need to miss, youll need to maneuver toward the airport to re-intercept the published missed approach path.


Review any other notes on the approach chart. This is where learning about simultaneous parallel approaches, side-step maneuvers and other variations may affect the way you fly your approach.


Review obstacle clearance requirements for off-procedure flight. If a dire emergency (for instance, partial engine failure) prohibits you from flying the approach or the missed as depicted, you need to have an idea of where the obstacles and terrain are to maximize your chances.


Theres a tremendous amount of information needed to fly a safe approach. These 20 tasks cover the basics; you may even add more to your personalized self-brief. Each task reminds us of one or more hazards, which is why each task is important in the first place. The amount of information needing review demands we follow a systematic review and accomplish as much of it as possible before entering the approach environment.

Tom Turner is a CFII-MEI who frequently writes and lectures on aviation safety.


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