Circling Approaches


It was delightful to see Ryan Motte’s thorough article on the circling approach (“The Lost Art Of Circling,” June 2021). It contained everything except the actual technique of flying such an approach.

A couple of decades ago, a guy who began his career flying DC-3s into small airports in the Midwest with North Central Airlines taught me a foolproof technique. In this, assume that the cloud bases are right at the minimum altitude and that it’s night, and there’s some breeze—the most challenging situation.

First, fly the approach, establish visual contact with the airport, choose the landing runway, and establish downwind to the optimum runway at the minimum circling altitude (usually in a left-hand pattern).

Second, when abreast of the touchdown point, note the time and heading. Stay “on the gauges” at constant altitude—this is important, as craning our neck around to keep the airport and runway in sight can cause disorientation (vertigo) and, due to the “hand-follows-gaze” phenomenon, may disrupt coordinated flight unconsciously. It’s not necessary to keep the airport constantly in view because, as my friend says, it’s not going to go anywhere.

Meanwhile, fly the current downwind heading for 20-30 seconds (depending on aircraft speed), to stay within the altitude-protected circle as depicted on the approach plate.

Then, begin a standard-rate turn, on the gauges, until within 45 degrees of the landing runway.

At that point, come off the gauges, re-establish visual contact with the runway, and adjust direction, speed and configuration for the final approach.

Third, if the ceiling decreases and visual contact with the ground is lost, fly the miss for the approach, which may require a turn not depicted on the plate (which presumes a straight-in approach), in order to fly the designated course for the miss.

This technique is easy for the fatigued pilot, remains within the safe limits established by the survey and approach designer, and brings one very close to the runway centerline.

Daniel L. Johnson – Via email

Thanks, Daniel. Techniques developed back in the days of A-N ranges still work today, even if we have much more technology to help us out.


Thanks much for publishing Dave Ison’s article on MTRs (“Fast-Movers, Close By”) in your June issue. I, too, had a wakeup call one day hiking with my wife near Abiquiu, N.M., when two C-130s passed a few hundred feet above in trail. This area has dramatic geology and fall color that invites aerial sightseeing, which we’ve done a number of times. It also has spotty ADS-B coverage and poor, if any, ATC radio contact at low and slow altitudes. Subsequently, I did a bit of research and found that though military aircraft have ADS-B, they can turn it off for security reasons. 

And as Mr. Ison pointed out, it’s important to understand an MTR is not just a line across the chart. VR-114 in eastern New Mexico, for example, is 20-40 miles wide. AP/1B is DoD’s reference document for MTRs, but it’s hard to find.

Maj. C. John Graham -Director of Safety -Civil Air Patrol – New Mexico Wing

Thanks, Maj. Graham. Our MTR wake-up call was many moons ago, at low altitude near Georgia’s Moody AFB, and involved at least one F-4 Phantom II. If there was another one, we never saw it, which is kind of the point.


Regarding Ryan Motte’s article in July’s issue, another departure trick when the weather is VFR and there are ATC delays in your release is to suggest that you will take off VFR and contact ATC when airborne. Remember, though, that until they say “radar contact,” you are responsible for terrain avoidance and traffic separation. 

Herb Rosenthal – Via email

We had occasion to do it both ways on a recent trip. Calling ATC works great when there’s cellphone coverage at your departure airport, which is never assured. In busy airspace, controllers generally don’t like pop-up clearance quests, which can involve lengthy exchanges.


I just returned home from vacation to find my May issue of Aviation Safety in the pile of mail left by the postal delivery worker today. I was dumbfounded, to say the least, to see that you published a letter by Mr. Alan Williams where he said that I was the one who advocated, “I don’t care what the FAA wants, I’ll do it my way,” with regard to radio transmissions at uncontrolled airports. As you cannot fail to remember, it was the editor, Jeb Burnside, who said in print that, “I don’t need your N-number.” I was the person who called him out by citing AC 90-66B, in which the FAA informs us that the correct procedure is to use the N-number for the aircraft identification. I am appalled that you published his letter without a reply to correct his glaring mistake and the insulting manner in which he made his point. In fact, he makes the same point that I did, that Aviation Safety should not be publishing Jeb Burnside’s personal opinion as to proper radio communication when it is contrary to the FAA and the FCC. Except that he stated it was I, not Jeb, who offered the incorrect personal opinion.

And this was after you published another letter insulting me by Jay Turnbull in your March issue in which he implied that since I used the term “Unicom” instead of “CTAF,” I was just some old geezer who still “called the flight review a BFR.” Well, I admit that am old. In fact, this July will be the 53-year anniversary of my first solo. In that time I have logged over 18,000 flight hours, in everything from a 600-lb. Taylor E-2 Cub to a 400,000-lb. Boeing 767-300ER, and managed to acquire four type ratings in the process. I spent 19 years flying military aircraft for the USAF and Air National Guard, and 29 years with American Airlines. At FlightSafety International, I taught corporate pilots to fly the Falcon 10 and Falcon 20 way back when they were fresh off the assembly line, state-of-the-art business jets. So yeah, I’ve been around a while and seen a lot of changes, advances in technology, new procedures and terminology. And maybe an old term slips in once in a while, but that does not mean that I am not following the latest developments. Seems to me you could have published Mr. Turnbull’s letter but left that paragraph out, since it was insulting to me personally but did not add anything to the point he was making. My take was that Mr. Burnside was trying to add anything he could to lessen the credibility of my opinion against his. And then he followed up along that line by not replying to Mr. Williams’ letter that stated just the opposite of what actually took place.

So I expect you to set the record straight and publish a reply to Mr. Williams’ letter and explain to your readers that it was not I who advocated “doing it my way,” but Mr. Burnside. And, in fact, it was I who advocated following the published guidance from the FAA in AC 90-66B and the AIM. I am sure that you feel that it is the honest thing to do.

Robert Hartmaier – Via email

Mr. Hartmaier is correct: Mr. Williams mischaracterized his position. We apologize for not pointing out the mistake when printing Mr. Williams’ letter.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here