When coming in on an instrument approach at a nontowered airport, the approach/center controller will clear you for the approach and approve your frequency change to the CTAF.

Once you're cleared for a particular approach and have changed frequencies, if you later decide you need to deviate from the planned approach (i.e. sidestep or circle instead of straight-in) do you need to get a revised clearance from the approach controller or is clearance for sidestep or circling implied?

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    $\begingroup$ One important reason that you can't just switch to another approach yourself is that if you have to go missed then the controller needs to know where you're going to go. If the controller clears you for the ILS approach and you end up going missed on the RNAV approach, that could create problems with separation because you aren't where the controller expects you to be. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Oct 17, 2016 at 12:55

2 Answers 2


Quoted from the Instrument Procedures Handbook, page 4-6:


The approach clearance provides guidance to a position from where you can execute the approach, and it also clears you to fly that approach. If only one approach pro- cedure exists, or if ATC authorizes you to execute the approach procedure of your choice, the clearance may be worded as simply as “… cleared for approach.” If ATC wants to restrict you to a specific approach, the controller names the approach in the clearance—for example, “…cleared ILS Runway 35 Right approach.”

When the landing will be made on a runway that is not aligned with the approach being flown, the controller may issue a circling approach clearance, such as “…cleared for VOR Runway 17 approach, circle to land Runway 23.”

So if they name the approach, you are restricted to that approach.

I searched the rest of the book for items specifically related to non-towered operations, and found nothing that contradicted that.

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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, the ATC Order specifically prohibits ATC from clearing a pilot for circling approaches at non-towered airports: 4-8-6. CIRCLING APPROACH a. Circling approach instructions may only be given for aircraft landing at airports with operational control towers. $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Apr 2, 2014 at 6:54
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    $\begingroup$ I can't find anything in the IP Handbook or other sources to back me up, but I believe this to be incorrect: the pilot can choose to circle-to-land or sidestep provided those are allowed (with published minimums) for the approach you're cleared for. As Lnfagziger said, ATC cannot authorize this -- because it's up to the pilot. It really doesn't matter to ATC: they will not clear any other aircraft for an approach to that untowered airport until you report you're on the ground or cancel your IFR. $\endgroup$
    – TypeIA
    Apr 3, 2014 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ @dvnrrs after doing some research, I came to that conclusion as well. Perhaps you can post an answer to that effect? $\endgroup$
    – newmanth
    Apr 11, 2014 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @newmanth I wouldn't make it an answer without a reference to back it up... if you have a source you can answer your own question though. There's even a badge for that. I'd upvote an answer with citations. $\endgroup$
    – TypeIA
    Apr 11, 2014 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @dvnrrs unfortunately, I can't find any references either! In fact, other than the ATC Order that Lnafziger referenced, the FAA appears silent on the subject. So... is it one of those things where if it isn't prohibited, it's allowed? :P $\endgroup$
    – newmanth
    Apr 11, 2014 at 22:14

In the Center environment, at a non-towered airport, if you're cleared for a specific approach, that's what is being protected, including circling, and the missed approach.

There is no provision for a pilot to change the approach without contacting ATC.

Also, controllers do not clear for "circle to land", or any other runway "landing" clearance at non-towered airports, because we cannot see the runway.

Any clearance at an non-towered airport that includes the phrase "cleared to land" or "circle to land" is incorrect for that reason. Let the buyer beware.

We see this primarily with former terminal controllers that have transferred into the Center.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. In the terminal (radar) environment, for a non-towered airport, everything you said also applies: Aircraft are cleared for a specific approach, and may not execute a different approach (before or after the missed approach point!) without receiving an amended clearance. But they may circle to land on any runway, as long as they comply with the appropriate circling minima. An approach clearance is not a landing clearance and "ATC gave me this straight-in approach" is not an excuse for colliding with opposite-direction traffic. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Jun 8, 2021 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ @randomhead, you're alright. Come on out to ZDV, sometime! $\endgroup$
    – atc_ceedee
    Jun 9, 2021 at 18:22

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