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?

  • 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. – Pondlife Oct 17 '16 at 12:55

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

APPROACH CLEARANCE

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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    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. – Lnafziger Apr 2 '14 at 6:54
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    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. – TypeIA Apr 3 '14 at 15:21
  • @dvnrrs after doing some research, I came to that conclusion as well. Perhaps you can post an answer to that effect? – newmanth Apr 11 '14 at 21:55
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    @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. – TypeIA Apr 11 '14 at 22:10
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    @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 – newmanth Apr 11 '14 at 22:14

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