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So the answer in my mind is "of course pilots can fly circling approaches at non-towered airports" (seriously, I could swear that I've done it before, but then again I can't think of any specific examples....).

That is, until I ran across this little tidbit in the Air Traffic Control Order while researching another question:

4-8-6. CIRCLING APPROACH

a. Circling approach instructions may only be given for aircraft landing at airports with operational control towers.

So then the question becomes, why do they have circling minimums at non-towered airports??

KBRY minimums

  • No tower here.
  • ATC can't clear me to circle.
  • Why do we have circling minimums??
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    $\begingroup$ It does sound rather vague. It seems that what it means to say is that ATC cannot prescribe one to circle unless at a towered field. The AIM says only 'This maneuver is made only after ATC authorization has been obtained and the pilot has established required visual reference to the airport' which seems to indicate that one can still request to circle-to-land $\endgroup$ – alexsh Apr 2 '14 at 20:39
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The way I understand that ATC order is that it is about "circling approach instructions" which is different than "(circling) approach clearance". They cannot tell you to enter a left downwind, do a right 360, or follow some other specific path to the runway. If they clear you to execute a circling approach to a given runway at a non-towered airport, then the path to the runway is for the pilot to determine, as necessary to separate yourself from other aircraft in the terminal area and land safely.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, the next paragraph says b. Include in the approach clearance instructions to circle to the runway in use if..... This means that the circling instructions are part of the approach clearance, and a. specifically says that there must be an operational tower in order to issue them. Apparently there is no circling approach clearance since they are just instructions appended to the normal approach clearance. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Apr 3 '14 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ I think we are agreeing, that's why I put (circling) in parens. At non-towered airports, you pretty much just get an approach clearance. You can shoot that approach and then decide to circle and land at some different runway than the normal straight-in runway for that approach, if you break out and see a windsock that makes you think you should. The terminal area is yours to operate in and you'll be the only IFR in there. $\endgroup$ – RobP Apr 3 '14 at 2:51
  • $\begingroup$ Well, that's what I think too but am looking for a specific FAA reference which verifies your last comment. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Apr 3 '14 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ I'm hunting too... will it be the ATC orders? the AIM? Instrument Flying Handbook? Parts 91/135/121? Let's play FAA bingo... will let you know if I find anything! $\endgroup$ – RobP Apr 3 '14 at 2:59
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    $\begingroup$ Haha, I've looked in a lot of that (not the Instrument Flying Handbook yet though). Good luck in your hunt! $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Apr 3 '14 at 3:00
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I've done quite a number of circling approaches at non-towered airports. ATC clears one for the approach by type (VOR 4, VOR-A, GPS 32, etc). There's no mention of how it is executed or terminates (other than missed approach instructions). Want to fly the RNAV/GPS by the LNAV minimums, fine. LPV, sure, go ahead, want to circle from 32 around to 4, they don't know how you're doing it. They just know that the airspace around the airport is clear for you to execute and approach (and go missed). Once you switch to CTAF, you're otherwise on your own. There's nobody to give you a landing clearance either, but that doesn't mean you're not allowed to land! :-)

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    $\begingroup$ Technically you are supposed to let them know that you are planning to execute circle-to-land. In reality, many circling minima are below 700 feet, i.e. in class G for most non-towered airports (not all of course), so ATC has no jurisdiction there anyway. I think the question was about the formal interpretation of a particular phrasing in the ATC order. $\endgroup$ – alexsh Apr 3 '14 at 17:16
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As I understand 5-4-20 circling minima provide obstacle clearance within a lateral distance of the runway. In certain circumstances it may be necessary to overfly the landing environment to establish winds, etc. This should only be done when the pattern is in VFR conditions. 4-8-6 applies to clearances given not necessarily all safe operations.

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The definition of a circling approach read as follows: "A circling approach is the visual phase of an instrument approach to bring an aircraft into position for landing on a runway which is not suitably located for a straight-in approach. (JAR-OPS 1.435 (a) (1))"

Now, if a non-towered airport has an instrument approach and at the end of that approach you see the runway then you circle around and land. So the answer would be yes, you can circle to land at a non-towered airport.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer does not address the question: can a circling approach be flown at an uncontrolled field. Additionally, the second half of this answer is quite incorrect. At the decision height or missed approach point, if the runway environment is not in sight, a pilot must execute the missed approach procedure. Circling is only used when the runway is in sight, but the final approach course is not lined up with the landing runway. $\endgroup$ – NathanG Oct 20 '16 at 3:24
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If approaching an uncontrolled field at altitude a pilot can over fly the airport in order to determine wind direction and traffic in the pattern. The pilot can then begin circling while descending to pattern altitude and enter the pattern merging with other traffic. General aviation airports are not usually located where there are obstacles that have to be avoided during the approach unless there are mountains nearby that prevent a straight in final approach.

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    $\begingroup$ Many (but not all) non-towered airports with approaches in the USA have either AWOS or ASOS for weather information. Obstacles are noted on the approach plate and may cause restrictions, such as "no circling west of the field". $\endgroup$ – Brian Knoblauch Apr 3 '14 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ " General aviation airports are not usually located where there are obstacles that have to be avoided during the approach unless there are mountains nearby that prevent a straight in final approach." is one of the most dangerous things I have heard uttered in a while. You must not fly into small airports out West much. $\endgroup$ – RobP Apr 4 '14 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianKnoblauch automated weather is not regulatory $\endgroup$ – rbp Feb 10 '15 at 17:29

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