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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, 2014 at 20:39

7 Answers 7

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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, 2014 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, 2014 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, 2014 at 2:54
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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, 2014 at 3:00
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    $\begingroup$ "If they clear you to execute a circling approach to a given runway at a non-towered airport" — they will not. ATC issues the approach clearance only. How the pilot gets to a runway after breaking out is entirely their prerogative, as is the choice of runway in the first place. An approach clearance to an untowered airport is just that, a clearance for an approach to the airport, regardless of whether the approach is lined up with any given runway. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Jul 13, 2021 at 17:50
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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, 2014 at 17:16
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ATC-issued circling instructions are, by definition, instructions to land on a certain runway. At untowered airports ATC does not issue landing clearances, or indeed any instructions related to any runway, so obviously they cannot issue circling instructions. See the Pilot/Controller Glossary term and phraseology (emphasis in paragraph mine):

CIRCLE-TO-LAND MANEUVER- A maneuver initiated by the pilot to align the aircraft with a runway for landing when a straight-in landing from an instrument approach is not possible or is not desirable. At tower controlled airports, this maneuver is made only after ATC authorization has been obtained and the pilot has established required visual reference to the airport.

CIRCLE TO RUNWAY (RUNWAY NUMBER)- Used by ATC to inform the pilot that he/she must circle to land because the runway in use is other than the runway aligned with the instrument approach procedure.

There is no specific "runway in use" at untowered airports—all runways are equally "active" unless they are closed by the airport authority. The fact that ATC issues a specific approach clearance to an untowered airport does not relieve the pilot of their responsibility to maneuver as necessary to join any VFR traffic using the airport, and does not limit their ability to maneuver to a different runway better aligned with the wind; the pilot may:

  • land straight-in
  • circle-to-land on a different (or the same!) runway than the one aligned with the instrument approach
  • enter the VFR traffic pattern for any given runway, or
  • go around and fly the published missed approach.

ATC will neither approve nor disapprove such runway-related operations.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! You say that "ATC-issued circling instructions are, by definition, instructions to land on a certain runway." Do you have a reference and/or a quote that you can include in your answer with the actual definition that you are referring to? This seems as if it would address the confusion which led to my original question! $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Jul 13, 2021 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Lnafziger, edited. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Jul 13, 2021 at 17:32
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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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ATC cannot give circling instructions at a non-towered airport. For instance, they can’t say “cleared RNAV 2 Circle 20”. They just clear you for the approach, and you decide if you want/need to circle. All runways are “active”.

When there is an (operating) tower, they decide which runways are “active” vs not, and Approach either clears you for an approach to a specific active runway (possibly including circling instructions) or, if you request an inactive runway for some reason, must coordinate with Tower to make sure that’s safe.

Either way, both Tower and Approach need to make sure your circle isn’t going to conflict with other departing or arriving IFR aircraft, especially if they’re using auto-release, which isn’t an issue at non-towered fields due to the one-in/one-out rule.

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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, 2016 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". $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2014 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, 2014 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianKnoblauch automated weather is not regulatory $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Feb 10, 2015 at 17:29

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