When you're circling, it has been said that you are required to keep view of the runway at all times below the MDA. However, sometimes this can be impossible due to issues with visibility, such as being banked to turn around for final, or because a flock of birds are circling between the airport and your aircraft. Are you required to execute the missed approach if this occurs or not?


2 Answers 2


A "circle-to-land" maneuver is basically a low-altitude traffic pattern - albeit one that you arrived at by being guided in on some instrument approach. The magic that makes this low (and possibly abbreviated) pattern possible is that the runway ends at airports with circling approaches have protected (obstacle free) airspace around them, which looks something like this:
Circling Approach Area
(A more detailed explanation of the size of the circling approach area can be found on this question.)

Since it's basically a traffic pattern my understanding is you treat it as such, and that as long as you stay in visual contact with the airport and within the protected airspace (by visually judging your distance from the field, and knowing your altitude) you're unlikely to hit anything, and you can do all your usual pattern maneuvering as long as you can ***visually* be sure you're within the pretty blue part of the image above (your GPS cant help you here).

To see what this means for an example approach with some turns, consider my liberally-stolen and slightly-marked-up diagram below.

Circling Approach Diagram

If you lose contact with your intended runway end for a few seconds because of the turn/bank required at point "A" that's OK: as long as you can still maintain visual contact with the airport/runway environment when you roll out (say by looking out the back window), and as long as you can remain clear of clouds, and can maintain visual clearance from any potential obstacles you may continue the approach.

If you're flying out and on the leg from "A" to "B" and all of a sudden you look back out the window and the airport is gone in the haze and clouds, you need to go missed: You've lost the airport/runway environment, and can no longer judge your distance to stay in the "safe" airspace.

Similarly if you're in a high-wing aircraft and your turns at "B" and "C" briefly obscure the airport while you're turning you can still continue the approach - if you've any doubt where the airport is just pick up the wing like you would in a VFR pattern (and if the airport isn't there like it's supposed to be go missed!)

Regarding your bird scenario, that's an interesting one that I don't think is covered in any diagrams, but if a flock of birds causes you to maneuver in such a way that you lose contact with the airport (and you can't just pick up a wing and have it be right where you expected it to be) you're obviously going to have to abandon the approach and go missed. It's the equivalent of the airport disappearing in the haze on that A-to-B leg.

Honestly though, if a flock of birds shows up and hangs out in a way that requires you to start maneuvering around them while you're trying to shoot a circling approach in real IFR you may want to just go missed anyway (given the odds this probably won't cost you too many approaches).

In a real world situation with poor visibility, possibly precipitation, and likely a cloud ceiling really close to your altitude, do you really want to try to be maneuvering down low to avoid some stupid bird that couldn't even be bothered to call the tower?

Wouldn't you feel much better pointing the aircraft in a generally "upward" direction and following the nice friendly needle again for a little while?

I'm just starting my IFR training, but I think I'd feel better with that option :-)


According to 14 CFR 91.175(e) you must go missed...

Whenever an identifiable part of the airport is not distinctly visible to the pilot during a circling maneuver at or above MDA, unless the inability to see an identifiable part of the airport results only from a normal bank of the aircraft during the circling approach.

I added the emphasis about the MDA, because 91.175(c) says that below the MDA you're required to have the runway environment in sight.

This FAA paper on approaches to MDA/DH has more information and also states that the airport must be in sight:

You must have visual contact with the airport before attempting a circle-to-land maneuver, and you must maintain visual contact with the airport at all times while circling to land.

The AIM 5-4-21 explains how to get established on the missed approach:

To become established on the prescribed missed approach course, the pilot should make an initial climbing turn toward the landing runway and continue the turn until established on the missed approach course

  • $\begingroup$ Good find on that FAA paper - I was looking for it last night but my Google-Fu was weak :( $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Dec 26, 2013 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ "visual reference" does not necessarily mean the runway does it? If you can see anything, and you know where the runway is in relation to what you're seeing (e.g. the control tower, or a radar dish), wouldn't that count as still having a visual reference? $\endgroup$
    – falstro
    Dec 26, 2013 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ @roe FAR 91.175 defines the allowed visual references and they're all part of the runway environment, so I believe the tower itself wouldn't count. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Dec 27, 2013 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ @roe note that all as Pondlife said the elements you can use as references are part of the runway environment, but they're spaced out along the whole length of the runway -- that is you don't need to have the runway end you're going to land on in sight at all times, you just need at least one of those elements to continue your approach (and it seems like it would be pretty darn hard to lose them all and still be in a situation where you'd want to continue the attempt to land). $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Dec 27, 2013 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ @egid After re-reading 91.175e(2), I think you're right, the airport must be in sight but not necessarily the runway. It says you must go missed "Whenever an identifiable part of the airport is not distinctly visible to the pilot during a circling maneuver at or above MDA, unless the inability to see an identifiable part of the airport results only from a normal bank of the aircraft during the circling approach". So it's airport at or above DA and runway below, as far as I can tell. Good catch, I'll update my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jan 13, 2014 at 21:27

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