I'm curious why descent below DA/DH or MDA could only be accomplished in visual approach conditions? Is there any regulation to indicate that?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking about seeing the runway in general, or about it seeing with unaided vision? Before it was edited, your question seemed like you might be asking if synthetic vision, night vision goggles or other things would be acceptable? If so, there are indeed specific regulations on using them in place of unaided vision. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jan 30 '19 at 21:07

The FAA states it pretty explicitly in their definitions:

Decision Altitude (DA). A specified altitude in the precision approach at which a missed approach must be initiated if the required visual reference to continue the approach has not been established...

and similar for MDA

Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA). The lowest altitude, expressed in feet above mean sea level, to which descent is authorized on final approach or during circle-to-land maneuvering in execution of a standard instrument approach procedure where no electronic glide slope is provided.

To over simplify it a bit: As noted in the comments, ignoring the not in use CAT IIIC approaches the whole point of an instrument approach is to get you down to a specified point where you should be able to see the runway. If you can't, then the weather has degraded and you must either try again or go to an alternate. The big idea being that at some point you need to be able to see the runway in order to land on it. Depending on how precise the equipment you are using is (ILS, GPS, RNAV, VOR, (AFD dare we say)) the height you can get down to without being able to see the runway changes.

As for why there are minimums its likely historical, and at least in part practical. Not all approach systems/options take you right down to the threshold like say a circling approach and its possible to fly a poor approach that is within limits and not be directly in line with the runway when you pop out of the clouds. Thus you will need some time and distance to align visually, so minimums exist. On the historical side, early attempts at instrument landings systems we less than optimal to say the least and you would need time to pop out and align.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In addition to the precision of the guidance, there will be some cases where, if you proceed below your published minimums & then later realize that the visibility is insufficient for a safe landing, you may not have the required obstacle clearance during the missed approach. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Jan 30 '19 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ The question asks why though, which I don't see addressed here? $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Jan 30 '19 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ Also, instrument approaches have some margin for pilot error, meaning even on a precision approach, you may not be lined up correctly. The pilot needs some time (i.e. altitude) to recognize and correct that before touching down. For non-precision approaches, you may be approaching from up to 180 degrees off the runway, which means a much larger (and usually much higher) obstacle clearance area. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Jan 30 '19 at 23:47

Federal Aviation Regulation 91.175(c) discusses operating below the DA/MDA of an approach. According to this regulation, in order to descend below the minimums for an approach:

  1. we don't care about this.
  2. we don't really care about this either.

  3. At least one of the following visual references for the intended runway is distinctly visible and identifiable to the pilot...(goes on to list the references, essentially the runway, runway lights, and surrounding environment).

Thusly, we can see that (excluding CATII and III approaches, and approaches with an Electronic Flight Vision System [disccused in FAR 91.167]) it is legally required to have certain visual references in sight before descending below minimums. The required weather conditions, however, are often below what would be considered VMC (or true visual conditions).


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