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A pilot on an IFR flight plan is executing a visual approach to a towered airport.

The pilot executes a go-around due to gusting winds and notifies the tower controller. The controller asks his intentions. He replies that he would like to make another attempt to land at the airport. The controller instructs: "Squawk VFR and enter a left downwind for runway 5."

Is the instruction to squawk VFR proper? Are the rules different under FAA/EASA/ICAO regulations?

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  • $\begingroup$ Curious about what Class airspace it was. I was reading Class D controllers only "use visual means to identify and separate aircraft". $\endgroup$ – Robert DiGiovanni Mar 24 '19 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ Ryan, he intends to land after going around. Robert, yes - tower controllers are primarily visual. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Mar 25 '19 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ Were you on an IFR plan or simply shooting practice approaches? It's somewhat "normal" if shooting practice approaches and you have not informed tower of your intent to do multiple approaches. If you are on an IFR plan and did not agree to cancel IFR, it's unusual. $\endgroup$ – acpilot Mar 31 '19 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ Voting to reopen after editing the question to clarify what I believe was OP's intent: by "requesting to land" the pilot means he is on the upwind leg, and is conveying that he wants to attempt another visual approach at the airport (instead of, e.g., diverting to an alternate airport). $\endgroup$ – randomhead Jul 20 at 17:23
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No, that scenario does not sound normal to me. For one thing, a visual approach is an IFR procedure. Instructing the crew to change to a VFR squawk makes it sound like the controller is suddenly treating the flight as a VFR flight, which makes no sense. A controller is never allowed to just cancel IFR; going from IFR to VFR must always be explicitly requested by the crew ("cancelling my IFR flight"). We are not even allowed to suggest a flight to change to VFR, the idea has to come from the pilot.

Besides, it makes no sense that the controller would change the squawk code of a (presumably) already identified flight to a non-discreet code (1200/7000) since radar identification would then be lost and it would be impossibly to continue to provide radar service.

If the example you provide is a real one, there is obviously a reason for the controller doing what they did, however, based on the limited information you give here, it is hard to see what the reason would be. Maybe if we knew the whole picture, it would make more sense.

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    $\begingroup$ @StephenS Which makes sense, if you are landing at a VFR-only aerodrome (one with no instrument approach). You can't land there IFR. But that's not something enforced by ATC, that's an aerodrome specific restriction that you planned for yourself when you planned the flight. $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Mar 24 '19 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ @J.Hougaard Most public non-towered airports here have an RNAV approach these days, and many already had NDB, VOR or even ILS approaches, so you could stay IFR to the ground if you insist, but Approach will suggest canceling iff they clear you for the visual. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Mar 24 '19 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ @J.Hougaard At least in the US, controllers will make the comment that Stephen mentioned even if the airport has instrument approaches. Many US airports have instrument approaches but no towers, meaning that the pilot has to cancel IFR himself. ATC can't release other IFR traffic into or out of the airport until they receive the cancellation so it's easier for everyone if pilots cancel when airborne if they can. But it's always the pilot's decision, not ATC's, as you said. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Mar 24 '19 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife OK, I guess that's because the US has a slightly special way of dealing with IFR/VFR and opening and closing flightplans. See related: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/35056/… $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Mar 24 '19 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall I wonder why you would make the assumption, since there is nothing in the question to indicate that OP is wondering specifically about US procedures. As such, I have answered in accordance with common practices, not something related to any specific country. $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Mar 25 '19 at 20:00
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You are typically not operating under IFR in the tower controlled traffic pattern if in the United States, so the short answer is yes.

It is not unusual at all to shoot an instrument approach to a runway, execute an option, (i.e. touch and go or low approach) and then turn downwind into the tower landing pattern. Generally tower will ask you to squawk standby to declutter approach control’s scope.

It is correct that when cleared for a visual approach you are still on an IFR clearance. However, what is imporant is the pilots specific words to the controller after aborting the landing: If the pilot stated “missed approach” and began executing the IFR missed approach procedures he/she should expect to continue to be given IFR handling, i.e. vectors by the approach controller to set up for another instrument approach. This is especially true if still talking on approach control’s frequency.

However, if the pilot is on tower frequency, weather is VMC and the tower pattern is open, and for fuel or other reasons the pilot desires to turn downwind immediately after aborting a landing, the request should be stated unambiguously: For example something like, “Tower, N123WP going around, cancel IFR, request left/right closed traffic for landing”. This makes the intention to remain VFR in the pattern to expedite landing clear, and approval from tower along with a request to change squawk would be entirely appropriate.

The pilot in this case stated "going around" and it sounds like tower made a reasonable assumption about intentions based on weather conditions and the fact that the pilot had previously requested visual to a full stop. (Requesting an ILS approach to the option could imply multiple practice instrument approaches might be desired for training...)

If this is not what the pilot wanted, it needs to be rebuked clearly and immediately. For example, “Negative, N123WP is executing the missed approach, request IFR vectors for another visual/ILS/RNAV approach runway 25.”

Instead the pilot accepted tower's clearance to turn downwind into the VFR pattern, and the change to a 1200 code was proper.

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  • $\begingroup$ You may not be operating on a full set of IFR instructions (i.e. heading/route and locked-down altitude) but you should be afforded IFR separation in the traffic pattern, if the go-around was unintentional. Reference: 7–4–1 (a) and (b). Read between the lines for (a) and (b). If you're shooting instrument approaches and request to terminate an approach with "option tower" that does imply cancellation of IFR after completing the option and you will be afforded VFR separation in the pattern. $\endgroup$ – randomhead Feb 1 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ @randomhead, I’m not quite sure what you are trying to say here.... What do you mean by “a full set of IFR instructions”? And are you implying that both IFR and VFR can mingle in the tower traffic pattern, and tower controllers will be expected to manage them both somehow? $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Feb 1 at 4:06
  • $\begingroup$ Late response, sorry. Yes, an aircraft executing an unplanned missed approach in VMC may enter the "VFR" traffic pattern for a runway and retain their IFR clearance despite not receiving IFR instructions (heading and altitude). This is dependent on traffic considerations; if there are other IFR inbounds ATC needs to maintain appropriate airborne separation (3NM), which may preclude this "traffic pattern" option and the a/c will instead be given a heading and altitude and shipped to departure. ATC will continue to provide runway separation between all aircraft (IFR and VFR) as normal. $\endgroup$ – randomhead Jul 20 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ If an IFR aircraft is coming in on an instrument approach and is planning on going around (or performing a touch-and-go) and then staying with Tower for pattern work, the IFR flight is considered completed, and IFR is automatically cancelled, upon completion of the approach. Then an instruction to "squawk VFR in the pattern" would be appropriate. But if the aircraft was supposed to be a full-stop landing and the missed approach was unplanned, ATC cannot cancel their IFR flight plan for them. [cont...] $\endgroup$ – randomhead Jul 20 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ The pilot could say something like "Going around, request to stay in the pattern" (which is not a request to cancel IFR). Then the controller might say "Roger, make [left/right] traffic" or they could say "Unable IFR closed traffic due to IFR inbound, say intentions." Then the pilot has to decide whether to explicitly cancel IFR and continue in the pattern VFR, or accept a heading and altitude for resequencing by Approach. Except for the situation of a planned T/G followed by pattern work, ATC cannot consider an IFR flight plan terminated until the pilot explicitly says "Cancel IFR." $\endgroup$ – randomhead Jul 20 at 15:55
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FAA answer.

No, the instruction to "Squawk VFR" (code 1200) would not be proper in this case. But there can be nuances.

First of all (and this is an extremely pedantic point), just because the controller said "Squawk VFR" does not mean they are no longer providing IFR separation. Yes, yes, of course it is a near-certainty that in this situation, the controller is telling the pilot to squawk VFR because they think the pilot wants to maintain VFR. But it is theoretically possible for a controller to maintain the radar identification of any aircraft squawking any code (or even no code at all, if there is sufficient primary radar coverage) and provide IFR separation to that target. Theoretically, of course.

So the real question is:

Is the controller correct in assuming that a pilot’s request to immediately return to the airport and attempt another landing, following a go-around while executing a missed approach, is a request to cancel IFR?

And again the answer is no, this would not be a correct assumption.

The phrase "cancel IFR" appears several times in the 7110.65. The most important one comes right at the beginning of the document, paragraph 2–1–4 Operational Priority:

NOTE-
It is solely the pilot's prerogative to cancel an IFR flight plan.

ATC is not allowed to solicit cancellation of IFR. The pilot must explicitly state that they wish to cancel their IFR flight plan, to which ATC's proper response is: "(Call sign) IFR CANCELLATION RECEIVED" (4–2–10b). If the pilot does not hear this stated, they are well within their rights to assume they are still on an IFR flight plan. The only exception to this is if the pilot of an IFR flight is performing an approach and, prior to completing the approach, requests to remain in the VFR traffic pattern upon completion. In this case the "flight" is terminated and the aircraft, which had been receiving IFR separation (see 4–8–11a1), will maintain VFR and stay with the Tower controller in the pattern (4–8–12). In this situation the controller saying "Squawk VFR" is purely a housekeeping task to make sure the radar scope reflects reality, namely, the aircraft was VFR as soon as they began the "go" portion of their touch-and-go.

An unplanned go-around by an aircraft executing a visual approach is handled differently. Paragraph 7–4–1 Visual Approach is the relevant rule, and the entire paragraph is germane to the discussion, so I have copied it below:

A visual approach is an ATC authorization for an aircraft on an IFR flight plan to proceed visually and clear of clouds to the airport of intended landing. A visual approach is not a standard instrument approach procedure and has no missed approach segment. An aircraft unable to complete a landing from a visual approach must be handled as any go-around and appropriate IFR separation must be provided until the aircraft lands or the pilot cancels their IFR flight plan.

  • a. At airports with an operating control tower, aircraft executing a go-around may be instructed to enter the traffic pattern for landing and an altitude assignment is not required. The pilot is expected to climb to pattern altitude and is required to maintain terrain and obstruction clearance. ATC must maintain applicable separation from other aircraft.
  • b. At airports without an operating control tower, aircraft executing a go-around are expected to complete a landing as soon as possible or contact ATC for further clearance. ATC must maintain separation from other IFR aircraft.

Notice the difference between a and b. At an untowered airport ATC will only provide separation between the go-around aircraft and other IFR aircraft, which is the only separation IFR aircraft ever receive in Class E airspace.

At a towered airport, ATC may instruct the aircraft to enter the tower pattern, and an altitude assignment is not necessary. The controller will provide "applicable" separation from other aircraft; what this means depends on when the the airspace is Class B, C, or D.

In this situation the aircraft is still IFR, despite being in the VFR traffic pattern. Their clearance limit was the destination airport, and it remains so; they were cleared for a visual approach, and they remain so cleared. They are maneuvering visually and clear of clouds for a landing on the assigned runway.

How the separation is maintained is up to the tower controller. They may call the approach controller and request that no arrivals be cleared for approaches to the airport, thereby effecting non-radar or procedural separation between the aircraft and any IFR arrivals. Or they could coordinate a radar point-out with the approach controller, thus putting the responsibility on them to keep their traffic farther than 3NM/1000' from the go-around aircraft. Or they could use visual separation, whether pilot-applied or tower-applied; visual separation is a valid form of IFR separation, so long as some other form of separation exists before and after the application of vis sep; this means the pilots must have each other in sight, or the controller must have both aircraft in sight, before the aircraft get within three miles of each other.

If the controller is unable to ensure applicable IFR separation, they can say so:

ATC: Unable IFR closed traffic due to IFR inbound. Say intentions.

Then the pilot must decide whether to explicitly say "We'll cancel IFR and enter the pattern" or "Request vectors for another approach."

In no situation should the controller assume the pilot wants to cancel IFR without hearing them say so in no uncertain terms.

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Since you were on an IFR visual approach and have "gone around" after your 1st landing attempt, and are in the landing pattern curcuit, weather permitting, why not do what the tower says?

There may be different procedures for IFR approaches and go arounds. They may have slotted you to "fit in" for left downwind for runway 5 VFR. Switching (to 1200) and landing seems to get it done. Unless you leave the landing pattern or do not follow their instructions, there does not seem to be any harm.

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  • $\begingroup$ It would also help to be clear about approach (as flying into the towers airspace) as compared with being in the pattern and going around. $\endgroup$ – Robert DiGiovanni Mar 24 '19 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ We were IFR and cleared for the visual approach. Over the threshold and winds gusted strongly. The PIC decided to go around, powered up and stopped his decent. He then advised the tower he was "going around" (not "missed"). The Tower asked his intentions and he said he still wished land. TheTower then said: Okay squawk 12) and enter a left downwind and brought us around to land. Those are the complete facts. $\endgroup$ – John D'Alimonte Mar 24 '19 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ There are different procedures for aborting a landing if you are operating visually under IFR vs VFR that need to be clearly understood by instrument rated pilots. This response doesn't really answer the question. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Mar 25 '19 at 18:18

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