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I understand that even during IFR, the ATC can authorize visual approach to the pilots. Are there any tell-tale signs from track data (for example as on FlightRadar24) that will show the aircraft is being flown on a visual approach? I am trying to distinguish approaches and operations that are visual and instrument from the flight tracks in the terminal airspace.

Edit: I want to clarify that I meant instances of IFR during VMC. I believe it happens around big airports. During IMC I assume the pilots would not be able to do any visual approach.

Thank you

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    $\begingroup$ @757toga The OP's first sentence makes good sense if by IFR we understand an instrument flight rules clearance, which can include operations happening in VMC, while it would make little sense to discuss a clearance for a visual approach while in IMC. While there are certainly instances where writers use "IFR" when they really mean "IMC", I don't see how this is likely to be one of them. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Nov 13, 2022 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ @757toga The australian Visual Flight Rules Guide contains "Visual approach (AIP ENR 1.1) ATC authorisation For a VFR flight by day or night ATC may give you a visual approach when you are within 30 NM of the aerodrome. ..." $\endgroup$ Nov 14, 2022 at 10:13

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According to ,1 for an instrument approach there is the concept of an approach gate, an imaginary point in space which is along the final approach course and is the farther of:

  • 1NM outside of the final approach fix, or
  • 5NM from the runway threshold.

Aircraft being vectored to intercept the course of an instrument approach procedure must be vectored to intercept final in accordance with the following:

  • If the weather does not permit vectoring for a visual approach, and for all RNAV approaches, no closer than 2NM outside of the approach gate;
  • If the weather does permit vectoring for a visual approach, for non-RNAV approaches, no closer than the approach gate;
  • Only upon pilot request, for non-RNAV approaches, inside the approach gate but in no case closer than the final approach fix itself.

So a tell-tale sign that an approach was a visual one is if the track turns base-to-final inside of the FAF.

Of course on many visual approaches the pilot will fly out beyond the FAF, whether due to ATC instructions (e.g. for traffic sequence) or due to company policy. Other signs that an approach was visual may include:

  • A continuous downwind-to-final turn instead of a defined base
  • Lack of a "dogleg" turn between base and final
  • Any track which has the aircraft flying direct to the FAF before turning toward the runway
  • Evidence of visual maneuvers on final, i.e. S-turns for spacing
  • Lack of perfect alignment with the instrument approach course on final

But it is possible for a pilot to be cleared for a visual approach and then elect to use an instrument procedure as back-up guidance, and if they do so it might appear as if they were cleared for the instrument approach.


1Not regulations as such but FAA Order JO 7110.65 which provides rules and procedures that ATC must follow.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice explanation! What language can a pilot use to unambiguously request a vector to intercept final inside the approach gate (i.e. as close to the FAF as possible)? $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Nov 13, 2022 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ If you're volunteering it, "we'll take a vector inside the approach gate" is just fine. To be honest though the more common situation is that I misjudge when to turn someone's base, they'll be too tight, and I have to say "this vector will take you inside the approach gate, is that okay or do you want me to vector you around again?" To which the pilot will invariably reply that it's fine, they want to land sooner rather than later, thanks. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Nov 14, 2022 at 3:23
  • $\begingroup$ Cool. Don't recall hearing "inside the approach gate" terminology before; will try to remember that one. Guessing that "short approach" or "short/close-in vectors" aren't standard enough to necessarily accomplish the same thing? $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Nov 14, 2022 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, those probably wouldn't be specific enough for most controllers to be comfortable doing it. The "approach gate" term should get you exactly what you want though. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Nov 14, 2022 at 3:47

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