Monday, July 14, 2008

Follow the Rules, Follow your Nose

I heard a fascinating exchange the other day between an Oakland Center controller and a pilot who was flying into Little River, near Mendicino on the northern California coast. The important background for this exchange is that weather at Little River is often IFR and this airport does not (yet) have any instrument approach procedures. Apparently the county and the airport association have been working for several years to get an RNAV approach to runways 29 and 11, but I gather there are several hurdles left to clear.

One important accomplishment is that the airport recently installed an automated weather observing system (AWOS-3) that can be accessed on the airport's common traffic advisory frequency. So it is likely the pilot I heard who was inbound for landing at Little River had received the "one minute weather" from the AWOS. Either that or he couldn't see the airport because he asked Oakland Center for a contact approach, which indicated to me that the aircraft was operating under instrument flight rules (IFR).

To my surprise, the center controller approved his request, terminated radar service, cleared him to the airport's advisory frequency, and asked him to cancel on the center frequency or on the ground with flight service. Here's an excerpt from the Low Altitude En Route chart that shows Little River. Note that the airport symbol (which I've circled in red) is rendered in brown ink, meaning the airport has no instrument approach procedures.

To readers who are not familiar the term "contact approach," it is procedure conducted under instrument flight rules that allows a pilot to proceed with visual references to an airport. In the U.S., the pilot must be operating clear of clouds, have at least 1 mile flight visibility, and must reasonably expect to be able to continue to the destination airport in these conditions. Like a Special VFR clearance, a controller cannot offer a contact approach, the pilot must request it.

I was startled that the Oakland Center controller approved the pilot's request for a contact approach because, to my knowledge, the airport has no instrument approaches available. Section 5-4-24(c) of the Aeronautical Information Manual is very clear about this, so I'll just quote it (emphasis mine):
A contact approach is an approach procedure that may be used by a pilot (with prior authorization from ATC) in lieu of conducting a standard or special IAP to an airport. It is not intended for use by a pilot on an IFR flight clearance to operate to an airport not having a published and functioning IAP. Nor is it intended for an aircraft to conduct an instrument approach to one airport and then, when "in the clear," discontinue that approach and proceed to another airport. In the execution of a contact approach, the pilot assumes the responsibility for obstruction clearance. If radar service is being received, it will automatically terminate when the pilot is instructed to change to advisory frequency.
So either there's a special instrument approach procedure into Little River of which I'm unaware or the controller should not have approved the pilot's request for a contact approach.

The airspace around Little River is Class G (uncontrolled airspace) up to 1200 feet AGL (above ground level). Above 1200 feet is Class E (controlled airspace). I've heard many a hair-raising tale about pilots scud running their way into Little River and it always seems the pilot involved was heavily under the influence of "getthereitus." If you can stay clear of the clouds at or below 1200 feet AGL and you have 1 mile visibility, you're legal to try to fly VFR into Little River. But just because it's legal doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do.

As to why an FAA air traffic controller would clear someone for a contact approach into an airport that doesn't have an instrument approach procedure, well I'm still trying to figure out that one. Perhaps it is due to the influx of so many newly hired controllers or some other factor of which I am not aware ...


Anonymous said...

You raise a good point. More than likely, the center controller was unfamiliar with the specific regulations regarding contact approaches, as they aren't something that most enroute controllers encounter on a regular basis.

For the record, the AIM is not regulatory. For anything involving ATC, you'll want to refer to the 7110.65:



Clear an aircraft for a contact approach only if the
following conditions are met:


c. A standard or special instrument approach procedure has been published and is functioning for the airport of intended landing.

John said...


The AIM is not regulatory, but as you point out in this case it simply states what is specified in 7110.65S "Air Traffic Control." The AIM contains a set of best practices and failing to follow those practices is a bad idea.

Saying that an aviation professional can be forgiven not knowing something they should know because it is seldom used seems like a stretch to me. I don't excuse ATC from being ignorant of the details of contact approaches any more than I condone instrument rated pilots claiming they don't need to know how to enter a holding pattern because ATC almost never assigns them.

And for the record, Oakland Center provides more than just en route functions, they provide approach control to a variety of different airports in Northern California. There's no excuse for them not understanding the requirements for a contact approach.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I'm not trying to excuse the controller's apparent lack of knowledge -- I'm merely offering an explanation of how this could have happened.

I've heard estimates that an enroute controller has to know in excess of 13,000 pieces of information. While such estimates are clearly little more than wild guesses, it goes to illustrate that it's simply impossible for any person to memorize rule, regulation, and piece of airspace that could possibly be faced.

Again, this is not to excuse controllers who make mistakes. If there were an accident or incident on the contact approach you mentioned, controller error who very likely be listed as a major contributing factor.

As you mentioned, it's also quite possible that training or staffing issues are at play here as well. It would be almost impossible to overstate the impact that controller attrition is going to have on the NAS over the next several years.

Finally, a niggling point. Controllers who work at centers are referred to as enroute controllers, and have to adhere to "ENROUTE" specific regulations, even if they are performing functions which are more commonly done by approach controllers. The following paragraph from section 1-2-5 of the .65 states that such regulations are applied on a facility-wide basis, regardless of the service being provided.

d. Paragraphs/sections annotated with EN ROUTE, OCEANIC, or TERMINAL are only to be applied by the designated type facility. When they are not so designated, the paragraphs/sections apply to all types of facilities (en route, oceanic, and terminal).

I think we are in agreement on all points here, and are just debating over the semantics of it. Either way, there's never a bad reason to go back in the books to look up information.

Andy said...

As always a good post. Seldom used procedures are subject to misuse. A cruise clearance is also seldom used but would probably have been more appropriate in this case. All the pilot is trying to do is be able to manuever below the minimum vectoring altitude as allowed in 91.177. Once the clearance is accepted it's the pilot's responsibility to maintain a safe altitude until in a position to land.

John said...


Glad you brought up the cruise clearance. Let's chase that rabbit down the hole, shall we?

Order 7110.65S 4-5-7(2) says: "When an aircraft is issued a cruise clearance to an airport which does not have a published instrument approach procedure, it is not possible to satisfy the requirement for a crossing altitude that will ensure terrain clearance until the aircraft reaches a fix, point, or route where altitude information is available to the pilot. Under those conditions, a cruise clearance without a crossing restriction authorizes a pilot to determine the minimum IFR altitude as prescribed in 14 CFR Section 91.177 and descend to it at pilot discretion if it is lower than the altitude specified in the cruise clearance."

Check out 14 CFR 91.177(a)(2)(i) and we find: "In the case of operations over an area designated as a mountainous area in part 95 of this chapter, an altitude of 2,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal distance of 4 nautical miles from the course to be flown"

Little River is in a "mountainous area" so there's no way the pilot could have legally descended below 2000' MSL, assuming they maneuver over the ocean, without canceling IFR.

I don't know what Oakland Center's minimum vectoring altitude is around Little River, but the nearest MOCA is 6100 feet. My experience is that below 5000 feet in this area there's no radar or radio contact with Oakland Center.

Under these circumstances, there's no way to condone the pilot asking for a contact approach nor the controller issuing the clearance. If this is a regular practice at that airport, it's only a matter of time before something bad happens.

etocjr said...

I've been in the ATC business in Northern California for over 20 years and I can count on one hand how many times I've heard of a contact approach being issued.

The FAA historically has done a poor job with intial and recurrent training on instrument procedures. I'll bet that the vast majority of controllers that do not have a pilot certificate have no idea of the requirements for a contact approach other than the pilot has to ask for it.

This lack of knowledge, coupled with the influx of new hires to address the staffing crisis that is here (contrary to FAA spin otherwise) and the associated dash to train them the basics, this won't change for some time.

Don Brown said...

"The AIM is not regulatory, but as you point out in this case it simply states what is specified in 7110.65S "Air Traffic Control." The AIM contains a set of best practices and failing to follow those practices is a bad idea."'re just being diplomatic, John. The AIM might not be regulatory but 99 percent of what's in Chapters 4 and 5 is based on something that is.

I know "the book" pretty well (ask around) and I reach for the AIM first. If it's in the AIM, I know there's something regulatory -- somewhere -- to back it up. And it's a whole lot easy to search and read.

Nice blog, BTW.

Don Brown

etocjr said...

And to add to what Don said...

There are a few enforcement appeals where the NTSB has ruled that operating contrary to the AIM is a violation of 91.13.

Tim H said...

The controllers are DO NOT control according to the regs. In other words they will LET YOU violate yourself all day! There was a guy on an ILS broke out and was visual by 800 agl. There was faster traffic behind him so the pilot offered to sidestep to allow the faster traffic to continue their approach, and make it easier on the controller. An faa inspector listening found the pilot and violated him! WHY? VFR rules require 1000adl ceiling (which there was not), and the MDA for a side step was higher than the 800' ceiling. Legally the pilot COULD NOT perform a side step, but the controller let him do it! I also had a controller do that to me, luckily the ceilings were more than 1000' and my cfi was quick on the radio to request ifr cancellation, because we too were below the sidestep mda!

Roy said...

I am a bit late getting to this, because I only now found this site. however, since I live weekends in Little River and weekdays in the Bay Area - the thread caught my eye. Just for FYI I am a CFII, MEI and have been an active pilot since 1977.
I do not know why the "contact approach" was given either - it also seems inappropriate to me.

However, pilots flying in that area should understand a couple of things. When the marine layer is in, most local pilots will "scud run" to get in. While in the interest of aviation safety, I do not want to encourage scud running - I will point out that scud running to an airport where you very familiar with the terrain is a bit different than scud running in unfamiliar terrain. running. It is possible to safely fly in one mile visibility if you know where you are and where you are going . For the locals, there are some very safe ways in - in some conditions. Usually those conditions are at least a 500 foot ceiling and good visibility beneath. The route, however, is very important.

More importantly, it is important to understand that it is also legal to fly IFR in uncontrolled airspace without a clearance. That is often done to get out of Little River by instrument rated pilots. Yesterday, for example, the ceiling was about 50 feet and 1/4 mile and tops were at 1100 MSL which is 500 AGL. The marine layer came in quickly so many pilots were trapped and decided not to fly. At the time I left, about six instrument rated pilots were leaving. it seemed that about 1/2 filed IFR, and the others departed IFR without a clearance (again - legal in this case). So, for those of you flying low over the top of the marine layer (also legal since you only need to remain clear of clouds) - monitor Unicom since a variety of aircraft - including some jets - may come punching out of that deck and whether or not they are on a flight plan...

John said...


Thanks for your observations. As a pilot who regularly operates into and out of Little River, you can speak with authority as to how local operations are conducted.

Your observations about how some pilots choose to operate in IMC without a clearance should give other pilots pause when considering whether or not to scud run into that airport.

If there are only a few low ceiling/visibility VFR routes into the airport, this certainly increases the possibility of two aircraft coming into close contact while trying to use the same route. All you need is someone tuning the wrong common traffic advisory frequency, not hearing/understanding another pilot's position report, another pilot giving an unclear position report, or another pilot just not making a position report at all: All-too-common problems at non-towered airports.

Aircraft that decide to depart in the low visibility conditions you describe are not specifically prohibited from doing so by the regulations. There have been enforcement cases where the PIC was found to have acted in a careless and reckless manner by departing in near zero-zero conditions. Pilots should respect the fact that departing in very low visibility conditions is inherently more dangerous that departing in the minimum conditions prescribed in 14 CFR 91.175 for 121 and 135 operators.

As for operating just clear of the tops of the marine layer in the vicinity of Little River, that could only be done when flying in Class G airspace (below 1200' AGL in that area). If the marine layer is at or about 1200' MSL, it would be prudent (and legal) to stay 1000' above the clouds.

Thanks again for your comments.