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Most IFR flights end with a visual approach - which seems kind of funny, considering the majority of your IFR training centers around shooting instrument approaches. But think about it. How often do you hear "visual approaches are in effect" over ATIS, even when it's cloudy? The weather is usually good enough for you to break out of the clouds before you hit ATC's minimum vectoring altitude.
Visual approaches keep traffic flowing quickly. There's no need to join a published approach course. And, if the weather is above the local minimum IFR enroute or vectoring altitude, and the visibility is above 3 statute miles, you can expect ATC to clear you for a visual approach. All you need is the airport, or the preceding aircraft, in sight. That's why you hear IFR aircraft calling "airport in sight" so often. They're looking for a visual approach clearance.
For ATC to clear an aircraft for a visual approach, the reported ceilings at the airport need to be at or above 1000', and visibility needs to be at or above 3 statute miles. If the airport doesn't have reported weather, ATC can still clear you for a visual approach if they have reasonable assurance the weather meets the 1000 and 3 minimums. In this case, they'll use pilot reports and weather observations in the area.
In this picture, we're arriving at Rocky Mountain Metro (KBJC). The weather is 7000' scattered, 11,000' broken, and 10 miles visibility. Visual approaches are in effect...
And ATC is trying to clear us for the visual - but the sun is working against us. It's hazy, and we can't see the airport. Denver Approach calls out a Challenger in front of us - but we can't see it, either. The sun shining through the haze is too thick. So now what?
The answer is: a contact approach. It's flown the same way as a visual approach, but you don't need the airport in sight. You need to remain clear of clouds, have 1 statute mile of flight visibility, and reasonably expect to continue to the airport in those conditions. Plus, the airport must have a published instrument approach.
The tricky part about a contact approach is, there's no missed approach procedure. So, if you can't make it to the airport while remaining clear of clouds, you're in trouble. If you ask for it, you should be positive you can make it in. Otherwise, you need to fly a published instrument approach. And, you should have a back-up plan in case the weather deteriorates.
We're in these exact conditions. We can see the ponds by Metro airport. We're clear of clouds, and we're positive that we can make it to Metro while remaining clear of clouds an maintaining one mile of flight visibility. And - Rocky Mountain Metro has several published instrument approaches.
But here's the catch: ATC can't initiate a contact approach, you have to ask for it. And, considering that this doesn't happen to us very often, we didn't even think about it. So, we start to join the localizer. And then, we have the airport in sight.
Contact approaches aren't used often, but in the right conditions, they may save you some time when a visual approach isn't an option. If you've used one - tell us about it in the comments!
Aleks is a Boldmethod co-founder and technical director. He's worked in safety and operations in the airline industry, and was a flight instructor and course manager for the University of North Dakota. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.