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How To Fly An Instrument Arrival Procedure (STAR)

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No matter what you fly, you'll learn about Standard Terminal Arrival Procedures (STAR) during your instrument training. But most pilots won't fly an arrival until they're in something that burns Jet A. Or until they're flying near the flight levels.

Arrival procedures streamline inbound IFR traffic into defined routes. They usually start with a transition, and the one we're flying, the TEJAS 3 Arrival, starts at the Corpus Christie VOR. But the TEJAS arrival also routes traffic from other areas to the west, like San Antonio. Eventually, all of these transition routes merge, and the aircraft join the same route. On the TEJAS arrival, that happens at GMANN.

Arrivals help center and approach control organize traffic flowing into a terminal area. And you don't have to fly a jet to fly an arrival. In the Cirrus, ATC usually assigns an arrival procedure when we return to the Denver area.

ATC organizes arriving traffic in three dimensions. They're managing altitude, lateral path, and airspeed to keep traffic separated. Arrivals help with all three.

Managing Altitude

Arrivals provide a scripted way to descend, and there are two ways to get down. Either ATC can manage your descent, or they can clear you to "descend via" the arrival.

In the Cirrus, ATC usually manages our descent, giving us altitudes to maintain. They step us down, keeping us vertically separated above or below other traffic on the arrival. And they do that because we're slow, compared to other traffic. When we're flying an arrival, we're around 135 knots indicated. Jet traffic can be flying 250 knots of faster, so we're in their way.

But, if you can keep up with the traffic flow, ATC will often clear you to descend via the arrival. That allows you to descend to each minimum altitude on the procedure, but it also requires you to meet every altitude crossing restriction.

Managing Speed

Arrival procedures also help ATC sequence aircraft by controlling their speed. They often have maximum and mandatory speeds, which keeps traffic moving at the same rate. On the TEJAS arrival into Houston, the traffic slows to maintain 280 knots, and then eventually slows to maintain 210 knots indicated. Those speeds aren't possible in most pistons, and this arrival can only be flown by turbine and turboprop aircraft.

When you're cleared for an arrival, you're following a lateral path and managing your power to meet speed restrictions. And, if you're cleared to descend via the arrival, you're managing your altitude to hit each crossing restriction.

Crossing Restrictions

As we approach GMANN, we need to cross at or below FL190 and at or above 16,000' MSL, and we need to slow and maintain 280 knots indicated.

As we cross CITTE, we need to meet the 16,000' or below restriction. And we're slowing from 280 knots, getting ready for the 250 knot mandatory speed at TEJAS.

We cross TEJAS at the bottom of our altitude block, right at 250 knots. And the rest of the flight is smooth as we make our way into HOWLN. From HOWLN we follow the transition for runway 27. We'll stay at six thousand until ATC clears us lower, flying to SHIVV, SMOCR and PRAYY.

As we cross SHIVV, ATC starts setting us up for the visual approach. We're slowing to 210 knots, descending from 6,000' for 3,000' As we reach PRAY, ATC turns us north for the visual approach.


You can see how the arrival set us up to land. It's amazing how little we heard from ATC. No altitude changes, no headings, and no traffic issues. Especially considering how many aircraft are converging on Houston Intercontinental. But that's what arrivals are good at. Take hundreds of aircraft, line them up, and funnel them in to a runway.

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