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How To Fly A Low Approach

Flying a low approach is usually very straightforward, but there are a few things you should keep in mind...

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Flying The Low Approach

Sometimes called a low pass, a low approach is a go-around maneuver following an approach. Instead of landing from the approach, you simply go-around in order to practice the go-around itself or to expedite operations. If you're practicing instrument approaches or the setup to a power-off-180, flying a low approach is a great way to expedite your training flights, and avoid extra time spent on the ground.

According to 4-3-12 of the FAA's AIM, "unless otherwise authorized by ATC, the low approach should be made straight ahead, with no turns or climb made until the pilot has made a thorough visual check for other aircraft in the area." There's usually not a great reason for flying down the runway at low altitude without touching down, either.

So, how low can you go? Well, that really depends on the training goal you have in mind.

If you're flying an instrument approach, you'd go-around at DA/MDA. If you're practicing a power-off-180, it might be just a few feet above the ground.

And for the instructors out there who want to surprise your students with an unexplained go-around, request the option and give a go-around command at various stages of the final approach to see how your student reacts.

Towered Low Approaches

If you're flying into a Class B, C, or D towered airport, you need to request a low approach with the tower controller. According to the AIM, "this request should be made prior to starting the final approach." That's so ATC can ensure that spacing will be adequate between you and any departing/arriving aircraft.

Keep in mind, being cleared for "the option" also constitutes a clearance for flying a low approach.

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Non-Towered Low Approaches

For IFR pilots flying into a non-towered airport, prior to leaving the final approach fix (nonprecision approach) or the outer marker (precision approach), you should make a radio transmission as necessary to alert traffic around you.

If you're flying VFR, add a "low approach" note to the end of your normal traffic pattern radio calls. That will let pilots know to leave you a little extra space on your go-around, or that they can follow you more closely in the pattern for their own landing.

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Low Approaches At Military Airfields

Most of the time, you can't land at military airfields. However, if you talk to the approach/tower controllers, they may clear you for a low approach. Unlike public airports, this is fully up to their operational discretion.

A good example is the Grand Forks Air Force Base, next to UND Aerospace in North Dakota. It's extremely common for CFIs and students to perform instrument approaches at the air force base due to its close proximity to KGFK.

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An "Altitude Restricted Low Approach"

If you haven't heard of an "Altitude Restricted Low Approach," you're not alone. That's because it's tucked away in the ATC Rulebook, the Pilot/Controller Glossary JO 7110.65. Here's what you'll find in 3-10-10...

"A low approach with an altitude restriction of not less than 500 feet above the airport may be authorized except over an aircraft in takeoff position or a departure aircraft. Do not clear aircraft for restricted altitude low approaches over personnel unless airport authorities have advised these personnel that the approaches will be conducted. Advise the approaching aircraft of the location of applicable ground traffic, personnel, or equipment.

The 500 feet restriction is a minimum. Higher altitudes should be used when warranted. For example, 1,000 feet is more appropriate for heavy aircraft operating over unprotected personnel or small aircraft on or near the runway. This authorization includes altitude restricted low approaches over preceding landing or taxiing aircraft. Restricted low approaches are not authorized over aircraft in takeoff position or departing aircraft."

Simply put, this is a way ATC can allow you to fly right over the runway when it's not fully clear. You've probably never heard this verbiage, but now you know what to expect.

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Report: Clearance Confusion Leads To Runway Incursion

This "Altitude Restricted Low Approach" has created confusion in the past. In the following NASA ASRS report, a C-150 student pilot and the non-participating flight instructor reported a communication breakdown resulting in a runway incursion...

One of my primary students was gaining solo experience in the local area. He was practicing landings in the traffic pattern. While on downwind, ATC cleared him to "Make a restricted low approach at or above 600 feet" in order to avoid a city vehicle that was performing the morning runway check.

This was phraseology he was not familiar with. He did not comply with the clearance and elected to continue his approach for a touch and go. ATC saw that he was not complying with the clearance and instructed the city vehicle to hold short of his runway.


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When was the last time you were cleared for a low approach? Tell us in the comments below.

Take The Next Step...

Do you have a perfect takeoff and landing every time? Neither do we. That's why we built our Mastering Takeoffs and Landings online course.

You'll learn strategies, tactics, and fundamental principles that you can use on your next flight, and just about any takeoff or landing scenario you could imagine. Even better, the course is full of tools you can come back to throughout your flying career.


Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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