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How To Circle-To-Land From An Instrument Approach


When you break out of the clouds on a circling approach, you've won half the battle. But the next thing you need to do is one of the most demanding maneuvers in instrument flying: land from a circling approach.

Landing from a circling approach is tough for a few reasons. The ceilings might be low, and the visibility can be just as bad. On top of that, it's a maneuver that most of us don't practice very often.

When you combine all three, you've got an approach where things can go bad in a hurry.

Circling Minimums: What Are You Protected From?

First off, let's look at the protected area for these approaches, because things have changed in the past few years.

Fortunately, things have changed for the better. On any circling approach, you're guaranteed at least 300 feet of obstacle clearance within the protected area. And with approaches developed or revised after 2012, the protected area has been expanded.

Here's what the protected area looks like for new or revised approaches:


The protected areas for circling approaches now use a connection of arcs from the end of each runway, as opposed to the fixed-radius distances that were used before.

And the protected areas now account for the impact of wind on a circle, bank angle limits, and higher true airspeeds at high-altitude airports. So overall, they give you a higher margin of safety.


So how do you know if your approach has these new expanded circling minimums? You'll see it in the circling minimums line - it's a black box with a "C" in the middle.


Maneuvering To Land

Now that we've covered the protected area, let's look at what it actually takes to get down on the ground.

If there isn't an approach for the runway you're planning to land on, or if the approach you're shooting only has circling minimums, you're going to need to do some maneuvering to get down.

Maneuvering To A Different Runway

If you're maneuvering to a different runway, the safest way to get yourself there is by keeping your maneuvers as standard as possible. Try to fly it like a traffic pattern.

In fact, if the ceilings are high enough and the visibility is good enough, it's not a bad idea to level off at pattern altitude instead of going all the way down to circling MDA. It gives you familiar descent points and power settings, and it keeps your approach to landing as normal as possible.


But if you need to go all the way down to circling MDA to get out of the clouds and spot the runway, keep in mind you'll be flying a pattern that could be much lower than normal pattern altitude. That means you probably don't want to start descending until you're established on final, or at least until you're confident you're in a position where you can start your descent to landing and not hit anything, maintaining visual reference the entire time as well.

Maneuvering When You Can't Safely Fly A Straight-In

Not all circling approaches are to a different runway, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can fly a straight-in approach to land.

If you need more than a normal descent rate to land, circling-only minimums can be published for an approach.

Take Steamboat Springs, Colorado for example:


Even though the final approach course is lined up with the runway, you need to descend really fast to make it down to the pavement.

In fact, from WAKOR to the runway, you need to descend on a 7.75-degree glide path to make it down. That's more than twice the normal glide path of 3 degrees for most approaches.

And when the weather's bad, you probably don't want to be dive bombing to the runway threshold to get down.

So what should you do in this situation? Again, try to keep it as standard as possible, and fly the traffic pattern.


By overflying the runway and entering a pattern, you're keeping your setup and descent to landing as normal as possible. And instead of rushing, you're giving yourself a lot more time as well.

Keep in mind, however, that you need to stay within the protected area to make sure you don't bump into anything. And, you need to maintain visual reference of the runway as well. That means you may need to slightly side-step the runway to keep things in view throughout your maneuver.

Safely Making It Down From A Circling Approach

Landing from a circling approach is one of the toughest things to do in instrument flying.

Keep your circling approaches as similar to a traffic pattern as possible, and don't descend too early if you're flying below traffic pattern altitude. Do both, and you'll set yourself up for a smooth, safe landing every time.

Colin Cutler

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder and lifelong pilot. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed the development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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