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Pilot Misses Note 'Circle NA South Of Runway 09', Resulting In Near CFIT Event


What went wrong, and how you can avoid making the same mistake?

Near-CFIT While Flying A Circling Approach

We found the following NASA ASRS report showing the worst of what can happen when you miss an important procedural note. This pilot, flying a C172 under IFR, attempted a circling approach in low weather and experienced a near-CFIT event. It's a mistake anyone could make. Here's what happened...

I was heading to XXX on the ZZZZZ transition of the RNAV-09 IAP. I hadn't anticipated the gusty winds to be so strongly favoring RWY 27, so when I got the ASOS, I decided to execute a circling approach to land. I followed the IAP (instrument approach procedure), down to 2,000 feet MSL, breaking out of the clouds somewhere around the FAF. I turned right, entering a left-downwind for RWY 27. Shortly after, I realized that a hilltop with a tower was sitting directly in my path. I applied power to climb over it and almost re-entered the clouds. Passing just over the hill and tower, I resumed my descent and turned to landing.

Hours later, debriefing the situation, I noticed the mistake I had made. Buried at the end of five lines of textual notes on the approach plate: "Circling NA South of RWY 09-27." The sectional chart also depicts that RWYs 27 is RP (right-pattern), but I wasn't relying on my sectional chart during IFR in actual IMC.


Flying The Circle

When a circling approach in a particular direction isn't possible due to terrain or obstacles, you might find a restriction published in the notes. A cardinal direction will be used with the runway as a reference point. Plan to fly on the opposite side of that runway and pay close attention to which runway the note refers to. If you need to visualize this, quickly sketch the runway on your iPad scratchpad or a spare piece of paper. Number the runways and then shade the area you may not circle over. Visualize the circling maneuvers you'll fly instead.

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


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. Read the notes carefully. If you can't circle in a certain direction, plan to fly the opposite 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. Click here to learn more about flying circling approaches.


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.

Brief Your Approach Early

When you're flying in cruise, get the local weather or ATIS early on to see what approaches are in use. Set up and brief the approach so you won't have to divide your attention during the descent and arrival procedure.

This allows you time to review the notes thoroughly, so you don't miss important procedures or NOTAMs. When flying near terrain, brief the surrounding area using a sectional chart or something showing terrain more visibly than just the instrument approach plate. Pay extra attention to the tallest obstacle depicted on the chart and any hills or towers directly around the airport.

Swayne Martin

What Do You Think?

What can pilots do to avoid mistakes like this? Have you ever flown a circling approach? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and a First Officer on the Boeing 757/767 for a Major US Carrier. 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), is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines, and flew Embraer 145s at the beginning of his airline career. Swayne is an author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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