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Why Flying VFR Through An Instrument Approach Course Causes Chaos


Have you ever seen a VFR aircraft fly through an approach corridor without making a single radio call? How about hearing a controller warn IFR aircraft of "unidentified VFR traffic" around the vicinity of an instrument approach?

Flying VFR doesn't mean you should disregard aircraft and procedures around you. We spoke to Jeff Acord, a tower controller at Kona International Airport, Hawaii and FAASTeam representative for the FAA. His 36 years of ATC experience across 10 ATC facilities include Orange County Tower, San Francisco Tower, SoCal Approach, and in the classroom as an FAA simulator instructor. He's seen it all...and he has plenty to say about the topic.

Controlled Airspace Doesn't Always Include Instrument Approach Corridors

Unless you're flying into a large Class C or Class B airport, it's unlikely that controlled airspace covers the majority of instrument approaches. For instance, let's take a look at a standard Class D airport.

Most Class D airspace measures just 8 to 10 miles in diameter. That's a radius of 4 to 5 miles from the center of the airport. The final approach fix (FAF) for nearly all instrument approaches lies just to the outside, or a few miles away from, the boundary of Class D airspace. Since ATC is required to vector IFR aircraft onto the final approach course well before the FAF, they will likely fly through miles of Class E airspace under IFR along the approach course before entering tower-controlled airspace.

This creates a few issues for pilots and controllers. When a VFR aircraft is seen on radar around an approach corridor, controllers have no choice but to keep IFR aircraft away. In a radar-equipped terminal environment, a Mode-C transponder allows controllers to get extra information about a radar target like groundspeed, altitude, and transponder code.

However, not every control tower is fortunate to have full radar coverage. For instance, in Kona where Jeff works, they only see the target and a transponder code on the radar screen. They don't get all of the other helpful information like groundspeed or altitude. When a controller just sees a target with a transponder code, that's when you'll hear "altitude not verified" in a transmission from a controller.


Cessna 172 Causes Multiple Missed Approaches

A few years ago, Jeff witnessed a C172 meandering across the localizer 12 to 15 miles from the airport for quite some time. Keep in mind, this aircraft was flying well outside of Class D airspace. Depending on the conflicting traffic's position, the controllers were able to send some IFR aircraft above or around the C172. Some pilots were able to accept a visual approach clearance, which allowed them to deviate away from the approach course and clear of the Cessna.

The last resort for controllers is to direct an aircraft to go missed. In this case, they were forced to direct multiple airliners to go missed when the unidentified aircraft got too close to maintain safe separation.


Minimizing Low Altitude Flight Through Approach Corridors

If you're going to fly around busy airports, you can call ATC on the phone to ask where the main routes in and out of the airport are located. Controllers don't mind taking those calls, and they'll appreciate your safety-conscious attitude. Plus, it will make their job a whole lot easier.

Many Terminal Area Charts have a series of blue lines with repeated outlines of jet aircraft to show VFR pilots where common arrival and departure routes are as well. These are found close to busy airports like Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Talk To A Nearby Controlling Agency And Request VFR Flight Following

According to Jeff, the absolute best thing you can do as a VFR pilot is to pick up VFR Flight Following. When you do this, ATC can help direct you around other air traffic, making it more safe and less stressful during your flight. If you're not familiar with the airspace you're flying in, this is a great way to ensure you don't get in the way of IFR aircraft attempting to fly into and out of busy airports.

Don't understand how VFR Flight Following works? Check out our video to learn everything you need to know...

Do You Have A Unique Mission That Requires You To Fly Close To Approach Corridors?

If you have a flight mission like aerial photography, pipeline patrol, or fish spotting that will take you through, below, or adjacent to approach corridors near airports, call ATC on the phone to plan out your mission. If you let a controller know exactly what you'd like to do and when, they'll often times help adjust other pilots around your operation.

Don't be the pilot that chooses to ignore ATC because "you're not in controlled airspace and they shouldn't tell you what to do under VFR." Just because you aren't legally required to talk to ATC doesn't mean it's a bad idea, especially around busy airports. Air Traffic Control is not a regulatory agency. ATC exists as a service to help you accomplish your flight safely. Work with them and they'll work with you!

Not Instrument Rated? Learn The Basics Of Instrument Charts.

If you're a VFR pilot, learn the basics of how instrument approaches, arrivals, and departures work. If you can identify basic things like routes, altitudes, and distances, it will be much easier to fly around busy airspace. It can only help improve the safety of your next flight, and you'll be able to understand why controllers need you to move out of the way for IFR aircraft flying nearby.

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, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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