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If You Go-Around On A Visual Approach Under IFR, Do You Need To Contact ATC Immediately?

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Visual approaches are usually simple. But what if you're flying a visual approach under IFR to a non-towered airport and have to go-around? It happened to this corporate jet crew and almost landed them in hot water.

Should you contact ATC right away, or fly a visual traffic pattern and land? We talked to the FAA to find out more...

Planning Your Go-Around Is Usually Straightforward

When flying under IFR, you'll usually follow two kinds of missed approach instructions in the event of a go-around. If you're cleared to fly an instrument approach, you'll brief and plan to fly the published missed approach procedure on the chart. You can go missed on instrument approaches for plenty of reasons, like failing to make visual contact with the runway environment, conflicting traffic, etc.

You can find the published missed approach procedure in three places on an approach chart:

  • A written missed approach procedure at the top of the page.
  • A graphically depicted missed approach on the "plan view" section of the chart (pictured below).
  • A series of graphics explaining each step of the missed approach directly above the "minimums" section of the approach plate.

But visual approaches are different, because there isn't a published missed approach procedure for visual approaches.

If you're flying into a towered airport and you lose contact with the runway environment, have a traffic conflict, or experience wind shear, among numerous other reasons, you'll have to go-around on your visual approach. You'll usually be assigned "fly runway heading" and a top altitude as the first part of the missed approach. A tower controller will usually then vector you back to the final approach course or ask you to join the traffic pattern to land.

Alessandro Caproni

What If There Isn't A Tower? This Jet Crew Faced An Unusual Situation.

Here's where things start to get tricky. What happens if you need to go-around when you haven't canceled IFR, and you're flying a visual approach to a non-towered airport? An ATP-rated corporate jet crew flying into Rifle, Colorado (KRIL) experienced this very situation. Here's the story from their NASA ASRS report:

Enroute to ZZZ we received a weather report which informed us that winds at ZZZ exceeded our tailwind landing limitations. Upon reaching Denver Center, we advised them of the weather at ZZZ and asked to be rerouted to our alternate RIL. Reroute was given and we continued toward our alternate. Denver Center issued weather alerts for moderate to severe turbulence in the Denver area including mountain wave activity due to high winds aloft. We then checked winds at RIL, showing that winds were light and slightly favoring Runway 26. Weather was also reporting VFR conditions. Denver Center vectored us south of RIL to avoid some of the reported turbulence and bring us into RIL from the west. We requested the RNAV (GPS) Y RWY 08 into RIL. We were cleared for the approach following crossing HUGSI to RNAV (GPS) Y RWY 08 and were requested to change frequencies to another Denver Center. Attempts to reach Denver Center on the new frequency were unsuccessful. We went back to the previous frequency where we were instructed to continue trying on the new frequency. Meanwhile, we heard other traffic being vectored for the approach to follow us into RIL. Upon reaching WOKPA we made contact with Denver Center. We had RIL in sight and let Denver Center know. Denver Center told us to contact CTAF at RIL and cancel with him in the air or on the ground. In hindsight our biggest mistake, we should have canceled when we had the visual. We transitioned to a visual approach and reported to CTAF a 3 mile final and short final visual RWY 08. Just before we changed frequencies we heard Denver talking to the aircraft to follow us was about 40 miles behind us.

Our approach to landing was smooth with light winds and no turbulence. It appeared to be an easy landing. At 30 ft AGL over the landing threshold airspeed increased around 15 knots above Vref and then the amber wind shear annunciator illuminated. We initiated a go-around and advised CTAF of our go-around and advised CTAF we would enter left traffic to return for a visual to RWY 08. We remained on CTAF while we cleaned up the aircraft for another visual to RWY 08. I contacted the aircraft to follow and requested their position and advised them of our intentions. I eventually made visual contact with the aircraft and extended our downwind to follow the aircraft. We made an uneventful landing. After landing and clear of the runway we contacted ATC to cancel our flight plan. A very irate ATC individual asked what we had done and told us we were still on an IFR flight plan and we needed to contact him on our go-around. Obviously realized he was right and told him we initiated a go-around for a wind shear alert stayed in VMC conditions communicated with CTAF our position and intentions. We also communicated with aircraft that was following us and advised them of our situation made visual contact to follow them.

In a post-flight debrief, we both realized since we did not cancel flight plan in the air we were technically still on an IFR flight plan. Though we were VMC, at an uncontrolled field our thoughts were focused on landing and not going around...

Did These Pilots Really Make A Mistake? We Called The FAA To Find Out More...

On a perfectly clear day with light winds, an unexpected go-around left this jet crew suddenly flying an unplanned traffic pattern back to the airport.

But did they really make a mistake by not contacting ATC? The interesting part of this report is that a few unlikely scenarios combined into one moment: continuing a visual approach without canceling IFR, a non-towered airport, an unexpected go-around in perfectly clear conditions, traffic in-trail to the same airport, and mountainous terrain making communication with ATC difficult. We reached out to a few FAA FSDOs to hear their thoughts.

We first called an ATC Center Control facility, and they referred us to speak with FAA Flight Standards officials at the FSDO. Just like pilots and controllers, the FAA Inspectors had different different takes on the scenario. Many said the crew simply could have canceled IFR and proceeded under VFR rules.

But they also referred us to what's published in the AIM and Pilot/Controller Glossary.

Boldmethod

The Answer Is Published

According to the FAA's Pilot/Controller Glossary, the term "Go-Around" is defined by the following criteria:

Instructions for a pilot to abandon his/her approach to landing. Additional instructions may follow. Unless otherwise advised by ATC, a VFR aircraft or an aircraft conducting visual approach should overfly the runway while climbing to traffic pattern altitude and enter the traffic pattern via the crosswind leg. A pilot on an IFR flight plan making an instrument approach should execute the published missed approach procedure or proceed as instructed by ATC; e.g., "Go around" (additional instructions if required).

Additionally, the FAA's Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) covers go-arounds from visual approaches in section 5-4-62(e):

A visual approach is not an IAP and therefore has no missed approach segment. If a go-around is necessary for any reason, aircraft operating at controlled airports will be issued an appropriate advisory/clearance/instruction by the tower. At uncontrolled airports, aircraft are expected to remain clear of clouds and complete a landing as soon as possible. If a landing cannot be accomplished, the aircraft is expected to remain clear of clouds and contact ATC as soon as possible for further clearance. Separation from other IFR aircraft will be maintained under these circumstances.

Boldmethod

This Is A One-Sided Report

Due to the nature of NASA ASRS reports, we can only read the report from the pilots' perspective. Scenarios like this happen so infrequently that it's possible the controller wasn't aware of the AIM's recommendations for how to conduct go-arounds from a visual approach (in the event a crew did not cancel an IFR clearance).

At uncontrolled airports, until an IFR aircraft cancels their IFR clearance, no other IFR inbound aircraft are allowed in or out (even those on visual approaches). That's why most pilots cancel their IFR clearance on visual approaches, to free up the airspace for other pilots.

Boldmethod

What's Your Take?

Based on all this information, do you think the pilots made the right decision to continue their visual go-around, traffic pattern, and return to landing? Do you think ATC made a procedural error? What would you do in a situation like this?

Tell us in the comments below.


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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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