Don’t Activate Approaches

Here’s a potentially provocative statement: Don’t activate approaches.

As I have explained in other posts (list below), with most modern GPS navigators, there’s no need explicitly to activate an approach. Activating an approach isn’t magic–that step simply makes the initial fix (called the “transition” in Garmin and other navigators) the current direct-to waypoint.

In many–perhaps most–cases, proceeding direct to the initial fix you choose when you load an approach is not what you–or ATC–want the navigator to do, at least right now. ATC may assign vectors to the final approach course or clear you to a different initial fix. In particular, if you activate vectors to final (VTF), the fix you need may no longer be visible and available on the moving map and flight plan page, leading to what I call the vectors-to-final scramble. But loading an approach early, with an appropriate initial fix, gives you time to review and brief the procedure–and to prepare for changes that ATC may make to your best-laid plans.

More information:

Avoiding the Vectors-to-Final Scramble

Flying Instrument Approaches without Activating the Approach

Setting a Course v. Vectors to Final

Changes to Vectors-to-Final in Garmin GTN System 6.x

New ATC Phraseology for RNAV Aircraft

A Procedure is Waypoints

When you fly an RNAV approach with a GPS navigator, the system performs a series of calculations and internal tests, such as confirming GPS signal accuracy and precision. As you proceed along feeder routes or vectors toward the final approach fix, the navigator also smoothly narrows the course width from en route to terminal to approach scale, and finally it displays the best available minimums for the approach given your system’s capabilities. But from your perspective in the cockpit, an approach–even when you use a GPS to complement a conventional approach such as an ILS–is essentially a sequence of waypoints, like other legs of a flight plan. Understanding that fact and knowing how to work with flight plans are the keys to setting up an approach and confirming that the procedure is progressing as you expect.

On the flight plan page, if the active leg or direct-to fix is below the procedure title, the approach is active.

Instead of explicitly activating an approach, follow these steps to load and fly an approach (the same basic technique also works when flying STARS):

  • Load the procedure you want to fly.
  • For transition, choose a fix appropriate for the direction from which you’re arriving.
  • Load, but don’t activate, the approach. Review the procedure. Wait until you confirm that you’ll receive vectors to join a segment of the procedure or until ATC clears you direct to an initial fix.
  • If ATC vectors you to join a feeder route/transition or the final approach course, activate the appropriate leg of the procedure.
  • If ATC clears you to a fix, proceed direct to that fix.

This technique also keeps the fixes in the flight plan should you want to fly the approach again after flying a missed approach or if you need more time to configure the airplane or deal with a distraction.

Consider the the RNAV (GPS) Y RWY 4 at Moses Lake, WA (KMWH). If you approach KMWH from the east, choose ONPIC or MWH as the transition. If you arrive from the west, choose EDSEW, RUBEL, or ONPIC.

If ATC provides vectors to join the final approach course between ONPIC and UBGUY (the FAF), activate that leg.

But if ATC clears you to MWH, ONPIC, RUBEL, or EDSEW, you can still easily proceed direct and fly the approach beginning at that new point.

Here’s what a sequence beginning at MWH looks like in the Garmin GNS 530W simulator.

Loading the RNAV RWY 04 Y approach with MWH as the transition (initial fix).

The map view shows all the fixes and the course reversal.

The approach title appears in the flight plan, with the fixes after MWH available.

You can proceed direct to MWH to fly the full procedure. Or, to accept vectors to the final approach course, delete the hold and activate the leg between ONPIC and UBGUY.

If you arrive at KMWH from the west, EDSEW is a logical choice for the transition.

Loading EDSEW keeps other fixes in the flight plan and visible on the map.

If you are cleared and proceed direct to EDSEW, the approach is active–because the current direct-to fix is below the procedure title.

If ATC vectors you to join the final approach course outside UBGUY (the FAF), you can activate the leg to UBGUY.

Select UBGUY, press MENU, and choose Activate Leg.

Confirm that you want to activate and fly the leg ONPIC to UBGUY.

The flight plan page shows ONPIC to UBGUY is the active leg.

The active leg (magenta) on the map helps you anticipate the intercept.

Note that with UBGUY, the FAF, as the end of the active leg, the GPS annunciates LPV, another confirmation that the approach is active.

Another Example

Here’s a similar sequence using a Garmin GTN 750 to fly the RNAV (GPS) RWY 34 approach at Arlington, WA (KAWO), north of Seattle. The steps follow the basic logic and presentation used in the GNS 530W.

Here’s flight plan from KBFI to KAWO with SAVOY as an enroute fix above the procedure title. SAVOY appears again below the procedure title as an IAF.

When ATC clears you direct SAVOY, select the instance of SAVOY labeled as an IAF, below the procedure title, and choose direct-to.

Now SAVOY is the active fix, and because it’s below the procedure title, the approach is active.

If you have an electronic PFD such as the Garmin G500 TXi, the waypoint sequence appears below the HSI. Here it shows direct SAVOY (an initial fix), with YAYKU, the FAF, as the next waypoint in the sequence–another confirmation that the approach is active.

As you continue, the GTN 750 sequences to the remaining fixes in the approach toward the missed approach point. The GTN annuciates LPV, confirming the approach is active. If you go missed, the waypoints sequence through to the published missed approach hold.

“Clearance on Request”

Sometimes when you call air traffic control–usually clearance delivery or ground control–for an IFR clearance based on a filed IFR flight plan, ATC responds, “Clearance on request.”

In ATC-speak, the statement means that the controller doesn’t have your clearance immediately at hand. But he or she is tapping a keyboard or calling on a landline to retrieve it from the air traffic control system. The controller will call you back when your clearance is ready. This situation can occur if you call more than 30 minutes before your proposed (estimated) time of departure, but there may be other reasons why your flight “strip” isn’t immediately available.

Flight Progress Strip from FAA JO7110.65Y

I confess that “clearance on request” never confused me, but a long thread at BeechTalk, a popular forum for Beechcraft pilots, showed that several folks found the response puzzling. They thought it meant something like, “Reply when you’re ready to copy, and I’ll read your clearance.”

The discussion got me thinking about the wording. A colleague, Jeff Van West of Pilot Workshops, agreed that it had never confused him, but as we talked, he said the phrase was like a Rubin vase, an image that can appear either as two people in profile or as a vase, depending on how you look it at. The longer you stare, the more ambiguous the scene.

To my surprise, the commonly used phrase doesn’t appear in the AIM or P/CG or in the ATC handbook, Air Traffic Control (JO7110.65Y).

So I wrote the FAA, asking that “clearance on request” be explained. Here’s the initial response:

This office has carefully reviewed the matter. Although the phrase “Clearance on request”, does not appear in FAA directives, the Aeronautical Information Manual, or other FAA standards/procedures, this is by design, as the phrase is self-explanatory.

“Clearance on request” is in response to the pilot’s request, “I’m looking for my clearance to xxx”, “Request for clearance on Nxxxxx”, “This is N12345, requesting clearance,” etc. Although not regulatory, the controller’s response, “Clearance On Request”, “On Request”, “I have your request”, “Standby”, “I’ll be right back with you”, etc., are all phrases that are self-explanatory, accomplishing the same task. The controller proceeds to process the pilot’s request as higher priority duties allow.

Accordingly, this office does not believe the phrase “Clearance on request” needs further explanation. If you wish to appeal this determination, please contact John Reagan, Manager, Terminal Standards and Procedures Team, AJV-P31

I called Reagan, who is a very responsive, understanding fellow. He said that his group will reconsider and probably change the ATC handbook to use a different phrase (e.g., “Standby”) that will reduce potential confusion.

He noted that when he was a new IFR pilot, he was initially confused by the phrase and that the wording probably has been passed along informally and adopted without careful vetting.

In the meantime, if you’re an instrument instructor, make sure your IFR students and IPC customers understand “clearance on request.”

Setting a Course v. Vectors to Final

I am not a fan of the vectors to final (VTF) option when loading instrument approaches in GPS navigators like the Garmin GNS and GTN series avionics.

As a general rule, avoid the vectors (vectors-to-final) option

Even with recent improvements to how the Garmin GTN series boxes handle VTF, it’s usually best to choose an initial fix (IF) or initial approach fix (IAF) based on the direction from which you’re arriving in the terminal environment, and then, depending on your clearance from ATC, activate a leg of the procedure or proceed direct to an IF or IAF. See the example at KMWH below.

Choosing a transition (IF) when loading an approach.

For more information about VTF, see Avoiding the Vectors-to-Final Scramble, Changes to Vectors-to-Final in Garmin GTN System 6.x, and Flying Instrument Approaches without Activating the Approach.

Occasionally, however, you may encounter an approach such as the ILS or LOC RWY 14 at Boeing Field (KBFI) (chart below).

Knowing how to use a handy technique that straddles the line between the VTF and setting a specific course (a variation on OBS mode) can help you smoothly join the final approach course. Bear with me for a somewhat convoluted explanation.

For more information about setting a specific course to a fix and the OBS feature, search for Direct To and OBS in the pilot guide for the avionics you use.

ILS or LOC RWY 14R at KBFI

The plan view for this approach shows two key fixes along the localizer: ISOGE and TOGAE.

Plan view

TOGAE is step-down fix with a crossing restriction and a GS intercept altitude at 1600 (the beginning of the final approach segment when you fly the full ILS with glideslope). TOGAE also serves as the FAF when you fly the LOC-only version of the procedure.

In theory, Seattle Approach could vector you to join the localizer a few miles outside TOGAE (within the approach gate; see the Instrument Procedures Handbook and the P/C Glossary).

APPROACH GATE− An imaginary point used within ATC as a basis for vectoring aircraft to the final approach course. The gate will be established along the final approach course 1 mile from the final approach fix on the side away from the airport and will be no closer than 5 miles from the landing threshold.

Definition of approach gate in the P/C Glossary

The approach also chart shows ISOGE, a fix 9 nm from the ruwnay, as an IF/IAF. (You will never fly the depicted hold/course reversal anchored at ISOGE.)

And ISOGE appears in the list of transitions when you load this approach in a GPS navigator such as a Garmin GTN 750.

If you choose either Vectors or ISOGE, the fix appears in the flight plan.

If you activate VTF for this approach, the GTN draws an extended centerline from TOGAE (the FAF) out along in the localizer course. You loose ISOGE as a reference.

VTF leaves ISOGE in the flight plan, but all distance and ETE information references TOGAE.

If you activate the approach with ISOGE as the transition, the navigator draws a magenta line from your present position to ISOGE, and if you hand-fly that course or put the autopilot in NAV mode, you will head directly to that fix.

But Seattle Approach always issues a series of vectors to sequence you into the flow of traffic for KBFI and to avoid conflicts (wake turbulence and otherwise) with airliners aiming for nearby KSEA. Regardless of the direction from which you’re arriving, ATC places you on the localizer at least a few miles outside of ISOGE.

In other words, you don’t want to go direct to ISOGE, and it’s helpful to have a reference to the localizer course as ATC vectors you into the flow.

For example, I recently flew the ILS from the area near Arlington, WA (KAWO) northeast of Seattle (video here).

Radar vectors KAWO-KBFI to the ILS or LOC RWY 14R

This typical routing from the northeast involves a long vector on a southwest heading to intercept the localizer. Even if you have the navaid tuned, you may not be able to identify it and confirm its appearance on the CDI until you are almost on top of the course. If ATC is busy or if you’re flying a fast airplane, it’s easy to blow through the localizer or be tempted to make an aggressive turn to capture it when you get the final vector from ATC.

Here’s the “trick” to help you fly a smooth intercept. It involves setting a specific course direct to a fix–in other words, it’s similar to using OBS mode:

  • If you’re using the autopilot, make sure you’re in HDG mode to follow vectors from ATC.
  • Because you’re flying vectors to join the localizer, confirm that you’re showing “green needles” on the HSI or CDI used to fly the ILS. You don’t need GPS guidance from this point on.
  • Load the approach with ISOGE as the transition (i.e., as the first fix in the procedure).
  • Confirm the list of fixes in the flight plan.
  • Select ISOGE and choose direct-to.
  • In the direct-to window, enter the course inbound to ISOGE along the localizer–135 degrees.
  • On the map, you’ll see a magenta line extending to ISOGE along the course 135 degrees–in effect, an extension of the localizer.

Here’s how that sequence looks using a GTN 750:

ISOGE selected as the transition (initial fix). ISOGE is the current direct-to fix–the approach is activated.
The GTN 750 shows guidance direct to ISOGE. But ATC is vectoring you to join the final approach course at a point outside ISOGE.

To draw an extension of the localizer from ISOGE, select ISOGE again, choose Direct-To, and enter the course 135.

Setting a specific course to ISOGE.
The GTN draws a course of 135 to ISOGE, in effect, an extension of the localizer.

Now you can monitor your progress toward the final approach course and prepare for the turn onto the localizer, even if you’re not currently receiving the signal or showing a flyable localizer CDI.

Joining the localizer.

As you join the localizer and then pass ISOGE, the GTN sequences to the next fix in the approach, TOGAE.

On the ILS approaching TOGAE.

Two Practice Approaches

During training for the instrument rating, we fly most approaches to published minimums. But in real-world IFR flying, the weather is usually well above the visibility (which actually controls) and ceiling required to complete an approach and land.

I recently flew a couple of approaches in VMC (visual meteorological conditions), albeit with light rain reducing visibility. I couldn’t log the approaches for currency, but they were still good opportunities to practice IFR procedures, use the avionics in the A36, and keep my head in the IFR game.

The following videos also show what the runway environment looks like as you approach the decision altitude (DA), first on an RNAV (GPS) approach with LPV minimums, then an ILS.

A Handy Guide to Airport Markings and Lights

You can find information about runway markings and lights in the AIM, but many key details, including the lengths of runway stripes and the dimensions associated with specific types of runway lighting systems, are typically buried technical advisory circulars that are tough for pilots to parse.

Fortunately, FAA has collected valuable information in A Quick Reference to Airfield Standards, available as a PDF.

For example, here’s a table that summarizes markings for a runway served by a precision approach.

Unfortunately, this document does not describe various types of approach lighting systems. For those details, you must still wade through a publication such as JO 6850.2B.

Across the Cascades via T268

I took advantage of CAVU weather to record a flight across the Cascades from east to west via the new (as of January 2020) GPS-based T-route (T268) that offers lower MEAs than the V2 airway between the VORs at ELN and SEA. T268 won’t appear on the Seattle sectional chart until the new edition is published May 21, 2020, but it’s on the IFR chart and available for both IFR and VFR navigation.

For more information about T-routes, see New T-Routes in the PNW and AIM 5−3−4. Airways and Route Systems.

T268 will appear on new VFR charts in May 2020.
T268 on an IFR en route chart
Portions of T268 shown on the Seattle sectional published May 21, 2020

FAA plans to publish VFR charts the same 28-day cycle used for IFR charts and data beginning in 2021. For more information, see VFR Charts Moving to 56-Day Update Cycle.

Video of the route

You can see the lower lower MEAs available on T268 versus V2 on the charts below. The T-route follows a path north of the VOR-based V2 airway, with a couple of bends to keep you over lower terrain. You can fly T268 at 8000 westbound–2000 feet lower than the 10,000 altitude typically required on V2 westbound.

Lower GPS-based MEAs on T268

The early morning flight in the video begins at Ephrata, WA (KEPH), and after BANDR intersection, I turned southwest to land at Chehalis, WA (KCLS) for fuel.

Enjoy the scenery, which changes dramatically in just a short distance–only about 80 nm between Ellensburg and Seattle.

Credit for Using ATDs and AATDs

The FAA allows pilots to use flight simulators, flight training devices (FTD), and aviation training devices (ATD) to accumulate some of the aeronautical experience required in 14 CFR Part 61 for various pilot certificates and ratings.

Guidance for using ATD during training is in AC 60-136B and in the letters of authorization (LOA) issued with each ATD.

OneG-foundation

The Foundation from one-G, an AATD based on the C172, is among the newest FAA-approved ATDs.

For additional background about the types of “simulators” that the FAA authorizes, including ATDs and AATDs (advanced aviation training devices), see New AC for ATDs and Simulations, Flight Simulators, FTDs, and ATDs here at BruceAir.

Unfortunately, the regulations aren’t always easy to parse, and when pilots and instructors consider the use of ATDs and AATDs, one regulatory paragraph, 14 CFR Part 61.4(c), is often overlooked, probably because it’s the last sentence in a rule titled “Qualification and approval of flight simulators and flight training devices,” and that section doesn’t specifically mention ATD.

But 14 CFR Part 61.4(c) says: “The Administrator may approve a device other than a flight simulator or flight training device for specific purposes.” And that’s the key to understanding the credit allowed in the LOAs.

The flight school where I instruct, Galvin Flying, has several AATDs, each of which has an LOA from the FAA that describes how the devices may be used during training. The LOAs specifically note credits for tasks and for aeronautical experience associated with various certificates and ratings, in accordance with AC 60-136B and 14 CFR Part 61.

Most of the criteria are clear. But over the years, the flight school has received conflicting interpretations about how much experience in the AATDs may apply toward the aeronautical experience requirements set out in 14 CFR Part 61.

For example, 14 CFR § 61.129 [(i)(1)(i)] states that up to 50 hours of simulated flight time in a “full flight simulator” or a “flight training device” may be credited toward the 250 hrs total time required for a commercial certificate. That regulation does not specifically mention “aviation training devices” or “advanced aviation training devices,” distinctions that were made with both regulatory changes and the publication of AC 60-136B.

Now, AC 60-136B notes that the LOA associated with each approved ATD or AATD describes the device’s authorized uses and allowable credit toward specific aeronautical experience requirements. For example:

C.2 Authorized Use. Except for specific aircraft type training and testing, an AATD may be approved and authorized for use in accomplishing certain required tasks, maneuvers, or procedures as applicable under 14 CFR parts 61 and 141. The FAA will specify the allowable credit in the AATD LOA for private pilot, instrument rating, instrument recency of experience, IPC, commercial pilot, and ATP.

D.3 Logging Training Time and Experience.

Note: There are no restrictions on the amount of training accomplished and logged in training devices. However, the regulatory limitations on maximum credit allowed for the minimum pilot certification requirements are specified by parts 61 and 141 and in the LOA. No approvals or authorizations are provided for aircraft type ratings using ATDs.

Each of the LOAs for the AATDs at Galvin Flying includes the following language related to the commercial pilot certificate:

…The [model name] AATD is approved for use in satisfying the following sections of parts 61 and 141:…

§ 61.129(i)(1)(i)—Commercial Pilot Certificate: up to 50 hours;…

That language seems clear, but as I noted earlier, the fact that the regulation itself doesn’t mention ATD has led to confusion.

So I wrote the FAA asking for clarification. Here, in part, is the reply, which confirms that the language in the LOAs supplements the regulations in 14 CFR Part 61:

The rule is silent in these rule sections concerning the use of ATD’s including rule sections for Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot, and Airline Transport Pilot certificates. However, Part 61.4(c) states, “The Administrator may approve a device other than a flight simulator or flight training device for specific purposes.” All aviation training device (ATD) letters of authorization (LOA) reference §61.4(c) in the first paragraph of the letter. The maximum amount of credit for various certificates and ratings is provided in the LOA. The FAA uses the letter of authorization (LOA) to approve the use of advanced aviation training devices (AATD’s) for private pilot, commercial pilot, and ATP experience requirements utilizing the provision of 14 CFR §61.4(c). The LOA also provides credit allowances for the instrument rating and associated experience requirements.


Marcel Bernard
Aviation Safety Inspector
Aviation Training Device (ATD) National Program Manager
Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards Service HQ

In other words, 14 CFR Part §61.4(c) allows you to use an ATD toward the experience requirements in 14 CFR Part 61, as long as you use the ATD in accordance with its LOA.

Here’s a link to a chart from FAA that summarizes credit for use of various training devices and simulators. (But see below for additional information about using simulation devices during training.)

The reply to my query from the FAA (and the language in AC 60-136B) also emphasizes another important point: There’s no absolute limit to the amount of time you can spend using an ATD during training.

Finally, it is important to understand that you can log as much time as you want in an ATD, flight training device (FTD) or full flight simulator (FFS). Many flight instructors believe that you can only “log” what time is indicated on the LOA. This is a common misconception. “Training credit” and “logging of pilot time” are two different considerations. Proactive flight instructors will accomplish and log as much time as needed with their student in the simulator, until the student is proficient for that particular task. This usually results in the student needing far less time in the aircraft to compete the same flight tasks, saving time, money and wear and tear on the aircraft. Additionally, many emergency scenarios that can’t be safely accomplished in the aircraft, can be accomplished in a simulator without risk.

You should always practice tasks to acceptable level of proficiency (ACS standards) in the simulator first, before doing the same task in the aircraft, no matter how much time it takes in the simulator. Without this practice it defeats the advantages, logic and use of a simulator during training.

Marcel Bernard
Aviation Safety Inspector
Aviation Training Device (ATD) National Program Manager
Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards Service HQ