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6 Answers

VFR Descent -Towered/Controlled Airports

Asked by: 2882 views Airspace, FAA Regulations

Scenario A: I am a VFR pilot and I have received clearance to enter Class D airspace. I plan to land at the primary airport (not satellite airport). Should I descend to traffic pattern altitude prior to entering the Class D? Or should I not descend to traffic pattern altitude until ATC issues a landing clearance (which is likely once I enter Class D)? Scenario B: I am a VFR pilot and I have received clearance to enter Class C airspace. I plan to land at the primary airport (not satellite airport).     Should I not descend to traffic pattern altitude until ATC issue me a landing clearance? For both scenarios above, what is ATCs expectation and the FAA expectation when to descend to traffic pattern altitude at towered/controlled airports? If there are any specific references in the AIM or FARs please let me know. Thank you for the feedback.  

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6 Answers



  1. Brian on Jul 10, 2013

    I was taught and teach to be at TPA when making the call to request landing. That is, and these are just the typical calls ATC requests following airspace entry: two mile base, midfield, or 2-4 final. When I make either of those calls I’m set up at pattern altitude. There might be a reference, I’m not sure. This is just my technique.

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  2. Mark Kolber on Jul 11, 2013

    Scenario A:
    Let’s correct a couple of technical items:

    First, you do not require a “clearance” to enter Class D airspace. All you need is to establish 2-way radio communication. That’s also true for Class C.

    Second, it is not likely that you will receive a landing clearance upon entry into Class D. It might happen if traffic is very, very light but the more usual instruction will tell you how and where Tower wants you to enter the traffic pattern. Depending on traffic flow, you might not receive a landing clearance until final, maybe even short final.

    On when to descend, unless I misunderstand Brian, I have to disagree. The initial call to Class D has to be outside the Class D, with sufficient time for Tower to respond and give instructions (or tell you to remain outside the airspace if that’s what they need). That typically means that the call will come at least 6-8 miles out, more at busier airports. IMO, that’s way too far out to be only 800-1000′ above the ground with no protection from towers and obstructions and is unnecessarily unfriendly to airport neighbors.

    Once the Class D two-way radio contact is established and pattern entry instructions received, except for the location of the pattern entry, the choice is yours, although you should be at pattern altitude by the time you enter the pattern. I wouldn’t treat it any different than landing at a non-towered airport unless you receive Tower instructions to the contrary.

    Scenario B:

    Come to think of it, not one single thing different, except that the initial radio contact will be outside the Class C boundaries.

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  3. Jonathan Seitz on Jul 11, 2013

    Mark is correct. Brian may be mis-stating something, but you never want to be at TPA more than a mile or two out from your intended airport of landing. That’s just asking for trouble.

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  4. Bob Watson on Jul 12, 2013

    “Never” is a bit strong.

    You generally want to fly as high as practical for all the benefits that altitude offers in case of an emergency, of course. But, around here in the pacific northwest, we commonly have VFR days with stable marine layers that produce 2-3000′ ceilings and 10-15 miles of visibility. So “as high as practical” for a VFR pilot on those days is 2,000 to 2,500 MSL. if the airport is at 600′ MSL (KPAE, for example), TPA is 1,600 and you might not get above 2,000′ for the entire trip.

    For an IFR pilot, these layers are generally only a few thousand feet thick. If you are qualified to fly on instruments for 3 minutes or so, you can climb through them and have CAVU on top (which is amazing at night, BTW). But, if not, you’re stuck with decent visibility, yet relatively low ceilings.

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  5. John D. Collins on Jul 12, 2013

    Two way Radio communication must be established with the tower prior to entering the Class D area, but generally, altitude is at the pilot discretion. The pilot should be at pattern altitude when entering the pattern. Most pilots will plan to be at pattern altitude a mile or two before entering the pattern and to have slowed to a normal pattern speed by the time of pattern entry. Since the normal Class D airspace is a 4 NM radius around the airport within 2500 above the airport elevation, there isn’t much maneuvering area to get slowed down if you don’t plan ahead.

    At an airport with Class C, it is similar, but there are differences. First, the Class C airspace is a radar service area and requires that the aircraft be equipped with a mode C transponder. Second the dimensions of the airspace are larger and the typical Class C has a surface area with dimensions up to 4000 above the primary airport elevation and a 5 NM radius. There is also an outer area that extends to 10 NM, but is not a surface area and it starts at 1200 AGL up to 4000 above the primary airport elevation. You contact Approach control and not the tower prior to entering the airspace. You must have established two way radio contact with approach control prior to entering their airspace. Primary radar service is provided to all aircraft and VFR aircraft will be separated from IFR and VFR aircraft within the Class C airspace. This means ATC will most likely assign you an altitude to fly and be vectored to the pattern or runway. At least they will monitor your position. So in a Class C, you can be expected to be advised when to descend. A typical instruction is descend at pilot discretion when you get close to the airport. The approach controller will turn you over to the tower who will clear you for landing.

    In Class C airspace, VFR pilots may decline Class C services when they are in the outer area of the Class C, but the service is offered by default to all aircraft. Usually, it is good practice to get flight following by approach control when you are approaching the Class C, although it is an optional service that ATC will offer the VFR pilot outside of Class C airspace. Once inside Class C airspace, ATC is required to offer the VFR aircraft with basic traffic separation services.

    So with a Class C airport arrival, I would plan my descent to be at or below the Class C altitude by the time I arrive at the Class C boundaries and will continue descent as instructed inside the Class C to the pattern altitude.

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  6. Dan Chitty on Jul 13, 2013

    Thank you all for the great discussion and insight. Much appreciated.

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