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Should you contact ATC during practice approaches?

Posted by on November 19, 2009 5 Comments Category : Flight Instructor Blog Tags : , ,

Pilot MicrophoneKent wrote me this morning asking:

While flying recently with my friend a question came up which has come up for me several times in the past. I firmly believe that while flying VFR practice approaches (as published) into an uncontrolled airport that radio communication with the controlling ATC needs to be made-I always thought the approached as published is their approach. My friend firmly believes that as long as it’s VMC and uncontrolled airspace that one does not need to be talking to ATC. I do agree that it seems to be common practice to fly these on your own without ATC but is this really appropriate/legal?

Hi Kent,

This might be one of the cases where what is legal isn’t necessarily safe. The safe thing is always to contact ATC and request flight following / radar services when practicing any kind of approach.  Remember, that’s why they are there (and for now it’s still a free service). Even if you aren’t receiving radar services it would be prudent to at the very least monitor the appropriate frequency.  The reasoning of course is that if an airplane comes along that really does need to shoot that approach (corporate, airline, etc), your presence on the approach might make the required IFR separation difficult if not impossible for ATC.   Also, having that second (or third set) of eyes is always a good backup in case both pilots become preoccupied with the technicalities of the approach.  How sad would it be if ATC could have stopped the collision of 2 VFR aircraft…if only they were talking to them!  That brings up another point too, what if there is another aircraft on the same approach that has a pilot with the same mentality of your friend?   Now you have 2 VFR airplanes, practicing the same approach and neither of them are talking to ATC…that’s just asking for something to happen!

However, according to the AIM Chapter 3 Section 2, in uncontrolled airspace or class E (as I’m guessing your approach is in) there is no communications requirement for VFR aircraft.   I find nothing else published saying that you have to establish contact with ATC just because you are on a segment of an instrument approach.   Technically your friend is right but that doesn’t mean that would be the safest operating practice (I’d rather be safe and alive then dead and right).

As a pilot (and PIC) you have every right to stand up for yourself and establish your own operating procedures.  Let everyone you fly with know that your rule is to contact ATC on VFR practice approaches.  Don’t let yourself be lead down the path of least resistance!  A good pilot listens to his gut. If something doesn’t feel right, STOP!  Don’t continue.  Figure out what you don’t like about the situation and correct it.  If you don’t like practicing approaches without contacting ATC, then don’t do them!  There are plenty of times in my career where I’ve had to stand up for a situation I thought was unsafe, even if it was “legal” to continue.

Fly Safe.


  1. Chris C. on Nov 19, 2009

    Another reason — why not?

    In IFR, an approach involves communicating with ATC. If you are practicing for this, why not include all of the workload involved in the real thing, including the ATC communications?

  2. Matt Kreps on Nov 19, 2009

    I would have to say that context has a lot to do with this decision. Students new to the IFR world will quickly become overworked talking to ATC and dealing withe the frequency changes but to obtain your Instrument rating you will have to do it at some point. Safety should be the number one priority and to say it is less safe to be on with approach is silly.

  3. Paul on Nov 19, 2009

    Hi Matt,

    Your right about context. The context of this question is 2 pilots who I assume both either have an instrument rating or are well into their instrument training. I understand that it might be an extreme to say you should contact approach EVERY time you conduct a practice approach, but if you can, I think it is great practice. As Chris pointed out, “why not?”

    Thanks for your comments and feedback.


  4. Jeff on Nov 19, 2009

    You wrote:

    >that’s why they are there (and for now it’s still a free service)

    Yikes! I’ve heard of the potential for increased landing fees, but fees for flight following? It needs to be encouraged, not discouraged.

  5. Warren on Dec 27, 2009

    I have heard/read that Yes, Flight Following would indeed be one of the various ATC services that pilots would be charged for under proposed User Fees in the USA. This service is charged for in other countries now, that have a Fee structure. Most countries have a fee structure for aviation. This is because in most countries there is very little of what we call General Aviation going on, and where it does go on, the pilots are quite rich anyhow. Only in America do average middle class folks have a pilot’s license and possibly their own personal aircraft… The word needs to get out about how onerous User Fees will be; I think most GA pilots in the USA have No Idea what is in store for them with the proposed User Fees. I have heard, in speaking to an FAA official off the record, that there will probably be charges for a Weather Briefing, Filing a Flight Plan, Using ATC Flight Following, Practice Approaches, Using Airways, Entering Class Bravo and Class Charlie, and of course, Class Alpha, airspace, etc. In Australia, after the inception of the User Fee system, general aviation was immediately cut back dramatically. The same thing will happen here…
    Happy New Year folks and flyers, and welcome to The New Obamerica, where you will be regulated, taxed, and charged Fees for everything you can think of, and some things you have not thought of yet…

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