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3 Answers

Disagreement with Tower – Opposite direction approach, Circle to land

Asked by: 1663 views , ,
Flight Instructor, Instrument Rating

I was flying with an instrument student in VFR conditions into KMER (Castle) in Atwater, CA.  KMER is towered, non radar.  They were taking off and landing 31 and we were doing the RNAV 13.  We called tower and told him we were inbound, RNAV 13 at the IAF, circle to land.  He told us to continue and report the FAF.  We complied and he told us to "Continue, circle to the North, report when commencing circle."  Again we complied and began circling at reasonable distance at MDA (640').  As we got closer to being downwind I told my student to climb closer to pattern altitude.  At 850' the controller asked us if we were at minimums.  I said we were 200' above.  We continued to climb and at 1000' the controller angrily told us "on an opposite direction approach, circle to land, you need to stay at minumums; you are receiving vertical separation from traffic!"  I simply replied "understood". The he only other traffic in the pattern was an aircraft well ahead of us turning base to final. On ground freq I inquired, " is that a published procedure for an opposite direction approach, circle to land?....orrr...."  His response was that if I looked at the procedure that I'm required to maintain MDA and if I wanted a higher altitude that I would have to request it because it's a VFR altitude. WHAT?!!! First off, if you cleared me to circle, why in the world would there be any traffic over me?  Secondly, in VFR conditions why wouldn't we all welcome an aircraft to climb up to traffic pattern while circling if able? Is there ANY merit to what this guy said?  References are welcome - I'm willing to learn!

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3 Answers



  1. John D Collins on Jul 20, 2015

    The tower controller is off base. The MDA is a minimum. Unless the controller in some way restricted your altitude in the pattern, what altitude you chose to circle at is your choice. I can’t give you a reference and neither can the controller as there is no guidance in the AIM or the regulations regarding this. For what it is worth, the circling MDA is dependent on obstacles and category. They can be below, at, or above pattern altitude. The PTS requires the maneuver to be at the MDA -0 to +100 feet, but this is only for the purposes of the practical test.

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  2. Mark Kolber on Jul 20, 2015

    As John said partly said, unless there was an altitude restriction from the Tower (as in “circle at or below” a specific altitude) or a mandatory altitude (shown by horizontal lines above and below the altitude as when crossing BUVAY in the KORL ILS or LOC 7.

    But I’m not sure there’s no guidance from the FAA on it. I’m not sure how much more guidance anyone needs other than (1) the term itself is “minimum” descent altitude, not “mandatory” descent altitude, (2) there are such things as “maximum” and “mandatory” altitudes, and (3) “minimum” with respect to altitude is used exactly the same way throughout all FAA material.

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  3. Andy on Sep 15, 2015

    I am a controller as well as CFII. Barring the afformentioned excellent comments, were you ever cleared for a practice approach? If so, you are afforded IFR separation up to and including the missed approach procedure, unless the controller specifically said the magic words “no separation services provided”. Secondly, if you were not cleared for a practice approach, you were VFR, which then it matters what class of airspace you were in at the time. Class B, you are afforded 500 ft or 1.5 miles separation, class C, you aren’t afforded any minima but IFR aircraft are afforded separation from you. Anything else, see and avoid. Regardless of separation, the controller can provide tower applied visual. As an additional tip, you can state the following exactly “we have the traffic in sight and will maintain visual separation”. Then the responsibility for separation falls on you and you can get as close as you safely want to. You do have the obligation to follow the instructions of ATC but it sounds from your description this controller was misinformed. Sadly, the law doesn’t differentiate between informed and misinformed controllers.

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