"Cleared for an approach"

Last week I decided to go for a short round-robin IFR flight between Ottawa and Pembroke. While I was still in cloud and on the airway, cruising at 6,000 ft, Montreal Centre gave me missed approach instructions and then said

Bravo Juliet Oscar, cleared for an approach to the Pembroke Airport.

That kind of a clearance can sometimes be disconcerting for people (like me) who are used to doing vectored approaches to busy airports with every turn and altitude change micromanaged by ATC. There’s a whole lot that Centre expected me to remember to do after giving me the clearance:

  1. read back the full approach clearance, for the tapes
  2. select an approach (in this case, there was only one)
  3. turn off the airway and self-navigate towards the initial approach fix (IAF), which, in this case, was an NDB 21 nautical miles away
  4. begin descending from cruise altitude to minimum safe altitude (MSA)
  5. fly the approach and missed

The fourth one might trip up American pilots, especially if they get the clearance a long way from the airport. In Canada, clearance for an approach automatically includes clearance to descend to the minimum charted IFR altitude, which is most typically the 25 nautical mile MSA around the initial approach fix (but may procedure turn altitude on a vectored approach, or a published transition altitude, or even 100 nautical mile safe altitude if you get the clearance a long way back). In the U.S., the MSA is for emergency use, and clearance for an approach does not include clearance to descend before established on the approach, as far as I understand.

In other words, in Canada, MSA is an operational altitude, like the procedure turn altitude, a step-down altitude, the minimum descent altitude (MDA) or the decision height (DH); in the U.S., it’s just a safety advisory.

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5 Responses to "Cleared for an approach"

  1. Paul Tomblin says:

    The time we both flew into Kingston to have lunch together, I was a little surprised when I was “cleared for an approach”. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do at that point, but I was in fine VFR with the field in sight from 20 miles out, and probably should have cancelled IFR. I think I asked the FSS on the field for the visual, since I wasn’t entirely sure of the differences between FSS on the field versus towers. I’m still not entirely sure of those differences – we don’t seem to have them in the US, or at least I’ve never encountered them, but I’ve flown into St. Catherines twice since then and they have the FSS on the field.

    That might be a good subject for your next Canada versus US blog post.

    Also, if you’d like to do one on how to arrive and depart IFR from Rockcliffe and/or Carp, I’d appreciate it since I’ve finally got my CANPASS pre-authorization and I would love to save some fees by parking there instead of CYOW.

  2. david says:

    The FSS at an MF airport can give only advisories, not clearances (they can relay an IFR clearance from Centre, though). You say what you intend to do, and they’ll tell you if they know about any conflicts (i.e. “ABC intends to fly the ILS 19”).

    Since Rockcliffe doesn’t have an instrument approach, the normal practice (second-hand, from pilots based there) is to shoot an approach at Gatineau north of the river, then if you break out high enough, scud run south to Rockcliffe. I don’t think I’d want to try departing Rockcliffe in IMC, since there’s no published information about climb gradiants and obstacle clearance and there are lots of tall buildings and towers nearby.

  3. Frank Ch. Eigler says:

    I have a question regarding step 3, self-navigating toward the iAF. According to the IPM text, when being cleared for an approach, the pilot should specify not just the approach but the route she intends to fly to begin the approach. It does not appear automatically expected that one turns toward an IAF right away.

    Consider for example an approach such as the ILS 18 into CYGK, where there is a published transition from V98. If you are cleared for the approach before reaching that transition fix (PERTH), do you believe it’s necessary to improvise a transition and turn toward YGK right away? Why not fly along the previously cleared route?

  4. david says:

    According to RAC 9.3 in the AIP, either is fine. I agree that when there’s a good, published transition, it’s not necessary to turn straight for the IAP, though ATC seems to assume that you will (I’ve been queried in the past when I stayed on my filed route).

  5. Frank Ch. Eigler says:

    RAC 9.3 is consistent with the IPM. The pilot is supposed to advise ATC which approach *and what route* she plans to take to get there. If she chooses to go off a published route, obstruction clearance etc. become her responsibility.

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