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What is an Instrument Approach?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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An instrument approach is a type of landing that a pilot uses when there is little or no visibility. In poor weather or cases of black-out, a pilot will depend on the information provided by the aircraft's gauges and will make an instrument approach to the airfield. Going only by the readings on the craft's gauges, the pilot must forget every instinct he has to visually verify the instrument's readings and instead trust that the information given is accurate and true. Pilots are educated and certified in the ability to make an instrument approach, and the rating to allow this type of flying is known as Instrument Flight Rating, or IFR certification.

The first rating the typical pilot will receive is called a Visual Flight Rating, or VFR. This allows a pilot to fly only when the field can be easily seen from the sky. Due to the capability of the weather to change very suddenly, most pilots are schooled minimally in instrument approach tactics. These skills are focused on glide path, ground speed and rate of descent. These pieces of information, as well as the artificial horizon gauge, will allow the pilot to make an instrument approach. Wind direction and speed are also critical factors that the pilot will need to know when making an instrument approach to an airfield.

Another version of the instrument approach comes from the control tower. This is commonly referred to as "talking a pilot down." In this situation, the control tower operator will use the readings provided by his radar system and relay the information to the pilot so proper adjustments can be made to the aircraft. The tower operator will place the aircraft on the proper glide path to the air field by instructing the pilot to give or remove throttle, as well as to pull the aircraft's nose up or drop it down. Once the pilot is lined up on the proper runway, the tower can give the pilot instructions up to the point of cutting the throttle, dropping the nose and applying the brakes.

This action is often romanticized in the movies with a perspiring ground person shouting instructions and giving encouraging words. In an actual instrument approach, the commands are spoken clearly and acknowledged by the pilot in a calm and clear manner per communications protocol. There is no time for reminiscing and bringing in loved ones to the control tower in an actual instrument approach. The faith of the pilot in the instrument readings and his training as well as in the professionalism of the control tower staff allows the pilot to remain calm.

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