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Why do Controllers Give me a Heading After Clearing Me for a Visual Approach?

Why do Controllers Give me a Heading After Clearing Me for a Visual Approach?

Reader Submission

I have a question thats been nagging me for ages. Why, when I’ve already been cleared
for a visual approach, does the controller sometimes go back and give me another
heading to join the final? I mean come on, I’m a professional pilot flying for one of the
majors…let ME fly the airplane already! I’m already on a visual approach, just leave me
alone! I’m required by the AIM to remain clear of clouds, and by my company policy to
track the loc inbound. If you want to give me more vectors like that, why didn’t you just
give me an ILS approach, and be done with it?

-J.D. from Denver-

Dear J.D.

I sense a lot of frustration in you. I can see from your Facebook profile that you do in
fact, fly for one of the bigs (you’re smart to use a pseudonym). I’m surprised that in all of
training that the company gives you, that they don’t talk to you about ATC requirements.
I can give you some general examples as to why you’d get a vector after being
previously issued a visual approach.

First off, a visual approach is, in many cases, superior to an ILS. By this I mean, it gives
the controller more flexibility, and allows the airport to have a higher arrival rate. We can
really “jam you guys” in there, because we aren’t fixated in adhering to “Zones” or other
ILS separation requirements. Other factors come into play. Are there two parallel
runways, or three? Are the runways more than 2,500 feet apart? Are the runways more
than 4,300 feet apart? Did the controller previously clear you for the visual approach off
the downwind, and you decided to base turn way sooner (or later) than the controller
expected? Let’s just get down to the simple answer…Traffic.

The number one reason that the controller is giving you a heading to join, after (or along
with) your visual approach clearance, is that there’s conflicting traffic for the parallel
runway. ATC is required to give you a heading to intercept the final, when there is
conflicting traffic conducting an approach to a parallel runway. Look at it like this; if there
is traffic conducting an approach to a parallel runway, and you will be paired up with, or
operating fairly close to that traffic, you will get a less than 30 degree turn to intercept
your final. The intent is to avoid both aircraft being in a “Belly Up” configuration, and
blowing through the final approach course. If there is no “Pair” anywhere near you, and
you still got a turn to join, it could be because there is more traffic behind you, and the
controller doesn’t want you squaring the turn to final, thusly dragging out the length of
the daisy chain. My advice to you J.D. is this; Don’t just assume that the controller is giving you an instruction, for “Controller Amusement”. That just doesn’t happen. There is a reason for everything we do. We understand that you have a job to do, and our job is to ensure you can do it safely and efficiently. Drop the attitude and get back on the team. Team NAS that is. If you really want to see things from the other side, call up Denver Tracon and go on a tour. They’ll accommodate you for sure.

Cheers my friend,



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