"Ask ATC" Blog
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Cleared for an approach
What does it mean when a pilot is cleared for an unrestricted approach? It is a term that is so broad, that much is left open to confusion, if we do not know exactly what we are and are not allowed to do.
Q - Altitude: What altitude can a pilot descend to when cleared for an approach? Is it the last altitude assigned by the controller, or is it the minimum IFR altitude for the area?
Unless an altitude restriction is issued with the approach clearance, the pilot may descend to the minimum IFR altitude for the area. Sometimes, air traffic control can provide safe altitudes which may not be published on approach plates and IFR charts - so it does not hurt to ask ATC about this.
Q - Type of approach: What type of approach can a pilot conduct when cleared for an approach?
The pilot can conduct any instrument approach procedure for the airport. He or she should inform ATC of the type of approach which is intended to be carried out. An unrestricted approach clearance does not allow a pilot to conduct a contact or visual approach. Separate authorization must be given by ATC to allow this.
If you are cleared for an unrestricted approach, it generally means that there are no IFR aircraft anticipated to conflict with your arrival. However, if you are given a specific instrument approach clearance, you must fly the approach specified. Controllers base separation off of the airspace to be protected for specific approaches. If you would like to circle for a runway which was not specified in the clearance, you must ask ATC.