Soaring through the skies, every landing begins with a choice. Precision or non-precision, the approach sets the stage. It’s a dance of technology and skill, where guidance systems light the way. Each approach, a story of navigation and decision.

Let’s dig in!

types of flight approaches

Types of Flight Approaches

When pilots are preparing to land their aircraft, the approach they use plays a crucial role in ensuring a safe and controlled landing.

There are mainly two types of flight approaches: Precision Approaches and Non-Precision Approaches. These approaches use different techniques and rely on varying levels of guidance from ground-based instruments or satellite systems.

Precision Approaches

Precision Approaches (PA) provide pilots with both horizontal and vertical guidance during the approach to a runway. One of the most common types of PAs is the Instrument Landing System (ILS), which uses ground-based equipment to transmit signals for the aircraft to follow.

These signals help pilots maintain the correct course and glidepath, which are essential for a smooth and accurate landing. The FAA recognizes three categories of ILS approaches – CAT I, CAT II, and CAT III, each requiring different minimum visibility, and equipment performance standards.

Non-Precision Approaches

Non-Precision Approaches (NPA) provide lateral guidance only, meaning pilots have to manually control the vertical aspect of their descent. The absence of glidepath information demands greater pilot attention and skill.

Some common types of NPAs include VOR approaches (using VHF Omnidirectional Range navigation system), NDB approaches (using Non-Directional Beacon navigation system), and RNAV approaches (using GPS satellite systems or area navigation).

Both Precision and Non-Precision Approaches require pilots to respect certain altitude limits during the descent, such as the Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) and Decision Altitude (DA). These limits ensure that the aircraft maintains a safe distance from ground obstacles and allows pilots to decide whether to proceed with the landing or initiate a missed approach.

Instrument Approaches

Instrument approaches are designed to guide pilots in various situations where visibility could be limited. Using different navigation aids like ILS, GPS, VOR, and NDB, pilots can safely navigate to the runway. In this section, we will discuss the following instrument approaches:

ILS Approach

An Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach uses radio signals to provide both vertical and horizontal guidance to the aircraft. The ILS system consists of two parts: the localizer (LOC) and the glide slope (GS).

The localizer provides lateral guidance while the glide slope offers vertical guidance. Together, they enable pilots to align the aircraft with the runway for a safe landing in low visibility conditions.

GPS Approach

A GPS approach utilizes the Global Positioning System to provide lateral and sometimes vertical guidance. GPS approaches are often referred to as approach procedures with vertical guidance (APV).

These types of approaches offer greater flexibility for pilots as they do not rely on ground-based facilities. As a result, GPS approaches have become increasingly popular in recent years.

VOR Approach

A VOR approach relies on the Very High-Frequency Omnidirectional Range (VOR) system to provide lateral guidance to the aircraft. During a VOR approach, pilots reference VOR radial signals and distance information to navigate to the runway.

While VOR approaches lack vertical guidance, they still play a crucial role in instrument flight procedures, especially in areas where other navigation aids are not available.

NDB Approach

NDB approaches make use of Non-Directional Beacon (NDB) radio transmitters, which emit continuous signals to allow pilots to home the aircraft toward the station. When used in an instrument approach, NDBs provide lateral guidance similar to VOR, but without distance information.

NDB approaches are considered less precise than other approaches, often requiring a higher level of pilot skill and attention for successful execution.

Precision vs Non-Precision Approaches


A precision approach (PA) provides both lateral and vertical guidance for an aircraft during the final approach to landing, ensuring accurate alignment with the runway. The most common example of a precision approach is the Instrument Landing System (ILS).

On the other hand, a non-precision approach (NPA) only provides lateral guidance, meaning pilots have to rely on other methods, like step-down altitudes, to maintain an appropriate vertical descent. Examples of non-precision approaches include VOR, NDB, and GPS procedures without vertical guidance.


Precision approaches offer a higher level of accuracy and safety during the final stages of a flight. This is especially useful when the weather or visibility is poor, since pilots can rely on the vertical guidance to ensure a safe descent rate.

Precision approaches generally have lower minimums than non-precision approaches, allowing aircraft to land in lower visibility conditions.

In contrast, non-precision approaches usually have less complex equipment requirements, making them more accessible to a wider range of aircraft. They can also be used as a backup option if a precision approach is not available or if the equipment on the aircraft is not capable of utilizing a precision approach.


The main disadvantage of precision approaches is that they typically have more stringent equipment and maintenance requirements, which can result in higher costs for airports and operators. Not all aircraft have the necessary avionics to perform these approaches.

Non-precision approaches, while having lower equipment requirements, come with the trade-off of greater reliance on pilot skill and technique for maintaining altitude and descent rate.

Without vertical guidance, there is an increased risk of descending too early or too late during the final approach, which may lead to unsafe situations or a missed approach.

Visual Approaches

Visual Approaches are an important aspect of flight procedures, particularly when flying in visual meteorological conditions (VMC). In this section, we’ll discuss the significance of situational awareness and how pilots use visual and instrument cues during these approaches.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is crucial for pilots, especially when conducting visual approaches. To maintain a high level of awareness, it’s essential for pilots to keep a clear view of the surrounding environment, and watch out for nearby air traffic and obstructions.

Ensuring a smooth and safe approach, situational awareness also helps pilots make informed decisions and promptly react to any changes or challenges they may face during the approach.

Visual and Instrument Cues

While primarily relying on visual cues for navigation, pilots also use their aircraft’s instruments as a reference during visual approaches.

For instance, the altimeter provides details about the aircraft’s altitude, which is essential for maintaining a stable and safe glide path towards the airport.

There are a variety of visual cues that pilots can use during visual approaches, such as:

  • Runway lighting and markings
  • Landmarks around the airport
  • Visibility conditions (e.g., weather, time of day)
  • Aircraft position relative to other traffic

As visual approaches primarily involve flying with reference to the ground and visually avoiding obstructions, it’s essential for pilots to stay vigilant and maintain a friendly, cooperative relationship with air traffic control.

This ensures they receive relevant information and instructions, which supports the safe and efficient completion of the visual approach.

Approach and Landing Procedures

Approach Charts

Approach charts provide pilots with essential information for executing a safe and accurate approach to an airport. These charts typically include details like minimum altitudes, approach courses, distances, and any obstacles that may impact the flight path.

Approach charts often illustrate both instrument and visual approaches available at an airport. It’s crucial for a pilot to thoroughly understand and study the approach chart of their destination to ensure a successful landing.

Missed Approach Sequence

A missed approach is a procedure followed by pilots when they cannot complete a landing safely. This can be due to factors such as poor visibility, runway incursions, or other hazards. When a missed approach occurs, pilots must execute a specific sequence to maintain safety and air traffic control.

The missed approach sequence usually involves climbing to a specified altitude, following a designated route, and awaiting further instructions from air traffic control. It’s essential for pilots to be familiar with these sequences at the airports they frequent.

Go-Around Procedures

Go-around procedures come into play when a pilot decides that the landing scenario is not optimal, and they need to abort the landing attempt. This could be due to unstable approach, obstruction on the runway, or unexpected changes in weather conditions.

When performing a go-around, the pilot must smoothly apply full power, retract flaps and landing gear as appropriate, and establish a positive rate of climb.

Executing go-around procedures efficiently and calmly is critical for the safety of both the aircraft and passengers. Pilots must practice and be familiar with the specific go-around procedures for the aircraft they are flying to ensure a safe transition back into the air in case of an aborted landing.

Navigational Tools and Guidance

Lateral and Vertical Guidance

When it comes to aircraft navigation, lateral and vertical guidance play crucial roles in ensuring smooth and safe flights. Lateral guidance helps pilots maintain their aircraft on the correct path, while vertical guidance assists with altitude control during approaches and take-offs. One essential navigation aid that provides both lateral and vertical guidance is the glideslope.

The glideslope system utilizes radio signals to establish the ideal descent angle for an aircraft during an approach. It provides pilots with information on whether they are too high or too low, allowing them to make necessary adjustments.

By combining lateral and vertical guidance, a precise approach can be achieved, known as an APV (Approach with Vertical Guidance).

Area Navigation and Performance Based Navigation

Area Navigation (RNAV) is a technique that allows aircraft to navigate directly between waypoints without relying on ground-based navigation aids. This approach is possible thanks to technologies like GPS and other satellite-based navigation systems.

RNAV procedures enhance the efficiency and flexibility of flight routes, as pilots can fly more direct paths, saving time and fuel.

On the other hand, Performance Based Navigation (PBN) is a more advanced navigation concept that encompasses RNAV and other navigation techniques. PBN focuses on the aircraft’s performance capabilities using onboard systems and equipment, like the Global Positioning System (GPS).

This approach enables more precise navigation, reduced separation between aircraft, and enhanced safety.

ATC Interaction and Coordination

IFR Flight Plan

Air Traffic Control (ATC) plays a crucial role in managing the safe movement of aircraft under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). They maintain consistent communication with pilots to ensure flights follow ATC procedures and maintain the correct headings. When a pilot submits an IFR flight plan, the ATC is responsible for:

  • Issuing clearances
  • Routinely monitoring the flight’s progress
  • Providing helpful weather information
  • Ensuring separation between IFR flights

ATC makes certain that IFR flights adhere to their assigned altitudes, routes, and speeds.

VFR Traffic and Separation

Visual Flight Rules (VFR) enable pilots to fly aircraft under visual conditions with clearances from ATC. The controller monitors VFR flights within their sector and ensures separation regulation, such as:

  • Horizontal separation
  • Vertical separation
  • Distance from clouds and obstacles

ATC works closely with VFR pilots to relay real-time updates on traffic and local weather conditions. Although VFR flights have more flexibility than IFR flights, it’s still important to follow ATC guidance and maintain safe distances between aircraft.

Traffic Control Vectoring

Traffic control vectoring is an essential method used by ATC to manage aircraft in the airspace efficiently. Controllers issue vectors to pilots, guiding them with specific heading adjustments, altitudes, and speeds, ensuring safety and efficiency. Vectoring helps with:

  • Traffic sequencing
  • Providing spacing between aircraft
  • Navigating around restricted airspace or adverse weather

Controllers continually monitor the aircraft’s position and provide updated vectors when necessary. Pilots must adhere to these instructions to maintain a safe and orderly flying environment.

Regulations and Weather Conditions

FAA and ICAO Regulations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have established guidelines for instrument flight rules (IFR) and visual flight rules (VFR) that pilots must follow during different types of approaches.

For instance, IFR is necessary when flying in poor weather conditions or low visibility, while VFR requires clear weather and good visibility, allowing pilots to rely on visual references for navigation. These regulations ensure aircraft safety and efficiency, particularly when transitioning between different types of approaches during flight.

In Europe, similar regulations are followed under the umbrella of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). These rules, along with FAA and ICAO guidelines, help standardize flight operations across different regions and countries, such as Paris and other international destinations.

Terrain and Airport Challenges

When conducting an approach, pilots must account for the terrain surrounding the airport, as well as any airport-specific challenges. This is particularly important when flying in mountainous regions or areas with complex landscapes.

In these cases, accurate navigation and strict adherence to established instrument approach procedures are crucial for a safe and successful landing.

Different types of approaches, such as precision, non-precision, and approach with vertical guidance, may be necessary depending on the airport and its available navigational aids. The choice of approach type is influenced by factors such as weather, aircraft equipment, and pilot certifications.

Weather Reporting Services

Pilots must use weather reporting services to make informed decisions about which approach type to execute. Accurate weather information helps determine if the conditions meet the minimum requirements for a specific approach, making access to reliable data essential.

Typically, pilots use aviation-specific weather reporting services, such as METARs or TAFs, to gather information on visibility, cloud cover, wind speed and direction, precipitation, and other pertinent atmospheric conditions.

This information is critical in assessing whether it is safe to proceed with an approach or if an alternate airport must be considered due to unfavorable conditions.

Final Thoughts

As the journey nears its end, pilots weave through the tapestry of approaches. From ILS to GPS, the skies whisper tales of precision and intuition.

It’s not just about landing; it’s about mastering the art of arrival. In the world of flight, each touchdown is a testament to the dance between pilot and sky.