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Visual References

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Article Information
Category: Controlled Flight Into Terrain Controlled Flight Into Terrain
Content source: Flight Safety Foundation Flight Safety Foundation (FSF)
Content control: EUROCONTROL EUROCONTROL

Description

The phrase 'Required Visual Reference' is used in relation to the transition from control of an aircraft by reference to flight deck instrumentation to control by reference to external visual references alone. Those visual references, including aids, should have been in view for sufficient time for the pilot to have made an assessment of the aircraft position and rate of change of position in relation to the desired flight path. In Category III operations with a decision height the required visual reference is that specified for the particular procedure and operation. (ICAO Annex 6, and PANS-ATM).

The establishment of visual references at the completion of an instrument approach is an important process which determines whether the approach may be continued to landing, or a go-around must be flown.

Note: the vertical or slant view of the ground through broken clouds or fog patches does not constitute an adequate visual reference to conduct a visual approach or to continue an approach below the applicable MDA/H or DA/H.

The section below headed "European Regulations" details what these visual references must be. The remainder of this article deals with the process of transition within the aircraft cockpit.

According to Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) Approach-and-landing Accident Reduction (ALAR) Briefing Note 7.3 — Visual References , "The transition from instrument references to external visual references is an important element of any type of instrument approach."

The briefing note points out that two common Task task-sharing philosophies are common:

  • "Pilot flying-pilot not flying (PF-PNF) task-sharing with differences about the acquisition of visual references, depending on the type of approach and on the use of automation:
    • Nonprecision and Category (CAT) I instrument landing system (ILS) approaches; or,
    • CAT II/CAT III ILS approaches (the captain usually is the PF, and only an automatic approach and landing is considered); and,
  • "Captain-first officer (CAPT-FO) task-sharing, which usually is referred to as a shared approach, monitored approach or delegated-handling approach.

"Differences in the philosophies include:

  • The transition to flying by visual references; and,
  • Using and monitoring the autopilot."

"The task-sharing for the acquisition of visual references and for the monitoring of the flight path and aircraft systems varies, depending on:

  • The type of approach; and,
  • The level of automation being used:
    • Hand-flying (using the Flight Director [FD]); or,
    • Autopilot (AP) monitoring (single or dual AP)."

The briefing note than proceeds to discuss task sharing and other considerations for different types of approach.

European Regulations

AMC1 to IR-OPS CAT.OP.MPA.305(e) and Appendix 1 to EU-OPS 1.430 define the required visual references for continuion of a precision approach or a non-precision approach as follows:

Non-Precision Approach A pilot may not continue an approach below MDA/H unless at least one of the following visual references for the intended runway is distinctly visible and identifiable to the pilot:

(i) Elements of the approach light system;
(ii) The threshold;
(iii) The threshold markings;
(iv) The threshold lights;
(v) The threshold identification lights;
(vi) The visual glide slope indicator;
(vii) The touchdown zone or touchdown zone markings;
(viii) The touchdown zone lights;
(ix) Runway edge lights; or
(x) Other visual references accepted by the Authority.

Precision Approach A pilot may not continue an approach below the Category I decision height ... unless at least one of the following visual references for the intended runway is distinctly visible and identifiable to the pilot:

(i) Elements of the approach light system;
(ii) The threshold;
(iii) The threshold markings;
(iv) The threshold lights;
(v) The threshold identification lights;
(vi) The visual glide slope indicator;
(vii) The touchdown zone or touchdown zone markings;
(viii) The touchdown zone lights; or
(ix) Runway edge lights.

Category II Operations A pilot may not continue an approach below the Category II decision height ... unless visual reference containing a segment of at least 3 consecutive lights being the centre line of the approach lights, or touchdown zone lights, or runway centre line lights, or runway edge lights, or a combination of these is attained and can be maintained. This visual reference must include a lateral element of the ground pattern, i.e. an approach lighting crossbar or the landing threshold or a barette of the touchdown zone lighting.

Category IIIA Operations For Category IIIA operations, and for Category IIIB operations with failpassive flight control systems, a pilot may not continue an approach below the decision height ... unless a visual reference containing a segment of at least 3 consecutive lights being the centreline of the approach lights, or touchdown zone lights, or runway centreline lights, or runway edge lights, or a combination of these is attained and can be maintained.

Category IIIB Operations For Category IIIB operations with fail-operational flight control systems using a decision height a pilot may not continue an approach below the Decision Height ... unless a visual reference containing at least one centreline light is attained and can be maintained.

Accidents and Incidents

The following events on SKYbrary involve lack of visual reference as a factor:

  • B733, vicinity Kosrae Micronesia, 2015 (On 12 June 2015, a Boeing 737-300 crew forgot to set QNH before commencing a night non-precision approach to Kosrae which was then flown using an over-reading altimeter. EGPWS Alerts occurred due to this mis-setting but were initially assessed as false. The third of these occurred when the eventual go-around was initially misflown and descent to within 200 feet of the sea occurred before climbing. The Investigation noted failure to action the approach checklist, the absence of ATC support and the step-down profile promulgated for the NDB/DME procedure flown as well as the potential effect of fatigue on the Captain.)
  • A320, vicinity Glasgow UK, 2008 (An Airbus A322 being operated by British Airways on a scheduled passenger flight from London Heathrow to Glasgow was being radar vectored in day IMC towards an ILS approach to runway 23 at destination when an EGPWS Mode 2 Hard Warning was received and the prescribed response promptly initiated by the flight crew with a climb to MSA.)
  • C30J, en-route, northern Sweden 2012 (On 15 March 2012, a Royal Norwegian Air Force C130J-30 Hercules en route on a positioning transport flight from northern Norway to northern Sweden crossed the border, descended into uncontrolled airspace below MSA and entered IMC. Shortly after levelling at FL 070, it flew into the side of a 6608 foot high mountain. The Investigation concluded that although the direct cause was the actions of the crew, Air Force procedures supporting the operation were deficient. It also found that the ATC service provided had been contrary to regulations and attributed this to inadequate controller training.)
  • C550, vicinity Cagliari Sardinia Italy, 2004 (On 24 February 2004, a Cessna 550 inbound to Cagliari at night requested and was approved for a visual approach without crew awareness of the surrounding terrain. It was subsequently destroyed by terrain impact and a resultant fire during descent and all occupants were killed. The Investigation concluded that the accident was the consequence of the way the crew conducted the flight in the absence of adequate visual references and with the possibility of a ‘black hole’ effect. It was also noted that the aircraft was not fitted, nor required to be fitted, with TAWS.)
  • S76, vicinity Moosonee ON Canada, 2013 (On 31 May 2013 the crew of an S76A helicopter positioning for a HEMS detail took off VFR into a dark night environment and lost control as a low level turn was initiated and did not recover. The helicopter was destroyed and the four occupants killed. The Investigation found that the crew had little relevant experience and were not "operationally ready" to conduct a night VFR take off into an area of total darkness. Significant deficiencies at the Operator and in respect of the effectiveness of its Regulatory oversight were identified as having been a significant context for the accident.)

Related Articles

Further Reading

  • ICAO Doc 4444: PANS-ATM;

Flight Safety Foundation

The Flight Safety Foundation ALAR Toolkit provides useful training information and guides to best practice. Copies of the FSF ALAR Toolkit may be ordered from the Flight Safety Foundation ALAR website