Every real life pilot, flying either a small prop or a heavy jetliner, have to be constantly using Approach
Plates or Flight Charts. Approach Plates are widely used in large airports: they are great way to make sure airplanes are
always clear of obstacles and they also reduce the ATC workload, as they know just what the pilot will do
It is a must that virtual pilots who seek for complete realism be familiarized with them – they not only
make landings more easy, but also a lot more realistic. There are many types of plates that pilots use in
real life, some are displayed electronically and can even be merged into the panel – in this tutorial, only
Approach Plates (those which directly preceded the landing) will be discussed. Plates of US airports are
easily found for free on many websites, the quality is very good and you can print them if you want to.
This is how an approach plate looks like. I chose for this first example the ILS RNW 28R procedure for San
Francisco International Airport. It might look very complicated at first, but a closer look with more
attention will show that it’s not such a big deal, at least not in a beautiful sunny day … Next, all sections
of this approach plate will be described:
This is the header, where all important information about the approach is published. Reading from left to
right/top to down, you have:
1. City and state in which the airport is located
2. The navigation aid (ILS in this case) identifier, frequency and course. This will be used to set up the ILS
for the approach.
3. airport and Touchdown Zone elevation
4. The procedure type, runway and airport name
1. Additional notes
2. Type of runway lightning for runways 28R and 28L
3. Missed approach procedure explanation
The third column provides all the communication frequencies that will be used and its
This is perhaps the most complicated part of the plate, concentrate and don’t give up if you can’t
understand it at first. This section provides the plan view of the approach, along with navigation aids,
heading, altitudes, radial, etc – everything you need to complete a safe landing is there. This is how you
should interpret an ILS approach plate:
First of all, you should recognize the Initial Approach Fixes (IAFs) – they must be the initial waypoint of
your approach. In this example, you have three IAFs available: FAITH, DUMBA and MENLO – you may also
notice that if you follow radial 036 from WOODSIDE VOR for 11.1 nautical miles, or radial 138 from
OAKLAND VOR for 14.7 nautical miles, you’ll end up in DUMBA. The numbers inside the semi-circle shows
the distance to the localizer and those inside the parentheses represent the distance between two
waypoints. It is very important to notice that there are minimum altitudes for each waypoint (4100ft for
FAITH/DUMBA, 3200ft for CEPIN, etc.) that must be strictly maintained. The MSA circle, printed on the top
right side of the plate, shows minumum safe altitudes for aircraft within 25 nautical miles of a given
navigation aid (in this case, SFO VOR). It is only used in VFR flights or emergencies and to give
obstacle clearance of at least 1000ft.
From now on, I’ll assume you have set your ILS (freq. 11.7 / course 283). Let’s say you have started your
approach in FAITH, at 4100ft. Now, it’s only a matter of following the thick lines and being at the correct
altitude and speed. Let’s say you have started the approach from FAITH – maintain the altitude at 4100ft
for 4.8 nautical miles, where DUMBA is located. There is a holding point above that waypoint – you should
enter it if you are asked by ATC, if you are too high, too fast or both; if none apply, just ignore it and
continue the approach. As soon as you cross DUMBA, start a descent to 3200ft and continue to CEPIN.
Don’t enter a dive if you can’t get to the next altitude in time, the values provided in the plate are just
minumum altitudes – there’s no problem (as long as you can safely capture the glideslope later) to be
above those altitudes by a little.
At CEPIN, start a descent to 1800ft and continue for another 4.6 nautical miles. Now, you only have 5.3
miles before the runway treshold, so it’s recommended that you be on the glideslope and localizer. Finally,
carry out normal landing.
The missed approach
The missed approach procedure is represented by the dashed line. When you decide to go around, you
should follow the missed approach instructions of the plate’s header and also see its visual representation
on the plan view of the approach. In this example, you should climb to 6000ft on present heading, then
turn left to heading 279 and start a climb to 3000ft and finally intercept radial 180 from SAN FRANCISCO
VOR and hold at OLYMM. Simple, isn’t it? Now, let’s look at this same plate merged with satellite images:
Approach, vertical profile.
The vertical profile of the approach is a simple summary of the approach and missed approach procedures.
It usually takes less time to check the altitudes in the vertical profile than in the plan view. On the top left
part of this section, there is the missed approach summary: 1. The up arrow indicates a straight ahead
climb to 600ft; 2. The left arrow indicates a 279 degree turn with a climb to 3000ft; 3. The VOR
information indicates a 280 radial interception; 4. The white triangle indicates the final missed approach
Right below the missed approach summary, there is a sumamry of all waypoints and altitudes in the
approach: 1. The approach initiates at an altitude of 4100ft, a 1 minute holding pattern is available at
DUMBA; 2. A descent to 3200ft (or above) should be initiated after DUMBA; 3. A descent to 1800ft (or
above) should be initiated after CEPIN; 4. The glideslope must be captured and followed after AXMUL, and
normal landing accomplished.
On the bottom of this section, the minimums for this approach are displayed accordingly to the approach
condition and the aircraft type. Let’s start by discussing three new terms: minimum descend altitude
(MDA), missed approach point (MAP, MAPT) and decision height (DH):
1. The minimum descent altitude is the lowest altitude an aircraft can descend without having the runway
in sight. It is only used for non-precision (VOR, NDB, …) and circling approaches, and should be
maintained until either having the runway in sight or executing the missed approach (at MAP).
2. The missed approach point is equivalent to the decision height, and is the time to decide whether to
land of to execute the missed approach – it is also used only for non-precision and circling approaches.
MAP is determined by either a DME distance or timing from a determined fix.
3.The decision height is the lowest altitude an aircraft performing a precision approach (such as ILS) can
go without having the runway in sight, it is also the time to decide whether or not to land. The decision
height will be exactly at the same place as MAP if the glideslope is correctly followed.
Now, use the chart below to determine your aircraft category:
In this example, there are three approach conditions: full ILS (both LOC and GS), LOC only, sidestep
runway 28L and circling – all of them have different minimas. To detemine MDA/DH use the table provided
on the plate. For example, a category C aircraft performing a full ILS approach will have a DH of 213ft and
a minimum RVR (runway visual range) of 1800ft while a category D aircraft performing a circling approach
will have a MDA of 1160ft with a minimum visibility of 3 statute miles. Please ignore the small numbers,
they are radio altimeter settings and are normally used only on CATII/CATIII ILS approaches.
A sidestep approach consists of landing on a parallel runway when the runway being approached is in
sight. In this example, you would descent to 460ft and wait until you have the runway in sight, then turn
left and land on the parallel ruwnay.
Airport plan view
The airport plan view provides airport information such as runway lighting, touchdown zone altitude,
airport altitude, and the most important: MAP location and timing, based on the final approach fix. In this
example, AXMUL is our final approach fix (FAF) because it has a cross right below it on the vertical profile.
If your aircraft has DME installed, you can use it to precisely determine the MAP location; but if it doesn’t,
you’ll have to use the not-so-precise knots/time table to determine the MAP – simply choose the speed
you’re flying and start the chronometer, when it reaches the time shown in the table, you’re right above the
Let’s summarize the whole approach:
1. Look at all the information the plate provides – determine the approach minimas, brief the approach and
missed approach procedures, determine DH/MDA, etc.
2. Set the ILS frequency, select a initial approach fix (IAF) and get to the initial altitude. remember to enter
the holding pattern if needed
3. Descent to recommended altitudes, intercept the localizer and glideslope
4. Decide whether to land or execute the missed approach
5. Accomplish normal landing or fly the published missed approach as briefed
Other types of approaches
There are two important procedures that I’d also like to discuss here: an approach with a procedure turn and
a circling approach:
The main difference of this type of approach is that you head outbound of the airport for a while, then
finally turn back and accomplish normal landing. We’ll use the NDB/GPS runway 26 approach to Front
Range Airport to exemplify a procedure turn.
This time the IAF is the SKIPI NDB, which can be reached by following the 044 radial from FALCON VOR
for 10.6 nautical miles. After crossing the IAF, turn left to heading 080, and within 10 miles, turn right to
heading 125 and then left to 305. You should allow enough separation so that you can finally turn to
heading 280 and accomplish normal approach/landing. You should be familiar with everything else in ths
plate, so there’s no need to re-explain.
Phew! I hope you have now learned how to fly a realistic approach on your flight simulator using approach
plates. If you have any comment, suggestion or question, please get in touch.