Visual or instrument approach? This one is both

Airline flying is supposed to be uneventful, one might even say boring. Maneuvers that make a pilot’s heart beat a bit faster with sheer enjoyment might stimulate a cardiac infarction in a passenger! So airline pilots, at least, have to seek fulfillment in the more cerebral elements of flying, like ILS approaches in low visibilities in rain or snow at night.

Occasionally, however, a legitimate procedure comes along that brings with it the spice of an extra challenge or two. There are fewer and fewer of these in the modern world of commercial aviation, as the industry seeks to corral all flying into an ever more standardized mold. But there are a number of places in the world where, for one operational reason or another, the standard mold just doesn’t fit. The River Visual Approach to 18 at DCA comes to mind, as does the Expressway Visual to 31 at LGA. But the approach most people are at least mildly familiar with is the famous Canarsie approach at JFK.

JFK runway 13 approach
The modern version of the Canarsie approach.

If you look in the Jepps, you will find no procedure named “Canarsie,” but you will find a VOR 13L/R approach. The term “Canarsie” crept in over the years in the vernacular of the airmen, no doubt because of the name of the VOR that forms the basis of the approach.

This approach is something of a unique animal in the world of aviation. It is neither a circling approach nor, strictly speaking, a straight–in approach. For all practical purposes, it is a charted visual approach with less than VFR minimums. Just as in any VOR approach, you follow a course until you come to a point and altitude at which you must see something to proceed farther. In this case, however, what you see is not the runway (at least not at minimum visibility!), but a string of lead-in lights that draw you around for almost three miles to the runway.

The idea for what came to be known as the Canarsie Approach originated at American Airlines shortly after the first Boeing 707s began operating at Idlewild (IDL) as JFK was known at that time. In those days, when the winds were such as to require the use of the 13s (which generally meant fairly strong out of the south or southeast) the accepted procedure was to fly the ILS approach to runway 04R, and circle the long way around to runway 13L. This involved leveling off on the 04R localizer at circling minimums, usually around 800 feet or so AGL, flying across the airport right above 04R, and then making a left turn to a left downwind leg for 13L. At the appropriate time another series of left turns was commenced that would, in due course, lead the big jet to the final approach.

Overall, this involved about 270 degrees of heading change in at least two and usually three turning maneuvers, at low altitude, often in conditions of marginal visibility, in an airplane that, at that time, even the captain was relatively unfamiliar with. Actually, we should say especially the captain, because most of the very senior captains who were bidding the left seats of these new jets had started out in open cockpits! The 707 was their first exposure to the high speeds and sluggish responses of the early jets. The copilots, on the other hand, might possibly have had some prior experience in a jet bomber or fighter in the military, and often had a better grasp of jet operations than the old man did!

JFK airport aerial view
JFK isn’t the best airport to be cranking and banking down low.

Circling approaches like this in jet airplanes have always been something of a dicey proposition at best, and they are actually frowned upon or outright forbidden today. In 1958 they were more common, but problems became apparent almost as soon as the 707s and DC-8s began flying the pattern.

Any circling approach is actually a visual maneuver, albeit performed most often in less than VFR conditions, and requires positive and continuous visual contact with the airport for safe completion. At the speeds the 707 was flying, it was extremely difficult to remain close enough to the airport to keep the landing runway in sight. The jets usually wound up quite a bit farther from the runway than did the DC-7s or Constellations, and several of them actually got dangerously low while trying to keep the airport in sight off to the left.

There was yet another factor that reared its head, a largely political factor – noise. The early 707s were as noisy as the later Concorde, and they spread this noise over a large area because of their speed. And, if noise alone were not enough, these jets spewed out vast quantities of greasy black smoke at the high power settings required to maintain altitude while configured for landing. The residents of the relatively well-to-do areas to the north and northeast of IDL were not long in launching protest after protest to their political minions.

The airlines and the FAA began to cast about for a way to satisfy both the political noise problem and the safety problem inherent in the circling approach.

The Belt Parkway, which was built between the wars, follows the shore of Jamaica Bay from just east of Coney Island to the vicinity of the airport. It is six lanes wide, and hard to miss even in reduced visibility. And, importantly, the area in the vicinity of the Belt was nowhere near as developed in 1958 as it is today. Here seemed to be the answer to both the noise problem and the safety problem.

Nothing in New York gets done quickly, of course, and it took nearly two years of studies, coordination, negotiation, and demonstration to get things worked out. Test flights using an AA 707 were eventually approved and several flights were made in VFR conditions to prove that a 707 could, in fact, fly along the Belt Parkway and land on 13L. A system of lead-in lights was built and is still in use today. Three sets of sequenced flashers guide aircraft around the northern edge of the bay and right over the JFK Hotel.

Approaching ASALT
Approaching ASALT. On this occasion we had a jumpseat rider who agreed to double as crew photographer!

When the approach was approved and put into use, the minimums were set at 1500 feet ceiling and 3 miles visibility. After a few years of successful operations, the minima were gradually reduced to today’s 800 feet ceiling and two miles visibility.

The total degrees of direction change for the entire approach from Canarsie is around 90 degrees, and this occurs over a distance of more than five miles. The final turn from Aqueduct Racetrack to the runway is only around 45 degrees of heading change, and rarely requires more than 15 degrees of bank unless the winds are gale force or the pilot starts the turn a bit late. Contrast this with a series of 90 degree turns performed at low altitude with no outstanding visual references over neighborhoods that all look the same. Small wonder that the Canarsie approach has achieved such universal acceptance over the years.

Any pilot who flies into JFK regularly has flown this approach many times. The approach itself usually begins over ASALT, although on rare occasions one can be vectored to CRI itself. ASALT is crossed at 3000 feet, and then a descent begins so as to cross CRI right on 1500 feet. ASALT is 6 nm from CRI, so the descent need not be terribly precipitous. Unless there is a considerable tailwind, 600-700 feet per minute will do nicely.

As we approach Canarsie, the borough of Brooklyn, known to New Yorkers also as Kings County, lies off to the left.

In VMC without anyone between you and the airport, you could stay clean until CRI itself, at a speed of somewhere around 200-220 knots. There is enough time after CRI to configure, although doing so in real IMC conditions would put a considerable strain on both pilots, as things begin to happen very quickly!

After CRI is crossed, a descent can commence to the minimum altitude of 800 feet. In VMC conditions (and for purposes of this discussion VMC means that you already had the airport in sight at ASALT) an immediate descent just after CRI is not necessary – after all, you have almost 6 miles to lose 1500 feet. A normal descent (around 600-700 feet per minute) need not commence until a mile or two past CRI. This will prevent level flight with gear and a lot of flaps, and keep things quieter on the ground. After all, as I indicated above, the area along the Belt Parkway has gotten a great deal more crowded in the past 45 years.

Once you arrive at the Belt parkway, just turn right and follow it, keeping it just off to the left. This is easier for the Captain to do, since it is just out his window.

Canarsie approach
Aqueduct racetrack is off to the left, out of the picture, as JFK approaches ahead.

Aside from the parkway itself, Aqueduct racetrack is the principal landmark on the approach, and you normally plan to pass just to the south of it as the final turn begins toward the runway, now off to the right. The VASIs on the right side of 13L are conveniently aimed not down the localizer, but off to the west, and you can see them clearly from Aqueduct. They will provide vertical guidance from there on in. On a purely visual approach, with a constant descent from CRI, you’d want to be just below 1000 feet as you pass the racetrack, and fully configured for landing.

As you cross the hotel, the roof of which hosts the last string of lead-in lights, you will be rolling out on final. The runway itself has a regular approach light system, which is now the main visual aid, along with the left-side VASI’s, which are aligned along the straight-in final.

In IMC, which is to say less than 1000 and 3, it is a good idea to be at least partially configured crossing ASALT, probably flaps 5 or 15 on a 767 and around 180 knots. At CRI you would want to have the gear down and flaps 20 on a 767. After CRI you would want to descend right away, to get below the clouds and see the lead-in lights as soon as possible. Leveling at 800 feet at or prior to DMYHL, you must then maintain altitude until beyond Aqueduct, at which point you will have the runway and more importantly the VASI in sight. With the minimum visibility of two miles you will see two strings of lead-in lights at any given moment beyond DMYHL, in addition to the parkway itself, and following them around to the hotel is not terribly demanding.

Short final at JFK
Now straightened out on short final, coming up on the 150th street entry road. This is where the winds will start to get squirrely, if they are going to.

It is possible to land on 13R from the Canarsie approach, and this is often done by airlines whose terminals lie on the southwest side of the field. The turn to 13R is a little tighter than for the left side, but not alarmingly so, and can be done with no more than 25 degrees of bank. The reason for this is that the landing threshold of 13R is several thousand feet down the pavement, so you are not actually aiming for the end of the concrete!

Since our terminal is closer to 13L, I hardly ever used 13R. One of the several times in my career that I did so was at the end of my line requalification after returning to the airline from a 10-month stint of military active duty during Desert Storm. It was night, and the weather was good – good enough for us to see that the 747 that had been cleared for takeoff on 13R (which is always the primary departure runway) had been quite slow to commence his takeoff roll. As we rolled out on final approach (around one mile from the runway itself) he finally began to pick up speed. Since the first 2000 feet of this runway is off limits for landing, we were flying right through his turbulent exhaust, which made control a bit of a physical exercise!

In addition, because it is verboten, except in an emergency, to actually touch down on a piece of concrete currently occupied by another set of tires, I had to hold us off the runway until he actually got airborne. In other circumstances, a go-around would have been in order, but the check airman agreed with my hastily verbalized assessment that to go belly-up to an airplane whose assigned heading was unknown to us would be more risky. Better to keep him in sight. With almost 15,000 feet of runway in play, it was really no problem – just a matter of keeping us about three feet in the air until he broke ground. Just another night at the office. And lo and behold, with all of that practice in the flare, the landing was exceptionally smooth. Well, you know what they say about that blind squirrel!

All in all, I’m glad I got to fly in this current era. Before too long, the Canarsie approach will have some sort of three-dimensional GPS overlay, with both lateral and vertical guidance. Safer, perhaps, but much less gratifying. The new generation of pilots will likely couple up the magic, and let Otto do all the work, never realizing that he is also having all of the fun. Too bad: they may not know what they will be missing.


  • Tony, I have always wondered about this approach, so often written about in books by some of my favorite authors, especially North Star Over My Shoulder by Robert N. Buck. (

    If you are reading this blog and have never read this book you are truly missing out on one of the best written stories of flying from DC 2s to 747s. Fabulous book! Buy it today! So much it can teach any pilot while being completely entertained.

    I have looked in my Jepps and Foreflight more than once and have never found the Canarsie, and I thought it had been decommissioned.

    While me ‘n my 182 will never have the pleasure of this approach, thanks so much for sharing and solving the mystery. Great story!

  • I have started this approach over ASALT with about 70 knots of tailwind. That makes it very interesting. It is not uncommon for it to be in use with south winds of 10 or 15 knots at the surface, often resulting in a slightly wide turn over the Aquaduct, and it can be amusing to watch wide bodied aircraft recover from this turn onto final for a crosswind landing. There is a wonderful story out there, the truth of which I have no idea, about an Aeroflot pilot, whose voice was never heard in the old days because he had an English speaking radio operator, jumping in to add his rather salty opinion of the approach as he rolled out on final…

    And I second Mark’s opinion…Bob Buck’s memoir is very much a must read. I am privileged to have an autographed copy on my bookshelf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *