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In spite of what new instrument students might think, not all IFR approaches are straight-in ILSs to 200 and 1/2. Some airports just don’t lend themselves to an approach, due to terrain, obstacles or airspace issues. But these challenges aren’t enough to prevent creative TERPs designers from finding a solution. One look at the seven examples below shows that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

We’ve restricted ourselves to US airports for this article, and it should go without saying that these charts are not to be used for navigation.

Well-known plates

Some interesting approaches are hiding in plain sight, serving major airports in populated parts of the country. A good warm-up is the VOR/DME to runway 15 at Martin State Airport near Baltimore. You may have practiced DME arcs during your instrument training, but this entire approach is one big DME arc:


How about an approach that is completely level? The NDB/DME approach to Haily, Idaho, requires pilots to fly the procedure turn at 8000 ft., cross the final approach fix at 8000 ft. and stay right there–minimums are 8000 ft.


When pilots hear “unique approach,” Aspen is usually the first airport that comes to mind. It has quite a reputation, and it’s well-deserved. The approach parallels some serious mountains and terminates at an airport nearly 8000 ft. above sea level. There are numerous step down fixes, including a chop-it-and-drop-it final segment that requires pilots to lose nearly 1900 ft in just 3.1 nm. And the missed approach? How about a localizer back course from a navaid on top of a mountain?


Visual approaches

Not all approach plates require fancy navaids. Two of the busiest airports in the US feature charted visual approaches that are far from simple. First up is JFK’s VOR or GPS approach to runway 13L and 13R. How can it serve both runways? It’s really a VOR approach that turns into a visual approach, with a series of visual landmarks and lead-in lights. Review the chart below, then watch it flown in this video.


Boston’s Logan Airport also has a charted visual approach, the Light Visual to runway 33L, which requires pilots to fly a radial until spotting the Boston Lighthouse, then turn left to intercept the final approach course. It’s mainly for noise abatement, and it’s only used with VFR minimums:



Of course for truly bizarre approaches, there’s no place like Alaska. The combination of rugged terrain, sparse navaids and limited radar coverage makes for a truly challenging place to fly IFR. The NDB-B approach to Anaktuvuk Pass is a great example. How about an approach with 4500 ft. minimums? One glance at the terrain on the chart below explains why:


Some procedures in Alaska stretch the definition of “instrument approach.” The NDB runway 34 approach at Sparrevohn, Alaska, advises “successful go-around improbable if initiated past the MAP,” hardly a reassuring thought. This video shows just how interesting the airport is.


Your nominees

There are many other strange approaches out there–what’s on your list? Add a comment below.

John Zimmerman
40 replies
    • Harry Fox
      Harry Fox says:

      WVI is my home airport, so I just assumed that’s what a normal DME arc approach should look like.

  1. Ethan Andersen
    Ethan Andersen says:

    Very awesome!! I love looking at these detailed plates!!! Also 10 stars for linking the videos to youtube!!

  2. Dave Starr
    Dave Starr says:

    Nice work, John. I remember seeing the Martin State “arcs leading to arcs” example on your blog, IIRC. I loved the KBOS “Light Visual” example, it’s like something from the “Iron Men and Wooden Ship” days.

    One can see a crew on that approach now, PNF says to the PF, “Boston light lies 2 points on the starboard bow, Cap’n”

    There are quite a few “Visual” approaches around the world, but I have to say this is the first I have seen which uses an actual, active maritime light as part of the published aviation approach procedure. Neat stuff.

  3. Philippe Baldewijns
    Philippe Baldewijns says:

    Most famous in Europe are the LOC DME approaches into Innsbruck, Austria, descending almost 10.000 feet into a valley. The higher volume of traffic here is during the winter when a lot of skiers go to the region. Snow, ice, wind shear, low clouds all add to the fun. Try to google the approach plate and judge for your self.

  4. Michael Cowan
    Michael Cowan says:

    A friend of mine took a National Geographic tour of Bhutan. She talked about what a sharp descent they had into the airport, I looked it up on FSX. She flew from Khatmandu into Paro “VQPR” Bhutan’s only commercial airport at that time.

    Paro is @7,300′ with a 6,645′ runway. The catch is when you clear the Tacan station a few miles away you are at least at 13,500′ and many nearby mountains are 18,000+’ And yes there is only one way to fly in and out. There’s virtually no room to do a spiral descent!

    Try that on approach FSX with the passenger aircraft you prefer to sim.

    • Denis
      Denis says:

      There’s an approach to Paro, Bhutan on You Tube in an Airbus 320.
      Very cool taken by someone in the jump seat behind the pilot with
      an I-Phone, great audio ! . Got to check it out !

        • Denis
          Denis says:

          There’s quite a few of these Paro approaches on You Tube. So find the one put up by “althams1” , it’s got over 3 million hits, by far the best of the group. I have watched it several times, never gets old!

          • Michael Cowan
            Michael Cowan says:


            Takes your breath away! Thanks for the link.

            I just couldn’t help thinking what it would have looked like if filmed with a Hero Pro mounted at the top of the windshield.

  5. Jeff Cannon
    Jeff Cannon says:

    I am surprised no one mentioned the old airport in Hong Kong, Kai Tak,(sp?). It was an ILS into the side of a good sized hill that even had a red & white checkered billboard at the ILS transmitter. The idea was that you flew the ILS until you got the airport is sight, and at about 400 feet or so, just short of the hill, you make a right
    60 degree or so turn to line up with the runway. During the final turn you were looking into the windows of all the apartments on the target hill. This was mandated by the proximity of Red China airspace.

    This was great fun in a Challenger, but really impressive to watch a 747 do it!

    • Michael Cowan
      Michael Cowan says:


      You wouldn’t happen to still have an old chart of this approach would you? If so, it’d be neat to post.

  6. john dale
    john dale says:

    i have the old chart for the visual at meigs in chicago. that was not too difficult other than it was a visual approach, and most of it was over lake michigan. won’t let me paste it on here, though.

    • Michael Cowan
      Michael Cowan says:


      I remember and miss Meigs!! There were times Meigs was the only approachable GA or non scheduled aircraft landing spot in the Chicago area!!

      I certainly remember when we landed two Marine Corps CH-46s at Meigs while trying to do a more interesting or at least different ferry hop from Philly to Santa Ana in the mid sixties!

      Sad to say, Meigs isn’t even available to fly into with my flight simulator!!

  7. Eliot
    Eliot says:

    Important to mention that the missed at ASE is a back course, but you are flying it away from the localizer therefore do not use reverse sensing!

      • Eliot
        Eliot says:

        You are flying away from the localizer antenna, therefore it is the front course.
        Look at a BC approach such as KMLB, and visualize flying across the localizer and continuing outbound on the front course

  8. Roger Kellerman
    Roger Kellerman says:

    The VOR DME 02 at Tribhuvan would fit right in here. A 6,500 foot descent on a 16 mile final with a 20,000 foot mountain in front of you.

  9. James W. Harris
    James W. Harris says:

    UNUSUAL APPROACHES – The WWII refueling stop-over from the US to Europe was the airport “Bluie West One” near the city of Narsarsuaq, Greenland ( ICAO ID is BGBW ).
    In the 1980’s and 90’s we used it when we were range limited (that usually meant shortly after starting the last engine). This was before the age of GPS navigation. The approach at that time was an NDB / DME approach. That procedure prescribed a teardrop let-down into the fjords (valley) with hills CLOSE either side almost 3,000 ft above the airport. Easy for a present day glass cockpit G1000, but the NDB means NON-precision and you frequently had ice bergs in the harbor hiding the approach end of the runway. (Scary at night (not authorized) and when IMC ! We always took an extra change of underwear. )

  10. Steve
    Steve says:

    Piece of cake. Then again, that last one, with its “Military Certified Aircrews Or Authorized Contract Aircraft Only…” Well, that’s what I did for a living. The training the Air Force gives it’s aviators is top notch.

    That said, my instrument procedures improved greatly when I sought my commercial ticket under a civilian CFI/II. We flew all over Arkansas, running through every STAR, IAP, and SID we could find, and if I did something wrong, he insisted I do it a second time, the right way, and third time just to be sure. That ate up all my required hours of instruction, and then some. And I’m grateful for it. It made me a better military pilot and helped me pass my commercial check ride with ease.

  11. Eric Thompson
    Eric Thompson says:

    Rather late comment for Jeff and Michael on the Hong Kong approach to Rwy 13 at the old airport–Barry Schiff spends a whole page on this when it was the “Charlie-Charlie” NDB approach, never mind an ILS. One still had to fly right at the checkerboard on the cliff, then turn sharp right. The article is in Chapter 6 of “Proficient Pilot II” and the approach certainly sounds daunting.

  12. Frank
    Frank says:

    On the PAKP NDB-B approach, there are noted a G and M after procedure turn headings. Are they m for magnetic and G for grid? and what does it mean to us, since we fly mag anyway. Was looking up references on chart user guide and had no luck. Thanks for the info, it keeps me thinking.

    LARRY BAUM says:

    The GPS-A approach into Lake Placid, NY (KLKP) is one of the longer approaches in the eastern part of the continental US. It’s 23.4nm from the LEAFY IAF to the airport where you end up essentially over the runway at 1,553′ AGL. If the weather is decent, it’s a lovely circling approach over the village and Lake Placid with a great view of the 1980 Winter Olympics ski jumps south of the airport.

  14. Enderson Rafael
    Enderson Rafael says:

    There used to be a very unique one at Hilton Head, SC. You followed a radial from Savannah until you spotted the river, then followed the river to the threshold. Unfortunatelly, I haven’t been able to find it since late 2013.

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