A contact approach is an approach available to aircraft operating on an IFR flight plan, where the pilot may deviate from the published instrument approach procedure (IAP) and proceed to the destination airport by visual reference to the surface.
Only pilots may initiate a request for this type of approach, as regulations prohibit air traffic control (ATC) from asking pilots to perform them. A contact approach will only be issued if the aircraft is operating clear of clouds with at least 1-mile of flight visibility, with a reasonable expectation of continuing to the destination airport under those conditions. Additionally, the reported ground visibility at the destination airport must be at least 1 statute mile.
In the execution of a contact approach, the pilot is responsible for obstruction clearance, but ATC will still provide separation from other IFR or special VFR traffic. If radar service is being received, it will automatically terminate when the pilot is instructed to change to the airport's advisory frequency.
The pilot must advise ATC immediately if unable to continue the contact approach or if they encounter less than 1-mile flight visibility; new instructions will then be provided by ATC. Also, ATC may issue alternative instructions if, in their judgment, weather conditions may make completion of the approach impracticable.
The contact approach is often used as time- and fuel-savings method of working the air traffic control system to a pilot's advantage. However, this shortcut comes with two important warnings:
Thus, most instrument pilots will not fly them as they can be scary for the inexperienced.
The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), published by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), emphasizes that the contact approach is meant only as a substitute for a standard IAP. It is not intended to be used as a "poor man's" IFR approach to an airport not having a published approach procedure, nor is it to be used to approach one airport, break-off the approach in visual conditions, and then fly to another airport.