Instrument Rated Pilot Ground School
The VOR Approach - BRIEFING
In this lesson, you'll learn how to fly a VOR approach.
ESTIMATED TIME TO COMPLETE
Complete the Student and Private Pilot lessons before beginning this
lesson. Reading the Ground School material before starting this lesson will
help you better understand the skills being taught. You should also complete
the reading and practice in the Instrument Scan solo lesson. Study the
approach chart in this briefing to become familiar with the approach
You'll encounter mostly cloudy conditions with some rain. Low ceilings are
forecasted, so you will need to rely on flying the aircraft referring only to
ABOUT THE FLIGHT
You'll start in the air and fly the VOR approach into Snohomish County
Airport (Paine Field). You'll intercept a VOR course, track the course, fly a
course reversal maneuver (procedure turn), fly the approach while descending to
a minimum descent altitude (MDA), and land on runway 16R.
Your instructor will help you set the navigation radios and instruments.
Be careful not to chase the VOR needle when crossing the VOR. As you approach
the VOR, the needle will become more sensitive and swing to one side or the
other. As you cross the VOR, hold your heading until the VOR needle becomes more
You will need to use either the aircraft clock or another timing device for
the timed portion of the approach.
KEY COMMANDS TO REMEMBER
F7 to lower flaps in 10-degree increments before landing
You'll be asked to maintain:
- Airspeed within 10 knots as assigned
- Altitude within 100 feet as assigned and not below minimum descent
altitude (1060 feet) during the approach until the runway is in sight.
- Headings within 10 degrees as assigned
The VOR Approach - LESSON
—by Rod Machado
The VOR Approach
Figure 1-1 shows the VOR approach chart for Santa Monica, California.
Look at the thick black line located in the plan view (position E) running
from right to left down toward the airport. This is the instrument approach
course that takes you to the airport (position F). Located on the airport is the
VOR station (position G) that provides the navigation signal for the approach.
Here's how you'd fly this approach.
Let's assume your airplane is located at DARTS intersection (position H).
This intersection shows the beginning of the VOR approach course. All instrument
approach courses are identified by thick black lines in the plan view section.
Notice that the VOR approach course consists of the 212-degree VOR course to the
Santa Monica VOR. Your job is to get on that thick black line and fly the
depicted course to the airport. And while you're tracking this course, you're
also descending to the lowest altitudes, as shown in the approach chart's
profile section (position C).
So how do you get onto this approach course in the first place? ATC will
either give you radar vectors (headings) to intercept the thick black line, or
you can fly a VOR course that leads you to it (more on this later).
Flying the Santa Monica VOR Approach
To fly the 212-degree course to the VOR, tune your navigation receiver to
110.8 MHz (Santa Monica's VOR frequency, position I), and then set your OBS to
212 degrees. Heading 212 degrees will align you with the approach course. From
here, you begin tracking the 212-degree course to the airport.
The profile section shows that once you're past DARTS intersection, you can
descend to an altitude of 2,600 feet (position J). Many airplanes have Distance
Measuring Equipment (DME). If yours does, you can obtain a DME reading from the
Santa Monica VOR. As you approach the VOR, the DME counter shows your distance
from the VOR decreasing. When the DME shows 6.7 miles, you're at BEVEY
intersection (position K). Now you can descend to 1,120 feet. What's the reason
for making descents in steps? You're kept above the higher obstacles located
along the approach course. As you get closer to the airport, the obstacles
usually aren't as tall. (Apparently, other pilots have already knocked the
bigger ones down.) Therefore, you're progressively lowered on the approach
course as you approach the runway.
Finally, when the DME reads 2.4 miles, you're at CULVE intersection (position
L). Since no lower altitudes are shown in the profile view, you need to go to
the minima section—the section of the approach chart that identifies the
lowest altitude to which you are allowed to descend on this instrument
approach—(shown in position D) for the final and lowest altitude to which you
can descend. The minima section shows 660 feet as the minimum descent altitude (MDA).
To go any lower, you must have the airport in sight. You must have at least the
one-mile visibility shown in the minima section next to the 660 feet to go any
If you don't have the airport in sight by the time you fly over the VOR,
you're required to execute a missed approach. Therefore, if the VOR flag flips
from TO to FROM and you don't have the airport in sight, you must
fly the missed approach procedure (position M). This procedure takes you to a
safe altitude from which you can plan your next approach.
A Variation of the VOR Approach
There are several variations to the VOR instrument approach procedure. Once
you master these, you'll have no problem interpreting any approach chart. For
instance, Figure 1-2 is the VOR approach to Long Beach, California.
(You'll notice that there is a slight difference in chart format between
Figure 1-1 and 2. Within the next couple of years, all approach charts will
eventually change to the format shown in Figure 1-2). The approach consists of
two main segments. The first segment is the 300-degree course to the SLI VOR
(tune the VOR to 115.7 MHz, and set the OBS to 300 degrees). The minimum
altitude along this route is 1,500 feet, as shown by position A.
Once the TO/FROM flag flips and reads FROM, you need to turn
and track outbound on the 275-degree course that leads you to the airport
(position B). Since the profile doesn't show any minimum altitudes for this
section of the procedure, look at the minima section of the chart (position C).
You're allowed to descend to 560 feet on this approach. Where's the missed
approach point? It's based either on time (start your watch at the VOR and count
down the time for a given ground speed) or a DME reading from the VOR. Both of
the missed approach points are shown by position D.
The Racetrack Course Reversal
One last note on this approach chart: Notice the racetrack pattern shown in
the profile view (position E). This is one of two means of course reversal (also
known as a procedure turn). If you're heading to the VOR from the north, it's
too sharp a turn to cross the VOR and fly the 275-degree course toward the
airport. Therefore, you should cross the VOR and reverse course. Flying a
heading of 120 degrees (position F) allows you to go opposite the inbound
course. From here, you'll turn to intercept the 300-degree course to the VOR,
and fly the 275-degree course toward the airport once you've crossed the
Simply stated, your objective is to try and stay within the boundaries of the
racetrack as you reverse course. Outside these boundaries, you're not given
protection for terrain. Of course, in a simulator, this is no big deal. You may
conk a few simulated mountain goats on the head, but so what? Since we're
practicing to develop real flying skills, however, let's pretend this is real.
What's the minimum altitude to fly the racetrack course reversal? This is shown
in the profile view as 1,500 feet (position G).
Therefore, if I'm heading down to SLI VOR from the north, I'll turn and fly a
heading of 120 degrees after crossing the station. This should keep me close to
the racetrack boundaries. After one minute (the time shown next to the racetrack
in the profile view, position G), I'll turn left to intercept and track the
300-degree course back to the VOR and complete the instrument approach. Of
course, this also assumes that I've previously set my OBS to 300 degrees. With
slight simplification, that's pretty much how it's done in the real world.
As an additional note, there are routes leading to the VOR (called feeder
routes because they feed you onto the instrument approach procedure) that don't
require a course reversal. Position H shows one feeder route starting at MIDDS
intersection and listing the letters NoPT, which stands for no procedure turn.
Along this route, you should fly the instrument approach without doing the
course reversal. In other words, fly directly to the VOR and then to the
The Barb-Type Course Reversal
The second type of course reversal is shown in Figure 1-3.
This is known as a barb-type course reversal (or procedure turn). Let's
assume you're approaching from ITMOR intersection (position A). This route
leading to the RDD VOR consists of flying the 224-degree course (tune the VOR to
108.4 MHz, and set the OBS to 224). The minimum altitude along this route is
3,700 feet (position B). Once you cross the VOR, turn and track outbound on the
175-degree course, as shown by position C (you must now set your OBS to 175).
The objective here is to travel outbound, reverse your direction, and then track
inbound and fly the instrument approach course.
The profile view shows 2,000 feet as the minimum altitude for the procedure
turn, which should be completed within 10 nautical miles (nm) of the VOR
(position D). As you're descending, you'll travel outbound and, while still
within 10 miles, you can turn to a heading of 220 degrees (position E). Fly this
heading for a minute or less, and then turn left to a heading of 040 degrees
(position F) and intercept the approach course inbound. This means you must
reset your OBS to track to the VOR (turn the OBS to 355 degrees). Once inbound,
you may descend to 1,260 feet (position G). When your DME (from RDD VOR) reads
2.6 miles, you can descend to 860 feet, which is the altitude shown in the
minima section (position J). The "M" shown in the profile section
(position H) depicts the VOR as the missed approach point.
Notice the two feeder routes leading from ITMOR and RED BLUFF VOR to RDD VOR
(positions A and I). Feeder routes are shown as slightly thinner than the
instrument approach course, and they are always accompanied by minimum flyable
altitudes. Neither of these routes lists the letters NoPT. Therefore, as you
approach RDD VOR along any of these routes, you must fly the procedure turn as a
means of reversing course before flying the instrument approach procedure.
From the RED BLUFF VOR (position I), track to the RDD VOR on the 336-degree
course (set OBS to 336), and then make a left turn after crossing the VOR and
track outbound on the 175-degree course from the VOR. Then, you repeat the same
course reversal process listed above.
Did you get all that? I just took you though a quick course on VOR instrument
approaches, something that usually takes instrument pilots months to understand.
If you want to put an ice pack on your cranium, I'll understand. But believe it
or not, there's only one more approach you need to look at in order to have a
general idea about how most instrument approaches work. It's called the
Instrument Landing System (ILS).
To get started with your instrument flying, click the Fly This Lesson Now
link to practice what you just learned about VOR approaches.
THIS LESSON IS AVAILABLE IN THE ACTIVE FLIGHT