Circle to Land: Which Way to Turn?

Are aircraft doing a “circle to land” instrument approach legally required to follow the direction of turns requirement of Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) 91.126 at uncontrolled airports? Since this issue comes up periodically, I thought it might be useful to put the arguments on both sides of the question in one place so we don’t have to write them over and over.

I will lay out the details below, but first it is worth noting we are talking nuances of legality. Worry first about flying safe. If you are doing an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) approach to an uncontrolled airport with active Visual Flight Rules (VFR) traffic, you need to fit into their flow. I recommend that you make your Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) the same as pattern altitude, and join the standard traffic pattern if at all possible. Never try to bully your way in by using your IFR status to claim priority. But if the weather is poor, fly the circle in the safest way you can, regardless of the standard traffic pattern.

No matter what you do, be sure to transmit your position and intentions all along the way so that any other aircraft out there knows where you are.

Now, on to the arguments. The relevant part of 91.126 is:

(a) General. Unless otherwise authorized or required, each person operating an aircraft on or in the vicinity of an airport in a Class G airspace area must comply with the requirements of this section.

(b) Direction of turns. When approaching to land at an airport without an operating control tower in Class G airspace—

(1) Each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right;

Note that this rule also applies to Class E airspace thanks to 91.127.

The major argument by the “Yes” people is that circling turns must follow the traffic pattern for the airport because there is no explicit exemption for circling in the regulations. However, the first 5 words of the regulation provide the exemption, “Unless otherwise authorized or required”.

Where does this authorization come from? In the 2013 Collins legal response ( the FAA lawyers wrote that deviation from 91.126 may be authorized or required “by the approach guidelines of a specific airport”. Well, what are the approach guidelines if not the published Instrument Approach Procedure (IAP), also known as the approach plate? The only information on the plate that could apply to turns while approaching to land is the circling data. Therefore, the circling data on the approach plate can authorize non-standard turns, supporting the “no” position.

Some “yes” proponents have argued that this only applies when there is a circling restriction on the plate. Circling restrictions are a “requirement” but not an “authorization”. Both are mentioned in the regulation and in the letter, so we are not limited to cases where there is a restriction on the plate, so this argument doesn’t hold.

Does that mean I can barrel into the pattern and fly non-standard turns whenever I like when IFR? Well, no. There are a lot of indications (discussed below) that when VFR conditions are present you are expected to fly a normal pattern if possible. However, when the weather is poor it is a different matter.

A major “no” argument is that flying standard turns can be dangerous. By far the most common collision scenario is one plane descending into another one. You can see why if you think about it a bit. With one plane above another neither plane can see the other; the aircraft body blocks the view. That is why the traffic pattern altitude exists and pilots are told to join the pattern at the right altitude, so they can see each other. But if one plane is at the MDA and another is at a (different) Traffic Pattern Altitude (TPA), you can see how they could end up one above the other, descending for the same runway, headed for a collision. On the other hand, if the circling aircraft is on the other side of the runway, they have a good chance to see each other and avoid the collision. So it is likely to actually be safer to be on the other side of the runway from the standard traffic pattern.

Another “no” argument is that there are no cases where a pilot has been charged with violating 91.126 when circling. There are plenty of other violations of 91.126 in the records, but I haven’t seen anything involving circling.

To summarize, flying non-standard turns can be authorized by the plate, flying standard turns at a non-standard altitude is dangerous, and there is no record of violations. All of these support the “no” position.

Those are the biggest arguments, but there are more we should talk about to be complete.

First, the legal interpretations. These are often cited by “yes” proponents, but when you look at them carefully, they usually don’t support “yes”.

First is the Murphy letter of 2009 ( Murphy asked if turns could be made to the right if the pilot decided they were necessary. The FAA does not answer directly, but just restates the regulation. They say that the regulation doesn’t give pilot discretion except when “authorized or required by ATC”. However, this interpretation was overridden by the Collins letter of 2013 where the FAA said the Murphy letter was mistaken. So, this letter does not support “yes”.

Next was the Grossman letter of 2011 ( This one doesn’t talk about circling at all and it isn’t clear why it is brought up. However, it does bring up the fact that the recommended procedure to join the pattern involves a turn in the “wrong” direction as the pilot comes in on the 45 to downwind. Another common exception to 91.126 is making correction turns to adjust for wind drift. These are both commonly accepted exceptions to 91.126 that aren’t covered by the regulations, making it look like 91.126 isn’t as definitive as the “yes” people would like.

Finally was the Collins letter of 2013 ( This letter also does not answer the question directly. However, it does clarify that “authorization” can be “by the approach guidelines of a specific airport”, which supports the “no” conclusion.

The “yes” proponents have cited various sections of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and Advisory Circulars (ACs). However, most of those are clearly specific to VFR flight or flight in VMC. For instance, AC 90-66C ( Section 9.9 has been mentioned, but it specifically says that “published approach procedure” can be an exception to standard turns. Section 9.11.3 has also been raised, but note that it is talking about “Pilots conducting instrument approaches in VMC”, which supports the contention that circling is not a way to bully VFR traffic, but doesn’t say that circling must always follow the standard pattern.

Those are all the “yes” arguments I’m aware of, and they have all been refuted. Here are additional “no” arguments the “yes” proponents will need to counter in order to make their case:

  • Every little detail you need to fly an instrument approach, including the circle, is on the plate, right down to the ground control frequency. If the FAA intended for you to follow traffic pattern turns, why is the direction of turns not given on the plate along with the other circling instructions?

  • Where you are expected to be on only one side of a course, like a holding pattern or procedure turn, the protected airspace is primarily on that side. But the protected area for circling is normally equal on both sides. Doing this likely raises the MDA, but they still do it. Why would they if you were not expected to use it?

  • Some IAPs require you to make non-standard turns. The KTCY RNAV Rwy 12 circle runway 30 is an example. Runway 30 has left traffic, but circling on that side is not authorized. There is nothing to indicate this violates the traffic pattern on the plate. Why would they publish these without any comment if they expected you to use the traffic pattern turns?

Note that there is an Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) who routinely uses the KTCY RNAV Rwy 12 circle runway 30 on checkrides conducted during VMC without any problems from the FAA.

  • The legal meaning of “approaching to land” is not clear. The FAA has not defined it. How can you be sure circling is included in the definition?

The bottom line is that the FAA has not clearly said either yes or no. Saying “yes” would be as easy as writing, “pilots flying circling approaches under IFR must follow the published turn direction” but they haven’t done that, despite being asked directly. On the other hand, saying “no” would open the door for some IFR pilots to abuse the system by bullying their way into the pattern, which isn’t good.

That is why I believe the right answer is in between: If you need to circle, do what you have to in order to be safe and don’t worry about traffic pattern direction. If the weather is good enough that you don’t need it, play nice with the other traffic, including using both TPA and standard turns.

Article by Rich Acuff, May 2024