Canarsie Approach

The Canarsie Approach

Tim Takeoff
4 minutes

If you’re a pilot, approaches to the world’s airports are generally pretty routine affairs and quite often the procedures and methods for aligning the aircraft with the runway are very similar.

However, there are some exceptions – places which present pilots with unusual challenges like a steeper approach, turns at a low altitude, difficult terrain, curl-overs or a particularly short runway. One of the most notorious combinations is the so-called “Canarsie approach” in New York.

Three mega-airports in one city

The airspace above New York City is one of the busiest in the world. Channelling and directing all the traffic in this bit of sky is a logistical masterpiece as three of the world’s biggest airports are located in the area: Newark Liberty, La Guardia and John F. Kennedy International, JFK.

In New York, a standard ILS approach (where an aircraft starts the approach from 15 to 20 nautical miles out, in a straight line along the extended centre line of the intended runway) is often simply not practical in certain wind directions. The airports are too close together to ensure a safe separation of aircraft.

What is the “Canarsie Approach”?

This is why a special approach procedure was established for the approach to JFK’s runway 13 in the 1970s. Pilots would approach the runway at a 90-degree angle from a south-westerly direction, past Brooklyn. This is where the VOR “Canarsie”, or CRI for short, is still located today (for more information on what that actually is, see our article about navigation). Aircraft overfly the beacon at the right frequency, direction, altitude and distance, with a minimum altitude of 800 ft. The last part of the approach is then flown entirely visually. At this point, if the pilots don’t have either of the two runways (13 Left or 13 Right) visual, they need to do a go-around in a north-easterly direction towards Long Island. If they do have the runway visual they fly a shallow 90 degree right turn while descending at a shallow angle until the undercarriage touches down.

Racecourse and lead-in lights as navigational aids

It is at night when it all becomes quite spectacular. To guide the pilots around this low final turn to the runway, a whole string of lead-in lights has been strategically installed along the way. For daytime approaches, a racecourse and a large hotel are listed as distinctive landmarks in the approach plates. As the last part is flown entirely manually, pilots take pride in flying the “Canarsie” as tidily and accurately as possible. To achieve this, they will configure the aircraft for landing well before they descend to the minimum altitude – with flaps set for landing and the undercarriage down, and flying at the appropriate approach speed.

The whole procedure has the added advantage of minimising noise over the city as the approach is mostly flown over Jamaica Bay, i.e. over water.

These videos give some idea of how impressive the approach looks from the cockpit, whether by day or by night:

by Tim Takeoff

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