That happened long ago in a galaxy far away, when obstacle clearances were unregulated and course reversals went unpublished. Here and now the rules are clearer and procedures for getting established on an approach course are more precise.
Still, the day may be coming when only someone as old as Yoda remembers the gratifications of crossing a fix, flying a timed leg outbound, turning several degrees away from the outbound course, timing that leg, reversing direction, intercepting the inbound course, and reporting “procedure turn inbound” to approach control.
Within the structured environment of flying published instrument approach procedures, pilots retain flexibility to fly the procedure turn of their choosing—exceptions being instrument approach procedures (IAPs) containing the prohibition “No PT” and those with a holding pattern published “in lieu of” procedure turns.
As described in the Pilot/Controller Glossary, a procedure turn is “the maneuver prescribed when it is necessary to reverse direction to establish an aircraft on the intermediate approach segment or final approach course. The outbound course, direction of turn, distance within which the turn must be completed, and minimum altitude are specified in the procedure. However, unless otherwise restricted, the point at which the turn may be commenced and the type and rate of turn are left to the discretion of the pilot.”
Procedure turns are a vital element in instrument training for flying a full approach, not a vectored approach. And get this—flying them is fun. How skillfully the pilot visualizes intercepting the final approach course inbound from the procedure turn reliably demonstrates how well the pilot planned the maneuver.
What could make procedure turns fade from many pilots’ proficiency-maintenance routine is the steady expansion of GPS-based IAPs that include terminal arrival areas (TAA), the design objective of which is “to provide a transition method for arriving aircraft with GPS/RNAV equipment. TAAs also eliminate or reduce the need for feeder routes, departure extensions, and procedure turns or course reversal.” See the discussion of TAAs in the Instrument Flying Handbook (page 1-18).
But as long as pilots fly legacy instrument approaches for fun or because GPS isn’t available, procedure turns will remain part of the game plan. Make sure to practice these enjoyable and skill-building reversals often in your trusty ship.