IFR Insight: Changing Clearances
Certain circumstances make obtaining an airborne IFR clearance convenient and even necessary. Regardless of how a clearance is obtained, it will contain the same basic information, such as routing, clearance limit, altitude assignment, transponder code, etc. No matter the environment, be prepared to copy the clearance carefully, as you’ll be expected to read back and, most importantly, execute the clearance with precision, regardless of whether you’re flying the airplane or sitting on the ground when the clearance is received. As you might imagine, the less hectic venue of sitting at a standstill on the ramp, void of other distractions and with the opportunity to digest and plan for any clearance modifications prior to flight, is the wiser decision in most situations.
An airborne IFR clearance may be desirable when your departure airport is not towered and does not have a dedicated remote communications frequency. Under these circumstances, local pilots may be able to provide helpful insight. For example, the locals may know that you can raise the approach facility on its published airborne frequency, even while on the ground. Perhaps there is a preferred method for airborne clearances with the local facility that will make the process more manageable and pleasant, as some facilities are less receptive to airborne requests than others.
IFR clearances often contain unexpected instructions, such as departure procedures, heading assignments or simply new routing. While an airborne IFR clearance may seem innocuous if considering a “standard” IFR clearance from the local controller, it can be anything but when you’re forced to contend with tuning a radio, programming or locating unfamiliar fixes, and determining how the route may affect your overall plan — all while flying the airplane. A word of caution: An en route IFR clearance can result in additional complexity that will require careful division of attention and/or the assistance of a safety pilot. So choose your airborne IFRs wisely and, preferably, in familiar territory.
If an airborne clearance on departure seems inevitable, there are still items to consider before leaving the ground. You’ll want to have your filed route programmed and be prepared to fly toward an initial waypoint. It’s generally easier to modify an existing flight plan in your GPS versus making a new entry. You’ll also want to be certain you can climb to an altitude, in visual conditions, that will ensure obstacle clearance and communication with ATC. Your radio reception is dependent on a host of variables, and it is certainly within the realm of possibility that you will receive a response of “stand by” or “maintain VFR” from ATC, at least initially. Ordinarily, you are not receiving any ATC services during this transition time. If the risks don’t seem manageable given the day’s conditions, consider a telephone clearance from Flight Service, or better yet, make a telephone call to the ATC facility.
If opting for an airborne clearance, do a little research to ensure you are tuned to the best frequency for the facility. Consult the approach chart for your departing airport to obtain the local approach/departure (or air route traffic control center) servicing the airport. Further, you can examine the IFR en route chart, the A/FD or, again, talk to local pilots. Your GPS may offer the ability to search for the nearest communication frequency. If unsuccessful in locating a frequency en route, Flight Service can provide a valid frequency. Have equipment ready to copy your clearance, and keep in mind that you may not always receive the route filed. Of course, you may ask ATC to repeat a piece of information or get clarification, but repeated questions lead to frequency congestion and reduced opportunity for ATC to perform its primary task.