Somewhat surprisingly, many of the challenges of learning to be a proficient IFR pilot are the same as those one encounters when just getting started as a student pilot. One of the toughest skills for brand-new pilots to master — talking on the radio — is equally challenging for pilots getting their instrument ticket or just trying to be more proficient with their instrument skills.
The good news is that many VFR pilots already have the skills to be effective communicators in the IFR environment, especially those who have a lot of experience flying VFR in busy airspace. While it’s true that the kinds of requests you make to ATC under IFR are different from those in VFR — like hold clearances — the bottom line is that what makes for effective communications in the clear also works in the clouds.
In many ways, communicating under IFR is easier than communicating under visual rules because by their very nature IFR flights are more closely regulated than VFR flights. The basic information about the flight — where you came from and where you’re going, and more — is already on the controller’s screen, so there’s no need in most cases to communicate any of it. In fact, in most cases, you don’t want to communicate information the controller already knows. It just busies up the frequency and wastes everybody’s time. In other cases, such as when you’re on an assigned heading, it’s often good to pass along that info to the new controller since it takes so little time to communicate and clears up potential misunderstandings.
It was a welcome realization when I started flying IFR years ago that most ATC transmissions are remarkably easy to predict. All I had to know was what the controller was likely to say, and nine times out of 10, that’s what he’d say. It might be as simple as knowing you’ll get the altimeter setting when you switch to a new controller en route, or it might verge on the black arts, like knowing when you’re likely to get a reroute — about 20 minutes outside of any Class B is often a good bet.
As I’ve written before, think of an IFR flight in terms of phases of flight. What the controller is going to tell you on your first communication as you’re departing the airport — a new heading, new altitude or some transition to the standard departure — is different from what you’re almost certain to hear when you’re getting vectors to the final approach course on an ILS — maintain 2,000 feet until established on the final, etc. Expecting what the controller is likely to say eliminates almost all the surprise factor and allows you to respond quickly and appropriately.