IFR Insight: Changing Clearances

When routings change on the fly, you’d better have a plan.

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.

In addition to obtaining an IFR clearance in the departure scenario, you may encounter other circumstances that require an IFR clearance during the en route phase. Composite flight plans, as an example, consist of VFR and IFR segments. If VFR flight is planned for the first segment, the VFR portion should be opened and closed with Flight Service prior to requesting the IFR clearance from ATC. In order to obtain the IFR clearance, use the same recommendations mentioned previously to locate the proper frequency, or simply request a frequency from Flight Service. If your first segment is IFR, your clearance will typically be to the changeover point. You’ll want to cancel your IFR or request further clearance prior to reaching this point.

If an IFR clearance is needed in the event of unexpected circumstances, such as a stubborn cloud layer, your first step is getting your IFR request “in the system.” You can file an IFR flight plan en route via Flight Service, using an en route waypoint as your starting (or departing) point. This step is less time-consuming if you have a flight plan template handy.

In the event that your IFR clearance is necessary only to transition through a cloud layer or is limited to the terminal environment, many facilities will be able to accommodate your request without your having to file a flight plan with Flight Service. This is sometimes referred to as a “pop-up IFR clearance.” State your request with ATC in a clear, concise and confident manner and you’re likely to receive a more accommodating response. A word of advice: Don’t attempt pop-up IFR clearances in high-density traffic areas or as a way to circumvent unfavorable routing.

The FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), the plan to bring “transformative change” in the management and operation of how we fly, promises major enhancements in communications — at least at the air carrier level. Plans are to transition from current analog voice systems to digital data communications, first as a supplement to voice communications and eventually as the predominant mode. The ability to amend or receive clearances via data/text directly to and from the flight deck is sure to reduce misunderstandings and congestion, making en route IFR requests as simple as a few button pushes. It’s only a matter of time before this option is available in our general aviation cockpits.

For now, we’re dependent on our traditional voice communication, which means adapting to any local procedures or preferences and being mindful of the responsibilities that come with accepting a clearance. Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of pilots accepting clearances that were not within the capability of the aircraft and pilots continuing VFR flight when the correct choice would have been to obtain an en route IFR clearance. Either of these scenarios can have serious consequences.

Eric Radtke is an airline transport pilot, Gold Seal flight instructor and advanced ground instructor. Eric has been involved in aviation education since 1998 and currently serves as president and chief instructor of Sporty’s Academy and chief instructor of aviation at the University of Cincinnati, based at Sporty’s Clermont County Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio.


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