Get That Clearance Right!
Tips on Handling Difficult IFR Clearances

By Mick Kaufman

For a well-trained pilot what is a routine operation can be an emergency to one who is not well trained. Today, we see pilots/aircraft owners spend tens of thousands of dollars for state-of-the-art avionics but hesitate to spend even a few dollars on flight training to learning how to properly use that new expensive equipment.

An issue that many face as instrument pilots is copying an IFR clearance and then complying with it. I am going to cover some of these items and relate some of my own experiences and how it may help you. In one of my aviation writings I covered the subject of holding patterns and how important it is know how to navigate correctly. From that article, I mentioned getting an intersection hold in hard IMC with no autopilot shortly after getting my instrument rating–some 45 years ago. I lucked out on that one, because I slowed down and was cleared to my destination before I got to that intersection. I made it a point to learn those holding patterns very well before my next IFR flight. The requirements set by the FAA are that you do a holding pattern as part of an IPC. Almost all of the GPS navigators include missed approach holds, as part of their database and this is nothing more than knowing which button to push. If you were given an intersection hold clearance by ATC using only one VOR and no GPS or moving map, could you do it?

The main topic in this writing is clearances; what is the best way to get them, program them in the GPS navigator and fly them. For pilots flying in the Midwest, clearances are relatively simple compared to the Northeastern U.S. and around Washington, D.C. where most of your routing will be on airways. Let us explore the easy clearances first and how I handled them. If you are departing from an uncontrolled airport and you can depart VFR and pick up your clearance in the air, this is the best way to go. I do caution you, however, that you must be 99.99% sure you can remain VFR until you can get that clearance. Once you have taken off and have cleaned up your aircraft in a stable climb, you call for your clearance.

Example: (Pilot) Chicago Center, Bonanza 8412N 3miles SW of 63C looking for an IFR clearance to RFD. (ATC) Piper 8412N remain VFR Squawk 1241 and say altitude  (Pilot) Squawking 1241 climbing through 2,500 for 4000. (ATC) Bonanza 12N Radar Contact you are cleared to RFD as filed climb and maintain 6,000. (Pilot) 12N cleared to RFD as filed maintain 6,000.

You may notice that this was a short exchange of words and as a pilot the only item I would need to write down would be the altitude as this is one of the most critical items for ATC as this is the number 1 separation criteria for controllers and will get the pilot a violation quickly.

In our next example, let us look at a departure from a remote airport in Wyoming; let’s say “Shively (KSAA)”. The weather is bad and we have a class G airport, and there is no cell phone service in this remote area. So what is the pilot to do?

First, it is necessary for the pilot to preflight the aircraft. You go to the public phone and call flight service for your clearance that you filed with them by phone earlier. You get your clearance, you run to your airplane, start up and taxi like a jack-rabbit to the runway, rush through the checklist and do the run-up like the airplane is on fire and depart before your clearance void time. Should you have the great privilege of having cell phone coverage and a Lightspeed Headset with Bluetooth (I love my Zulu) you could save the mad dash and taxi safely to the runway, do a thorough checklist and run-up and call through your headset/cellphone for your clearance. After your run-up, it is important when calling for your clearance that you advise them that you are ready for immediate takeoff and the runway you are departing from. If you have a complex routing, you might tell ATC you will be ready for departure within two or three minutes of getting your clearance. In either case, your clearance will be much more complex and you will need to write it down. It is important to read your clearance back completely and promptly and if there is an error, ATC should give you the correction, which you must then reconfirm. There is a clearance shorthand and format for copying clearance that I will explain later in this article. If you have one of those Lightspeed Zulu headsets, there is an app that records to your i-Pad or i-Phone and can be played back for clearance verification as well as any ATC radio communications.

As a side note, I can’t forget the time I did an instrument rating for two brothers in a Cessna 182. They had the hardest time with copying clearances and had a digital recording device installed in the aircraft. This was so state-of-the-art at the time that no one had heard of it. The first time they received a clearance from ATC after installing the device, one of the brothers pushed the push-to-talk button and playback at the same time. The controller received the clearance back in his own voice; however, I could tell he did not find any humor in this procedure.

Another hint you may find useful for departure and routing clearance is a feature of Foreflight that gives you the routing you can expect after filing your IFR flight plan on their app. I find this anticipated routing to be quite accurate as it is based on previous flights along this same route or to an airport close to your destination. I find it helpful to review this route and program it into the GPS navigator. One of the features and benefits of having two Garmin 430 or 530 navigators is that they can be interconnected. Then they have the ability to cross-fill routes between the two navigators. A set up recommendation I give pilots that are equipped that way is to program the Number 1 navigator to auto cross-fill and the Number 2 navigator to manual cross-fill. This allows the pilot to navigate on the Number 1 box and make the changes to the flight plan or clearance on the Number 2 box. Once the changes are made and verified as correct, pushing the manual cross fill on the Number 2 box will update number 1 and both navigators will same have the same flight plan.

An important note: Both boxes must be running the same firmware version and the data cards must have the same navigation data updates for the cross-fill to work.

Copying clearances, understanding them, programming the route, making in-flight changes to your routing and correctly flying them can be challenging for many pilots. ATC is very unforgiving especially if they have lost minimum separation in their airspace. There is no place for an improperly trained pilot in the IFR system. If you are instrument rated and have any question on your competency as an IFR pilot, don’t fly in the system till you get professional training.

I have given a few hints and sample clearances that hopefully help you, but there are also procedures that must be followed, which I will review with some more useful hints. Previously, I stated that you should copy the clearance and read it back promptly and verify any corrections given to you from ATC. If you are on the ground, it is your responsibility to verify that you can comply with the clearance before you take off. That may take a while as you verify your routing. Once you take off, you must comply with the clearance. If there is a discrepancy, don’t take off! A technique I use when given an amended clearance in flight is to copy the clearance and if there is any question, I reply promptly to ATC with “stand by for read back”. I then check the route and when I am satisfied, I read back the clearance to ATC. Once I did the read-back and it was confirmed as correct, I am responsible to comply with that amended clearance.

Another hint for pilots given an amended clearance flying the Garmin 430/530 navigators is to use the wild card function on the navigator. For example, let’s say you have a flight plan programmed in the navigator with 10 waypoints and your re-route was a simple change of adding a fix for a short re-route. If you use the direct-to button, you can add “one” waypoint without disrupting any waypoints in your flight plan. The flight plan that you previously spent 5 minutes programming into the navigator is still there. After completing that short re-route, go back to the flight plan, select the next desired fix and hit the “direct to enter, enter” and you are back flying your flight plan as if nothing ever changed.

A word of caution with these navigators is when you load an approach, the navigator will always load the approach to the last airport in the flight plan. If the wildcard option you selected is an airport, bye-bye flight plan.

To be continued: Watch for Part II in the next issue of BPT TAKEOFF


Reprinted with permission from Midwest Flyer