Get That Clearance Right: Some Tips
on Handling Difficult IFR Clearances


By Mick Kaufman

I have found an interesting human factor when training new instrument pilots, which you may relate to and I will describe it this way. When training pilots for an instrument rating, a common example is using the “Five Ts” with the last “T“ being the word talk. The brain is like a computer in a certain form that there is a limited amount of processing power. The pilot is on the instruments hand flying the airplane, interpreting the approach plate and now ATC gives the pilot the approach clearance. Brain overload, and either the pilot deviates from flying or the approach or the clearance read back comes back with errors.

Has this ever happened to you?

ATC does not except “cleared for the approach” and rightfully so as an error in understanding at this point could be fatal. I do not recommend writing down the clearance as this could be a task (brain) overload when hand flying an approach. You can, however, develop a technique for reading back an approach clearance. You do not need to read back every word of the clearance from ATC but confirm the critical parts of the clearance, so the controller knows that you are both on the same page.

Here’s an example:

ATC: Bonanza 456DB you are five miles from Micky turn left zero three zero degrees maintain three thousand five hundred until established on a segment of the approach, you are cleared for the ILS 36 approach to happy town, report established on the localizer.

Pilot:  Zero three zero, three thousand five hundred for the ILS 36, will report established, 6DB.

You have given the controller a read-back of all of the critical data to verify that you and the controller are on the same page; you saved transmit time and the brain power to drag out every word in the clearance. Listen sometime to a professional pilot read back a full departure clearance, and you will notice it is done in the same manner. Many pilots have developed acronyms to help copy a clearance and some of you may have heard of the word CRAFT as one that is helpful for copying a clearance. Let’s see how that works with an explanation to follow.

C: Clearance Limit
R: Route
A: Altitude
F: Frequency
T: Transponder Squawk

ATC: Bonanza 4257N is cleared from the Stevens Point Airport to the Rockford Airport (KRFD) via Direct BIPID V191 OSH V9 MSN Then Direct, Climb and Maintain 4000 Expect 6000 ten minutes after departure Contact Minneapolis Center 124.4 Squawk 4371. Clearance Void if not off by one two four five zulu advise intentions no later than one two five five.

C: Rockford Airport (KRFD)
A: 4000/6000- 10
F: 124.4
T: 4371
V: 12:45/12:55

C: The clearance limit is usually the destination airport. If your clearance is short of your destination airport, ATC should give the pilot an (EFC) expect further clearance time. This is rare; but if it is the case, you are expected to hold at the listed waypoint until your EFC time.

R: This is your route and in many cases, it is cleared as filed so make sure that you have a copy of the routing you filed. Sometimes, ATC will specify that the clearance is a full route clearance in which case it can be quite lengthy on a long flight. If the pilot should have any question on the route, they can ask ATC for a full route clearance.

A: Is the altitude that you are expected to fly; the reason for the lower altitude being specified is they want to keep you low until you are radar identified. Should there be a radio or communications failure, it is important to climb to the higher altitude at the time specified, so write down your departure time. In the case of lost communications, it is also the pilot’s responsibility to fly the altitude specified unless there is a higher MEA for the route. When flying off airways, this is a minimum safe altitude. Should you have a change in the MEA, you begin the climb at the fix specified as the change point; however, if it is a MCA minimum crossing altitude, the climb should begin to cross the fix at the altitude specified.

F: Is the frequency to make your first contact once airborne. Should the departure be from a tower-controlled airport, a frequency may not be given or given later (rare) or it may be given so you can have it in your standby radio. The tower will tell the pilot when to switch frequencies after departure.

T: Transponder squawk code should be put in the box and activated.

V: Is the clearance void time (not in the word CRAFT) and is usually given only when departing from a non-towered airport. Also, listen for other miscellaneous instructions like “hold for release” or “advise when number one for departure”. Another item that can be extremely important is the heading you need to fly after take-off, and it is important for the pilot to understand the airspace structure surrounding the airport. Example: “Enter controlled airspace on a heading of 360”. The pilot may need to reference a VFR chart to see what altitude-controlled airspace begins at to comply with ATC instructions.

It has not always been easy for me to copy those clearances like a pro, but here are 4 points that may help:

1: A good headset with noise canceling and Bluetooth (I love my Lightspeed Zulu)
2: A good communication radio and audio panel
3: A digital cockpit voice recorder (iPad app from Lightspeed)
4: Foreflight app for your iPad (receive possible routing to fly)

I want to relate one last tip from an incident that happened to me at Chicago’s Meigs Field some time ago. In those days, we did not have the quality sound in the radios or headsets that we have today, so that was a small contributing factor to this incident. I had filed an IFR flight plan from Meigs Airport back home. I was not a regular visitor to that airport, and I did not have Foreflight to give me an idea what ATC would give me for a routing. This was also a contributing factor in this incident. When I called ground for my clearance, I got a controller with an accent that I could not clearly understand and when he gave me my clearance, I was given radar vectors to an intersection after departure. I could not decipher the name of the intersection in his transmission, and I kept asking three or four times to repeat that name. I could tell he was getting quite upset with me, so I finally read back some word that sounded like what I thought he said. All the while I was looking on the en-route chart for any intersection that even sounded close to what he said. I never found it hoping that after takeoff, all would go well. Luckily it did, but I was vectored to a different intersection and was given an amended routing clearance. Later I learned a trick that I will pass on to you as my final tip. If you have difficulty with understanding the name of a fix, ask the controller to spell it phonetically. The phonetic alphabet was developed for this purpose, so try it.

I hope you find this article useful, and maybe it will save you a violation or incident because you did not copy a clearance correctly or fly it correctly. With the modern technology we have today, in the future ATC will be able to send you the clearance digitally. You will then check it and send it to your navigator and George (the autopilot) will fly it. We already have digital ATIS (D-ATIS is shown on the approach charts for airports that have it) at some airports usable with some of our equipment, and the airlines are already sending flight plans digitally.

‘Til the next newsletter, fly safely!