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A Great Beginning

After the IFR flight plan has been filed and approved, it becomes a clearance. How a new clearance is passed from Air Traffic Control to the pilot depends on where you are and how bad the weather is...After the IFR flight plan has been filed and approved, it becomes a clearance. How a new clearance is passed from Air Traffic Control to the pilot depends on where you are and how bad the weather is...

When an IFR flight plan has been processed, it is passed on into the ATC system where it waits for the pilot to pick it up. It's like someone sending you an email message that you have not had time to check yet. The clearance will wait for up to two hours past the proposed departure time before it gets kicked out of the system. It is up to the pilot to access the system and receive the clearance. The best way to pick up the clearance will vary depending on location and conditions. There are actually four possible ways to do it:

  1. On the ground -- Direct
    When you are at an airport that has ATC facilities right there, then receiving the clearance is easy. Simply call the correct ATC frequency and ask for the clearance. At an airport with a control tower, you probably will have three choices...
    • CLEARANCE DELIVERY -- During busy daylight hours all three frequencies will be staffed by controllers, so start with Clearance Delivery because, as the name implies, this controller's job is to deliver clearances. Clearance Delivery is sometimes abbreviated CPT for Clearance Prior to Taxi.
    • GROUND CONTROL -- During off-peak and night hours there may be only one person in the tower and he or she is listening on all three frequencies. In some cases the procedure will be to ask for the clearance on Ground Control. Start with Ground Control when there is no CPT frequency.
    • THE CONTROL TOWER -- There may be some late night situations where you start with the Control Tower.

    You can't go wrong if you follow along in the order above. Just get the clearance from the first person that talks to you as you go down that list.

    Special Case: There are a few airports left that do not have Control Towers but do have an operating FSS on the field. An FSS briefer will not have the clearance, but they can call for you and get it. Therefore, a direct radio call to an FSS while on the ground will also do the trick.

  2. On the Ground -- Indirect
    There are many airports around that do not have ATC facilities on the field, but do have communications capability. These can be Remote Communications Outlets (RCO), Ground Communications Outlets (GCO), or a link through a VOR station. Most of these are long distance links to an FSS, but some go directly to ATC. All these systems have one thing in common -- they use a telephone line and a remote antenna to increase communications distance.

    RCO or a GCO -- How it works: If you have one of these at the airport, you only transmit the short distance through the air from your airplane to the remote antenna, which is located right there at the airport. Then your voice is carried to the distant FSS or ATC facility on the telephone. This lets you talk to people when the line-of-sight limitation of VHF radio communications would prevent it. When you get through, you simply ask for your clearance -- just as you would when calling clearance delivery, except you must tell the briefer or controller where you are located.

    Liner Notes: Getting the clearance on the ground is the best way to do it, because you will be IFR from the moment your wheels leave the ground. This is especially helpful if the clouds are low and you enter IMC soon after liftoff. Plus, it is much easier to copy the clearance and repeat it back when you are sitting on the ground. But some airports do not have ATC facilities or any on-ground communications capabilities. In those cases you must resort to alternate methods.

  3. Clearance in the Air – VFR Conditions
    If you are departing an airport on an IFR flight plan that has no communications with FSS or ATC, you could just take off if VFR conditions exist and get the clearance while on the way. Once you get airborne and start climbing you will likely reach an altitude that will provide line-of-sight communications to some ATC facility -- probably an approach control or Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). You should consult approach and/or enroute charts before takeoff to determine the proper frequency to call once in the air.

    Traps: This is the quickest way to get away from an uncontrolled field and sometimes pilots will do this even when there were ground communication possibilities -- but there are risks involved. First, when you takeoff in VFR conditions you are betting that you will be able to climb high enough to reach a radio reception altitude before encountering instrument conditions. Second, you are betting that there is actually a clearance waiting for you -- if you made an error on your original flight plan, the ARTCC computer could have kicked it out. If you get up without a clearance, you could try to re-file in flight, but that could also be a problem. Controllers who are not that busy might take the flight plan from you, but most likely you will have to switch frequencies and call FSS. After calling FSS it might be another 30 minutes before a clearance is ready: if you are skimming under the clouds, the wait could be hazardous. Trying to fly, and manage an IFR flight plan all at the same time can be distracting, frustrating, and dangerous.

    Better: Land, re-file and get the process started again.

  4. Clearance Void Time -- IFR Conditions
    The day will come when you face a departure from an airport that has no ATC or FSS communications facilities and the ceiling is lower than the altitude of radio reception. This sets up the ultimate Catch 22. You cannot go into the clouds with an IFR clearance (in controlled airspace), but you cannot get the clearance without going into the clouds. What do you do? You call for a Clearance Void Time and this is where your cellular telephone will come in very handy.

    Controllers must insure that IFR aircraft do not get too close to each other, but they cannot control who they cannot talk to. So when a pilot is on the ground and below radio reception altitude we communicate using the telephone and a trick whereby we 'reserve' a piece of airspace to fly up into.

    Method 1, Cell Phone Salvation: It is legal to use a cellular telephone inside an airplane when on the ground, so I recommend the following procedure: Do all preflight and pretakeoff inspections just as you always do. Taxi out to the hold area of the departure runway. Now call either FSS on 1-800-WX-BRIEF or if you know the telephone number call directly to an ATC facility. When they answer tell them you are at the end of the runway, ready for takeoff but you need your IFR clearance. They (hopefully) will find the clearance and read it to you.

    The Catch: They will say, 'void if not off by' and set a time that is about 10 minutes in the future. This means that until the time expires -- becomes void -- you will 'own' the airspace above that airport. You can now takeoff, even though you cannot talk directly over the radio to ATC yet, and enter low clouds without worrying about a traffic conflict. During the time before the clearance is void, the controller will prevent any other aircraft from entering that airspace because, at least for that short time, the airspace belongs to you. When you're high enough to communicate using the radio, you should also pop up on their radar screen. From this point on the clearance is handled normally.

    Method 2, Land Line: If you do not have a cellular telephone load the airplane with all passengers and baggage and do all preflight inspections, then call FSS on a regular telephone. You will receive the clearance and the Void Time just as before, but now you may only have 10 minutes to run to the airplane, get it started, taxi, do all run-ups and pre-takeoff inspections, and be off the ground before the void time expires. I'll spell it out for you: You're pushing your luck.

    Danger: You do not have to be talking to ATC when the void time expires, but you must have wheels off the ground. Once, a fatal accident occurred when a pilot called and accepted a Clearance Void Time from his home. The accident investigation retraced the pilot's steps and determined that from engine start to liftoff three minutes had elapsed. It was a cold day and the airplane's gyros required 5 minutes to spin up to a dependable speed. At liftoff the airplane entered the clouds and the Attitude Gyro started to lean over. The pilot followed the Attitude Gyro right back to the ground.

VERBIAGE: It is important to know how to ask for the clearance. You should specifically ask for an IFR clearance on your first radio transmission. You should say, 'Atlanta Center, this is Cessna 13185, instruments to Savannah.' You will not get what you want if you do not ask. So, say 'IFR' or 'instruments' and the destination. If the destination is a great distance away it is also a courtesy to use the destination airport's three-letter identification.

A great trip starts with a great beginning.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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