Keeping One Step Ahead of ATC when flying IFR

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The two most useful benefits have been ADS-B datalink weather and a real-time traffic display in the cockpit, delivered by the network of ADS-B ground stations in the U.S. These free services are available to pilots of all aircraft types (even drones) thanks to the widespread availability of inexpensive, portable ADS-B receivers and rapid developments in mobile app and panel-mount avionics technology.

There is a lot more to gain from these NextGen services than just being able to see the location of thunderstorm cells on your iPad in flight, or noting the location of an airliner passing 10 miles in front of you. When used strategically you can use this information to gain additional insight into what’s going on in the airspace around you and make more informed decisions on each flight, giving you an edge when dealing with air traffic control.

Until recently we had no other choice but to rely on ATC and Flight Service as the primary source of information. How is the weather developing? Call the controller or a flight service specialist. Where is the traffic? Wait for ATC to inform you of a potential conflict. What is the best IFR route and which approach can I expect? ATC will tell you when it’s convenient for them. 

These challenges and unknowns have always been a part of flying IFR, but with NextGen that’s starting to change. This new technology has eliminated many of these unknowns, providing pilots with the information needed to make more-informed decisions during every phase of flight, from preflight to shutdown.

Let’s start with the IFR route selection process. Gone are the days of making an educated guess on a route, only to have ATC respond with a full route clearance with intersections and airways. It now takes only a moment in ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot or to enter a departure and destination airport and then see recently issued clearances to other aircraft flying the same route. They’re even sorted by altitude so you can find the option that best matches the performance of your airplane. File one of these routes and you’re almost guaranteed a “cleared as filed” from clearance delivery.

On that same topic, the need to “call” clearance delivery is no longer a requirement at all airports. Both ForeFlight and offer GA pilots convenient access to the Pre-Departure Clearance system that the airlines have been using for years. After enrolling in this service, and when departing from one of over 70 approved airports in the U.S., your IFR clearance will be sent via email and text message 30 minutes before departure.

Currently, this works at airports served by airlines in busy Class B and C airspace where you’re also most likely to receive a complex IFR clearance. The textual clearance also includes a digital transcription of the current ATIS. With routine these tasks out of the way before you step foot in the airplane, you can devote 100% of your attention to programming the GPS and preparing for taxi instead of studying IFR charts and departure procedures searching for obscure waypoints and other gotchas.

After takeoff, you can use the datalink weather component of NextGen to stay ahead of ATC when flying near convective weather. Prior to ADS-B, you had to rely on the advice of ATC, Flight Watch and Flight Service to guide you around the storms and hold on tight if the ride got rough. Now you can easily identify thunderstorms, icing or turbulence threats hundreds of miles away and request to modify your route accordingly. The controllers prefer you handle weather avoidance in this manner as well with a predetermined route, as opposed to flying up to the weather and then making multiple heading requests.

On longer flights, the best time to start planning for the arrival and approach is when things are quiet during cruise and while several hundred miles from the destination. The problem is you may not be able to receive the ATIS at this range, so there’s no way to confirm which runway or instrument approach is in use to begin preparing for the approach. Don’t give up there – all it takes is a little detective work with the traffic layer in your mobile app to determine the active runway. 

First, make sure you have an unrestricted or unfiltered traffic layer enabled on the moving map, zoom into the destination airport, and turn on the extended centerlines feature. Now keep an eye out for traffic approaching and descending towards the airport and you’ll be able to see which runway is in use. I used this trick when flying into Nashville recently and was able to determine they were using the ILS or RNAV Runway 20L approach and using runway 20C for departures. All of this was observed by tracking another airplane’s final approach course on the map while I was still 250 miles southeast of the airport.

You can use the nearby traffic depiction to expedite the issuance of a visual approach clearance too when flying into a busy towered airport. When the weather is VFR, it’s not uncommon to be vectored into a sequence behind multiple aircraft. The inefficiency occurs as ATC has to build in extra spacing between each airplane to ensure adequate separation, leading to time-consuming vectors. But here’s where your NextGen tools can help. After visually locating the airport, begin developing a mental picture of the preceding aircraft and try to find their location on the traffic display on your iPad. This should make it much easier to spot them visually, at which point you can let ATC know you have both airport and traffic in front and sight. If they’re on top of things, the controller can now clear you for the visual approach sooner since you have the airplane you’re following in sight.

This is just the beginning of what NextGen has to offer to make our flights more efficient and interactions with ATC more meaningful. The next 10 years will be even more exciting, as internet connectivity reaches the GA cockpit and ATC communications transition to digital messages. I’m personally looking forward to retiring the phrase “say again” and forgetting how to adjust squelch on analog radios.

Bret Koebbe
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