In this exerpt from Advanced IFR, by Pilot Workshops, follow along on this scenario-based IFR flight from Riverside, CA (KRAL) to Long Beach, CA (KLGB). The short, 20-minute flight presents immediate challenges as the workload is high from start to finish in the busy southern California airspace. The flight will utilize and explain a Tower Enroute Control (TEC) route which is an FAA program of standard routes that keep a flight solely within approach control airspace instead of working with air route traffic control centers.
“Turn right heading 340, vector for inbound IFR traffic” was one of numerous delay vectors issued for arriving traffic at this busy reliever airport in the greater Dallas, Ft. Worth metropolitan area. The weather was marginal VFR making visual arrival procedures difficult as most inbound aircraft opted for the vectored approach procedure. It was an instant reminder of the vast skies and by contrast, the relatively small amount of pavement which we have to operate aircraft. And affirmed our decision for some extra fuel to manage those unplanned delays.
For controllers and pilots alike, we depend on the various mechanisms available to reduce separation standards and expedite arrivals and departures in order to make the air traffic control system work efficiently. if we didn’t have access to the variety of visual IFR procedures or the option for VFR flight, the system would quite simply be overwhelmed. Where the breakdowns and inefficiencies occur, can often be attributed to a lack of awareness on the part of pilots or failure to take advantage of our options for combining IFR and VFR flight.
The recent initiative to publish direct telephone numbers to ATC facilities issuing clearances as well as the national flight service number (888-766-8267) have made obtaining IFR clearances on the ground less onerous. However, should there be inbound IFR traffic or multiple aircraft awaiting IFR releases, you could experience an untimely and unnecessary delay. If weather permits, you might consider a VFR departure with an IFR pick-up once airborne.
The cautionary note is to ensure you can safely and legally fly VFR while managing the additional tasks and potential complexities that come with receiving an IFR clearance. There’s also no guarantee of how quickly you may be able to obtain the clearance so you must be thoughtful in your route planning taking steps to avoid any restricted airspace, obstacles and of course, instrument conditions. Some local knowledge goes a long way in determining whether a VFR departure is a viable solution. Talk to the local pilots for some insight on how accommodating the local facilities may be.
If opting for an airborne clearance, do a little research to ensure you are tuned to the best frequency for the facility. There are a number of resources to assist you. Consult the approach chart for your departing airport to obtain the local approach/departure (or air route traffic control center) servicing the airport. Have equipment ready to copy your clearance, and keep in mind that you may not always receive the route filed.
And even when departing IFR, do remember at airports without published instrument departure procedures, you will still need to ensure that you can climb visually to a safe altitude. To determine a safe altitude, consult the Low Altitude En Route Charts (L-charts), a necessary part of your preflight preparation, which will allow you to determine minimum IFR altitudes for obstruction clearance.
If VFR conditions exist once you reach altitude, another option would be to cancel your IFR clearance entirely. You could still opt for VFR flight following if you wish to have ATC resources and services still available.
There is a tremendously underutilized IFR clearance option to fly visually while en-route known as VFR-on-top. A pilot on an IFR flight plan operating in VFR weather conditions, may request VFR-on-top instead of a traditional assigned altitude. The request must be initiated by the pilot and permits an altitude or flight level of the pilot’s choice subject to any additional ATC restrictions. This can be particularly helpful flying in the low to mid altitudes if you intend to avoid the rougher rides in and out of clouds or potential icing conditions as it permits operation above, below, or in between layers.
If you are interested in the VFR-on-top option, you can simply request a climb to VFR‐on‐top. The ATC clearance will then contain either a top report or a statement that no top report is available, and a request to report reaching VFR‐on‐top. By accepting the VFR-on-top clearance you must:
- Fly at the appropriate VFR cruise altitude
- Comply with basic VFR weather minimums
- Comply with any other IFR rule (minimum altitude, position reporting, communication, course to be flown, etc). You should also advise ATC prior to any altitude change.
Additionally, pilots do have the discretion to combine an IFR and VFR flight plan to mitigate or take advantage of specific weather conditions on departure, arrival or while en-route. In this case you would plan to begin or end your IFR segment at a specific fix.
Approach and landings
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 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. ATC will need some basic data on the aircraft and confirmation that the aircraft and pilot are capable of the IFR clearance. A word of advice: don’t attempt “pop-up IFR clearances” in high density traffic areas or as a way to circumvent unfavorable routing.
When maneuvering for an approach under IFR, you may very well have the option to execute a visual approach which will certainly result in a more efficient arrival. A visual approach is conducted under IFR but authorizes a pilot to proceed visually and clear of clouds to the airport. The pilot must have either the airport or the preceding aircraft in sight. Reported weather at the airport must have a ceiling at or above 1,000 feet and visibility 3 miles or greater. Since this is an IFR clearance, VFR cloud clearance requirements do not apply. Visual approaches may be initiated by ATC at towered airports, but pilots will be expected to indicate when the airport is in sight signifying they are in a position to accept the visual approach clearance. Visual approaches may also be requested by the pilot with the appropriate visual cues and must be requested by the pilot at non-towered facilities.
Pilots operating under IFR, provided they are clear of clouds and have at least 1-mile flight visibility, may request another visual procedure known as a contact approach. In order for a contact approach to be authorized, reported ground visibility must be at least 1 mile and the airport itself must have an instrument approach procedure.
Finally, for pilots operating to a non-towered airport, if VFR conditions exist, it is often more convenient and efficient to cancel IFR and proceed with a normal VFR traffic pattern and arrival. This will allow better blend or adapt to local VFR traffic flow and free up valuable airspace for any awaiting IFR departures. It also eliminates that embarrassing mistake of forgetting to come back to ATC or flight service to cancel your IFR clearance once you’re safely on the ground.
Word of caution
I typically reserve VFR departures with the intent of an IFR pick-up airborne in familiar areas – either my home airport or airports I use frequently where I’m confident airborne clearances can be easily accommodated and where I’m also familiar with terrain. It’s also wise to establish personal minimums for any form of visual request – whether that is a visual approach request or cancelling IFR and proceeding with your VFR arrival.
Take added caution in the additional tasks and unplanned routing that is always possible with airborne clearances.
Home flight simulators offer a wealth of training situations to sharpen a pilot’s aircraft operating skills. Instrument flying is one of the most valuable scenarios we can practice in a standard home simulator that will translate to the physical aircraft. Join Sporty’s own Chris McGonegle as he covers how to configure Instrument flights in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 and X-Plane 12.
– Navigating MSFS and X-Plane 12
– Setting live weather
– Advantageous simulator scenarios
– Best practices to train rather than game
– Video of an Instrument approach down to minimums
Flying a light airplane offers access to thousands more airports than the airlines serve, which means you can land closer to your destination, avoid long taxi routes, and save time. For an instrument pilot, though, there is one key difference between a smaller, non-towered airport and a larger one with an air traffic control tower: obtaining an IFR clearance.
To review, flying an IFR trip involves four main steps:
- File a flight plan (either with Flight Service or in an aviation app).
- Call for your IFR clearance, including route, altitude, and transponder code.
- After takeoff, talk to Air Traffic Control (ATC) to transition into the en route environment.
- At the end of the flight, cancel IFR (either after landing or when the destination airport is in sight).
Step one is the same no matter where you are, but step two can vary dramatically based on your departure airport. Here are three ways to get a clearance at a non-towered airport.
1. Call on the phone
In ancient times (i.e., the 1990s) getting a clearance at a remote airport usually meant calling Flight Service on a pay phone. The briefer would contact ATC and relay the clearance to you, which could occasionally be a lengthy process. After reading back the clearance, the pilot would run to the airplane, fire up the engine, and try to get airborne before the clearance expired. I remember doing exactly this during my instrument training at a very remote airport: the nearest pay phone was about a mile away from the airport ramp, so it was quite the accomplishment to lift off before my timer expired.
Today there’s a better way. First, ubiquitous cell phones make it much easier to call for that clearance. You can be standing by the airplane or even sitting in the airplane at the end of the runway. When you get the question, “which runway and how long until you’re ready?” you can answer confidently—because you’re first in line for the runway.
Secondly, you can now cut out the middleman and call ATC directly. In 2019, the FAA began publishing phone numbers for ATC facilities that can be used by pilots to pick up a clearance. These are published in the chart supplement (the old A/FD) and are also easily accessible in most aviation apps. In ForeFlight, for example, go to the Airports tab, then Frequencies, and tap on Clearance. You’ll see any radio frequencies available, but you’ll also see a phone number and facility name there. If you’re using the app on your phone, just tap the number to dial it.
Pro tip: Connect your cell phone to a Bluetooth-enabled headset, like a Bose A20 or Lightspeed Delta Zulu, and enjoy the noise-canceling benefits of the headset’s microphone and ear cups. It’s much easier to understand those complicated IFR routes. Don’t have a Bluetooth headset? Use an Audio Link to add this feature to any aviation headset.
2. Call on the radio
Some airports offer a way to contact ATC using your airplane’s COM radio, eliminating the cell phone hassle. While most pilots call this an RCO (for Remote Communications Outlet), it’s technically called an RTR (remote transmitter/receiver), since RCOs are for Flight Service. No matter what you call it, the procedure is the same: tune up the frequency published in the chart supplement, approach plate or app, and press the push-to-talk button. Once again, you’ll be talking directly to a controller at a nearby ATC facility.
There’s another option that is pretty rare but still available at some airports: a GCO. These are a lot like RCOs, but instead of offering a direct radio connection to ATC, it uses a landline. Read the notes for each GCO, because details can vary, but in general you’ll need to do four slow and steady clicks on the frequency to wake up the GCO and dial ATC. When this happens, you will literally hear the phone ringing and you can then talk to the controller just like you would on a regular RCO.
Sometimes you can reach ATC using the same frequency used in the air, instead of an RCO or GCO. This depends on the terrain and the location of ATC’s antennas, so don’t assume it will work. If you’re landing at an airport, you can always ask ATC if the current frequency works on the ground.
Pro tip: If you’re having trouble reaching ATC, try switching radios. Many airplanes have one COM antenna on the belly and one on the roof of the airplane. Depending on where ATC’s antenna is located, one radio may have better results.
Sidebar: The elements of an IFR clearance
Once the person on the other end answers, whether it’s on the phone or over an RCO, you’ll be talking to a controller at a nearby TRACON or Center facility. Tell them your tail number, where you are, and the IFR flight plan you’d like to open. Assuming there are no issues, the controller will read out your clearance in the familiar CRAFT format: clearance limit (typically your destination airport), route, initial altitude and expected final altitude, frequency to contact departure control after takeoff, and your transponder code.
There are two additional elements you’ll probably hear when departing a non-towered airport. First is “enter controlled airspace on heading XXX.” That’s obviously the heading ATC expects you to be flying when you contact them after leaving the traffic pattern, but it’s also a reminder that you as the pilot in command are responsible for terrain and traffic avoidance right after takeoff. Don’t assume a straight-out departure is safe, especially in mountainous areas (you did check for obstacle departure procedures, right?).
The second element is a void time, which is essentially an expiration date for your clearance. When ATC says “you are released for departure,” they are blocking the airspace around the airport so that no other IFR aircraft can take off or land. They obviously can’t do that forever, so if for any reason you cannot take off before the void time, your clearance is canceled and you’ll need to call ATC again. Sometimes this is delivered in a very wordy way: “Clearance void if not off by 1455 Zulu; time now 1445 Zulu; if not off by 1455 Zulu advise no later than 1520 Zulu.” This gets confusing fast, so many controllers will just say, “Clearance void if not off in five minutes.”
So a typical clearance would sound something like this (in this case over an RCO):
- “Cincinnati Clearance, Cessna 12345 on the ground at Clermont Country, requesting IFR clearance to Oshkosh.”
- “Cessna 12345, Cincinnati, you are cleared to Oshkosh as filed, climb and maintain 2500, expect 8000 ten minutes after departure, departure frequency 121.0, squawk 4664, hold for release.”
- “Cleared to Oshkosh as filed, climb and maintain 2500, expect 8000 in ten minutes, frequency 121.0, squawk 4664 – Cessna 12345.”
- “Cessna 12345, readback correct. Which runway will you be using and how long until you’re airborne?”
- “We’ll be using runway 22, departing in 5 minutes – Cessna 12345.”
- “Cessna 12345, you are released for departure. Clearance void if not off in five minutes.”
Pro tip: Remember that an IFR clearance only protects the airspace around that airport from other IFR flights. There could be a dozen VFR airplanes in the pattern, so look outside and make good radio calls on CTAF.
3. In the air
The last option is to take off VFR and then call ATC once you’re airborne to get your IFR clearance. This works well if the weather is good and you don’t need an IFR clearance to take off and depart the pattern. It’s usually faster and in some cases is easier for ATC—there’s no void time and no spotty RCO coverage issues. It can even be good manners, because it doesn’t tie up a taxiway while you call for clearance or prevent another IFR airplane from landing.
However, this procedure should only be used when both the weather and terrain are favorable. If the ceiling is 1500 overcast or the visibility is 3 miles in rain, you will leave yourself very little margin for error by scud running while you wait for an answer from ATC. Remember, until ATC issues a clearance and says “radar contact,” you are responsible for terrain avoidance. It’s also important to consider where you’re operating from—do not expect a happy reply if you try this with New York Center on a busy Friday night with marginal weather.
Pro tip: Prepare your avionics on the ground. With this option, you’ll be both flying and copying a clearance so the more you have set up ahead of time, the better. You know the route you filed (and apps like ForeFlight even tell you what route to expect from ATC), so load that in the GPS.
There’s a reason why basic airplane attitude instrument flying comes first in any Instrument curriculum – it’s the foundation for everything else you’ll do in IFR flying. If you master airplane attitude instrument flying, then everything else you will do that follows, from departure procedures to instrument approaches, will simply be combining your BAI skills with navigation.
STRAIGHT AND LEVEL
Like your visual flying, most of your instrument time will be spent flying straight and level. As the complete instrument pilot, you should be able to maintain heading, altitude, and airspeed at speeds ranging from cruise to approach. Within the normal speed range of an airplane, there are many combinations of power and pitch which will maintain altitude at different airspeeds. For example, a low power setting and nose high pitch will maintain altitude at low airspeed while a high power setting and low pitch attitude will bring about level flight at high airspeed.
The art of instrument flying involves finesse of the flight controls – fine inputs for precise control. Pitch corrections for level flight should be made using the attitude indicator and limited to half, full, and one and one half bar widths corrections. The pitch corrections to maintain level flight on instruments are smaller than those made using the natural horizon. When the airplane is properly trimmed, the control pressures needed for these small pitch changes are very light. For corrections of more than 100 feet, use a full bar width pitch change initially, changing to a half bar width when the remaining altitude correction is less than 100 feet.
HEADING AND BANK CONTROL
Heading and bank control are virtually the same thing. Heading will stay constant if the wings are kept level in coordinated flight. The wings of the miniature airplane and the horizon bar of the attitude indicator will give you an overall picture of the wing attitude, but small banks are difficult to detect. Small deviations from wings level attitude are more easily detected using the banking scale and center index. Odds are that bank control will require more practice than pitch control. There are several reasons for this. First, the airplane is more stable in pitch than bank and, if you are a typical VFR pilot, you refer to the altimeter more than to the heading indicator.
While the attitude indicator will show if the wings are being kept level, you still need to look at the heading indicator to be sure the heading accurate and that it is kept constant. The attitude and turn indicators provide supporting information regarding bank and everything should agree during straight flight.
The most common error in both pitch and bank control is over controlling. Just as an excessive climb or descent will cause you to overshoot altitude, an excessive rate of turn results in overshooting the target heading.
For heading corrections of five degrees or less, keep the wings level and use rudder pressure to change the heading. Five degrees of heading change doesn’t give you enough time to make a coordinated turn. If heading is off more than five degrees, make a coordinated turn but restrict the banks to half the number of degrees you want to turn but not more than standard rate.
Intentional airspeed changes in level flight are normally accomplished by changing the power. Adjust the power to the setting that you previously determined will produce the desired airspeed. Adjust the pitch attitude to maintain altitude as the airspeed changes. As the airspeed approaches the desired airspeed, the airspeed indicator becomes the primary power instrument and the altimeter is primary for pitch. Fine tune power and pitch as the airplane stabilizes at the new airspeed. And trim to relieve control pressures.
Now let’s take a look at climbs. To enter a constant airspeed climb, raise the nose to bring the miniature airplane the predetermined position above the horizon bar. As the pitch attitude is raised, increase the power to the climb setting and use right rudder to keep the airplane from turning to the left.
Adjustments of the climb attitude will be dictated by the indicated airspeed. If airspeed is too high or low, the pitch attitude must be changed. Don’t chase the airspeed indicator to make the change. Use the attitude indicator to make small changes of one half bar width, wait, and note the effect on the airspeed indicator.
As the desired altitude is approached, the level off must be started at about 10 percent of the rate of climb before reaching the altitude. If the climb is 500 feet per minute, the pitch attitude should be smoothly changed to the level flight attitude 50 feet before reaching the final altitude. Use the attitude indicator to set the level attitude and grade this attitude using the altimeter.
For a constant rate climb, increase the power to the approximate setting required for the desired rate of climb and simultaneously raise the nose to the approximate pitch attitude needed for that climb rate. As the vertical speed indicator stabilizes, it becomes the primary pitch instrument and the airspeed indicator is primary for power. Lead the level off by ten percent of the rate of climb and adjust the pitch and power to the appropriate settings for the desired level airspeed.
Now let’s look at descents. To enter a descent at constant airspeeds up to maximum structural cruise airspeed, simultaneously lower the pitch attitude and reduce power to the predetermined setting. When entering a descent at an airspeed less than cruise, reduce power to the predetermined setting and slow the airplane in level flight. As the airspeed approaches the descent speed, lower the nose to the predetermined attitude.
Make corrections for airspeed by changing pitch attitude and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, use the attitude indicator to make small pitch changes. To correct a rate of descent at a specific airspeed requires changing both pitch and power. If you start with the predetermined power setting and pitch attitude, any corrections needed will be small.
In order to level off from a descent, you must start your level off before reaching your desired altitude. To do this, lead the level off by about ten percent of the rate of descent. As an example, if you are descending at a rate of 500 feet per minute, lead the level off by about 50 feet. To level off at an airspeed higher than descent speed, lead the level off by 20 to 30 percent of the rate of descent. In the 500 foot per minute example, you would add power and start your level off between 100 and 150 feet before reaching your desired altitude .
BUILD A CHEAT SHEET
It’s good practice to document specific pitch and power settings for various aircraft configurations. You can do this with a flight instructor or safety pilot to determine the most common instrument profiles for your training aircraft. And then when it comes time to execute and fly the specific profiles, it’s only a matter of establishing the predetermined pitch and power to give you the expected performance. Only small adjustments will then be needed for precise control – the art of basic attitude instrument flying.
Editor’s Note: The following scenario is from the IFR Procedures Manual from Pilot Workshops.
- Understand what’s required.
- Pick your battles.
- Plan for a missed approach.
- Request the approach.
- Navigate to the airport.
Understand What’s Required
A contact approach is probably the most versatile—and most underutilized—IFR tool. Like a visual approach, you’ll navigate to the airport visually and must remain clear of clouds with no minimum cloud distance. Unlike a visual approach, it only requires 1 SM visibility reported at the airport and you don’t need the airport in sight. You only need reasonable confidence that you can reach the airport visually.
There’s one additional requirement: The airport must have at least one functioning instrument approach. That’s best interpreted as “an approach you could legally fly.” So if the airport only has RNAV approaches and your GPS database is out of currency, requesting a contact approach is not allowed.
If weaving through clouds, close to the ground, with a mile of visibility and no airport in sight sounds sketchy—that’s because it is. Using a contact approach to scud run to an unfamiliar airport is asking for trouble. Doing so at night is a death wish. However, contact approaches can be the perfect tool with the right weather and airport configuration.
TIP – Most approaches require flight visibility above the published minimums. Contact approaches require the reported ground visibility to be at least 1 SM.
Pick Your Battles
Consider this scenario: You’re heading 100° direct to Hermiston, OR (KHRI). The airport is 6 miles ahead, but it’s obscured by a scattered to broken cloud layer. The KHRI ASOS reports 1500 feet broken with visibility of 10 miles.
You’re skimming the cloud tops at 3500 feet, which is 2900 feet AGL You ask Approach for lower, but the controller says you’re already at the MVA for the area so you can’t get lower.
You can’t request a visual approach because you don’t have the airport in sight, even though you know you’ll have it in sight once you maneuver past the scattered-to-broken cloud deck. You can’t cancel IFR, because you won’t be able to maintain VFR cloud clearance requirements. The only instrument approaches are from the southeast and would require flying to an IAF 15.5 NM past the airport only to turn around and come back.
Approval for a contact approach lets you make a legal, visual descent to land without fuss and while retaining your IFR status.
There are many other uses: Fog obscuring part of the airport but the rest is in the clear; the published approach is from the opposite direction of your arrival; you know the airport location by GPS, but you don’t see it yet; you want to generally follow a published approach course but want freedom to deviate at will to stay out of potentially icy or turbulent clouds … the list goes on.
The conditions must be good enough to stay visual, avoid obstacles, and find the airport. The flexibility you gain comes at the expense of the assured obstacle protection provided by a published approach.
Plan for a Missed Approach
If you misjudge your ability to navigate visually, you’ll need a missed approach. There’s no specific procedure for that, but the most important step is climbing. You’ll also want to point toward the nearest obstacle-free area. Usually turning generally toward the airport you were trying to land at is a good start.
Stack the deck in your favor by briefing the most appropriate missed approach procedure from one of the airport’s published approaches. Those begin from the MAP, which is probably not where you’ll be when you abort the contact approach. Connect them by briefing the shortest, best path from your contact approach route to join the published missed approach procedure.
Another option is briefing the obstacle departure procedure as a missed approach plan. If the tops are low and the terrain is flat, a simple climb may be sufficient. Just ensure you have something at the ready. Or better yet, don’t make a contact approach if you’re not certain you’ll make it to the airport.
Request the Approach
Initiating a contact approach is entirely up to the pilot. Controllers are forbidden from suggesting one (just like they can’t suggest Special VFR). That’s prob-ably because FAA legal gets hives while envisioning an endorsed scud-run operation.
Make your request to your Approach or Center controller before being cleared for a published approach by saying, “Request contact approach.” Include the runway you’d like to use when the destination is a towered airport. If the conditions and traffic permit, you’ll be given the clearance along with instructions for how to proceed if you’re unable to land success-fully. Those instructions don’t imply obstacle clearance, so be sure that they conform with your missed approach plan and negotiate if necessary.
Because contact approaches are underutilized, there may be a delay while the controller asks the supervisor what a contact approach is. Be patient.
Navigate to the Airport
You may begin your descent once you’re cleared, un-less ATC instructed otherwise.
The contact approach lacks any assurance of obstacle clearance. You must have an awareness of terrain and obstacles on your proposed path to the airport. A tall TV tower along your chosen visual path could really spoil your day. Use whatever tools you have in the cockpit to supplement your visual avoidance of obstacles and terrain.
You can also incorporate instrument guidance where possible. That could include following a portion of a published instrument approach or using the visual approach feature of your GPS.