What to Tell ATC When You Spot Traffic on ADS-B

What is the correct response on the radio for this situation?

ATC: “Cherokee 7 Kilo Mike, traffic eleven o’clock and one zero miles, opposite direction, a Lear Thirty-Five at niner thousand.”

You see the Learjet’s target on the screen of your ADS-B screen.

What you say in reply to ATC depends on whether or not you see the Learjet through the windscreen of your aircraft. If you visually acquire the traffic at your eleven o’clock, you should reply, “Traffic in sight”. If you don’t spot the traffic visually, you should say, “Negative contact”.

Wait a Minute. What About the ADS-B Pickup?

For operational purposes, ATC couldn’t care less whether you have the traffic ID-ed on your ADS-B set. The only way a controller may modify his traffic separation procedures is if you report the traffic in sight. If you announce, “Cherokee 7 Kilo Mike has the traffic on ADS-B”, it means absolutely nothing to ATC. There’s no point in making the report to ATC because it’s irrelevant.

Got Em on the Fishfinder

You may have heard airline pilots respond, “We’ve got the traffic on the fishfinder.” This is slang and it means the pilot has ID-ed the traffic his Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). It sounds cool, but for ATC’s operational procedures, it means absolutely nothing.

What’s ADS-B’s Traffic Information Service Worth

The real value in having the Traffic Information Service (TIS-B) on your ADS-B equipment is it helps you develop situational awareness of traffic around you. It may assist you in visually spotting traffic after ATC points it out to you. It may also help you spot traffic when ATC is too busy to issue a traffic advisory.

As of right now, the full value of TIS-B belongs entirely to you. Until the FAA incorporates TIS-B identification into its procedures, there’s no point in reporting traffic you’ve identified on your screen.

Questions? Comments? Write your thoughts below in the comments section or write to me directly at Jeff@ATCcommunication.com.


Reporting When Leaving Cruise to Begin a STAR

Question from Victor, a Multi-Engine Instructor:

“You are at [FL250], cruising along, and ATC clears you to “Descend via STAR [xxxx].” As you begin the descent (at pilot’s discretion to save fuel), are you required to notify ATC that you are leaving [FL250] and if so, the target altitude on the STAR you are next going to? And if it is not required, does Center in general want you to do it as a courtesy/situational awareness to them, or will they view it as an unnecessary use of frequency?

“I thought it would be mandatory, since I thought that vacating an altitude was always a mandatory report to ATC. But others I have spoken with claim that ATC giving you the “descend via” clearance eliminates the requirement.”

My Answer:

It is mandatory to report vacating your cruising altitude under any circumstance, STAR or otherwise. What others may be misunderstanding is this. Once you have begun descending on a STAR, there is no need, and you really shouldn’t, report vacating each step down altitude on the STAR. Nor do you need to report your next level-off altitude on the STAR. When you acknowledge “Descend via” and the STAR’s identifier, you are telling ATC you’ll be complying with all of the restrictions on the STAR.

Your initial descent point is usually discretionary; and ATC wants to be notified when you start down. Once established on the STAR’s descent profile, ATC knows where you’ll be at any point on the path.

Just to be clear about all this, let’s look at an example. Let’s say you are cruising at FL250. Oakland Center says, “Descend via the Melon 6 Arrival.” You acknowledge this and maintain FL250 until reaching your top-of-descent point to begin the arrival. The first crossing restriction on the STAR is 15,000 feet, 80 DME from the next VORTAC. Your radio call to Oakland, as you begin your initial descent would be, “[Callsign], vacating FL250.” That’s it, nothing further. You don’t have to report your target altitude of 15,000 feet. You don’t have to report leaving 15,000 once past 80 DME. Just the initial report vacating FL250.

Here’s an extra, even though you didn’t ask about it. When descending on a STAR and checking in with a new controller as you pass 16,800 feet, your example transmission would be, “NORCAL Approach, [call sign], passing 16,800, on the Melon 6.”

Other questions or comments for me? Use the comments section below or write to me directly at Jeff@ATCcommunication.com.


Radio Discipline

Yesterday, someone placed a comment at my other website ATCcommunication.com that I immediately deleted because it included some incendiary language. Life is too short to put up with rudeness.

The commenter probably would have started a good conversation with me had he used good communication discipline and not taken a cheap shot. I bring this up because it is a good jumping off point to talk about discipline on the radio.


The commenter’s point, bracketed by angry filler, was that he had been speaking to ATC in a certain way for decades that was contrary to what I teach–the FAA’s standards. He said it never caused him a problem and he never received negative feedback from air traffic control. His conclusion was, his way of doing things on the radio was okay because it had always worked for him.

You may have seen something I’ve written and had the same thought as the commenter. Let’s you and I talk about that for a moment. As a leaping off place, let’s use numbers.

When transmitting on the aircraft radio, the FAA wants you to speak numbers as individual digits. For example, the FAA wants you to transmit the number 12,000 as “One two thousand”. Maybe you don’t. Or maybe you do, but you hear other pilots on the radio say “Twelve thousand”.

Let’s face it. You and I fly in the real world. Many if not most pilots don’t stick to the FAA’s script on the radio. What happens as a result? Most of the time, absolutely nothing. Airplanes aren’t running into each other on a daily basis. The FAA isn’t hauling pilots onto the carpet for saying “Twelve thousand” when they should have said “One two thousand”. There doesn’t seem to be any negative consequence for using the language of your choosing on the radio. So why not, right?

Washing the Apple

Pick any activity which has some element of risk of personal injury. What would you choose? Skiing? Football? Skydiving? Driving a car? Let’s pick something really mundane. Let’s choose eating an apple.

There’s no risk in eating an apple! I’ve been eating apples since I was old enough to chew solid food and I’ve never suffered an injury as a result. What can be safer than eating an apple?

If you’re like me, you wash an apple before eating it. You can’t see the germs on the surface of the apple but you can intuit they may be there. Though an apple has likely never sickened you, and you’ve never heard of anyone being sickened by an apple, you still wash that sucker before eating it. That’s just something you’ve disciplined yourself to do because you have the imagination to conjure up what might happen if you don’t wash it first.

Here’s another thing about that apple. If someone sees you grab an apple and begin eating it without washing it first, likely they aren’t going to say anything unless they are your mother or your nosey neighbor. You want to eat an unwashed apple, fine, eat an unwashed apple. No skin off my back.


Before this goes too far afield, let’s bring it back to flying and talking on the radio. If, when talking on the radio, you choose to use your own words rather than the standard phraseology every air traffic controller in the U.S. uses, it’s probably going to be okay. The sky is big and airplanes are small. There’s plenty of room out there for a little sloppiness. The controller is interested in what you have to say but he has the data for your flight on the radar screen to back up what you are saying. You say “Twelve thousand” and your airplane levels at 12,000 on his screen, good enough!

Then again, then again. Look at the Aviation Safety and Reporting System (ASRS) online and see for yourself the consequences of coloring outside the lines on the radio. The sky is big, airplanes are small, but there are a lot of airplanes. Multiply all those flights times all those non-standard radio transmissions and you’ll find plenty of bad news in the data.

For example, a pilot says “Fourteen thousand” and the controller hears what he expected to hear, which was “four thousand”. A pilot checks in on the radio with “Two forty” and the controller assumes the pilot was informing him of his heading, not the flight level he was climbing to. A pilot checks in with “One eighty” and nothing else. The controller assumes it’s the pilot’s airspeed, not the heading he is actually turning to.

The Big Why

If everything I’ve said has not moved the needle on your gage, consider this. When thinking about why pilots do their own thing on the radio, it’s easy to say, “Why not?” The answer to that question is, “Because it’s no big deal.” Pilots use slang, lingo, and shortcuts all the time on the radio and the aviation community seems to keep ticking right along. Exceptions are so few and far between that the likelihood of getting into trouble seems immeasurable.

Further, air traffic controllers don’t have the time or motivation to teach pilots how to speak. Your next utterance on the radio is not a teachable moment for your busy controller. Those guys get paid to keep airplanes separated, leaving zero time to play ground school instructor.

That leaves it up to you to choose how you’ll conduct yourself on the radio. I believe asking yourself “Why not?” is going to give you a weak result. I’d suggest a better way of evaluating your choice. Ask why? Why is it better, safer, easier, wiser to use slang, lingo, and shortcuts on the radio? Why is it better to not wash the apple every time before eating?

I’d like to hear your answer. Write to me using the comment section below or write to me directly at Jeff@ATCcommunication.com.


ATC’s Expect to Cross an Intersection

I was sitting on the jumpseat in the cockpit of another airline yesterday and I heard a radio exchange between ATC and the pilot working the radio for the crew. It sounded like this. (The aircraft call sign, altitudes and the named intersection are fictitious.)

ATC: “Airliner 167, at pilot’s discretion, descend and maintain Flight Level 190. Expect to cross Fuzzy at 8,000.”

Pilot: “Pilot’s discretion, descend and maintain Flight Level 190. Fuzzy at 8,000, Airliner 167.”

Do you have any heartburn with the pilot’s read back in this situation?

You know I wouldn’t ask that question if I thought his read back was perfect.

There’s a critical word missing in the pilot’s read back. It’s the word, “expect”. If I were the controller and I heard that read back, I’d immediately question whether the pilot might initiate a descent to 8,000 before I had authorized him to do so.

I don’t blame the pilot for how he crafted his read back. If you look in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) you’ll find zip regarding how to specifically read back an advisory message such as “Expect Fuzzy at 8,000”.

Let there be no doubt, “Expect Fuzzy at 8,000” is advisory only in nature. It is not a clearance.

A clearance from ATC requires you to change your aircraft’s flight path.

An advisory is information from ATC that helps you to build situational awareness and/or plan ahead. An advisory does not require you to take action, though you may choose to take action after further coordination with ATC.

When our pilot said, “Fuzzy at 8,000” it sounded like a readback, implying the crew would be taking action to comply with a clearance to 8,000.

Here’s how I would have read back that clearance and advisory. “Airliner 167, at pilot’s discretion, descend and maintain Flight Level 190. We’ll expect to cross Fuzzy at 8,000.” Including “expect” in my read back tells the controller I’ve received the advisory but will not act on the information until I hear a specific clearance from him to descend lower than Flight Level 190.

In summary, when ATC advises you to expect an altitude crossing restriction, be sure to include the word “expect” in your readback. That’s not in the AIM. It’s a solid technique that helps you and your controller stay in synch.


Flying an Approach Into an Uncontrolled Pattern

You are flying an ILS approach into an uncontrolled pattern. The weather in the pattern permits VFR. There are other pilots buzzing around the airport.

As you change from ATC’s frequency to the airport’s common traffic advisory frequency, what are you thinking about? Completing that ILS? Sure. If you are like me, you are thinking about whether another plane established in the pattern is going conflict with you as you arrive on short approach.


Here’s what you can do to avoid turning your single-wing airplane into a biplane at the point where your ILS straight-in crosses paths with VFR aircraft on base-to-final.

Show Notes:

Aeronautical Information Manual 4-1-9 4−1−9. Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers

TBL 4−1−1
Summary of Recommended Communication Procedures

Under “Practice Instrument Approaches”, “No Tower, FSS, UNICOM”–Make a position report: “Departing final approach fix (name) or final approach segment inbound.”

Coincident with VFR procedures, inbound to the airport: “Report 10 miles out. Report leaving the runway.”

My Techniques

15 miles or more out, with time, workload, and radio traffic permitting, either request off frequency with ATC or quickly switch to UNICOM on Radio 2 and announce:

“Fenway Traffic, Skyhawk 9130 Delta, 15 miles northwest, inbound ILS Runway 15, full stop, Fenway.”

After ATC says, “Radar service terminated. Frequency change approved,” make another position report, time and workload permitting:

“Fenway Traffic, Skyhawk 9130 Delta, 10 miles northwest, 5,500, ILS Runway 15 inbound, full stop, Fenway.”

At 2 to 3 miles from landing, make a last chance report:

“Fenway Traffic, Skyhawk 9130 Delta 2-mile final, Runway 15, full stop, Fenway.”

Report leaving the runway:

“Fenway Traffic, Skyhawk 9130 Delta, exiting Runway 15, Fenway.”


Learning Radio Phrasing By Experience is Highly Risky

Experience means jack if you aren’t open to learning something new from your experiences. Fair warning, learning by experience without distinguishing good from bad can lead you to very dark and dangerous places. Nowhere is this more true than in an aircraft cockpit.


Let me explain.

I’ve been flying fixed wing airplanes since I was a teenager. I am no longer a teenager. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Point is, I’ve got a lot of flying experience under my belt. I’ve learned a lot. For example, I learned you don’t point an A-10 at the ground to video the aftermath of war with your gun camera, 300 feet off the ground, while carrying 8,000 pounds of fuel in external tanks. I also learned you don’t fly through the precip represented by that teeny tiny micro dot of green on your radar screen, at 36,000 feet, near the equator. There are hundreds of other lessons that I’ve learned the easy way and the hard way.

I’m sure you have your own list.

Getting Worse with Experience

Here’s where it gets strange. Though time and experience may increase a pilot’s confidence on the radio, his radio phrasing does not improve with age. Often, with experience, a pilot’s radio phraseology deteriorates.

An Example

When checking in with an air traffic control center during a climb or descent, the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) says there is a specific and precise way to check in the controller:

1. (Name) CENTER, (aircraft identification), LEVEL (altitude or flight level).

2. (Name) CENTER, (aircraft identification), LEAVING (exact altitude or flight level), CLIMBING TO OR DESCENDING TO (altitude of flight level).

(AIM 5-3-1 ARTCC Communications, b. 2. a. Example–)

Plugging in some example altitudes, the transmission should sound like this. “New York Center, Skyhawk 9130 Delta, leaving three thousand, climbing to seven thousand.”

Listen to real world examples on the radio and here is one variation you might hear. “New York Center, Skyhawk 9130 Delta, outta three for seven.”

Then the controller says, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, New York Center. Climb and maintain eight thousand.” The pilot responds, “On up to eight, Three Zero Delta.”

How did the pilot in this example find his way from the standard phrase, “Leaving three thousand, climbing to seven thousand” to the slang, “Outta three for seven”?

What prompted him to say, “On up to eight” when the AIM clearly says the phrasing is “Climbing to eight thousand”?

Why did he abbreviate his call sign when the AIM is adamant a pilot should not abbreviate his call sign unless the controller does so first?

When the pilot abbreviated his call sign, why didn’t he include his make, model, or type in the abbreviation in accordance with guidance in the AIM?

I Absorb What I Hear

If you are a certified psychologist, you can probably answer these questions with more authority than I can muster. All I can do is theorize.

My theory is, a pilot who uses incorrect phrasing on the radio is a pilot who either learned it incorrectly from the beginning, or a pilot who learned it correctly and then had it overwritten by listening to other pilots mangle radio phrasing.

If you learn from experience, and your experience is hearing most other pilots say, “Outta three for eight”, you might be tempted to adopt “Outta three for eight” as your own.

Trash Does Not Equal Crash

At this point you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal, Jeff? This is the way of the world, and it works.” Everyday, pilots bungle their way through radio transmissions, ignoring the guidance in the AIM, and they still get from Point A to Point B without crashing or running into other aircraft.

Even ATC copes with the situation. When was the last time you heard this exchange on the radio? ATC: “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, climb and maintain eight thousand.” Pilot: “Three Zero Delta, on up to eight.” ATC: “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, I need you to use your full call sign and repeat, ‘Climb and maintain eight thousand.’” Here’s a hint. Never.

Again, “What’s the big deal, Jeff”? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Actually it is broke. Wander on over to the Aviation Safety and Reporting System (http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/search/database.html). Do a search for “radio phraseology” or ‘miscommunication”. You’ll be amazed at the number of reported incidents and accidents caused by misunderstandings on the radio. The common thread in all those reports is the use of non-standard phrasing on the radio—what the AIM calls “jargon, chatter and ‘CB’ slang”.

If I Had a Nickel for Every Pilot Who Says the AIM is Just Guidance

If you are a pilot who hangs his hat on, “The AIM is just guidance. It isn’t regulatory”, consider this. Standard phrasing, as it is described in the Pilot/Controller Glossary of the AIM is the universal language that supports clear understanding on the radio.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. If you use the standard phrases in the AIM to communicate on the aircraft radio, anybody from anywhere in the world is going to understand exactly what you mean.

You Don’t Mess with Physics

Think of the difference between standard phrasing in the AIM and the slang and other BS most pilots use on the radio like this. For a given airspeed, air density, power setting and angle of attack, your aircraft responds precisely the same way, every time to a control input. To recover from a stall at low altitude, for example, your aircraft requires that you complete Step A, Step B, then Step C because it obeys physics. You don’t mess with those steps because doing so could cost you your life.

When you experiment with non-standard phrasing on the radio, just because you hear other pilots doing it, you are messing with the proven steps that put you and ATC in sync. You are experimenting with the physics of communication in circumstances where experimentation may fail you.

This isn’t one pilot’s opinion. It’s proven in the records of the Aviation Safety and Reporting System.*

Sometimes experience is not the best teacher.

*Making a report to NASA’s ASRS is entirely voluntary. While you marvel at the ASRS incident and accident reports attributed to miscommunication, consider there are probably hundreds of similar events that don’t get reported to NASA each year.


Verfication, Clarification, and Repetition with ATC

There are big differences between verification, clarification, and repetition when working with ATC. In this week’s show, I’ll help you figure out which phrase to use with ATC when you and your controller are not in synch. I’ll tell you this right now, using “Say again” will only help under very specific circumstances. The phrase is not a cure-all.

Show Resources:

You don’t have to be flying in a foreign country to not understand an air traffic controller’s accent. People in different regions of your home country make speak with different accents. For example, here in the U.S. a person born and raised in the Deep South will likely have a very different accent than a person who grew up in, say, the state of Maine in the far northeastern reaches of the U.S.

No response from your air traffic controller?

1. Check if your radio’s powered.
2. Check your headset connections.
3. Listen for other pilots transmitting on the frequency.
4. Turn the radio’s squelch off and listen for static.
5. Ensure you haven’t accidentally switched away from your assigned frequency.

If all that checks out okay,

1. Try contacting another pilot on the frequency.
2. Is successful in contacting another pilot, ask that pilot to relay a request to ATC for a new frequency. Be sure to supply your current position for the best result.

If unable to reach another pilot,

1. Monitor the Guard frequency (121.5) in case ATC tries to contact you on Guard.
2. Contact any Flight Service Station. Report your position and get a new ATC frequency.
3. Consult any enroute navigation chart and look for an enroute center frequency in a postage stamp-shaped box.

Don’t forget to fly the airplane as you troubleshoot!

Your Question of the Week:

You are flying a VOR/DME approach to an airport inside Class C airspace. The reported visibility is just above the minimum required for the instrument approach. The missed approach point for this procedure is .3 DME prior to the runway threshold. Fortunately, you break out of the weather prior to the missed approach point and get the runway in sight. You descend towards the runway on a normal glidepath. As you cross the runway threshold, a strong gust of wind throws your aircraft well left of centerline. Your good judgment tells you to reject the landing. As you climb away from the runway, you realize you are well past the missed approach point. What do you do now?

I’ll have the answer to that question along with a full explanation in the next edition of the IFR Flight Radio Show. Be well, keep in touch, and fly safe.


Questions and Answers About IFR Radio Procedures

Here are some of the questions about IFR radio procedures I’m asked most often.

Q: Am I required to use my call sign at the beginning or end of my transmission?

A: According to the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), you may use your call sign at the beginning or end of a transmission.

It’s not easy to find this answer in the AIM because it’s embedded in explanations of other procedures. Under 4−2−3. Contact Procedures, sub-paragraph c. the AIM says, “If the situation demands your response, take appropriate action or immediately advise the facility of any problem. Acknowledge with your aircraft identification, either at the beginning or at the end of your transmission, and one of the words “Wilco,” “Roger,” “Affirmative,” “Negative,” or other appropriate remarks; e.g., “PIPER TWO ONE FOUR LIMA, ROGER.”

Further down in that same section, under sub-paragraph d. Acknowledgement of Frequency Changes, the AIM gives this example: “United Two Twenty−Two on one two three point four” or “one two three point four, United Two Twenty−Two.”

Countries following the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) rules for air traffic control state one’s call sign must be added to the end of every transmission. Here in the U.S. you may begin or end with your call sign.

Q: When cleared for an instrument approach, do I have to read back the exact title of the approach procedure ATC cleared me to fly?

A: Yes and no. Sorry for that wishy-washy answer but here’s the hard truth. If Approach Control clears you, for example, for the ILS Zulu Approach, Runway 18, and you read back “[Your call sign], cleared for the approach,” likely the approach controller will not ask you to repeat your read back to include the name of the approach. Approach controllers know intercepting a final approach segment is a very busy phase of flight. The controller will not pester you for greater detail in your read back during this phase if you omit the name of the approach.

However, if you read back, “[Your call sign], cleared for the ILS Yankee Approach, Runway 18,” and you were cleared to fly the ILS Zulu Approach, Runway 18, the controller will demand a correct read back of the cleared approach. In this example, an ILS Yankee approach differs procedurally from an ILS Zulu approach even though both approaches are ILS’s and both lead to the same runway. The controller will want verification you are about to fly the correct procedure if you read back the wrong name.

Q: What is the exact phrase I should use to tell a controller I need a clearance repeated slowly?

A: There is no exact phrase. Be courteous and tell the controller, in your own words, to please repeat the last clearance slower. Here’s how I say it: “Please say that again slowly for [my call sign].”

Q: When given a clearance to descend “at pilot’s discretion” do I need to tell the controller when I initiate the descent?

A: Yes. Example: I’m currently level at 12,000. ATC says, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, at pilot’s discretion, descend and maintain 8,000.” Of course, I’ll read back that clearance immediately. Later, when I decide to start my descent, I’ll say, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta is vacating one two thousand.” Usually, all ATC says in reply is, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, roger.”

Q: If ATC tells me to descend to 8,000 but I’d like to remain at my current altitude as long as possible for fuel savings, turbulence avoidance, etc, is it okay to ask the controller for the option to descend “at pilot’s discretion”?

A: Sure, if you really want to mess up the controller’s plan. Almost always, when ATC tells you to descend, it’s for flow planning or traffic deconfliction. When you ask for “pilot’s discretion” you are asking the controller to recalculate his flow plan or to juggle his traffic priorities to prevent a traffic conflict. He may help you out but your request will probably throw a wrench in the works. I strongly urge to you to not make this request, even if you hear other less considerate pilots do it.

Q: Got any tips on how to copy a route clearance?

A: Yes, but there are far more than I can include in this single article. I have a complete course in how to copy route clearances in a program I created called “Clearance Magic”. The program is available at IFRclearance.com. Yep, that was a shameless self-promotion. While I’m on a roll, I’ll also point out the big book at the top of this page, Radio Mastery for IFR Pilots, has a complete discussion of IFR radio procedures, techniques, and hands-on exercises to make you a better IFR communicator.

You may have a question I haven’t addressed in this article. So please, go ahead and ask. I’m right here at Jeff@ATCcommunication.com.

Answer to the question asked in IFR Flight Radio Newsletter, Issue 6: A visual approach.

Newsletter? Absolutely. If you aren’t in on my free newsletter and you’re mildly curious, check out the details in the right column of this page.


Climbing Unrestricted on a SID

Note: A busy flying schedule this week plus moving to a new house has put me behind the power curve. That’s why I’m presenting this week’s IFR Flight Radio Show by the fastest means possible–for me, anyway–writing.

Climbing Unrestricted

Let’s say, in your pre-departure clearance, ATC has cleared you to fly the Teterboro One Departure, climb and maintain 1,500, expect 8,000, 5 minutes after departure, “climb via the SID”. Your assigned departure runway will be Runway 24.

“Climb via” means, follow the SID’s routing and comply with any published altitude and/or airspeed restrictions in that SID.


Looking at the Teterboro One standard instrument departure, the procedure says to cross 4.5 DME from the Teterboro Vortac at and maintain 1,500. For non-DME equipped aircraft, cross the Colt’s Next VOR 011-degree radial at and maintain 1,500.

Just after takeoff, Teterboro Tower tells you to contact New York Departure. New York Departure says, “Radar contact, climb and maintain 8,000.” That means you may ignore the 1,500 crossing restriction at 4.5 DME from Teterboro and make an uninterrupted climb to 8,000.

Let’s verify this information by looking in the Air Traffic Control Manual, Joint Order 7110.65. (The version that was current at the time I wrote this article was version J.O. 7110.65W.)

This is from Chapter 4, Section 5-7 titled “Altitude Information”.

1. Considering the principle that the last ATC clearance issued has precedence over the previous, the phraseology “maintain (altitude)” alone cancels previously issued altitude restrictions, including SID/STAR altitude restrictions unless they are restated or modified, and authorizes an unrestricted climb or descent. Speed restrictions remain in effect unless the controller explicitly cancels the speed restrictions.

ATC Technique

Some controllers will say, “Climb unrestricted, maintain 8,000.” That phrase, “climb unrestricted” is a controller’s technique for reassuring pilots that a published crossing restriction on SID no longer applies. Don’t let one controller’s technique create an expectation that all controllers will use the same technique. If your controller uses the standard phrase, “Climb and maintain,” but does not say, “Unrestricted,” you are cleared to make an unrestricted climb to the altitude specified in the clearance.

Speed Restrictions

The AIM says, however, any published speed restrictions on a SID remain in effect unless specifically cancelled by ATC. If the controller says, “Cancel speed restrictions,” or “Cancel the speed restriction at” a named fixed, you may ignore the relevant published speed restriction(s) in the SID.
Picking Up and IFR Clearance While Airborne

Picking Up and IFR Clearance While Airborne

There are a few reasons why you might want to pick up an IFR route clearance while airborne.

  1. You are proceeding on a cross-country flight and either the enroute weather or your destination’s weather is deteriorating. Continuing VFR is not possible.

  3. You are unable to make radio or cell phone contact with Flight Service; or radio contact with an ATC agency to pick up your IFR clearance while on the ground.

  5. You are unwilling to delay your departure long enough to make contact with an agency to pick up your IFR clearance.

Risky VFR

There are some potential risks involved in picking up an IFR clearance while airborne.

You must maintain VFR cloud clearances and inflight visibility prior to receiving your clearance. Scud running or maneuvering in marginal inflight visibility while coordinating for and copying your clearance is a very high workload operation. This is especially true when flying solo. If there is high terrain or tall radio antennae in the area, the risk increases of flying into something immovable while working on your clearance.

My strong recommendation is, do what you have to do to pick up your IFR clearance while on the ground. If that means getting out of your airplane and getting to a landline for a phone call, do so.

If airborne, and the weather ahead is deteriorating, retreat. Get to an area where the weather is solidly VFR so you don’t have to divide your time between weather avoidance, obstacle avoidance, and coordinating your clearance.

My friend, and highly experience pilot, Sarah Fritts, has some strong words about this in her new book, The Instrument Pilot’s Survival Guide.*

“Pretend the clouds are at 1100’ at your departure airport. Let’s say Class E airspace starts at 700 feet AGL (which is typical at most airports). You now have to fly 500 feet below that 1,100 feet cloud deck as per Class E VFR cloud clearance requirements. . . which means you are actually flying in Class G airspace at 600 feet AGL.

“Now let’s say there is a 250-foot hill in front of you because humans like to build airports in valleys and not on mountains. You are not flying 350 feet above the ground trying to pick up your clearance. Oh, and the clouds aren’t uniformly 1,100 AGL. They vary and they are dipping so now you are flying a couple hundred feet off the ground . . . and you still can’t get ATC because their radar coverage doesn’t go that low.

“Do you see how this can turn into a stupid decision very quickly?” The Instrument Pilot’s Survival Guide. Chapter 2, Ground Operations.

No Choice

Let’s assume you have no choice but to pick up an IFR clearance while airborne. The weather permits to you fly in VFR conditions without concern for terrain or obstacle clearance. Here’s how to do it.

First, assuming you had not filed your flight plan before takeoff, you’ll need to do so while airborne. The best way to file is to get in touch with the nearest flight service station to complete the process.

An air traffic controller could file an IFR flight plan for you. He would have to divide his time between working on your flight plan and keeping traffic separated. His first obligation is air traffic control. If he’s busy, you may wait a long time to complete the filing process with him. He may also tell you he will be unable to file a flight plan for you.

Have it On Paper

Before filing your flight plan with Flight Service or ATC, it pays to have the plan written down. I like to use a pre-printed flight plan form, with the data for my flight filled in. This simplifies your workload when it comes time to relay the flight plan over the radio. All you have to do is read the plan out loud.

First, Make Contact

Begin by making contact with Flight Service or ATC using your call sign only. Don’t complicate the initial radio call with requests or by adding other data. Get specific only after you and the person at the other end of the radio have said hello to each other. Tell the person you’ve contacted where you are, that you’re VFR, and then say, “I’d like to file an IFR flight plan.”

When the air traffic controller or flight service agent says, “Ready to copy your flight plan,” read the data to him in the correct order. The controller or agent will then tell you to stand by while he files the flight plan.

Get Your Clearance

If a Flight Service agent took your flight plan, he will tell you to contact ATC after your flight plan has been accepted in the ATC system. Flight service will tell you which ATC agency to contact and the appropriate frequency. For example, “[Your call sign], contact Denver Center now on 127.8 for your clearance.” If you file with a controller, the controller will give you your IFR clearance in the standard format.

When getting your clearance from a controller, he will include immediate action items in your clearance. An immediate action item may be, “Cleared present position direct [a navaid or navigational fix], maintain [an altitude].” Or, he may give you a heading to fly to intercept the first airway on your cleared route, if applicable, along with an altitude to maintain.

That’s an overview of how to file an IFR flight plan while airborne. You’ll find a much more detailed explanation of this process in a new book written by friend Sarah Fritts, The Instrument Pilot’s Survival Guide. It’s available for $8.99 as a Kindle book at Amazon.com.*

Sarah’s book teaches you how to build flows and habit patterns that are common to all IFR flights. Sarah says in the book’s introduction,

This guide will help you alleviate your stress by teaching you the general flow of an instrument flight.

Mastering the rhythm of an instrument flight is the key to a worry-free experience.

This survival guide will walk you through an instrument flight from beginning to end.

Question and Answer

Here’s a scenario and question I asked in the last IFR Flight Radio Show.

If you have ever departed IFR from an uncontrolled airport, you were probably issued a Clearance Void Time. The controller said to you, for example, “Void if not off by 10:15, time now 10:01 and one half. Basically, this meant ATC had approved your takeoff any time before the Clearance Void Time.

The question. What is a “Release Time” and how might ATC use it for your flight?

The answer from the Aeronautical Information Manual 5−2−6. Departure Restrictions, Clearance Void Times, Hold for Release, and Release Times

3. Release Times. A “release time” is a departure restriction issued to a pilot by ATC, specifying the earliest time an aircraft may depart. ATC will use “release times” in conjunction with traffic management procedures and/or to separate a departing aircraft from other traffic.

(Aircraft identification) released for departure at (time in hours and/or minutes).

A release time is rarely used by ATC. More often, when you reach the end of the departure runway, ATC may say, “Hold for release” with no specific information about when you they expect to release you, i.e. clear you to depart.

Back to You Soon

I expect to be settled into my new home in early June. Expect a brand new IFR Flight Radio Show around then. Be well, keep in touch, and fly safe!

*I receive a small commission from Amazon.com when you use this link to make a purchase.


Coming Up in the Next IFR Flight Radio

In your next edition of the IFR Flight Radio Show we’ll talk about picking up an IFR clearance while airborne.

Also, what ATC means by “climb unrestricted”. And, all about clearances for a cruise descent. Plus a new question to ponder.

In the meantime, here’s a good read. My friend and highly experienced pilot, Sarah Fritts of ThinkAviation.net just published a Kindle book called

The Instrument Pilot’s Survival Guide

If you buy the book by Friday, April 22, you can get it for only $0.99. Sarah tells me the price will increase to $3.99 over the weekend and then $8.99 on Monday, April 25. Secure your copy at Amazon.com* before the price goes up. I’ll have more details about her book in the next show.

*The fine print: If you make a purchase at Amazon.com using this link, I receive a small commission.