It seems that receiving, copying, and reading back an IFR clearance is one of the most anxious experiences of learning to fly IFR — but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Welcome to the club — the IFR clearance is your invitation into the IFR system. You will soon learn that what you filed on your flight plan and what you will actually fly are almost always different.
Example: The original plan might have you flying direct to a VOR that is slightly out of the way. In actual flight, you might ask a controller for a heading that would ‘cut the corner’ and make your flight more direct. You can’t file it that way in the beginning because you can’t be sure of getting a radar vector.
Filing an IFR Flight Plan is like asking permission to get into the game. The IFR Clearance is like getting permission to enter the game.
ANATOMY OF A CLEARANCE
Tales abound of heartless controllers who rattle off complicated clearances at impossible-to-copy speeds. However, my experience is that controllers are helpful and are just as interested in passing on an accurate clearance as you are in getting one. Unfortunately, that does not mean they will speak slower — they are very busy and expect you to hold up your end of the deal by being ‘ready to copy.’ There is a way that pilots can ‘listen faster‘ and make the information transaction run smoothly.
Strategy: The key is to remember that every clearance is comprised of certain essential elements, and when the controller relays the clearance those elements always come out in the same order. The elements — in the order a controller will say them — are:
- Aircraft Identification
- Clearance limit
- Departure procedures (if any)
- Route of Flight
- Hold instructions (if any)
- Any special instructions (if any)
- Departure Control frequency and Transponder code
Note: Items 1, 2, 4, 5, and 8 are contained in every clearance. Items 3, 6, and 7 are optional and can be rare.
A typical clearance then sounds like this: ‘ATC clears Cessna 5409V, to the Orlando Executive Airport, as filed. Climb and maintain 9,000. Departure frequency will be 128.45, squawk 2415, over…‘
(Item 2) The ‘clearance limit‘ as the name implies is how far you are authorized to fly IFR on this clearance. About 95% of the time your clearance limit is also your destination.
On rare occasion your limit stops short of the destination due to anticipated arrival delays. In this case, you will be given a navigation aid or an intersection where you must hold in compliance with holding instructions (Item 6).
(Item 3) The Departure Procedures may be nothing more than the controller inserting the phrase ‘fly runway heading.’ This just means that after takeoff you should maintain the runway heading and wait for more instructions. Some airports have Standard Instrument Departure procedures. You can find these in your chart books. When included as part of a clearance the departure clearance will say the name of the procedure.
Example: ‘ATC clears N5070R to the Memphis International Airport, via the Nashville Seven Departure,’ where the Nashville 7 departure may be nothing more than ‘fly runway head to 2,000 feet before turning on course.’
(Item 4) Whenever you hear the phrase ‘as filed,’ the route of flight that you filed on your flight plan has been approved just as you wrote it, with no changes. But ‘as filed’ pertains only to the route of flight — not the entire flight plan.
(Item 5) The controller will offer an altitude, ‘climb and maintain 3,000, expect 9,000 in 10 minutes.’ This clearance gets you out from under the airspace and incoming traffic. Plus, the controllers know that if you should loss two-way radio communications you will still stay low for the first 10 minutes of the flight.
MAKING IT EASY
I usually have a clipboard with me when I fly to hold my charts and keep blank paper for notes. On a blank page I will write the following short hand:
ATC clears N5409V to the ______________________ Rwy Hdg A/F _________________________________________ ________________expect_____________in_________minutes Dept freq_________________Trans_______________
When I hear the clearance, rather than trying to write everything down, I just fill in the blanks. I already know the airplane number. If the phrase ‘runway heading‘ is next, I circle the letters ‘Rwy Hdg.’ I will circle the letters A/F if the controller says, ‘as filed,’ but I have a long space ready to copy a different route of flight if there is one. On the next line, I’m ready to just use the first blank for a straight climb to my assigned altitude, but I also have blanks to copy the details of a stair-step climb. Finally, I fill in the blanks for frequency and transponder code.
I will then repeat back the clearance to the controller at the same pace and speed that I received it, simply reading my clearance shorthand. This method will work 95% of the time. For those other 5%, when the clearance will also include a short clearance limit, hold instructions, or any special instructions, the controller will slow down because they will know it is out of the ordinary for you … and them as well.
Important: A read-back is essential to insure accuracy. If you heard or wrote down an error, the controller should catch it when you read back the error.
Example: The departure frequency may have been 133.5, but you heard 123.5. When the controller hears the mistake, they will say, ‘readback correct except departure will be 133.5.’
They will not be upset at you, instead they will be happy that the error was caught before you became airborne and started calling on the wrong frequency. When you hear ‘Readback Correct‘ you know that you:
- Wrote an acceptable flight plan.
- That flight plan became a clearance and you knew how to access the clearance.
- You correctly received the clearance and you’re ready to go.
BOTTOM LINE: Smoothly handling the clearance and readback is usually the first impression a controller gets of your pilot skills, so learn to ‘listen faster’ by knowing the clearance elements and their order in which they will come to you.