Instrument Climbouts from Uncontrolled Airports

Baron 600 Romeo Victor, you’re cleared from the Hardwick Airport to the Hardwick NDB, then hold as published. Climb and maintain 3000 feet, squawk 2012. Report airborne on frequency 125.1, clearance void if not off by two-zero past the hour, time now zero-five past the hour, expect further clearance at two-five past the hour.”

Fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) from an uncontrolled, out-of-the-way airport, and you’ll eventually get a “short-range clearance” like the one above. It’s a clearance to a nearby navigational beacon (NAVAID) or other “fix,” with a time window (up until the “void time”) that allows you to pop up into the airspace without conflicting with other IFR airplanes. Since Air Traffic Control (ATC) doesn’t know exactly when you’ll enter controlled airspace from an uncontrolled field, they’ll keep a small area clear for you until the void time. Once you’re airborne and check in with ATC you’ll likely be given an immediate clearance to your destination — I get that short-range clearance all the time, but rarely actually enter the holding pattern even though the “fix” is only about five miles away.

Climbing out of the uncontrolled airport (whether on a short-range clearance or with clearance all the way to destination), it’s your responsibility to arrive safely at the first fix. If the airport has a published instrument departure procedure, follow it. Chances are, though, that there’s no published method of getting from the runway to a safe enroute altitude. Here’s where you have to do some homework — you have the authority and the responsibility to pick a departure route. This tough job gets easier if you:

  • Ask the locals for suggestions for flying an instrument departure. Don’t pass up the advice of visual-only local pilots who may know the terrain better than you do.
  • If weather conditions are VFR and you can remain in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) all the way to the first fix, you can fly directly to the fix (with some maneuvering as required for terrain, obstacle and traffic avoidance, of course).

Note: In good VMC you may want to simply depart under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and pick up your clearance in the air — just be sure you can remain in VMC in case communications, traffic or other ATC problems prevent you from getting your clearance right away.

  • If you can’t stay in VMC all the way to the first fix, but the airport has a published instrument approach for the runway you’re using, there’ll also be a missed approach procedure for that runway — a prescribed route and altitude to fly away from the airport if you’re flying the approach and don’t see the runway at the Missed Approach Point (MAP). Take off and immediately fly the published missed approach procedure until you’re at a safe altitude. (Often a short-range clearance takes you to the missed approach holding fix anyway.)

Important: You’re starting from an altitude (field elevation) well below the Decision Height (DH) or Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) for the approach you’re “missing.” You’re responsible for terrain and obstacle clearance until you get to at least the DH/MDA altitude.

  • If your departure airport doesn’t have a published approach for the runway you’re using, but does have an approach for another runway, and wind or other factors cause you to decide to use a different runway, look at the published approach for the other runway, take off, and intercept the circling approach missed approach procedure. Again, you’re solely responsible for getting from the ground to that first safe altitude, the “circling minimum.”
  • If the airport has no published approaches at all, or has only approaches using navaids you can’t receive with the equipment installed in your airplane, you need to personally plot and fly a safe climbout. You have the authority to devise your own way of getting to Minimum Vectoring Altitude. Look at the Sectional chart and Airport Facilities Directory for any information about obstacles and terrain. Adhere to right-hand traffic patterns and other peculiarities of the particular runway you’re departing. Don’t forget to check Notices to Aviators (NOTAMs) for all those unlighted tower warnings that crop up as cell-phone towers slowly take over the world. Consider simply climbing in the airport traffic pattern (which should be clear of obstructions) until you reach a safe altitude.

Plan your flight before engine start, and then fly your plan unwaveringly until you’re in the comfortable arms of ATC.

BOTTOM LINE: There’s a lot of confusion about taking off from uncontrolled airports under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) — especially among pilots who mainly fly from controlled fields. The Federal Air Regulations give you a lot of freedom, but also a lot of responsibility, to pick your route from the runway to a safe altitude. Don’t start engines without first planning exactly how you’ll take off into IMC.