IFR, When the Radios Go Out

The regulations require that you have a two-way radio communications system in order to fly IFR, but radios don’t read regulations. What do you do when you go IFR and the radios go AWOL?

Radios are a requirement for IFR, because we use them to receive clearances — but also to give information, plan, and negotiate. Without our radios in IFR conditions we become helpless — unable to ask about hazardous weather ahead and to get deviations around that weather. Without radios in IFR we lose our situational awareness — we can’t know where other airplanes are and where we fit into the big picture. The biggest problem presented by a loss of two-way communications is the inability to receive enroute instructions, and approach clearances. Without radios it is hard to know where to go and what to do. Fortunately, when the radios go out, the regulations provide a back-up plan.

If your primary radio stops working, don’t go to the back-up plan right away. First try to establish communication in other ways — do some troubleshooting.

  • Check headset connections, change the frequency away from and then back to the proper frequency,
  • Double check that the forest of audio panel switches are properly felled, and push the corners of the radio to insure that it is snug in the rack and properly connected.
  • Switch to the number 2 radio if you have one.

Most two-way radio communication failures are actually communication interruptions due to improper connections or set-up.

If you still have communications failure after troubleshooting and you are in the clouds, don’t fool around. Use your mobile telephone. I know that the use of a mobile phone in flight is against FCC rules, but there is an FAA rule that says in an emergency you can break other rules as necessary to meet the demands of the emergency.

How: Call 1-800-WX-BRIEF and that will get a Flight Service Station somewhere. They can either give you the telephone number of the approach or center controller… or they can make the contact for you and then act as the communications go-between.

You should always take a fully charged mobile phone with you when you fly in the clouds. Pilots have also use battery powered “hand held” radios, but be careful — unless you have a way to hook the hand-held radio to the airplane’s antenna, the range can be… disappointing.

If your hand-held radio’s range is not adequate, or your mobile phone’s battery runs down, you can establish communications the old-fashion way: Through the VOR or with your transponder. Most VORs have the ability to transmit from a ‘parent‘ FSS. You must turn up the volume on the VOR and set the audio panel so that the VOR signal will be heard over the speaker or in your headset. If a controller cannot reach you, they can contact the nearest FSS and have them attempt contact over the VOR. They would be able to see which VOR you are tracking, so they will know you are receiving the VOR signal. You must listen on the frequency. If you hear the FSS call your number, you can acknowledge receipt of the message by hitting ‘ident‘ on your transponder. From that point on you could communicate ‘two-way’ although it will be an awkward two-way. Controllers would tell FSS briefers, to tell you, ‘you are cleared for the ILS runway 35 approach, if you understand, ident.’ This would eventually get you on the ground.

The regulations provide a back-up plan that you should use if no communication, in any form, can be established. The regulation is 91.185 and this rule splits the problem into three parts: Route, Altitude, and Landing.

ROUTE: From the moment the pilot realizes that communication has been lost, they are to proceed on course to the destination. The challenge for the controllers will now be to clear the airspace in front of you even though they can’t talk to you. The only way they can know which way you will go is to use your last assigned route clearance. It’s a plan worked out in advance that is put into action when needed. Important: Pilots should always be suspicious of long silences on the radio — maybe it’s silent because it’s not working! In many cases, the pilot is the last to become aware of the communication problem. The controllers know when they call and get no answer.

ALTITUDE: The pilot must fly the higher altitude between the altitude in your last clearance and the ‘minimum altitude for IFR operations.’ The controllers are trying to anticipate the altitudes that you will fly so that they can keep those altitudes free of other traffic.

Example: Let’s say that you were assigned an altitude of 6,000 before the radios died, and you are approaching an airway segment that has an MEA (minimum enroute altitude) of 5,000. In that case you would fly 6,000 because 6,000 is higher than 5,000. The controllers, in the meantime will be clearing 6,000 for you. But what if the upcoming MEA was 7,400? In that case you would climb and maintain 7,400 because the ‘IFR altitude‘ is higher than the ‘clearance altitude.’

Note: All even-odd thousand-foot rules are out the window — you fly whatever the IFR altitude is. The controllers, in this example, will be expecting you at 7,400 feet.

LANDING: You fly in silence — maybe for hours — to your destination. Along the way, you must…

  • Determine the direction of the wind. You will be tracking VOR radials, or using GPS, so you can get a general idea of wind direction from your wind correction angles needed to stay on course.
  • When you get near the area of you destination you must select an instrument approach… based on the wind direction if there is more than one approach. I would strongly advise you to select an ILS if they have one — your day has been bad enough without trusting the outcome of this flight to an NDB approach! But you may have no choice and must use the only approach available.

Complications: Select your approach and fly to that approach’s Final Approach Fix. If you arrive at the FAF after your flight’s estimated time of arrival, you proceed with a full approach, which hopefully ends with a safe landing. If you arrive early to the FAF, you must hold until your expected time of arrival comes up. Its obvious that pilots must already know what their expected time of arrival actually is. The only way you can know this is to add the Estimated Time Enroute (ETE) — block 10 of the flight plan — to the actual time the flight started. Pilots should never takeoff into IFR without first writing down the takeoff time. I write down the takeoff time in the ‘actual departure time‘ box — box 6 of the flight plan — before I taxi onto the runway for takeoff. The controllers are doing the same thing so that they will also know when to expect me to hold and when to expect me to shoot the approach.

Note 1: We always add about 5 minutes to the ETE on VFR flight plans to give us some time to get to telephone and cancel the flight plan. For IFR flight plans, you should always subtract about 5 minutes from the ETE so that you will always arrive slightly late to the FAF and therefore avoid a holding pattern!

Note 2: If while following the back-up plan of 91.185, you fly out into VFR weather conditions, then the day is saved! Do everything safe to stay in VFR conditions and land at the nearest airport that is practical. When on the ground, run in and call FSS. Let the controllers, who have also been sweating your flight out, know you are down and safe.

If you lose radios immediately after takeoff in the clouds, why can’t you just come around and land again, rather than flying all the way to the destination? Well for starters, you would not have a clearance for your departure airport’s approaches. That means you could get in the way of other unseen aircraft. But flying to the destination without weather updates could also be hazardous. Two-way radio communication failure in the clouds is an emergency without question, so you could come right back despite 91.185 and hope the controllers figured out what you were doing real fast. If the weather along the route is not hazardous, I suggest that you follow 91.185 to the letter.

Next Week: What happens when not only the radios go out but worse: When the lights go out in IFR?