The “pop-up“: an on-the-spot IFR clearance from ATC, possibly without either an IFR briefing or having filed a flight plan — it’s quick and dirty … and it beats the heck out of scud-running. There are two basic kinds of pop-ups. They’re given that name because you don’t have to start off with Flight Service to get an IFR clearance, and even if you do have a flight plan on file, ATC can “let you ineven before they can see you on radar.

Requests for pop-ups can actually be made for VFR or IFR. (Strictly speaking, I’m covering this from a safety standpoint, so I’ll just mention this casual stuff for the sake of completeness.) You can ask ATC for pop-up clearances for practice, under either VFR or IFR flight. Heck, anytime I’m VFR and call up Baltimore with a request to transition their Class B, that’s kind of a pop-up, too. IFR pop-ups of course are given the same separation as all other IFR flights. Anything VFR has to be approved by ATC on a non-interference basis, and separation won’t be provided for VFR or practice approaches. But here’s a quick look at what matters most.

The first kind of “pop-up is for pilots proceeding inbound to an airport under visual flight rules, where worsening weather justifies (or dictates) contact with ATC. The pilot either gets radar guidance or a full instrument approach (assuming the pilot and airplane are up to the task).

Example: A pilot flying under VFR contacts ATC for an IFR clearance when the weather starts going downhill, without having previously filed an IFR flight plan, and puts a little more work on the controller’s back — but this can literally be a lifesaver for the pilot.

Why? Scud running kills even instrument-rated pilots; this problem isn’t limited only to VFR pilots. When the briefer said you’d have VMC but the view out the window says different, or the white carpet gets rolled out in front of you and you find yourself above a solid undercast, this kind of pop-up is a good tool. It will help you keep yourself from getting sucked into a VFR-into-IMC scenario. In either case, I guess you could say it’s a “pop-down“. (Of course, it should go without saying that a VFR-only pilot’s wisest action in this case is to get back on the ground while he can still see it — from a normal altitude, that is).

If you don’t have a chart or AFD to look up a frequency for the nearest approach control, or ARTCC, there’s always Flight Service. If your back is really up against the wall, dial 7700 and call 121.5. Don’t worry about paperwork (there usually isn’t any), and don’t get scared by the seemingly non-secular inference when they ask for the number of souls on board. There are no undertakers involved, and unless the predicament is entirely of your own making, the FAA won’t be, either. A live body count is always better than the other kind. ATC will usually request aircraft identification, type and equipment (if you didn’t remember to say so when you called), and you’ll probably get a discrete squawk code. Speaking of paperwork, if you don’t have IFR charts and plates, admit it, and they’ll give you all the required information. As an unannounced arrival, you may get directed to a navaid or fix before getting a clearance (or a vector). Just make your best guess which way to turn, start twiddling in the right frequencies and OBS settings, and off you go. If you’re below a minimum IFR altitude, you’ll probably be asked if you can climb while remaining VFR, keeping your own distance from terrain and obstructions. If you can’t, you just became the controller’s top priority, if you get my drift. Once you get the clearance (route, altitude, etc.) if the controller can identify you on radar, he’ll probably skip the spooky “souls aboard” stuff.

You don’t do it because you were too busy to file an IFR flight plan before you took off. That’s a great way to have the controller judge you as unprofessional, lazy, or both. And if you get easily tongue-tied or distraction-overload displaces your usually facile command of phraseology (or whatever decorum and mental bandwidth you had left) it’s going to be a little harder. If you work with the controller and can converse professionally, clearances are usually more forthcoming. This is true anywhere, whether it’s for VFR flight following or hard IFR.

Then there’s the second kind, where you’re on the ground and want IFR handling en route. Or, maybe you just want to climb through a thin overcast, up to where the sun’s shining. At controlled airports, such “IFR to VFR-on-top” pop-ups are common. You depart under IFR conditions, and once you’ve “reported reaching” (the cloud tops, that is) you cancel with approach and proceed VFR. Note that “to VFR on top” is not the same thing as “VFR on top” (where you’re still on an IFR flight plan, but at a VFR altitude in visual conditions). At my home airport, I do pop-ups all the time (the pop-ups, not the pop-downs), every time I take off on an IFR flight. I hasten to add (before you can get out your ripe tomatoes) that I’ve filed with Flight Service first, so my clearance is almost always waiting for me. Some of you may be thinking, “Hey, that’s not really a pop-up; that’s more like a routine pick-up for a clearance.” Actually, the term can be applied to any IFR departure from an uncontrolled airport having no IFR departure procedure. In fact, you can legally depart under IMC from an uncontrolled airport even before ATC sees you on radar. (You’d better know the local terrain and potential obstructions, though.) This is not a privilege to be taken lightly! In case you don’t believe me, here’s a little story…

About 10 years ago, US pilots came fairly close to losing a significant part of their freedoms. In 1992, the FAA’s legal department proposed procedural changes in the ATC Handbook that would have required pilots requesting such “pop-ups” to be able to climb under visual flight rules to whatever minimum IFR, vectoring, or en route altitude applied to the area in question. Translation: No IFR until they could see you on radar, period. (I gotta admit, I can see their point, here: why should ATC be accountable for someone they can’t see?) This also extended to clearances being withheld while in flight below MIA/MVA/MEA. This determination, that controllers could be held responsible for pilots hitting terrain or obstructions at a low altitude, was brought about because in March of 1991, eight members of a popular country-western band died when their Hawker Siddeley jet crashed 200 feet below the summit of higher terrain near San Diego. They’d departed VMC, but had entered IMC below the minimum en route IFR altitude. The change was actually made in the Airman’s Information Manual (as it was then known) in Paragraph 4-88, but since it wasn’t yet in the ATC Handbook, it wasn’t mandatory. Previously, it had simply been the pilot’s responsibility to know his or her position, and avoid terrain and obstacles — even while IMC. Most controllers actually weren’t in favor of this change, and AOPA’s position was that as long as a pilot knew where he was, it wasn’t an unsafe situation.

How would this have affected flying? …Quite a bit. Pilots in deteriorating weather might not have been able to get an IFR clearance without a climb, which could have discouraged pilots from getting help, and increased the accident rate. It would have affected operations at hundreds of airports and hindered the very flexibility and utility of IFR flight. At my home airport, unless the bases of the clouds were higher than the local minimum IFR altitudes (which is about 2800 feet), there would be no way to legally depart under the IFR umbrella (or get a “present position direct” clearance to any navaid or initial approach fix for an approach, either). That would also have encouraged pilots to scud run. So, like I said … it’s not something to be taken for granted.

BOTTOM LINE: Getting an IFR pop-up can be a nice convenience — or a lifesaver. As long as the request isn’t one of those made under duress, they can actually make life a little easier for ATC. Why? …Because it allows them to call the shots. Instead of being forced to accept the route and time for you if you (or your flight strip) walk in the front door, if you’re knocking on the back door (i.e., a pop-up), they have the option of delaying your clearance if it doesn’t fit into what they have going on right at that moment. Either way, it’s another tool for working the system — and working for you.