Monday, October 27, 2008

IFR Radio Communications, A Whole New Ballgame: Part 1

It seems like one of the biggest problems my instrument students have is learning how to communicate with ATC in the IFR environment. After all, learning to talk on the radios in certain phases of a flight can be a little intimidating to a private pilot, who is just starting to work on their instrument rating. (I know it is because I remember how tricky it was for me.)

I'll start by saying that the biggest way to become smooth on the radios is practice, practice, practice. But beyond the act of doing it yourself, you can gain a tremendous amount of help with your "lingo" by listening to the pros. Check out and navigate to any Class B airport's Clearance Delivery or Approach/Departure section. You can hear clearance after clearance and readback after readback until you can't stand it any longer. This will get the pilot's language burned into your brain.

I've also decided to post a guide that I typed up for my students that should ease the learning curve when getting started on your way to that instrument rating. Let's start with discussing ground communications, and I'll post the remaining phases of flight in the next couple of posts.

Before Departure

If flying on an IFR flight plan, the first thing you’ll need to do is pick up your IFR clearance. Listen to ATIS, and call up ground (or clearance delivery if the airport has one) and tell them you’re ready to copy your clearance. An example call up would sound like this.

Hulman Ground, Cessna 536HF is at the Air Center ramp with Alpha, ready to copy IFR to Evansville.

Your clearance will contain certain elements using the CRAFT acronym.

C – Clearance limit. This is the furthest point which ATC will clear you. Most of the time it is your destination airport, but if delays are expected, it will be a fix where you’ll be expected to hold.
R – Route. This is the route in which you’re supposed to fly to your clearance limit. Many times they’ll say as filed, but sometimes they will give you instructions such as radar vectors to an airway, or a certain published departure procedure.
A – Altitude. Usually ATC will clear you to an intermediate altitude, and tell you to expect your requested cruising altitude (from your flight plan) in 10 minutes.
F – Frequency. This is the departure frequency.
T – Transponder. Your squawk code.

Here is an example of a clearance.

Cessna 536HF is cleared to Evansville as filed, climb and maintain 4,000, expect 6,000 10 minutes after departure, departure frequency is 125.45, squawk 4523.

Copy the clearance on your kneeboard using some form of shorthand, and then repeat the clearance back to the controller. If you repeat it correctly, they’ll say “readback correct”, and give you taxi instructions.

If you are at an uncontrolled airport, you should contact the clearance delivery frequency on your charts, or you may even have to pick up your clearance on your cell phone, if you cannot reach ATC from the plane. They’ll give you a release time, which means your clearance is released into the system and you are allowed to takeoff. They may also give you a clearance void time, in which your clearance will be void if you do not takeoff and contact ATC before that time. A clearance from an uncontrolled airport will sound something like this.

Cessna 536HF is cleared to the Evansville as filed, climb and maintain 4,000, expect 6,000 10 minutes after departure, contact departure on 125.45 before entering controlled airspace, squawk 4523, clearance void if not off by 1930Z, time now is 1910Z.

After reading back your clearance, you’ll then switch to CTAF and communicate with other aircraft in the vicinity of the airport announcing your intentions. After departing, you should then contact departure before entering controlled airspace (usually before climbing through 700 ft AGL, the floor of class E, consult the sectional chart to be sure).

For practices approaches, just call up ground like any other VFR callup and tell them you would like practices approaches, and give them your first approach request.

For VFR flight following, ATC needs your destination airport, and your cruising altitude. They will then give you a squawk code and a departure frequency.

For IFR departures when clearing you for takeoff, ATC will always give you a heading to fly after takeoff. Sometimes it is “runway heading.” In this case, fly the heading of the runway you just departed from. Do not compensate for wind drift to try to maintain runway centerline, just fly the heading you are instructed to fly. As usual, wait until you are 500 ft AGL, or beyond the departure end of the runway (whichever comes last) before turning to your assigned heading.

That should help you while on the ground. Check back for my next post on the other phases of flight. Before long we'll have you sounding like the big dogs ; )

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