Thursday, August 04, 2011

Where Do I Get My Clearance, Please?

A pilot may not depart on an IFR flight plan into controlled airspace without receiving an IFR clearance from someone air traffic services. Some pilots never have to think twice about where they are going to get their clearance, but they probably always operate from the same few airports and they know the local procedures. The way you get a clearance in Canada can be quite varied, and when the airports you operate out of are that varied sometimes it's tricky.

If it's a busy airport, there may be a dedicated clearance delivery frequency published in the CFS and printed on the departure plate. You tune them up and call for clearance, and if you've filed your flight plan properly they usually have it ready and waiting for you, something like, "ATC clears Flashcube Three to the Peace River airport via the Moose Three departure, flight planned route, maintain 5000', expect higher five minutes after departure, contact departure airborne 125.725, squawk 3671." You copy that all down as they say it, say it all back to them, and when they say, "readback correct" you have a departure clearance.

If there is no clearance delivery frequency, you call ground instead. Both clearance delivery and ground are manned by people in the air traffic control tower at the airport, and often both frequencies will be covered by the same person at once. You discover this when you switch to ground for taxi clearance and get the same guy, or sometimes the clearance delivery guy gives you a taxi clearance with the departure clearance and tells you to monitor ground while taxiing. Ground may send you back to clearance delivery if the IFR data people discover an error in your flight plan, but eventually you switch to tower, who may give you an amendment to your departure or change the assigned departure frequency before clearing you for take off.

If the airport is uncontrolled, but there is still an FSS on the field, you usually call them for your clearance. You include in your request for clearance the runway you intend to depart from, because at an uncontrolled airport the pilot decides that, and that may influence the clearance you receive. They phone IFR data and IFR tells them your clearance, then they read it to you, you read it back to them, they tell you you have it right, and then you have the clearance. After that you just tell the flight service specialist when you're taking off, and off you go.

If there's no FSS on the field, but there's an RCO (Remote Communications Outlet)--a relay that lets you talk to a flight service specialist who is somewhere else--you may call them in exactly the same fashion. Sometimes pilots don't even know whether I'm talking to a remote or local FSS, which can be amusing when they ask "is it okay if i park here?" When I landed at one airport recently I was talking to an FSS specialist as I landed and I asked him when I reported clear of the runway, "do I call you for my clearance in the morning?" He said yes, but when I called his frequency in the morning the specialist working it told me to get my clearance from Centre, unless I couldn't contact them from the ground.

If there is no air traffic services agency reachable at all from the ground, I may be able to get my clearance by phone from the IFR flight planning folk, or possibly through the regional FSS people at 1-866-WX-BRIEF. You just keep calling aviation-related numbers until someone consents to give you a clearance. A clearance received by telephone (and some received by radio) will have a clearance valid time window, so you can use it between two zulu times, but if you miss your window and do not depart by then, you have to call back for a new clearance. So a request for a clearance should include an estimate of when you'll be ready to go, especially if it doesn't match your filed departure time exactly.

If you have no usable frequency and no telephone service, this happens mostly to pilots of amphib aircraft or others who used really remote and unserviced strips, you can't get a clearance before departure. You can then get a clearance in the air, but in that case you have to either depart VFR and remain in VMC until you have received your clearance, or depart on uncontrolled IFR and remain clear of controlled airspace until you have a clearance. Some people do this even when there are facilities on the ground where they could have received a clearance, but they find it to be a time savings. In the US if you do it without even having a flight plan filed it's called a "pop-up clearance" and is not abnormal there, but in Canada filing a flight plan in the air when there were facilities to do it on the ground is considered poor airmanship, and it's rude because it jams the frequency and puts the workload of accepting the flight plan on people who have more urgent work to do. You can see where this is going, with oblivious US pilots annoying Canadian flight service specialists and other pilots when they do here what is perfectly normal at home. As far as I can tell, the standard Canadian behaviour of flying cross-country VFR then calling approach to land VFR at a busy airport is the US equivalent. US controllers really don't seem to like that. Would they prefer me to pick up an IFR clearance before approaching their airspace?

The last option for IFR clearances in Canada is to conduct the entre flight outside of controlled airspace and not have a clearance at all. That's perfectly legal, and an aircraft can transition between IFR and VFR flight just by changing altitude by 500' and changing the transponder code. I haven't done that in a few years.


Anonymous said...

Question: Very interesting post for this reader (a low time VFR private pilot recently moving near a busy international airport):
If you transition to IFR in uncontrolled airspace without clearance how is separation from other aircraft maintained?

Sarah said...

The Canadian rules are so close and yet so slightly different from the US I almost hesitate to read this. It's going to make me misremember something and I'm confused enough about obscure IFR regulations.

In the US, you can fly "under IFR", that is, "in cloud" without a clearance only in uncontrolled airspace - class "G". Not much of that left down here except really really low. Presumably that is the same in Canada, so no separation from other aircraft is maintained! Sounds unwise, unless you're really out in the boonies... as in Aviatrix last two sentences. ( What's the transponder code for IFR/IMC without a clearance? 1200 vfr, ? )

I've had bad luck with RCO's ... they never seem to work for me. Best to use the phone call if you can to pick up a clearance. This was reinforced for me by foolishly trying to pick up a filed clearance from Atlanta approach. We got it, eventually, after being vectored out of the way and into the nearest towering CU. Live & learn.

Aluwings said...

From my WayBack machine, I recall the day I first learned of uncontrolled IFR from a northern pilot who used it a lot. Freaked me right out at first because of the same question Anonymous asked: "how is separation from other aircraft maintained?"

As far as I know (because I've never flown uncontrolled IFR), pilots apply self-separation by reporting on a common enroute frequency. I'm sure Aviatrix will be able to enlighten us.

Anonymous said...

Being a controller in the US at a busy radar facility we hate IFR pop ups too! Unless you encounter IFR weather and need it, we hate it. On the point of them telling you to call the Center in the morning. That is because facilities that are not 24 hours. The airspace goes back to the center when they are closed.

Aviatrix said...

Anonymous: As Aluwings recalls, separation is maintained in northern IFR through radio contact. You report over all nav aids and reporting points, larger northern airports have a community aerodrome radio station, remoted contact with a southern FSS, or even their own FSS, and the flight service specialists to an amazing job of relaying position reports from aircraft approaching busy airspace. It works pretty much the same as VFR self-separation, except that when multiple aircraft are approaching the same airport instead of saying "okay I see you on downwind, I'll join behind you" you say, "I'll hold over the beacon at 5000' until you're clear." Everyone is on 126.7 and you work out who will be first long in advance. I can't think of every reading an accident report related to failure of northern self-separation.

Sarah: We have thousands of square kilometres of class G airspace, some of it stretching up to the flight levels. Do you not even have any in Alaska? You do have phenomenal radar and radio coverage out there. Unless otherwise assigned by ATC, transponder codes are 1200 for VFR up to 12,500', 1400 for VFR above 12,500', 1000 for IFR below 18,000', and 2000 for IFR at FL180 and above.

I've been quiet in the comments lately because I've been working without my laptop, just an iPod touch and for some reason the software doesn't allow me to use a blog comment form. Thank you to everyone who has answered each others questions; you are always welcome to do this, or to wander off topic, just as it says at the top of the comment form where nobody reads.

A Squared said...

The US has fairly large areas of Class G airspace in Alaska and in the Western portion of the lower 48. Uncontrolled IFR operations are not uncommon there but the areas are nowhere near the scale of that in Canada.

A Squared said...

"ATC clears Flashcube Three......."

When was the last time you used an actual flashcube?

A Squared said...

In the US the preference for getting an ATC clearance at an uncontrolled field is:

1) Through Flight Service, if there is a Flight Service Station located on the field (Extremely rare outside of Alaska)

2) Directly from the ATC Center, if contactable from the ground.

3) Through Flight Service, if contactable through an RCO.

after than, by whatever means you can improvise.

Aviatrix said...

I've never used a flashcube, but I think I had my picture taken with them when I was little.

Anonymous said...

don't you get clearance from Clarence?

maybe the movie Airplane is not a good guide to aviation knowledge...

Anonymous said...

Flashcubes!! I'd forgotten abuot those. They were such a cool idea. Imagine! FOUR photos without having to eject and install another flash bulb!

What innovation! What imagination! LIke the multi-headed Phillishave electric razor, how can it get any better than this?!

Sarah said...

Imagine! FOUR photos without having to eject and install another flash bulb!

Heh. Sometimes SIX photos, as the flash failed to fire for two of them. I don't miss flashcubes. I used a cheap Kodak X10 camera into the 90's for a "turnpoint" camera... mitout flash.

Anoynmous said...

The short-lived "flashbar" for the SX-70 did flashcubes one better with [b]five[/b] magnesium-wool-filled bulbs. There was also something called a "flip flash" which was sort of a double-sided flashbar.

I used a Kodak X-15 for a while. It used "Magicubes" -- flashcubes with a mechanical trigger rather than an electrical one, so nothing depended on having working batteries. Dropping one could set off all four sides at once (with suitable practice).