Popping Up

In the real world of ATC, flight plans and clearances go missing. What you do about it can determine the flights outcome.


Youre departing on an IFR trip in a well-equipped aircraft with two passengers aboard. When you call for your clearance, ATC cannot immediately find your flight plan-you get the oft-dreaded clearance on request response. After completing all your pre-taxi checklists and entering what you expect will be your route into the GPS, youre still sitting on the ramp with the engines turning, waiting. Eventually clearance delivery returns and says they cannot find your flight plan. Take a moment, and look at the pop-up pop quiz questions in the sidebar on the right. What is your most likely response if you actually found yourself in this same scenario, given the information you have so far?

Lets add some additional details to this scenario. For one, the airport youre trying to depart is a busy, tower-controlled facility in Class C airspace, and under an inner ring of a very busy Class B area. To get to your destination, youll head southwest, away from the Class B airport. But youre still sitting on the ramp, with the engine running, waiting on ATC to get its act together. Does this change your response to the quiz? But wait, theres more. The weather is marginal VFR, thanks mainly to low ceilings (1000 to 3000 feet agl). Visibility is greater than five sm. Take the pop quiz again. Has your answer changed? Oh, did I mention that this is at night? Does that change your answer again?

These kind of questions are standard fare for instrument pilots, and many conducting VFR-only operations in or near certain airspace. And while missing flight plans arent the norm, their not at all unusual, either.

Back In The Real World
The foregoing scenario might strike many as contrived. Its not; consider what happened on October 12, 2014.

Its after 2200 on a Sunday night. Youre a busy professional, and both of your passengers are physicians. You have a 2-hour flight to get home, and undoubtedly at least one of you needs to be at work the next morning. The three of you took off at noon that same day and flew to the airport youre now trying to leave; you had assured your passengers you could fly them up, attend an event and get home that evening so everyone could be at work Monday. How does that affect your pop-up quiz selection?

You have probably been awake for at least 14 hours at this point, had dodged thunderstorms on the flight earlier that day, and were growing more and more impatient as you waited for your clearance. You know the delay is going to make it past midnight before you land at home plate, and probably well after 0100 before you are home in bed. How might fatigue affect your responses to the pop quiz?

In the event, the flight originated about 2235 from the Midway International Airport (KMDW) in Chicago, Ill., en route to Lawrence, Kan. Radar data showed the airplane departed Runway 22L at KMDW and began climbing on runway heading (220 degrees). When the airplane reached about 2200 feet msl, it turned about 30 degrees left, to a heading of about 190 degrees, and began descending, turning right to about 260 degrees. The airplane descended to about 1500 feet msl and began to climb. It then entered a left turn that continued through about 360 degrees before radar contact was lost. The final recorded altitude was about 2000 feet msl.

At 2238, observed weather at KMDW included wind from 170 degrees at nine knots, six sm visibility in mist, a broken ceiling at 1000 feet agl and an overcast at 1400 feet agl. The field elevation at MDW was 620 feet msl.

The ground control frequency at KMDW, which was providing clearance delivery services that night, reveals over 25 minutes elapsed between the pilots first call-up for his clearance and taxi instructions after the pilot finally requested, and was granted, a VFR departure clearance. Apparently the pilot hoped he could straighten it all out once he was in the air and on radar. During that ground time the ground controller offered to take his flight plan information and put it into the system to generate an IFR clearance. The pilot sounds as if he did not have the information available, and perhaps did not have an immediate recall of the order in which flight plan information is entered, or a flight plan form to remind him.

The pilot was cleared to depart VFR with instructions to remain at or below 2000 feet until clear of Midways Class C airspace. This would keep the Baron below the base of the Chicago OHare Class B airspace as well. It would not have kept the airplane at least 500 feet below the ATIS-reported ceilings of 1000 broken (1620 msl) or 1400 overcast (2020 msl), as required under VFR. And, while the pilot waited for his clearance, another pilot reported a 700-foot ceiling while departing the airport. What choices might these facts drive your responses when taking the pop-up pop quiz?

As of December 2014, the NTSB has not yet determined the probable cause of this triple-fatality Baron crash.

Another Scenario
Lets look at another situation. Youre making good business use of an aircraft, on a multi-stop trip to visit several offices on a single day. You filed an IFR flight plan for the short hop between airports near two of your clients locations. Youre departing from a rural, non-towered airport that does not have a remote communications outlet (RCO) to contact ATC or Flight Service for a clearance on the ground. Now, take the pop-up pop quiz knowing what you know so far about this second departure. Among the few available to you, what are your options?

Day VFR conditions prevail, with a 1500 foot ceiling and visibility better than 10 miles. What sounds like a good option to you now? There is, however, rising terrain around the airport. The field elevation is 644 feet, but hills in the vicinity average about 1000 feet msl, with a few peaks rising above 1500 feet. Does this change your pop-up pop quiz responses?

I didnt mention that youre flying a jet. Your boss, and several senior executives of the firm where you work, are in the back. Youve been flying since 0600 and are already making the third hop of the day at around 0930, with a full days flying still ahead. Does this change the quiz response youd select?

Heres a summary of the NTSBs final report on the December 11, 1991, nine-fatality crash of a Beech Model 400 Beechjet: Before takeoff, an IFR flight plan was filed for a 15-minute flight from Rome, Ga., to Huntsville, Ala. Takeoff was commenced at 0937 with the copilot flying the aircraft. After a VFR takeoff, the captain contacted Atlanta Center to obtain an IFR clearance. The controller advised that IFR traffic was in the area and instructed the Beechjet crew to remain VFR while an IFR climb was being arranged. At that time, the flight was at 1300 feet msl in VMC.

Soon, the crew became concerned about high terrain and low ceilings. At about 0940, the captain directed the copilot to fly back to the right. Approximately one minute later, the cockpit voice recorder stopped and radio contact was lost. The aircraft was found where it had collided with the top of a mountain at approximately 1580 feet msl. The aircraft was not equipped with a ground proximity warning system, nor was one required.

The NTSB determine the accidents probable cause to be, The captains decision to initiate visual flight into an area of known mountainous terrain and low ceilings, and the failure of the flight crew to maintain awareness of [their] proximity to the terrain.

This Beechjet crash occurred in 1991, and neither the pilot nor the copilot had a cellphone (remember those days?). Several of the seven executives in back did have cellphones, however; one option was for the crew to have borrowed one of the phones, explaining how it was useful in taking off sooner, and calling Flight Service for an expect further clearance time IFR departure clearance. If traffic in the area prevented Flight Service from issuing this clearance, at least the crew would have known that before attempting to take off visually under an overcast obscuring some of the peaks between Rome and the next destination. Such knowledge would probably have prompted the crew to stay on the ground until their clearance was available.

Popping Up
Taking off under VFR and calling ATC to pick up a clearance in the air is a time-honored expedient to departing a non-towered airport. If conditions are right, its perfectly safe. But if you elect to do use this clearance-retrieval method, there are some basic things you may need to consider.

For example, if you had obtained an IFR clearance before takeoff, it likely would be premised on following any published obstacle departure procedure (ODP) for the airport and runway you use for takeoff. Unless visibility is excellent and you have good knowledge of the areas terrain and towers, its always a good idea to adhere to the ODP. Regardless, ensure you can easily maintain VFR conditions and cloud clearance requirements if for any reason you cannot obtain your IFR clearance right away. Always anticipate that communications difficulties, lack of radar coverage or nearby IFR traffic will prevent ATC from issuing you an IFR clearance right away, or even for some time.

All of which presumes youre departing in good daytime VFR. If departing at night, or in marginal VFR conditions day or night, its a bad idea to take off to pick up your clearance in the air. Contact Flight Service or ATC to get your clearance with an IFR release, or with a clearance void time. Then depart on a published departure procedure (DP), if assigned, or via the ODP. Do not depart VFR to pick up an instrument clearance in the air when clouds are obscuring terrain in the vicinity of the airport.

If conditions are marginal, but you expect you can contact ATC and maybe even be seen on radar once youre in the air, consider climbing in the airport traffic pattern or in a racetrack pattern directly over the departure airport until you obtain your clearance. In this way, youll retain the ability to descend and land at your departure airport if for any reason you cannot obtain your IFR clearance.

Out Of Options?
If you cannot obtain your IFR clearance on the ground at a tower-controlled airport, by radio at an airport with reception to a nearby ATC facility or through an RCO, or by telephone or cellphone to Flight Service or an ATC facility, its not at all likely the situation will correct itself once youre in the air. Plus, youll now have the additional challenge of flying the airplane, and dodging clouds and terrain, while writing down what could be a full route clearance, with lots of airways and intersections. Get it worked out before you take off.

Some pilots keep a pad of Flight Plan forms (remember them?) handy in the cockpit, or use a placard listing the data blocks in their proper order to be used in just such a situation. Regardless, anyone with an instrument rating should know the basic information required, and its sequence. Itd be nice if ATC would prompt you for any missing information-after all, the controllers chair likely isnt moving as fast as yours-but its an imperfect world. Keep your formatted flight plan handy in the cockpit (hard copy or on your mobile device), so you can read it back in the specified sequence if controllers cannot find it and are willing to take it over their radio frequency to get you into the system.

Ultimately, you may have to shut down on the ramp, offload passengers and take the time necessary to refile your IFR flight plan and obtain a clearance before takeoff.

In the aftermath of the Chicago Midway Baron crash, I came across the following online comment: Think three times before taking off VFR at night, or any time in MVFR conditions. In this context what I think that poster was saying was take the pop-up pop quiz when departing any way other than a confirmed IFR clearance. Look at all your options, and select the one that best fits the scenario you face. Choose whats right, not whats convenient, fast or easy.

Remember, too, that pressures from passengers or self-imposed stress to complete a mission on schedule will adversely affect your ability to make a good choice. So, mentally step back and ensure youre making decisions for the right reasons. If youre tired, or its been a long day even if you dont feel tired yet, be even more conservative with your decision on how to make an IFR departure, and what to do if theres a delay in receiving your IFR clearance.

Tom Turner is a CFII-MEI who frequently writes and lectures on aviation safety.


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