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Finessing the clearance: negotiation has always been a power tool of the savvy IFR flier. Sometimes it takes a little research to know exactly what to request.

Sometimes you really can't get the clearance you want. You'll simply have to fly the clearance you are given. If you don't want the clearance, don't fly IFR. But more often than not, there are ways to negotiate within the system that can allow you to achieve the desired results.

You Can't Go There

We recently filed a flight plan from San Carlos, Calif, (KSQL), near San Francisco, to Mojave, Calif. (KMHV). The usual routing when departing toward the south is radar vectors toward the ocean to Woodside VOR (OSI) and then V25 south. On this day, however, a cold front approaching the coastline promised serious icing in clouds.

To avoid ice we filed for an inland route to the Oakland VOR, then V109 east, and eventually southeast toward Mojave. The route is problematic because it crosses the final approach courses to both San Francisco (KSFO) and Oakland (KOAK), but experience told me this can be done. We didn't expect any problems other than delays because that is the normal routing for aircraft heading east.

Instead of the requested routing, we received the standard western routing--radar vectors, OSI, V25, and so on. With the rapidly approaching front this was a showstopper. If we didn't depart soon, the weather would cause the flight to be scrubbed. We told the ground controller that we couldn't accept the clearance, specifying forecast icing as the reason. The ground controller acted as the middle man negotiating with the NORCAL Approach, and, over the next 15-20 minutes, we had three or four exchanges trying to make the requested routing work.

About 30 minutes later--as we were preparing to taxi back and drive instead--we got a clearance for an immediate departure for radar vectors to V195, Manteca (ECA), and onward. Turns out the concern regarding ice wasn't unfounded. We picked up time ice while departing the Bay area.

Pre-Flight Planning

This back-and-forth via the radio clearly wasn't efficient, so for my return home a few days later, I looked for an alternative. I found one, but it requires a little cunning and deception to use.

After numerous phone calls to and negotiations with the very helpful folks at the NORCAL Approach, we arrived at the following conclusion: I couldn't get the routing I wanted if my destination was southeast, but I could get the routing I wanted if my destination was north or east. Go figure.

We agreed that the best way for me to achieve my desired routing was to file to Stockton, Calif., (KSCK)--to the northeast--and then while en route change the destination to Mojave. I've used this process a number of times since and it works. Be careful how you use it, however; there are instances when attempting to change destinations might cause ATC some irritation because you could be putting them in a position to have to scramble. Think holding or delaying vectors in that case.

Depending upon the situation, you might not even be able to change destinations without landing first. If you have time, contact the appropriate ATC facility ahead of time to make sure that they will accept destination changes like this.

There is more to the story. If I'd been smart, I could have figured out that there was a problem before I left home. You can, too.

Begin by determining what the likely departure routing will be. There are two easy methods. First, look in your airway manuals for preferred routing or ask the appropriate ARTCC what the preferred routings are. The Jepps have detailed routings in some areas but are notably quiet about preferred routing in others, such as San Francisco. A number of years ago I managed to obtain a list of preferred Bay area routings from what's now NORCAL Approach.

Should the ARTCC folks not have an answer or the answer you want, another option is to empirically determine the answer for yourself. File a flight plan, then call the appropriate ATC facility and tell them you want the clearance but don't plan to use it. They'll undoubtedly want to know why. Explain and you'll usually find they're willing to help.

I filed numerous different routings to Mojave and other airports over a five-day period just to see what clearance would be given. All of the clearances were the same. But any destination to the east kept the routing inland. So, filing for an airport that gets the correct routing and then changing destinations is the only answer for this problem, at least from San Carlos.

One thing to remember is that when the winds change, as they do when the weather is bad, the standard routing may change. This is especially true around major terminal areas. Make sure you file your test fight plans when the skies portend bad weather. This way you're prepared for when you really need it: when the weather is bad.

There is another option to this conundrum. If you can't get the routing you want, but the weather is good enough, depart VFR and pick up your clearance while airborne at a location where the routing will be advantageous. In my case, I might have departed San Carlos VFR and picked up my clearance at Manteca VOR, guaranteeing an inland routing.

There are two things to keep in mind if you pick up your clearance while airborne. Make certain that you can maintain VFR until you receive your clearance and, as a fall-back, have a VFR airport chosen to land at should you not be able to pick up your clearance.

Also, make certain that you have fuel reserves in case you have trouble picking up a clearance. It would be embarrassing to find that you've finessed the system and gotten your desired routing, only to discover that borne. Make certain that you are short on fuel and have to land short of the destination.

End Game

The majority of the time when you're flying IFR, you'll either get the clearance you want or a clearance you're willing to fly. When the routing is unacceptable--be the cause weather, off-shore routing, mountainous terrain, airspace restrictions, or fuel reserves--you're better off understanding the situation ahead of time. Then you can reach into your bag of tricks for a routing that will get you where you want to go--but will get you there on a path that ATC is willing to offer.

RELATED ARTICLE: Taking some responsibility.

When departing VFR from an airport with no published departure and scud running over to a more favorable point to pick up your flight plan--and that more desirable route--be ready for an ATC request that sounds like this: "Columbia Seven Two Seven, can you maintain your own terrain and obstacle clearance to 3000 feet?"

The rub is that you may be VFR with your vertical stabilizer just slicing the overcast at 1500 and ATC's minimum vectoring altitude is 3000. Getting through that 1500 feet of no-man's-land without hitting anything sticking out of the ground is your responsibility.

Take a moment to review the terrain between your airport and the IFR flight plan entry point and have a plan to climb safely to height where ATC can accept you into the system.

-- Jeff Van West

RELATED ARTICLE: Another reason for creative routing: flow control.

It's a typical, summer, Sunday afternoon in Hyannis, with high humidity, haze, and layers of stratus. A check of the radar shows the convective activity to be well to the north of the planned route home to White Plains, N.Y. (KHPN).

I admire a Netjets Pilatus that is boarding its lone passenger as I do my walk around. Clearance and taxi are normal and I sneak ahead of the Pilatus, whom I can hear on the ground frequency. Suddenly, there is a command to hold our positions. "Indefinite ground hold at White Plains. Expect further update at 2200 zulu."

It's now 4:55 local, so that's an hour away at best. I ask to proceed to the run-up pad of the active runway and get approval. The Pilatus elects to return to the ramp and shut down.

So what are the alternatives? There is no viable VFR option. We either go back to the ramp and wait it out, or try to get as close as possible. I ask the tower to reroute me to Bridgeport, Ct. (KBDR) and they send me to Flight Service, which has a local frequency. Flight Service confirms that there is nothing too sinister in the weather and accepts a new flight plan. Hyannis clearance is ready by the time I get back to them, and the new routing that's just a little more southerly than the usual route home.

We take off and climb slowly through the dense haze. I hear the Pilatus behind me on the tower frequency, also heading to Bridgeport it seems. We level off atop MVY and can see an undercast ahead and some developing cumulus further ahead.

A quick talk to Flight Service confirms acceptable weather at both Bridgeport and White Plains, with pockets of cells to the north in the Hartford area. We remain in the clear on top until west of Groton and I try to persuade Providence to change our destination. No luck. They repeat the "indefinite ground hold."

We switch to New York and are in and out of developing cumulus at 6000 feet now, but the Strike Finder remains docile. There are a few minutes when I am required to deviate (to let that pesky Pilatus past) straight toward some cells, but I get smartly turned back on course. The Pilatus seems headed to KHPN so I ask for the same destination change.

"Sure, give me a moment," says the controller and then we have it. We are vectored behind the Pilatus and other faster traffic and make it onto the ground at 6:15pm local. Home only five minutes behind the Pilatus (at considerably lower cost!) and only slightly beyond the earliest possible release from Hyannis. Not a bad finish to the weekend.

--John Ward
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Title Annotation:Instrument Flight Rules
Author:Shelton, Joe
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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