Get That Clearance Right! Some Tips On Handling Difficult IFR Clearances

by Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman
Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2918 issue

In the February/March 2018 issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine, I wrote about IFR emergencies with a description of several I have personally experienced. For a well-trained pilot, what is a routine operation, can be an emergency to someone who is not well trained. Today, we see aircraft owners spending tens of thousands of dollars for state-of-the-art avionics, but hesitate to spend even a few dollars on flight training to learning how to properly use that new expensive equipment.

An issue that many of us face as instrument rated pilots is copying an IFR clearance and then complying with it. I am going to cover some of these items and relate some of my own experiences and how it may help you. Some issues back, I covered the subject of “holding patterns” and how important it is to know how to navigate correctly. From that article, I mentioned getting an intersection hold in hard instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) with no autopilot shortly after getting my instrument rating, some 45 years ago. I lucked out on that one, because I slowed down and was cleared to my destination before I got to that intersection. I made it a point to learn those holding patterns very well before my next IFR flight. The requirements set by the FAA are that you do a holding pattern as part of an instrument proficiency check (IPC). Almost all of the GPS navigators include missed approach holds as part of their database and this is nothing more than knowing which button to push. If you were given an intersection hold clearance by air traffic control (ATC) using only one VOR and no GPS or moving map, could you do it? For more on holding patterns, see my column in the June/July 2017 issue Midwest Flyer Magazine, which are archived at

The main topic in this issue is “clearances” – what the best way is to get them, program them into the GPS navigator, and fly them. For pilots flying in the Midwest, clearances are relatively simple compared to the northeastern U.S. and around Washington, D.C., where most of your routing will be on airways. Let us explore the easy clearances first and how I handle them.

If you are departing from an uncontrolled airport and you can depart VFR and pick up your clearance in the air, this is the best way to go. I do caution you, however, that you must be 99.99% sure you can remain VFR until you can get that clearance. Once you have taken off and have cleaned up your aircraft in a stable climb, you call for your clearance.

Example: (Pilot) Chicago Center, Piper 8412N, 3 miles SW of 63C, looking for an IFR clearance to RFD. (ATC) Piper 8412N, remain VFR, squawk 1241 and say altitude. (Pilot) Squawking 1241, climbing through 2500 for 4000. (ATC) Piper 12N, radar contact. You are cleared to RFD as filed. Climb and maintain 6000. (Pilot) 12N, cleared to RFD as filed, maintain 6000.

You may notice that this was a short exchange of words, and as a pilot, the only item I would need to write down would be the altitude, as this is one of the most critical items for ATC, and the number one separation criteria for controllers. If you don’t get the altitude correct, not only are you affecting your safety and that of others, it can quickly get you a violation!

In our next example, let us look at a departure from a remote airport in Wyoming; let’s say “Shively” (KSAA). The weather is bad and we have a Class G airport, and there is no cell phone service in this remote area. So, what is the pilot to do?

First, it is necessary for the pilot to preflight the aircraft. You go to the public telephone and call flight service for your clearance for the flight plan you filed by phone earlier. You get your clearance, you run to your airplane, start it up and taxi like a jack-rabbit to the runway, then rush through the checklist and do the run-up like the airplane is on fire, and depart before your clearance void time.

Should you have the great privilege of having cell phone coverage and a Lightspeed Zulu headset with Bluetooth (I love my Zulu), you could save the mad dash and taxi safely to the runway, complete a thorough checklist and run-up, and make the call for your clearance through your headset/cell phone. After your run-up, it is important when calling for your clearance that you advise them that you are ready for immediate takeoff and state the runway you are departing from. If you have a complex routing, you might tell ATC you will be ready for departure within two or three minutes of getting your clearance. In either case, your clearance will be much more complex and you will need to write it down.

It is important to read your clearance back completely and promptly, and if there is an error, ATC should give you the correction, which you must then reconfirm. There is a clearance shorthand and format for copying clearances that I will explain later in this article. If you have a Lightspeed Zulu headset, there is an app that records to your iPad or iPhone and can be played back for clearance verification, as well as any ATC radio communications.

As a side note, I can’t forget the time I did an instrument rating for two brothers in a Cessna 182 Skylane. They had the hardest time with copying clearances and had a digital recording device installed in the aircraft. This was so state-of-the-art at the time that no one had heard of it. The first time they received a clearance from ATC after installing the device, one of the brothers pushed the push-to-talk button and playback at the same time. The controller received the clearance back in his own voice, but I could tell he did not find any humor in this procedure.

Another hint you may find useful for departure and routing clearance is a feature of ForeFlight that gives you the routing you can expect after filing your IFR flight plan on their app. I find this anticipated routing to be quite accurate as it is based on previous flights along this same route or to an airport close to your destination. I find it helpful to review this route and program it into the GPS navigator. One of the features and benefits of having two Garmin 430 or 530 navigators is that they can be interconnected. You then have the ability to cross-fill routes between the two navigators.

A set-up recommendation I give pilots that are equipped that way is to program the #1 navigator to auto cross-fill and the #2 navigator to manual cross-fill. This allows the pilot to navigate on the #1 box and make the changes to the flight plan or clearance on the #2 box. Once the changes are made and verified as correct, pushing the manual cross-fill on the #2 box will update #1 and both navigators will have the same flight plan.

An important note: Both boxes must be running the same firmware version and the data cards must have the same navigation data updates for the cross-fill to work.

Copying clearances, understanding them, programming the route, making in-flight changes to your routing and correctly flying them, can be challenging for many pilots. ATC is very unforgiving, especially if they have lost minimum separation in their airspace. There is no place for an improperly trained pilot in the IFR environment. If you are instrument rated and have any question on your competency as an IFR pilot, don’t fly in the system until you get professional training!

I have given a few hints and sample clearances that hopefully help you, but there are also procedures that must be followed, which I will review with some more useful hints.

Previously, I stated that you should copy the clearance and read it back promptly and verify any corrections given to you from ATC. If you are on the ground, it is your responsibility to verify that you can comply with the clearance before you take off. That may take a while as you verify your routing. Once you take off, you must comply with the clearance. If there is a discrepancy, don’t take off!

A technique I use when given an amended clearance in flight is to copy the clearance and if there is any question, I reply promptly to ATC with “standby for read-back.” I then check the route and when I am satisfied, I read back the clearance to ATC. Once I do the read-back and it is confirmed as correct, I am responsible to comply with that amended clearance.

Another hint for pilots given an amended clearance flying the Garmin 430/530 navigators is to use the wild card function on the navigator. For example, let’s say you have a flight plan programmed in the navigator with 10 waypoints and your re-route was a simple change of adding a fix for a short re-route. If you use the direct-to button, you can add “one” waypoint without disrupting any waypoints in your flight plan. The flight plan that you previously spent 5 minutes programming into the navigator is still there. After completing that short re-route, go back to the flight plan, select the next desired fix and hit the “direct to enter, enter” and you are back flying your flight plan as if nothing ever changed. A word of caution with these navigators is when you load an approach, the navigator will always load the approach to the last airport in the flight plan. If the wildcard option you selected is an airport, bye-bye flight plan!

I have also found an interesting human factor when training new instrument pilots, which you may relate to and I will describe it this way:

When training pilots for an instrument rating, a common example is using the “Five Ts” with the last “T” being the word “Talk.” The brain is like a computer in a certain form that there is a limited amount of processing power. The pilot is on the instruments hand flying the airplane, interpreting the approach plate and now ATC gives the pilot the approach clearance. Brain overload, and either the pilot deviates from flying or the approach or the clearance read-back comes back with errors. Has this ever happened to you? ATC does not except “cleared for the approach,” and rightfully so, as an error in understanding at this point could be fatal. I do not recommend writing down the clearance as this could be a task (brain) overload when hand flying an approach. You can, however, develop a technique for reading back an approach clearance. You do not need to read back every word of the clearance from ATC, but confirm the critical parts of the clearance, so the controller knows that you are both on the same page.

Example: (ATC) Cessna 456DB, you are five miles from Micky, turn left 030 degrees, maintain 3500 until established on a segment of the approach. You are cleared for the ILS 36 approach to Happy Town. Report established on the localizer. (Pilot) 030, 3500 for the ILS 36. Will report established. 6DB.

You have given the controller a read-back of all the critical data to verify that you and the controller are on the same page. You saved transmit time and the brain power to drag out every word in the clearance. Listen sometime to a professional pilot read back a full departure clearance, and you will notice it is done in the same manner. Many pilots have developed acronyms to help copy a clearance and some of you may have heard of the word CRAFT as one that is helpful for copying a clearance. Let’s see how that works with an explanation to follow:
C: Clearance Limit
R: Route
A: Altitude
F: Frequency
T: Transponder Squawk

(ATC): Piper 4257N is cleared from the Stevens Point Airport to the Rockford Airport (KRFD) via Direct BIPID V191 OSH V9 MSN, then Direct. Climb and Maintain 4000. Expect 6000 one zero minutes after departure. Contact Minneapolis Center 124.4. Squawk 4371. Clearance Void if not off by 1245 Zulu. Advise intentions no later than 1255.
C: Rockford Airport (KRFD)
A: 4000/6000 – 10
F: 124.4
T: 4371
V: 12:45/12:55

C: The clearance limit is usually the destination airport. If your clearance is short of your destination airport, ATC should give you an EFC (expect further clearance) time. This is rare, but if it is the case, you are expected to hold at the listed waypoint until your EFC time.

R: This is your route and in many cases, it is cleared as filed, so make sure that you have a copy of the routing you filed. Sometimes, ATC will specify that the clearance is a full route clearance, in which case it can be quite lengthy on a long flight. If the pilot should have any question on the route, they can ask ATC for a full route clearance.

A: This is the altitude that you are expected to fly. The reason the lower altitude is being specified is that they want to keep you low until you are radar identified. Should there be a radio or communications failure, it is important to climb to the higher altitude at the time specified, so write down your departure time. In the case of lost communications, it is also the pilot’s responsibility to fly the altitude specified unless there is a higher minimum enroute altitude (MEA) for the route. When flying off airways, this is a minimum safe altitude (MSA). Should you have a change in the MEA, you begin the climb at the fix specified as the change point; however, if it is a minimum crossing altitude (MCA), the climb should begin to cross the fix at the altitude specified.

F: This is the frequency to make your first contact once airborne. Should the departure be from a tower-controlled airport, a frequency may not be given or given later (rare), or it may be given so you can have it in your standby radio. The tower will tell the pilot when to switch frequencies after departure.

T: Transponder squawk code should be put in the box and activated.

V: This is the clearance void time (not in the word CRAFT) and is usually given only when departing from a non-towered airport. Also, listen for other miscellaneous instructions like “hold for release” or “advise when number one for departure.” Another item that can be extremely important is the heading you need to fly after take-off, and it is important for the pilot to understand the airspace structure surrounding the airport. Example: “Enter controlled airspace on a heading of 360.” The pilot may need to reference a VFR chart to see what altitude controlled airspace begins at to comply with ATC instructions.

It has not always been easy for me to copy those clearances like a pro, but here are four points that may help.
1. A good headset with noise canceling and Bluetooth (I love my Lightspeed Zulu).
2. A good communication radio and audio panel.
3. A digital cockpit voice recorder (iPad app from Lightspeed).
4. A ForeFlight app for your iPad (receive possible routing to fly).

I want to relate one last tip from an incident that happened to me at Chicago’s Meigs Field some time ago. In those days, we did not have the quality sound in the radios or headsets that we have today, so that was a small contributing factor to this incident. I had filed an IFR flight plan from Meigs back home. I was not a regular visitor to that airport, and I did not have ForeFlight to give me an idea as to what ATC would give me for a routing. This was also a contributing factor in this incident.

When I called ground for my clearance, I got a controller with an accent that I could not clearly understand and when he gave me my clearance, I was given radar vectors to an intersection after departure. I could not decipher the name of the intersection in his transmission, and I kept asking him three or four times to repeat that name. I could tell he was getting quite upset with me, so I finally read back some word that sounded like what I thought he said. All the while I was looking on the enroute chart for any intersection that even sounded close to what he said. I never found it, hoping that after takeoff, all would go well. Luckily it did, but I was vectored to a different intersection and was given an amended routing clearance. Later I learned a trick that I will pass on to you as my final tip for this article. If you have difficulty with understanding the name of a fix, ask the controller to spell it phonetically. The phonetic alphabet was developed for this purpose, so try it.

I hope you find this article useful, and maybe it will save you a violation or incident because you did not copy a clearance correctly or fly it correctly. With the modern technology we have today, in the future ATC will be able to send you the clearance digitally. You will then check it and send it to your navigator and George (the autopilot) will fly it. We already have digital ATIS (D-ATIS is shown on the approach charts for airports that have it) at some airports, which is usable with some of our equipment, and the airlines are already sending flight plans digitally.

Till the next issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine, FLY SAFE!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) and the program manager of flight operations with the “Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training” organization. Kaufman conducts pilot clinics and specialized instruction throughout the U.S. in a variety of aircraft, which are equipped with a variety of avionics, although he is based in Lone Rock (KLNR) and Eagle River (KEGV), Wisconsin. Kaufman was named “FAA’s Safety Team Representative of the Year” for Wisconsin in 2008. Email questions to or call 817-988-0174.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and other instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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