If you aren’t restricted by your operating procedures, and the weather and ATC coverage is good, you can pick up your clearance in the air.
This is a perfectly acceptable course of action as it does a couple of things:
- You don’t have to worry about missing your void time
- You don’t have to worry about poor reception on the ground
- You don’t have to deal with the FSS which can be SO painful when you are used to working with Center.
- You don’t tie up the airspace for other landing and departing IFR traffic.
Some pilots lack the maturity and professionalism to handle this option responsibly, though.
Picking up a clearance in the air is only a good option under two circumstances: good weather and good ATC radar coverage.
1. Healthy weather margins
I have heard of some pilots taking off and skirting just below the clouds trying to pick up their clearance.
You cannot punch into the clouds without a clearance. Period.
In addition, you must maintain your VFR Cloud clearance.
Remember those requirements?
Once you get into Class E airspace at either 1200 feet above ground level (AGL) or 700 ft AGL you have to stay below the clouds by 500 feet.
Let’s do the math for a minute on this option.
Pretend the clouds are 1100’ at your departure airport. Let say too that Class E airspace starts at 700’ AGL (which is typical at most airports).
You now have to fly 500’ below that 1100’ cloud deck as per Class E VFR cloud clearance requirement. Except you can’t actually enter Class E airspace because you can’t stay 500’ below the clouds. Which means you are actually flying in Class G airspace at 600’ AGL.
Now lets say there is a 250’ hill in front of you because humans like to build airports in valleys and not on mountains.
Now you are flying 350’ above the ground trying to pick up your clearance.
Oh, and the clouds aren’t uniformly 1100’ AGL. They vary and they are dipping so now you are flying a couple hundred feet off the ground….and you still can’t get ATC because their radar coverage doesn’t go that low.
Do you see how this can turn into a stupid decision very quickly?
Paying customers in the back are no excuse for poor decision making.
Some people cite their paying customers in the back as justification for not spending an extra minute or two on the ground. They would rather get moving towards their destination and pick up the clearance on the way.
I completely understand. But consider this: funerals cost more than avgas.
Your boss can wait an extra 5 min while you pick up your clearance on the ground when the weather is marginal.
2. Excellent ATC radar coverage
To use this option, you must know where ATC can pick you up. It’s entirely feasible they can’t pick you up at 3000’.
So if the cloud deck is at 2700’ you can’t take off and maintain VFR cloud clearance. You need to get it on the ground.
This usually isn’t a problem out East; radar coverage is pretty good. Out West, however, you need to really do the math. When ATC can’t pick you up with terrain raising up on either side with a low cloud deck, you are screwed.
Here are a couple tricks to find out what the coverage is like:
- Ask ATC before you land what altitude their coverage ends
- Ask a local instrument rated pilot.
- Ask the re-fuelers. They are usually a wealth of information.
Putting it all together
Let me give you a real world example on the intricacies of getting a clearance at an uncontrolled airport.
I fly out West most of the time.
One mission took us to John Day airport, an uncontrolled airport.
It also sits in a bowl surrounded by high terrain in the middle of Oregon. Here is the section for you to get some idea of the terrain (insert sectional picture).
As we descended into John Day, the controller said that he can’t see aircraft into John Day below 7000 ft MSL. I didn’t have to prompt him for that info which is great. If he hadn’t told me I would have asked. It is an invaluable piece of information.
Here is where it got interesting. The cell phone and radio coverage was questionable on the ground.
We wanted to get the clearance on the ground as our regulations require, but we didn’t know if that was even an option.
We could have used the FBO phone and then ran out to the aircraft, but we were concerned about the timing. What if we called for the clearance and misjudged our passenger loading and run-up time? We would have to shut down, run in and make the call again if our cell phones didn’t work in the plane.
The mountains to the east were covered in clouds, but the west looked pretty good. We knew the scattered clouds were at about 8-9000 feet based on looking at the heights of the surrounding mountains on the VFR sectional.
We discussed several courses of action:
- We could take off and maintain VFR cloud clearance requirements towards the west and get our clearance in the air.
- Get our clearance on the ground with our cell phones as we hold short of the runway
- Get our clearance over the radio via FSS.
We chose option 2.
The weather looked too sketchy to get our clearance in the air. We might have been able to climb above the airport to 7000′ but it looked like at 7000′ we may have been too close to the clouds.
Plus it was getting dark.
We also tried but couldn’t get FSS on the ground with the radio. We asked the FBO guys what the reception was like and they said it wasn’t great.
We tried anyway. The local guys were right. We had no luck.
Luckily the cell phone reception was good enough. So we called over the phone while holding short of the active.
I used this phone number for clearance: 1-888-766-8267
Unfortunately, the clearance was dropped in the system and we had to re-file. We ended up sitting on the taxi way for a while to get it sorted out.
You could argue we might have been able to sort it out in the air quicker by bypassing the FSS completely and going to center, but as I sat there in the dark with the clouds swirling around the mountains to our east, I was glad we decided to stay on the ground. Yeah, I made two General Officers waiting for 10 min, but they are alive and probably don’t even remember they were delayed.
Picking up clearances in the air requires some advanced decision making.
It isn’t always the right choice.
You are in control of the aircraft and your passengers’ lives.
I hope that helps explain some of the intricacies of picking up clearances.
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