Getting an IFR clearance at an uncontrolled airport is a pain in the ass.
I am not a fan. Unfortunately, there is no way around it. Every IFR pilot will run into this situation at some point.
I broke this article up into two parts because you have options.
- Get your clearance on the ground (there are three ways to do this): Part 1
- Get your clearance in the air from the controlling agency: Part 2
Which option you choose depends on four things:
- The radio and cell phone reception on the ground
- The weather
- ATC’s radar coverage
- Your emotional maturity.
As a military pilot, I have to be on an IFR clearance, so I get it on the ground before I take off.
I think this is a prudent course of action, but I am biased. I grew up in a risk averse aviation culture.
For all you Part 91 or Part 135 pilots you may not have had this culture instilled in you. I have heard horror stories of pilots taking off and barely maintaining VFR cloud clearance. I can’t imagine being that stupid.
I have a sneaking suspicion Darwin’s laws will catch up with them eventually.
If you are a prudent pilot, the reception is good, then get the clearance on the ground when possible.
Your passengers can wait an extra minute. Burn a little bit of gas and time in the interest of safety.
How to get a clearance on the ground
Please understand a few things before you choose this option:
Getting clearances on the ground are tricky because of void times. Don’t give a takeoff time that unless you really mean it. You do NOT want to run past your void time.
ATC is holding up IFR traffic into that airport until you have taken off. IFR and Special VFR traffic CANNOT land at your airport until you have taken off. That includes everyone from a little Cessna to a 747.
Respect the void time and the landing restrictions you are placing on your fellow pilots.
You have three options when getting your clearance on the ground.
Option #1: Call FSS over the radio
(the textbook answer)
This choice is the most popular and preferred method.
You can find the number for the FSS here in FSS or
Remember, unlike departure, center and approach, the Flight Service Stations require an initial wake-up call.
They have multiple frequencies and airports they cover. You need to tell them where you are so they can switch their radio to the one which will reach you best.
In my experience it take a few times to wake them up and for them to get back to you. So don’t be surprised if this happens. Give them a call again.
” McMinneville Radio, PAT 541 at Salem Airport, Sierra-Lima-Alpha on one-twenty-two-point-five.“
Once they have a chance to put their coffee down you will hear and acknowledgment. Now you can give them the full request:
Your radio call should include a few key elements:
- Your current location: spell it out phonetically
- Your request: IFR clearance
- Your destination airport: spell it out phonetically
- Departure runway
- When you will be ready to depart: you better have an accurate time
So the radio call sounds like this:
“McMinneville Radio, PAT 541 is at Salem, Sierra-Lima-Alpha, and I would like to pick up my IFR clearance to Dagget Barstow Airport, Delta-Alfpha-Golf, we are ready for takeoff now on runway 31.“
Don’t beat yourself up if you have to repeat some or all of this call.
Every time I call, even though I tell them which runway I want, and that I am ready NOW, they always seems to ask me for “runway” and “departure time.” I can’t stand FSS for this very reason.
Which is why the next two options may work better:
Option #2: Call them over the phone
(the least preferred method)
I actually prefer to call FSS over the phone in the aircraft because it takes 10 radio calls to get my message heard and acknowledged by FSS. A phone conversation works better when FSS asks you the same question three times.
If I do call with a cell phone then I will do it when I am already taxing of have my run-up checks complete. Yeah, it will get a little loud trying to talk to them, but you won’t miss your void time.
Use this universal number to call. Put it in your cell phone!
Be careful because your aircraft may be too loud do use this option. Test is out on a friend before you try this for real.
If it is too loud to talk on the cell phone in your aircraft, there is no cell coverage and/or you can’t reach FSS on the radio, you will need to call them before you crawl into the aircraft.
You need to understand something before you take this route. They are going to give you void time. You must take off before the void time or you will have to call them back and get a new void time. It won’t be more than about 5 minutes.
So don’t call if you haven’t preflighted.
You need to pay attention to how long it takes to do your complete run ups and taxi out. Time yourself over many flights. Use that number to estimate your takeoff times when you call for a clearance.
If you are too quick then you MUST wait at the end of the runway until you get within your window of time. Or if you weren’t quick enough then you are going to have to call again and get another void time.
Option #3: Call Center over the radio
I have run into a situation twice where FSS couldn’t get the clearance from Center in a timely manner on the ground.
We sat and waited
And we sat some more.
Finally the FSS told us they couldn’t get in contact with LA Center but that we could take off and talk to departure and pick up our clearance that way. As an Army aircraft we weren’t technically allowed to do this, but the waiting was getting ridiculous. So we took off an picked it up in the air.
This delay happened again at the same airport a month later. Center told us, once we got a hold of them, we could contact them directly on the ground. At Barstow Dagget (KDAG), you can actually pick up center on the ground.
Please know this isn’t always the case at every airport. If it is possible, you could bypass FSS and go straight to center. You should start with FSS but if it doesn’t work, know that you can plug in the Center or Departure frequency on the SID.
Before you give Center a call, though, make sure they aren’t too busy. They are doing you a huge favor by taking the request on the ground.
Now why did I say this was my favorite option?
I hate FSS.
They are slow and I have to repeat everything twice even if I gave them exactly what they needed. With Center you will get faster service more used to IFR traffic and radio calls.
So those are you three options to picking up a clearance when the tower is closed or there isn’t a tower.
If you have never gotten a clearance from FSS, try it. It is a pain in the ass and every IFR pilot should experience it.
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