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 radio reception from Center or the FSS.
Before we keep going let me clarify what a “clearance” is exactly. At a towered airport you either call clearance delivery, or in the absence of clearance delivery you call ground, or in the absence of ground you call ground and you ask:
“Clearance, King Air 684BP, with information Bravo, going to Spokane.”
“King Air 684BP, Clearance, you are cleared to Spokane Airport via the Portland 1 Departure, then as filed, climb and maintain 3000 feet, contact departure on 124.35, squawk 4716.”
That is a clearance.
Once you have read back the full clearance then, and only then, are you are allowed to punch in the clouds.
You need good weather to pick up your clearance in the air
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. That is why getting your clearance on the ground is advantageous, you are cleared from the moment you take off to fly into the clouds.
That rule doesn’t apply when you pick up your clearance in the air. You are a VFR aircraft and you must maintain your VFR Cloud clearance until Center or FSS gives you your clearance.
Remember those requirements? (500 below, 1000 above and 2000 horizontal)
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 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 let’s 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 and radio reception doesn’t go that low.
Do you see how this can turn into a stupid decision very quickly?
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.
Paying customers in the back are no excuse for poor decision making.
Your boss can wait an extra 5 min while you pick up your clearance on the ground when the weather is marginal which brings me to my other point:
You need good radio reception to get clearance in the air from Center or FSS
To use this option, you must know where ATC can hear you. It’s entirely feasible they can’t hear you at 3000’ especially out West.
So, if the cloud deck is at 2700’ then you can’t take off maintain VFR cloud clearance and talk to Center/FSS. You need to get it on the ground with a phone call.
This usually isn’t a problem out East; radar coverage and radio reception are pretty good. Out West, however, you need to really do the math. When ATC can’t pick you up with terrain rising up on either side of you with a low cloud deck, you are in trouble.
How to find out what radar coverage is like:
- Ask ATC before you land what altitude their coverage ends
- Ask a local instrument rated pilot.
- Ask the refuelers. They are usually a wealth of information.
I wouldn’t worry about FSS being too busy to give you your clearance over the radio, but be careful with Center.
If Center is really busy, it is extremely rude to pick up your full clearance from Center in the air.
When Center is busy, call FSS first to get your clearance, THEN call Center and tell them where you are and your altitude.
But, if Center isn’t busy, call Center and you can kill two birds with one stone by getting your clearance and having them pick up control of you.
So now that we’ve gone through the basics, let’s explore a real-world scenario.
CASE STUDY: Deciding when and how to pick up an IFR clearance at an uncontrolled airport.
I fly out West most of the time. On this day our mission took us to John Day airport (KGCD) which is uncontrolled.
It also sits in a bowl surrounded by high terrain in the middle of Oregon. Here is the sectional for you to get some idea of the terrain:
As we descended into John Day, the controller said that he can’t see aircraft into John Day below 7000 ft MSL on his radar and they are hard to hear. I didn’t have to prompt him for that info which is great. If he hadn’t told me I would have asked.
Knowing what altitude the radar and radio coverage ends is an invaluable piece of information, and you should make sure you get that cut off altitude before your switch over to CTAF and cancel IFR.
Here is where it got interesting. The cell phone and radio coverage were questionable on the ground which is your only option if radio reception is poor in the air.
We wanted to get the clearance on the ground because of the clouds, 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 inside 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 from Center.
- Get our clearance on the ground through FSS with our cell phones while holding short of the runway.
- Get our clearance over the radio via FSS on the ground.
- Get our clearance over the radio via Center on the ground.
We chose option 2. Because if you get a clearance before you take off you can punch in the clouds legally even if Center doesn’t have you on radar or can’t hear you just yet. Not so if you pick it up in the air.
The weather looked too sketchy to get our clearance in the air. We might not be able to maintain VFR cloud clearances (500 below). We might have been able to climb above the airport to 7000′ but it looked like the clouds were at 7000′. Plus it was getting dark.
We also tried, but couldn’t get FSS on the ground with the radio so we figured we wouldn’t be able to get center either.
Plus Center usually doesn’t clear you until they see you on radar and while you are waiting for Center you have to maintain VFR cloud clearances and fly at VFR altitude which was questionable in this case.
We had 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 FSS over the phone while holding short of the active.
I used this phone number to get a clearance from FSS on the ground:
Unfortunately, the clearance was dropped in the system and we had to re-file. We ended up sitting on the taxiway 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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