IFR Fix: Not on speaking terms

January 6, 2012

IFR Fix

Flying IFR is a contact sport. Sooner or later you will need to contact ATC, with a strong bias toward sooner.

When the plan isn’t working, people can get into trouble.

How to begin an instrument flight while temporarily out of touch is no mystery. Departing a nontowered airport that has a clearance delivery frequency, your instructions may include a frequency to use when airborne, and an assigned heading for entering controlled airspace, which helps with radar identification.

No CLNC DEL frequency available? You can file with flight service and get a clearance void time. Until time expires, the airspace is all yours.

You can depart VFR, picking up your clearance aloft. Each method has pluses and minuses.

This is about the minuses.

A pilot is hurrying to beat a void time for a 100-nautical-mile flight. He has an airliner to catch at the destination, and his day has started badly. He takes off, beating the void time by microseconds, and establishes radio contact.

The next radio call is a definite bummer.

“Radar contact. I show you through five thousand feet. Your assigned altitude was four thousand.”

Sorry. Must have missed that.

Here’s the kicker: There isn’t a cloud within 200 miles. Skies are blue, winds light. One cause of the pilot’s haste was the urge to depart before an inbound VFR flight showed up. (If you are rushing to beat VFR traffic when starting an instrument flight, maybe the plan is flawed.)

Houston, I had a problem

That doesn’t make departing VFR a pressured pilot’s panacea. A flight departing an airport beneath a westerly section of Houston’s Class B airspace could not contact ATC on the ground for clearance. The pilot took off southeastbound, but his HSI was malfunctioning.

Still unable to communicate, he climbed, after passing what his GPS seemed to show as the Class B airspace’s outer ring.

That’s when the true outer ring showed up on the GPS display, still 10 miles ahead.

“A combination of divided attention due to instrument failure, delayed radio contact, and nav setup not compatible with Class B airspace identification contributed to this event,” the pilot said in a report to the Aviation Safety Reporting System.

Any time a flight gets off badly, your risk factors rise. Stay sharp, be alert.

Earning an instrument rating is guaranteed to be one of the most challenging, rewarding, and fun projects a pilot takes on during a lifetime in aviation. Each week, this series looks at the IFR experience from a new perspective. Catch up on what you may have missed in the IFR Fix archive.