IFR Fix: 'Trust my instincts'

August 4, 2014

There was no operating control tower when an Airbus A310 crew began, and then discontinued, a call-up on the local clearance delivery frequency.

The Center controller who had issued the flight’s late-night IFR clearance heard the truncated transmission but thought little of it. Maybe the pilots intended to announce on the common traffic advisory frequency that they were taxiing, and then realized that their radio was mistuned.

The controller considered calling to check, but refrained. Besides, "I had told them to hold for release and call me," before departing. (A Boeing was inbound for landing.)

The arriving Boeing called from 12 miles out, field in sight. The controller cleared it for a visual approach and a change to the advisory frequency.

"As the B717 was about six miles from the airport and descending through about 3,500, the A310 called airborne," the controller reported to the Aviation Safety Reporting System. "I quickly advised them of the traffic. The pilot stated that he had ‘visual contact’ with the B717 and had talked with him on the CTAF. I reminded them that they were supposed to advise me on the taxiway, short of the runway when they were ready. The pilot apologized and said that he was not familiar with the procedures and had forgotten to advise me."

Receiving unexpected hold-for-release instructions just before an IFR departure can throw you off your game, as irritated pilots’ voices on the radio often reveal. As a refresher, here is how the Pilot/Controller Glossary defines "Hold for release": “Used by ATC to delay an aircraft for traffic management reasons; i.e., weather, traffic volume, etc. Hold for release instructions (including departure delay information) are used to inform a pilot or a controller (either directly or through an authorized relay) that an IFR departure clearance is not valid until a release time or additional instructions have been received."

Some controllers share pilots’ distaste for HFR: Various ASRS filings report shortcomings including instances when a pilot heard the word “release” but not the words “hold for.” That’s possible, one ASRS report noted, because HFR finds employment at outlying airports, with spotty communications

Poor Center radar coverage helped conceal the Airbus crew’s error, the reporting controller wrote.

And there was a personal lesson. "I should trust my instincts more often. When I wondered if they were getting ready to depart, I should have called them on the frequency to make sure." 

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.