Safety Publications/Articles

Obstacle Departure Procedures

Little known, often ignored, potentially deadly

In "Teaching IFR" (October 2007 AOPA Flight Training), I described why it may not be legal (or in some cases, practical) to land after reaching the missed approach point on an instrument approach. The key consideration is "planning the vertical" to meet the requirement in FAR 91.175(c)(1) for a "descent to a a normal rate of descent using normal maneuvers."

However, there is an even more important aspect of "planning the vertical," and that occurs during an instrument departure. While failure to plan properly during the approach can result in a missed approach or a last-minute diving attempt to reach the runway, failure to follow the proper climb procedure during departure can (and has) resulted in deadly accidents.

In my experience, most instrument pilots are unaware of the dangers of a poorly planned IFR departure. Neither their instrument training nor their experience with ATC has prepared them for the realities of departing from a non-radar airport in low weather or at night, especially when obstacles lurk off the end of the runway.

Those of us who are instructors are the best hope for preventing these accidents. We simply must explain that a "cleared as filed" or "cleared direct" IFR clearance does not assure terrain or obstacle clearance when departing from airports without ATC radar coverage. It is perfectly legal, but really dumb for FAR Part 91 flights to launch into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) without a clear plan to reach the minimum en route altitude while avoiding mountains or other obstructions.

When departing from an airport with radar coverage, typically we hear "radar contact, climb and maintain X altitude, turn right heading XXX." This means that ATC has assumed the burden of obstacle clearance.

But what about departures from airports with no radar coverage? Well, it depends on the situation. If the departure airport has a published instrument approach procedure, we know that a survey has been done of the area and we can expect to find helpful information that will help us plan our departure. Our first stop is at the Takeoff Minimums listing for the instrument approaches at that airport. On Jeppesen charts, the takeoff minimums are listed on each approach chart; on the FAA (NACO) version of those charts, you'll find them in a separate section in the front of each approach chart book. If no special takeoff minimums or Obstacle Departure Procedure (ODP) has been published, we can simply depart, cross the departure end of the runway at least 35 feet high, and climb to an altitude of 400 feet above ground level at a rate of 200 feet per nautical mile or better before turning on course or to the heading assigned in our clearance.

If, however, we find nonstandard takeoff minimums or a published ODP, we need to carefully study the information. Although we are not required to follow takeoff minimums or departure procedures while operating under FAR Part 91, it is important to realize that those procedures exist to protect us during departures. Sometimes, certain runways are not authorized, or a higher ceiling and visibility is required in order for a pilot to avoid obstacles visually. Other times, a steeper climb gradient will be required or a specific departure course will be defined. Whatever the departure procedure requires, we should have a solid plan to remain clear of all the obstacles and terrain.

Now here is the "rest of the story." We cannot assume that ATC will assign any special routing or altitude based on the ODP. They expect the pilot to fly the procedure if necessary without further clearance. FAA Order 7110.65R, Air Traffic Control--the controller's handbook--states, "If a published IFR departure is not included in an ATC clearance, compliance with such a procedure is the pilot's prerogative." In other words, you have to decide whether you need to follow a specific route or procedure and fly accordingly. Now, we might think this is wrong, dangerous, and dumb, but it is the way procedures are arranged. Therefore, we instructors have an obligation to teach instrument pilots how to minimize these risks. Pilots need to hear about this during initial training and recurrent instrument proficiency checks.

For more information on this, as well as other IFR procedures, I highly recommend John Eckalbar's IFR, A Structured Approach. Eckalbar has a great deal to say about this topic and many other topics of interest to IFR pilots and instructors.

At my flight school, we have developed a Constant Currency Program for our clients in which we schedule monthly training sessions covering a variety of IFR topics. Instrument departures from nontowered airports are covered in the very first meeting.

There is much more to departing safely from nontowered airports, including how to pick up a clearance with a "release time" and a "void time" rather than departing VFR and attempting to get an IFR clearance en route. This is another topic that many pilots don't understand, especially those who routinely fly out of towered airports with easy access to clearance delivery or ground control. So stay tuned.

Ken Wittekiend, a CFII, co-owns Eagle Training Solutions in Burnet, Texas. He owns a Beechcraft Bonanza and a Piper Super Cub, and has more than 8,100 hours in his logbook. He specializes in advanced IFR training and tailwheel proficiency.

By Ken Wittekiend

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