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IFR Fix: Timing the handoff

There you are, established on the familiar airway, altitude nailed, thinking ahead. This is IFR flying at its most rewarding: precise and predictable, totally reassuring, especially in this gray envelope of cloud.

Somewhere ahead, air traffic control is going to call you with a handoff to the next sector; you already have the expected frequency set in the radio’s flip-flop window in anticipation. The call should be coming any time now.

Are the clouds getting darker? Affirmative, and now some sudden turbulence rocks your serene little world.

Oops, that 150-foot altitude loss won’t do—especially while flying at the airway’s minimum en route altitude. Better fix that, ASAP.

Did you miss something during the flurry of activity?

Must have, because ATC is calling, not with a message but just with your N number, which suggests that it is not their first attempt to contact you.

You acknowledge, and your handoff is delivered; it’s pretty clear from the controller’s drawn-out transmission of the instructions that it is a repeat of a previous call.

Well, no one likes to blow a radio exchange with ATC, but it’s not possible to know exactly when a handoff from one center sector to another, or from a center to approach, is going to happen. You fly the aircraft and keep in the back of your mind that a call should be coming.

No one pretends that it’s a perfect delivery system: You can read reports of situations in which delayed handoffs, or handoffs not effected between controllers, created cockpit confusion or airspace anarchy.

So, a quick procedures quiz: The FAA recognizes that pilots can’t predict the moment when handoffs come, so what extra item is it considered good practice for pilots to perform upon receiving a handoff between ATC facilities?

"The ATC system is indeed a system and very little happens by chance. As a flight progresses, controllers in adjoining sectors or adjoining Centers coordinate its handling by telephone or by computer. Where there is a boundary between the airspace controlled by different facilities, the location and altitude for hand-off is determined by Letters of Agreement negotiated between the two facility managers. This information is not available to pilots in any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) publication. For this reason, it is good practice to note on the en route chart the points at which hand-offs occur," advises the Instrument Flying Handbook (page 2-15.)

Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: ATC, FAA Information and Services, IFR

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