As filed

7 tips for perfect clearances

“Where are you going?” the controller asked.

“Hagerstown,” I answered.

“I have you cleared to Harrisburg,” came the reply. Oops.

Advanced Pilot
Advanced Pilot

This seemingly innocuous mistake, turning south-southwest instead of south-southeast on my departure, could have been a major problem. Departing from even a moderately busy airport would have resulted in much more serious consequences. As it happened, I was taking off from Podunk Municipal and got off with a minor admonishment.

The problem began in the clearance delivery. The controller assigned Harrisburg. I assumed Hagerstown, as I had filed. One very faulty assumption later and I was headed well off my cleared route. These sorts of mistakes aren’t uncommon. Controllers speak quickly, some waypoints sound the same, and the penalties for mistakes can be massive. But the mistakes are also preventable. Here are seven tips to help set you on a lifetime of trouble-free clearances.

  1. Practice at home. There’s no need to make your first experience grabbing a clearance a live session. Digital simulation software can teach you the basics and let you work in a call-and-response environment. There are also resources like PilotEdge and Vatsim, two lifelike simulation communities where pilots and controllers come together. Simply connect your PC to one of these services and you can call and receive clearances all day long. Knowing the “controller” you’re talking to is sitting at his or her own home simulator significantly lowers the stress level.
  2. Practice with the big boys and girls. Sites like offer a great opportunity to drill your skills at copying a clearance. Try not to pick one of the busy airline airports with the FAA’s digital pre-departure clearance capability. That will give you the best opportunity to hear many calls requesting an instrument clearance. Get your pencil ready as you would in the airplane and start copying when the controller reads the clearance. You can even check your work. This is also a great way to refine your shorthand. Speaking of which….
  3. Develop a shorthand. Every pilot eventually develops his or her own clearance shorthand. Many start with the acronym CRAFT for clearance limit, route, altitude, frequency transponder. Although this format can help, I find it to be distracting and restrictive. It takes as much brain power to ensure you’re filling out the acronym correctly as it does to simply copy what the controller is saying. It can be a useful tool to learn the order in which the controller will convey the information, but most pilots pick that up quickly.

    The real benefit is in developing a more effective code for the commonly used items. AF or CAF are useful for cleared as filed. And D with an arrow is helpful for direct. Altitudes are almost always given in two stages. The first as the initial clearance limit and the second your final altitude. Instead of writing down “climb and maintain 3,000 feet, expect 5,000 10 minutes after departure,” try “3k 5k 10min.” Obviously you’re going to climb since you’re on the ground. No need for symbols or writing that down. And the second altitude is almost always given for 10 minutes after. I write down the 10min just so I don’t forget to say it, but you could conceivably write down only 3k 5k if you remember to read back the 10-minute expected clearance time. Similarly, frequencies and squawk codes are distinct formats, so there’s no need for units, labels, or any other information. Finally, it can be helpful to write each bit of new information on a new line to denote a new segment of the clearance.
  4. Copy first and understand later. When I first started picking up clearances I spent a lot of time concentrating on each segment of the route, ensuring I understood exactly where I was going and what the controller had said. That’s not only wasted brainpower, but it also takes away from the job at hand. The act of obtaining the clearance is solely to copy information. So copy the information only. Write exactly what’s said. If it’s a route you didn’t file, an altitude you don’t want, or a clearance limit that’s not what you expected, ignore it. Write, read back, receive confirmation. Only after you’re sure you have the right clearance do you go about verifying it’s what you want or expect.
  5. Seek clarification. You’ve written it all down and you don’t recognize a fix. Or you can’t read your writing, or you’ve missed something mid-route. Whatever the reason, seek clarification. Controllers don’t mind spending the time to ensure there is total and complete understanding between the pilot and ATC. They happily spell out fixes, give you hints on where to look if you can’t find a fix on a chart, or even explain something on a departure procedure. Successful instrument flying is all about predictable behaviors. Knowing exactly what you’re going to do when you’re going to do it is critical, especially in those busy few minutes after takeoff. It’s also where my breakdown occurred many years ago. If I’m being honest with myself, I was only about 80 percent sure what the clearance was, and I assumed it was where I had filed. It’s an easy mistake to fix with a little humility, and by being proactive.
  6. Do the work in advance. If you want to avoid writing down lengthy route clearances, do the work in your planning phase and file the route you think you’ll receive. There’s nothing that says you must do this, but it certainly helps make the clearance easier when you’re a new instrument pilot. Go to your favorite flight planning app and look for recently issued clearances between your departure and destination and file that. Or check in the chart supplement for preferred routes, or ask local pilots what they usually receive. ATC doesn’t reinvent the wheel on these. They generally follow a pattern, so find the pattern and file it. That will increase your likelihood of receiving the magical “cleared as filed.”
  7. Use your flight plan as a guide. The Airplane Academy published a tip that further utilizes the resources in common flight planning apps. They recommend printing the flight plan, or the email confirmation of the filed flight plan, and using it as a guide while copying. All your filed waypoints and altitudes are there, so when the controller rattles one off, underline it. Now you’re ready to slot in a different one, or keep ticking them off down the list. The less writing you can do during this process, the better, since that takes time.

Finally, be comfortable with mistakes. Know that you’ll occasionally miss a frequency or a waypoint, and that’s OK. Assuming you fix your mistake before you take off.

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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