Say Again? #33: ATC 204 — IFR En Route

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Time to go back to school with AVweb's Don Brown. This time, he's discussing the pitfalls of IFR en route planning, especially short hops and requests for 'direct-to.' Get your charts handy and get ready to cruise.

Say Again?

The whole point of getting an IFR ticket is (of course) to be able to go somewhere when the weather is less than VFR. So why don't we do that? Let's take a trip.

Let's say you want to fly from HKY (Hickory, N.C.), pick up your buddy at MRN (Morganton, N.C.), and then head for Atlanta to see the big city. You choose PDK (Peachtree-Dekalb) as your destination in Atlanta. From Hickory to Morganton isn't even a hop and a skip, much less a jump, but what the heck. It's another chance to shoot an approach and you can use the practice.

I Plan to Fly

You'll have to file two flight plans, of course: One for HKY to MRN and another for MRN to PDK. Let's look at the Flight Plan form and see what we've got.

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Flight Plan Form (click for larger version)

1) IFR
2) N12345
3) C172/G
4) 110 knots true
5) HKY
6) Pick a time. Any time
7) We'll put you down for 4,000 (that would be right for direction from HKY to MRN.)
8) I'll assume that you are going to be just like most other pilots and file direct. The majority of pilots (and controllers) don't read my column and think filing airport direct airport is just fine. So it'll be HKY direct MRN. I'll let you figure out the rest of the stuff. Oh yeah, the second one will be MRN direct PDK.

On Your Mark ...

... Get set ... Go.

Cessna 12345, Hickory Tower. Cleared to Morganton via direct. Climb and maintain 3,600. Squawk four two two one. Contact Atlanta Center 125.15 on departure.

You know the rest so we'll fast forward a little.

Cessna 12345, fly runway heading, cleared for takeoff runway 24.

Zoom, off you go.

Cessna 12345 contact Atlanta Center 125.15.

"125.15, so long."

"Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 leaving 1,500 climbing 3,600."

Cessna 12345 Atlanta Center, radar contact, reaching 3,600 cleared direct Morganton, expect visual approach Morganton.

You're not five miles from HKY and you've already hit your first snag. You don't want a visual; you want a localizer approach to runway 3. Welcome to the reality of today's system. Let's take a look and see what is going on.

Planning on Planning

First, did you think the altitude assignment was a little strange? Maybe, maybe not. The MEA (Minimum En route Altitude) is 3,600 between HKY and MRN. I'm not sure there's a way for a pilot to know that even if you were interested in searching for it.

Second, might there have been a way to file a better flight plan? Of course there was. I'm not sure it would have done you much good, but there was a better way to file.

Before I start, I want to thank one of my readers for this particular insight. I know I'm repeating myself but I really am learning more than you are. It never dawned on me to look at the flight plan form before.

Box Checking

Look again at the official FAA flight plan form (above). You see box 5 labeled "Departure Point"? And box 9 is labeled "Destination." So, what do you think belongs in box 8, "Route of Flight"? If you file airport-direct-airport, what do you put in box 8?

That's not a rhetorical question, by the way. I'm really curious what people put in it. I've never filed a flight plan in my life so I'm completely ignorant about how it really works. Do you just leave it blank or do you provide redundant information (departure point - destination)?

Fiddle-Faddle

In this case, what might have made your intentions a little more apparent would have been to include FIQ in box #8. HKY..FIQ..MRN. FIQ (Fiddlers NDB) is only about 10 miles from HKY and is the IAF (Initial Approach Fix) for the LOC RWY3 at MRN. I believe it would be navigable, the controller would have known the fix and the computer would have known it. In other words, I believe it complies with the AIM and I don't see a problem with it.

For those of you who are getting ahead of things, filing a route of flight that includes nothing but a departure point, an IAF and the destination won't usually work for a long-distance flight. So don't read anything into this that isn't there. Neither the controllers nor the computers know every IAF for every approach in the country. More on this later.

One other thing I might mention: Something else that might have given the controller a clue about your intentions is the altitude filed. Filing 4,000 would have been right for direction, but the initial approach altitude for the LOC RWY3 at MRN is 5,000. Like I said, it might have clued the controller in that you wanted to shoot an instrument approach. Sadly, though, in today's environment it probably wouldn't have.

Radio Fix

So where were we? Oh yeah, you've just been cleared direct to MRN upon reaching 3,600, but you really want to shoot the localizer approach. No big deal. That is the reason they invented radios. To lessen the confusion. (That's a joke, folks.)

"Uhhh, Center, Cessna 12345 request LOC RWY3 MRN."

Cessna 12345 roger, no problem, climb and maintain 5,000, leaving 3,600 cleared direct Fiddlers.

"Climbing to 5,000 leaving 3,600 direct Fiddlers. Can we get a vector for the localizer?"

So that is what you were thinking, huh? That was the reason you didn't bother to file for 5,000? Okay, I got it now. It's amazing how different the perspective can be between pilot and controller isn't it?

Cessna 12345, unable vectors for the localizer.

Yes, We Have No Vectors

Details, details, details. Alright, let's pause and take a breath. First, go back two transmissions. How many noticed that the readback didn't contain a callsign? The following is a "Don Brown statistic" -- that means it has no scientific basis but it's true anyway: Fifty percent of all pilots who ask a question during a readback forget to use their callsign. If you fly an airplane that doesn't have a propeller up front, the percentage increases to around 60 percent. Take it for what it's worth and act accordingly. You've got three choices: Complete your readback (including your callsign) and then ask the question; go ahead and ask, making doubly sure you use your callsign; or stop asking questions.

As far as the "unable vectors" goes ... for controllers at the Centers, the FAC (final approach course) must be depicted if we are to vector aircraft to it. If it's not depicted, we can't vector for it. Period. Again, I don't believe there is any way for a pilot to know this or find out ahead of time. All you can do is ask.

Let's get back to the flight. You're less than 10 miles from FIQ (the IAF at MRN), you're climbing to 5,000 and you just found out you can't get vectors to the FAC. You have a decision to make. You can execute the full approach, request a visual approach or cancel IFR and proceed to MRN VFR. Either one is acceptable. The controller might get annoyed if you decide on the visual that you just turned down a few seconds ago but that shouldn't factor into your decision.

Pressing Onward

Just because it gives me more to write about, you decide to shoot the localizer approach anyway. You've already been cleared to do what you need to do for this option so there's no need to inform the controller you have made this momentous decision unless you believe some confusion exists.

Cessna 12345, 8 miles from Fiddlers, maintain 5,000 until Fiddlers outbound, cleared LOC RWY3 MRN.

You read it back and start concentrating on flying.

Cessna 12345, Atlanta Center.

"Cessna 12345, go ahead Center."

Yes sir, I noticed you have a proposal filed out of MRN to PDK. Would you like a through clearance to PDK?

When I mapped out this article in my twisted mind I had intended to bury our hapless pilot about right here. No, not that kind of bury. Bury him with simultaneous tasks. The safety rep in me just won't let me do it.

I personally would not have ever offered a through clearance in this situation. You've got a single-pilot aircraft, so chances are the pilot doesn't have any help. He's just a couple of minutes away from a procedure turn that he obviously wasn't planning on executing. To make matters worse, he's filed MRN direct PDK. I wouldn't give that to him. Many controllers would (and amend it later en route) but there are still all the details involved in a through clearance.

My point is, not every controller you talk to has years of experience and the judgment that comes with it. Some are just starting out. You may, at some point in time, be offered something by a controller (who is trying to be helpful) that could be detrimental to your safety. It could be a through clearance at a bad time, a shortcut through a thunderstorm that isn't showing on radar or any number of things. You are the pilot in command. Even if that "command" only consists of a few hours since you got your ticket. You have to decide whether to accept each and every clearance.

Cleared Through

For those who might not know what a "through clearance" is, let's walk through it. If it was issued, it would sound like this:

Cessna 12345 is cleared through the MRN airport to the PDK airport via direct. Climb and maintain 5,000. Squawk 3214. Contact Atlanta Center on this frequency when airborne. Clearance void if not off by 1645. If not off by 1645 advise Center of intentions no later than 1700. Center time now is 1611 even.

It's just another tool for controllers to speed pilots on their way at uncontrolled airports. Instead of canceling once he gets on the ground, the pilot can now land, pick up his passenger and take off again without ever having to talk to ATC or FSS to obtain his departure clearance. He's already got it.

In the past we used this procedure on a regular basis. The guys who haul cancelled checks especially loved it. But that was back in the days when it was a lot less busy and frequency coverage wasn't as good. It locks up the airport for the duration (no one else can get a clearance in or out), so the timing can be real tricky if you've got another inbound or departure scheduled. Anyway, it's still in the book so you may be offered it at some point in time.

After the Break

Let's fast forward through the approach and the departure, in that I've already covered the subjects in previous articles. You're back in the air, climbing to 6,000 and on your way to PDK.

While I was out on break, Junior actually cleared you off MRN direct to PDK. Alas, a safety rep's work is never done.

N12345 contact Asheville Approach 124.65.

"Contact Ashville on 124.65. Have a nice day."

Ahem. Did you forget something?

b. ATC Clearance/Instruction Readback

1. Include the aircraft identification in all readbacks and acknowledgments. This aids controllers in determining that the correct aircraft received the clearance or instruction. The requirement to include aircraft identification in all readbacks and acknowledgements becomes more important as frequency congestion increases and when aircraft with similar call signs are on the same frequency.

Always use your call sign. Every day somebody takes a frequency change intended for another aircraft. If you'll use your call sign, we at least have a chance of catching it.

More Radio Antics

Back to the trip.

"Asheville Approach, Cessna 12345 level 6,000 direct PDK."

It always tickles me when pilots do that. Tell me they're direct somewhere or on a heading. I know where the habit of telling controllers your heading came from but I can't explain the "direct XXX." Let's check the book.

AIM 5-3-1.b

2. The following phraseology should be utilized by pilots for establishing contact with the designated facility:

(a) When operating in a radar environment: On initial contact, the pilot should inform the controller of the aircraft's assigned altitude preceded by the words "level," or "climbing to," or "descending to," as appropriate; and the aircraft's present vacating altitude, if applicable.

I don't see anything there about "direct PDK." Anything about a heading? How about you?

Cessna 12345, Asheville Approach, Asheville altimeter 3012, amendment to your routing when you're ready to copy.

"Cessna 12345, altimeter 3012, standby please."

Sooner or Later

What? You didn't really think you'd get to go direct PDK, did you?

"Asheville Approach, Cessna 12345, go ahead with the reroute."

Cessna 12345 roger, cleared to Peachtree via direct Sugarloaf victor two twenty two LOGEN direct.

"Uh ... direct Sugarfoot victor twenty two LOGAN direct P-D-K, Cessna 12345."

Cessna 12345, it's Sugarloaf VOR, victor two twenty two, LOGEN intersection direct Peachtree-Dekalb.

"Cessna 12345 roger, Sugarloaf, victor two twenty two LOGAN direct Peachtree. Do you have the identifier for Sugarloaf?"

Sugarloaf is Sierra Uniform Golf.

"Roger, thanks."

It's paper-shuffling time. You can just hear the charts rustling, can't you? I swear, I'm not making this stuff up. That's what it's like rerouting folks who don't plan and have never been to Atlanta before. Just in case you'd like to avoid trying to figure out the spelling of LOGEN instead of showing your friend the view as you bounce along over the Blue Ridge, read on.

Thanks Again

I had another reader write me about this very problem one time. He was going to Atlanta (Fulton County, I think), and he couldn't find the preferred route. He looked at the STARS (Standard Terminal Arrival Routes) and they said, "Jets and Turboprops." A C172 isn't either one. If you look at the Airport/Facility Directory, you'll see the same thing for the preferential routes: "Jets and Turboprops." What's a poor piston driver to do?

I'll be honest. I was surprised. I just assumed the routes were listed. We've been issuing them for years. The only change I ever remember was when they renamed the Toccoa VOR to Foothills (ODF). Surely they're listed somewhere in all the paperwork the FAA generates.

I searched in vain. I couldn't find them. But the answer was right under my (and your) nose. The routes are on a map. They're called "airways." Who'd 'a thunk it?

Dead End

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Low-Altitude Airways Near Atlanta (click for larger version)

Take a look at a map and check the airways leading to the Atlanta metro area. Do you notice that almost every airway seems to end about 30 miles from Atlanta? Look at the northeast section. Find the intersection where the airways end. Now you know how to spell LOGEN.

Does this sound vaguely familiar?

To simplify definition of the proposed route, and to facilitate ATC, pilots are requested to file via airways or jet routes established for use at the altitude or flight level planned.

It should.

The two airways that don't end entering ATL airspace are the routes to go through ATL. Don't get too excited about them. ATL Approach shuts off en route traffic as often as they do arrivals. And trust me, that's saying something.

If you'll take the time to look, you'll see a multitude of airways ending before they get to ATL. They end at HUSKY, TIROE, DALAS and LOGEN. Maybe you think that's a fluke? Take a look at CLT (Charlotte, N.C.) You'll see the same thing. Most of the airways end at the arrival gates. It's almost like somebody had a plan isn't it? Take a look at the airway structure around your favorite hub and see what you might learn.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There are a couple of other questions that popped in my mind once I noticed this, so let me go through those too. It's always bugged me that we put aircraft with /A navigation equipment (VORs and DME on board, but not GPS or RNAV) on these routes, too. How are they supposed to navigate from an intersection (LOGEN) direct to an airport (PDK)? The airway ends at LOGEN. Where do they go from there?

The answer I always got (from other controllers) was, "Approach is going to vector them, dummy." That is probably true. But that answer doesn't fit in with how I believe the system is designed (like, what if the plane loses radio contact?), so I decided to look for myself.

Pull out the approach plates for PDK. PDK has a VOR on the field. Believe it or not, after issuing this routing for over 20 years I didn't know that. It wasn't necessary for me to know as long as I was following the rules.

The way I discovered it was when I was trying to figure out how a /A was to get from LOGEN to FTY. (It's the same routing: V222 - LOGEN - direct.) Right there on the approach plate is a transition from LOGEN to the PDK VOR to FTY. How about you? Are any light bulbs coming on for you?

Weather or Not

There's one other thing I want you to notice. I haven't mentioned the weather at all during this imaginary trip. We don't have different IFR routes to file when the weather is VFR. The routes are not weather-dependant. We all know the weather is important and it can affect what type approach you ultimately receive. But we'll assign the same IFR routings whether it's clear and 50 or 200 overcast and 1/2 mile.

Our lack of understanding in regard to the National Airspace System leads to a tremendous amount of frustration for pilots and controllers alike. Even people with the best of intentions tend to throw up their hands in frustration and just "file what I want because they're going to change it anyway."

It's the same for controllers. I prefer to issue the preferred routes while the pilot is still on the ground so he won't be distracted while flying the airplane. But I don't have all the routes available to me at the sector. I wouldn't have the time to reroute them all anyway.

Order or Chaos?

All this leads to the current environment we find ourselves in. We react instead of act. In our ignorance, there is seemingly no rhyme or reason to the system. The pilot or controller who has the best aptitude for handling chaos becomes the person to emulate. Planning hasn't worked so let's just "wing it" like Captain Chaos does.

This ability to "wing it" becomes like a drug. It's perceived as the mark of experience. Mid-level pilots (and controllers) start to believe they're 10 feet tall and bullet-proof. Pride goeth before the fall. Resist the temptation.

The point is to improve your planning ability so there are fewer and fewer surprises. Think about the percentage of airline accidents in comparison to general aviation. Airline flights are incredibly structured in comparison to GA. It seems obvious to me that structure (i.e., lack of surprises) might play a factor in accident reduction.

If you become addicted to flying (or controlling) by the seat of your pants, relying on your ability to handle surprises, you are headed down the road to ruin. Trust me on this one folks. If you go looking for surprises you won't have any trouble finding them in this business. And sooner or later you'll find one that you don't like.

Have a safe flight.

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC