Say Again? #10:
ATC 201 – IFR Departure

You can't play the game unless you can get on base and, sometimes, even that task seems insurmountable. So it goes with instrument flying. AVweb's Don Brown examines what it takes to get your ducks on the pond in this month's


At the risk of stating the obvious, before you can use your airplane to explore the wild blue yonder you must first get off the ground. As simple as that may first appear, there are all sorts of questions to answer if you want to depart IFR. While many of you enjoy the approach control services at the larger airports, there are many more airports that don’t have a tower, much less an overlying Approach Control. Chances are that sooner or later you’ll need to know how this portion of the system works.

The first thing you’ll need is a clearance from the controlling Center. The most reliable way to get that clearance is from a Flight Service Station (FSS). At some places, the Center has the capability to talk to you on the ground. Already we’ve bumping into decisions to be made. Which is best?

Most of us (controllers and pilots) would prefer to cut out the middle man (FSS) if possible. It’s just simpler. The only practical problem is frequency time. If the radio coverage is good and you are fairly competent on the radio then we can get it done quickly. You must keep in mind that it is an air traffic control frequency. Not a clearance delivery frequency. We cannot tie up the frequency for a large period of time while you find just the right spot on the airport where the reception is good or to read you a Full Route Clearance because you filed direct to AGS (Augusta, GA) during The Masters golf tournament. If the frequency is jammed with airborne traffic the controller may tell you to contact Flight Service.

Your ABCs

Regardless of how you chose to get your clearance, these are the items that you can expect to receive:

FAA 7110.65 4-2-1. CLEARANCE ITEMS

Issue the following clearance items, as appropriate, in the order listed below:

a. Aircraft identification.
b. Clearance limit.
c. Instrument departure procedure (DP).
d. Route of flight including PDR/PDAR/PAR when applied.
e. Altitude data in the order flown.
f. Mach number, if applicable
g. USAF. (USAF instruction deleted for space)
h. Holding instructions.
i. Any special information.
j. Frequency and beacon code information.

It will read like this:

(a) November 12345 cleared to (b) Augusta Bush Field via depart Morganton (d) direct Sugarloaf as filed, (e) climb and maintain five thousand.

Then you’ll get your beacon code assignment, clearance void time, etc.

Watch Out For That Tree

Did you notice I left out (c) Instrument departure procedure (DP)? That’s because I don’t need it for separation from other aircraft in this case. The bigger question is: Do you need it for terrain?

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It’s vitally important that you understand this process. Let’s look at Section 3, Chapter 4 of the FAA 7110.65: Departure Procedures.

4-3-2,c,3 NOTE- If a published IFR departure procedure is not included in an ATC clearance, compliance with such a procedure is the pilot’s prerogative.

In this case Morganton (MRN) has a departure procedure that says to go direct to FIQ (the NDB) and cross FIQ at or above 5,000 before proceeding on course. In 20 years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do this. The point is, your clearance is direct Sugarloaf after you have completed the departure procedure, should you decide to comply with the departure procedure.

This example brings up some real interesting implications in the real world. I’d be willing to bet many controllers in my Area would question a pilot if they saw him flying this departure procedure. Oh sure, they were trained on it once upon a time, but if you never see anyone doing it you tend to forget about it.

You Want Us To Do What

On the other hand, the few times I have issued that DP for separation purposes have all been met with puzzlement on the pilot’s part. The decision to ignore the procedure (whether based in ignorance or knowledge) when it is omitted from a clearance is between you and your inheritors. When it is issued as part of a clearance it sure would be nice not to have to explain it.

If ATC needed you to follow the procedure the clearance would read something like this:

November 12345 cleared to Augusta Bush Field via depart Morganton direct Fiddlers, direct Sugarloaf, then as filed, cross Fiddlers at or above five thousand, climb and maintain six thousand.

What happens if you can’t reach 5,000 by FIQ (Fiddlers)? You go into the holding pattern per the departure procedure.


As a matter of fact, that may be the clearance you receive when you depart Morganton. Controllers call it clearing an aircraft “short.” It’s just another way of separating airplanes and/or making sure someone doesn’t get away from us.

November 12345 cleared to Fiddlers via depart Morganton direct, climb and maintain five thousand, expect no delay. Squawk one one one one, Contact Atlanta Center one two five point one five on departure. Clearance void if not off by one two zero zero. If not off by one two zero zero advise Center not later than one two zero five of intentions. Center time one one four five and one half.

The Book Tour

Let’s deconstruct this clearance from an ATC perspective. From the FAA 7110.65 4-2-1 mentioned above we have:

a. Aircraft identification: N12345
b. Clearance limit: FIQ (Fiddlers)
c. Instrument departure procedure (DP): Issued
d. Route of flight including PDR/PDAR/PAR when applied: Direct FIQ
e. Altitude data in the order flown: 5,000
f. Mach number, if applicable: Not applicable
g. USAF. (USAF instruction deleted for space): Not applicable
h. Holding instructions: Not issued?
i. Any special information: Expect no delay
j. Frequency and beacon code information. Code 1111 and frequency 125.15

For the other parts you have to go to the FAA 7110.65 4-3-4.

a. Clearance Void Times.

1. When issuing clearance void times at airports not served by control towers, provide alternative instructions requiring the pilots to advise ATC of their intentions no later than 30 minutes after the clearance void time if not airborne.

2. The facility delivering a clearance void time to a pilot shall issue a time check.

Now, what about the lack of holding instructions? For that you’ll have to jump to Section 6 of Chapter 4.

b. Holding instructions.

1. Holding instructions may be eliminated when you inform the pilot that no delay is expected.

Plane or Glazed?

Are your eyes beginning to glaze over yet? You’ve already read about 1,000 words and you haven’t even made it to the runway yet. Have I mentioned how long it takes to train a controller? Insert that mini-lecture here. We’re not even close to covering this subject in-depth.

Here’s one of my favorite pet peeves these days. (They change on a monthly basis).


(c) At all other airports- Do not specify direction of takeoff/turn
after takeoff. If necessary to specify an initial heading/azimuth
to be flown after takeoff, issue the initial heading/azimuth so as
to apply only within controlled airspace.

To understand the phrase “At all other airports” you have to go back and read the entire paragraph. I’ll save you the trouble and tell you that it means airports without a Tower or Class E surface area.

The Return Of The Monkeys

We have several airports that qualify in my Area of Atlanta Center. Routinely pilots tell us that they will be departing on runway so-and-so. Okay, that’s fine. But I cannot base my separation on that advice. What bugs me is controllers that do. The next thing you know, we have pilots that think we can and controller trainees that think we can. And lo and behold some rookie controller issues the runway of departure in his clearance within my range of hearing and I have to pull out my safety rep hat. Next thing you know I’m in a debate about the merits (or lack thereof) of this procedure.

Have I mentioned that the “monkey-see, monkey-do” principle is one of the greatest forces in the universe? Good. Insert that lecture here. How about the old “which rule would you like me to ignore” argument? The book says “do not.” I’ve got better things to do than listen to someone try to wiggle around that phrase.

I’m sure that some of the information I’m providing is raising as many questions as I’m answering. For instance: why do we clear airplanes “short?” There are several reasons. At MRN, if someone is heading west or northwest, the terrain rises rapidly. If we have traffic at 6,000, we can clear you out to the NDB (FIQ) at 5,000. It wouldn’t be prudent to clear you “on course” at 5,000 into an area where our Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA) quickly rises to 7,500.

Wherefore Art Thou Tarboro?

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I had a good example at Statesville, N.C. (SVH) the other day. An aircraft had filed SVH direct ETC. Don’t know where ETC is? Neither did I. So I looked it up in the identifier book. It’s Tarboro, N.C. Don’t know where that is either? Neither did I. Now, if SVH sat out in the middle of my sector I wouldn’t be too concerned about it. But it doesn’t. SVH sits five miles outside of CLT Approach airspace. Even worse, if you extend the final approach course from CLT when they are on a south operation, the FAC goes right over SVH. In that CLT does in fact extend their final within a few miles of SVH on a regular basis, the last thing I’m going to do is clear an airplane out of SVH that might turn right into CLT’s final.

So if I don’t know what “on course” is I’m going to clear you to a place that I do know. Once I get you airborne and in radar contact, we’ll vector you clear of CLT’s final or let you go “on course” if that will remain clear of any traffic conflictions.

More questions huh? Why don’t I know where Tarboro is? Because I can’t memorize every airport in the country, much less what the on course heading to every airport, from every airport, is. Why didn’t I look it up on the map? Because that requires “heads down” time and controllers hate heads down time. I’d feel really dumb missing a turn onto the localizer while I was exploring a map of the entire state wouldn’t I? Why don’t we have a computer that tells us? I can’t answer that one.

The computer actually will tell us what the route looks like after the aircraft/ target is tracked up and the computer recognizes it. That’s not very helpful when the aircraft is sitting on the ground and the pilot is waiting for a clearance though. Before anyone gets on their “the FAA is so far behind in technology” bandwagon I want you to think about something.

Half Staffed

If we had the staffing we’re supposed to have we wouldn’t be having half this conversation. The sectors at the Centers are designed for two people. An R-side (Radio or Radar, take your pick) and a D-side (Data). If I routinely had a D-side then we wouldn’t be in the habit of delivering clearances on the frequency. That’s a task that I could off load to the D-side, who could be delivering the clearance through FSS. That would give me more “frequency time” and less “heads down” time. That would translate into better service for the pilots that I’m already working.

For the guy on the ground, that would also translate into better service. The D-side, FSS and the pilot could play “20 questions” about where Tarboro was, what the on course heading would be and how long the pilot needed before he could be airborne. They wouldn’t be tying up my frequency doing so.

But we don’t have that kind of staffing. So we’re not going to play “20 questions” on the frequency. I’m not going to spend 10 minutes trying to figure out where Taraboro is in relation to Statesville and whether it will cross CLT’s final and you’re going to be cleared “short” to some fix that I do know. And I’m not going to jump on your technology bandwagon when we don’t have the people to use the technology that we do have, much less develop and train on the technology that we’d like to have.

Good golly Miss Molly. I sure can wander off course can’t I? All you want to know is how to safely get off the ground and we somehow wandered into the world of staffing. That’s the price of having a system. You can’t neglect one part of it without affecting the other parts. Let’s see if we can’t get back on course.

Turn the Page

As odd as it may seem, much of the departure information that controllers use is found in our version of the approach plates. I say “our version” because many pilots use Jeppesen approach plates/charts. Controllers don’t. We use the United States Government Flight Information Publication: U.S. Terminal Procedures. Included in this publication is: Instrument Approach Procedures, Standard Terminal Arrivals, Standard Instrument Departures and Airport Diagrams.

I always thought this was an odd practice and wondered how it came about. Pilots and controllers are (literally) playing from a different page. Oh well, I can’t address all the problems in the world in one article. We’ll save that one for another article about approaches.

What’s important for this article is that controllers look in the FAA version of the approach plate book to find the departure procedures for uncontrolled airports. In the front of the book, in Section C we find the white “T” inside the black triangle symbol: TAKE-OFF MINS. We scan down until we see Morganton, N.C. and find:

DEPARTURE PROCEDURE: RWY 3, climbing left turn direct FIQ NDB, continue climbing in holding pattern to 5000 before proceeding on course. RWY 21, climb direct to FIQ NDB, continue climbing in holding pattern to 5000 before proceeding on course.

Now hopefully someone out there is asking, “Holding pattern? What holding pattern?” Thanks for asking. The only holding pattern I know of is depicted on the approach plate. Let me toss in a reminder. I’m not a pilot and I don’t pretend to be. I said I don’t know of any other holding pattern. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Before you launch your airplane into the clouds you’d better know what holding pattern you’ll be using. And while we’re at it, you’d better not rely on that departure procedure I copied above. That’s from the 1997 chart. You’d better know what the current procedure is before you use it. There’s 3,000-ft. terrain just southwest of FIQ and someone builds a new tower on top of a mountain every week.

Deja View

The reason I’m trying to get you to look at the chart is I want you to see the two transitions from the NDB to the VORs serving the airport. Every approach should have a transition from the en route environment to the approach environment and a missed approach procedure that takes you back to the en route environment.

For MRN the missed approach for the NDB RWY 3 from the same 1997 chart is:

MISSED APPROACH: Climbing left turn to 5000 direct FIQ NDB and hold.

Does that look vaguely familiar?

DEPARTURE PROCEDURE: RWY 3, climbing left turn direct FIQ NDB, continue climbing in holding pattern to 5000 before proceeding on course.

See the SUG 060 radial and the BZM 252 radial transitions to FIQ? Do you remember last month when I was talking about working non-radar? Those two transitions are how I’m going to get you into the en route environment, after your departure, when I’m working non-radar.

Blinded By the Light

Is the light bulb coming on? Are you starting to see how everything is tied together? At first glance, the rules and regulations the FAA puts out seem to be arbitrary, confusing and sometimes conflicting. I know how you feel. I felt that way too when I was training (and long after). But the more experience I gain and the more I study, the more they start making sense. Well, at least the rules that govern air traffic.

I realize that I may have raised more questions than I’ve answered in this article. In one sense, I hope that I have. I hope that you never stop asking “Why?” And I hope that you’ll take the time to find the answers. As a matter of fact, I hope that during your next “hangar flying” session you’ll discuss how to use the system instead of how to beat the system. I know the controller community has enough jail-house lawyers, I’d be willing to bet the pilot community does too. What we need are more people, on both sides, who know, understand and use the system.

That’s the only way we’ll ever gain enough knowledge to actually improve the system. It’s also the only way we’ll continue to enjoy the level of safety that this system has provided.

Have a safe flight!

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