The controller rapped out the approach clearance with the ease of ordering a pizza: "Cross HOLOW at 3000, cleared approach, radar service terminated, change to advisory frequency approved, report canceling IFR this frequency or on the ground with flight service." The airplane was miles from the airport, and the pilot later said that he "felt so lonely," at that point. It was his first time operating IFR into an airport not served by ATC. He’d shot approaches into uncontrolled fields before, but there’d been radar service almost to the FAF and vectors to final, and a unicom operator who dreamed of one day becoming an air traffic controller and who issued traffic advisories of intense detail. But on this trip, there was only silence from "Radar service terminated," until FSS took the cancellation over his cellphone. The pilot, still suffering from Post Big City IFR Syndrome (PBCIFRS), just couldn’t understand how the system could be so thin, so uncaring, so uncontrolled.
I’d seen it before: Pilots who live and breathe kerosene exhaust become disoriented when breaking out from a non-precision approach to a field where instrument life is a bit more casual. I set down my .22 rifle — no hangar sparrows would die today — and handed the visitor a warm Dr. Pepper. Then I brushed the cat off the sofa we keep alongside the hangar in our Visitor’s Lounge and told the stranger with the Sporty’s kneeboard still strapped to his thigh to have a seat. As the wind blew corn stubble across the ramp, I explained how nature meant IFR operations to be before the FAA mucked it all up.
Yer On Yer Own
There’s a rush that comes from running with the bulls at the big airports. You keep the throttles forward to give the approach controller a speed that blends you seamlessly with the big iron. Vectors come fast, and your readbacks are crisp — no wasted words, no "ums," "sirs," or "thank-you’s" to eat up precious quarter-seconds. You turn, descend, and nail the approach. When you touch down you take the first available turnoff without smoking the brakes and taxi across acres of concrete, proud in the knowledge that you can mingle with the best. That same confidence in self and system needs to be carried over to operations into smaller airfields. The big difference is the self — you become the driving force, not some invisible controller who herds radar targets onto the localizer like cattle down a chute. When operating at far-flung airports, ATC merely assigns airspace. Once given your chunk of IFR air, it’s up to you to find the approach, the runway, and, most important, to mingle with the locals in the pattern.
RNAV — think GPS — has opened up worlds once dominated by sloppy NDBs, and anyone able to keep the wings level and follow a magenta line on a moving map can shoot an approach to the most obscure locales with amazing accuracy. Getting to the tiedown is often the biggest challenge.
If your destination is hazy MVFR, you may not be alone in that circle-to-land. (Click for larger view)
You can file IFR to anywhere. The airport doesn’t have to be in your database or on a controller’s map for you to file to it. If your cousin built a 2000-foot grass strip on her Kentucky horse farm and gave you the lat/long, you can file to it. ATC will say, "Cleared as filed" and leave it up to you to find the place. Without an approach there, however, the best the arrival controller can do is descend you to the MVA/MIA and ask you to cancel IFR. When filing to a private field — whether it has an identifier or not — it’s best to file to a commonly displayed fix/waypoint near your destination and then to the destination. This gives the ATC computer something to munch on and also tells the controller roughly where you’re headed. Filing to a VOR radial/DME fix works fine. If you file to a public-use airport, you should have no problem, especially if the field has a published IAP. As stand-alone-RNAV approaches proliferate and the TAA (Terminal Arrival Area) format becomes the norm, the actual IFR arrival procedure loses much of its anxiety factor. ATC usually sends you to an IAF located on one of the T-handles of the approach. A combination of autopilot and GPS does the rest until it’s time to flare. Wind correction isn’t even a brainteaser with RNAV. Everything is easy — assuming no ice, hurricanes, or equipment failures. It’s also easy to slip into trouble.
Brief well ahead when approaching a small airport. ATC may vector you to final or, because of poor radar coverage, may assign a transition route. Even if radar coverage reaches to the ground, the controller — for procedural reasons — may put you on the transition and terminate your radar service fairly early. Most uncontrolled, Class G airports allow for one-in-one-out operations, so once you’re cleared for the approach, the airspace is yours — no other IFR arrivals and no other IFR departures. Airports with Class E airspace to the surface allow for SVFR but not while IFR operations are in progress — it’s still one-in-one-out. In this article uncontrolled airports mean mostly Class G.
Class G airspace usually reaches up to 700 feet AGL at uncontrolled airports with a published approach (up to 1200 feet AGL elsewhere). As you shoot the instrument approach, you leave the protective world of Class E. In E airspace the controller must separate you from other IFR traffic. In Class G, the controller will separate you from known IFR traffic by not clearing anyone else IFR in or out of the airport. This does not mean that you are alone. In Class G it is legal (and generally stupid) for an instrument pilot — or 10 instrument pilots — to fly inside the clouds without an ATC clearance because it’s uncontrolled airspace. Along you come on an IFR clearance in the clouds on the approach. As you descend to MDA and leave Class E airspace you enter Class G. Time to put that windshield to use.
Inside the clouds your fate is in someone else’s mitts. As you reach MDA, look up. In the murky world of IFR-to-MVFR, no one cares about your IFR status. Chances are you’ve switched from approach or center frequency to CTAF. If you’re lucky, ATC switched you far enough out — see why they do this? — so you can monitor the CTAF freq for traffic and announce your arrival. You are now in the ATC Flying Farmers Co-op. It’s time to mingle with the locals.
As clean as your phraseology was back in Boston, it must be equally clean and concise here. Those who chatter on CTAF are idiots. But, if you speak strictly in IFR terms, the local VFR TriPacer student pilot won’t know what you’re talking about.
Everyone isn’t instrument-rated. When you report HALOW inbound, it means nothing to the VFR pilot. Instead of announcing an IFR waypoint, give a geographic position related to the airport: "… Five miles south, landing Runway 17." Anyone in the pattern with a radio should understand. But not everyone has a radio at Snakeskin Muni; it’s not required. If no one answers, it means no one answered. Be on the watch for old Cubs, balloons, gliders, ultralights, skydivers, and model airplanes. Uncontrolled patterns are full of surprises, and your IFR mantle won’t protect you. ATC does not separate you from any of this flotsam in Class E or G airspace.
Assuming the winds favor a straight-in landing, go ahead and land. There’s no need to break off a perfectly good straight-in approach and circle all over the county under the scud in order to enter the downwind. That just increases your exposure to traffic.
However, with other traffic in the pattern, a straight-in could make you real unpopular. Or a tailwind may require circling, so fly the approach and announce your intentions and position. As you break out, announce that you’re entering the downwind. Don’t bother going out to the 45-degree entry point, simply enter the downwind. Remember that you’re the bowling ball and need to blend with — not bend — the local aluminum. Be prepared to adjust your plan if a local Cessna just cut you off on crosswind. No one’s at fault, so don’t whine on the freq. Just fly the pattern and go missed approach if you must.
The key to uncontrolled fields is to remember that almost everything is your responsibility. This includes obstacle clearance. The TERPSters drew the approach making sure that nothing protruded into the 40:1 obstacle clearance plane. Armed with those data they published the approach. You follow the IAP to MDA. There, you see land and circle. The plate may show local obstacles — Jepp is better than the FAA at this. However, many of these smaller airports are in valleys, along rivers, or on cliffs. They might never see a jet but have a slick IAP that looks pretty on your MFD. Again, brief the arrival early, perhaps before you depart. It seems nerdy for IFR pilots to refer to sectionals, but it’s there that you’ll see the terrain detail. Walk yourself through several possible arrival combos — what to do in differing wind configurations under potentially low ceilings and scuzzy vis. Be prepared to hold. In one-in-one-out, there may be a parking lot above the runway.
Once you arrive, please cancel IFR. It so annoys controllers and those folks holding upstairs if you land, tie down, unload, and use the restroom before canceling. Don’t be pressured into canceling too soon. If someone’s waiting for an IFR release while you’re picking your way in, they can wait. If it’s clear VFR, be courteous and cancel airborne and then watch for the IFR departure. If you can’t cancel airborne, do so quickly on the ground through the RCO, unicom operator, or a cellphone to FSS (don’t expect pay phones). If ATC can’t hear, just call someone holding in the stack above and ask them to relay the cancellation. However you do it, just cancel.
Departing IFR from Smallville has all the elements of the inbound in reverse. You’re responsible for obstacle clearance — with or without a DP — as well as separation from local traffic. Be prepared for delays as you hold at the runway’s edge waiting for some 60-knot Musketeer to cancel. If weather permits, call for your clearance — directly to ATC, not FSS if possible — and if you smell a delay, offer to climb VFR. Take the initiative and tactfully formulate the plan for the controller. "On the ground Smallville, Runway 17, IFR to Ferritburg, ready now, can climb VFR." Expect to hear, "Upon entering controlled airspace" in your clearance. This reminds you that ATC won’t take responsibility until you reach Class E. The controller may ask which way you’ll turn but don’t expect assigned headings in Class G.
RNAV has opened up vast new worlds — OK, many little worlds — previously off-limits. But ATC really hasn’t changed much since the ADF days. Plan ahead, and be creative and patient, because you’re in charge. Oh, and bring your own Dr. Pepper.