Pop-Up IFR

You didn't file and the weather's getting rude. AVweb's Rick Durden says there is a much safer way to go than scud running: Get a quick-and-dirty IFR clearance.


It had been one of those lovely, late fall mornings. You got up, looked out the window at a nearly clear sky and decided to fly the 70 miles to visit an old friend for coffee. The forecast said nothing below 4000 feet and four miles vis, so off you paddled.

Coffee consumed, you shot the breeze, looked in on some homebuilts, chatted some more and suddenly it was late afternoon, and high time you went.

At 3000 feet the overcast was above you and the visibility wasn’t too bad. Fifteen minutes into the trip you dialed in the ATIS for the airport about 10 miles away from home plate and it reported a ceiling of 900 feet overcast and visibility of two miles.

Decision Time

Do you scud run and risk hitting one of those godforsaken towers that seem to have appeared magically in greater and greater numbers, or do you get an IFR clearance? Can you get an instrument clearance without landing and getting on the phone to FSS?

A depressingly large number of instrument-rated pilots, faced with this situation, keep their mouths shut, descend and scud-run for their destination. A shockingly high percentage of them die. Trying to fly VFR into IMC remains the most common cause of accidents, even among instrument-rated pilots. Why not just get an instrument clearance and reduce the risk of your funeral occurring on a sunny day and then going to that special circle of hell reserved for pilots who kill passengers while scud running?

If you honestly desire to increase the chance of surviving to fly another day, I recommend you get what controllers call a pop-up instrument clearance. That is where a VFR aircraft calls ATC and requests an instrument clearance without having previously filed an IFR flight plan. Is it legal? If you are instrument current and your airplane meets the regs, you bet it is. It may sound pretty basic, but the regs do not require that you go through FSS every time you desire an IFR clearance.

That’s all well and good, but what if the weather has gone down and you are, ummm, not completely current on instruments or the airplane isn’t instrument legal? That’s a question you have to answer honestly for yourself. You have to decide how far from current you are or why the airplane isn’t legal for IFR because you are considering life or death if you are thinking about scud running in a world that has lots of unmarked and unlighted objects.

If you don’t have an instrument rating, if you haven’t flown under the hood for the last eight months, or if the airplane simply isn’t capable of IFR, I still strongly recommend you don’t scud run, but you shouldn’t try to fly IFR, either. A diversion to the nearest airport or an off-airport landing is probably the best way to keep yourself on the correct side of the dirt.

If you truly are only lacking a bit of being current or if the airplane just hasn’t had the pitot static check in 25 months, you are probably safer getting an instrument clearance than pursuing other alternatives. Will you get a violation in such a case? Probably not, but, even if you do, you can only get it if you are alive. And that’s a worthwhile trade in my book. How do you go get yourself a pop-up instrument clearance?

The Procedure

Flight Service Station Specialist

It seems silly to talk to FSS when you really need to talk to Approach or Center. So don’t. If you need a pop-up IFR, call a controller and do the paperwork later.

If you have your Jepps handy and can look up the frequency, call the nearest approach control or center and ask for one. Don’t have the frequency handy or can’t devote time to dragging out the proper chart? At least use your sectional to get the ATIS frequency nearest to you. Listen for the weather, (it may give you some ideas). It will probably also give you an approach control frequency. No luck with ATIS? If you have time, call FSS and ask for a frequency for ATC. No time to do that? The controllers I spoke with strongly recommend that if you are fighting to stay VFR you not mess around, squawk 7700 and make a call on 121.5. If you can’t maintain VFR, start climbing to get above obstructions while calling on 121.5 to get the process of getting a clearance underway. There is a risk of a midair in the clag, but not until you get to the minimum instrument altitude and it’s still a lot lower risk than that of hitting an obstruction or the ground.

Establish radio contact and tell the controller you need an IFR clearance. The controller can give that. Of course that controller must abide by some procedures. They’re fairly basic because, over the years, the FAA recognized that the pilot asking for a pop-up clearance might be in a jam. The controller needs minimum ATC stuff: Your call sign, your location, and your request. That’s all. ATC can waive all the other flight plan information required under FAR 91.169.

It’s a good idea to remember that some controllers are nervous taking only such basic info, particularly if you are going to try to fly on over the horizon, so they will ask you for the search and rescue stuff. If things are tight, say so and indicate that when you have a clearance you’ll provide the additional information, but that you need the clearance now.

Once the controller has the ATC basics from you, the next issue is altitude. If you are above a solid layer, cruising along above the MEA or other IFR minimum altitudes, it’s no big deal; the controller will issue you a clearance (traffic load permitting) and on you go.

If you are below the minimum vectoring altitude or such other minimum altitude as really matters for the area, the controller is going to ask you if you can climb to that minimum altitude under VFR conditions. If you can, great; the controller will issue a clearance. If you can’t, the controller is supposed to ask if you can maintain obstruction and terrain clearance on your own as you climb to the minimum altitude for IFR operations.

If you can, wonderful; a clearance will be issued and you will be responsible for terrain and obstruction clearance as you climb. If you cannot maintain VFR and cannot maintain obstruction and terrain clearance on your own, the controller will treat you as an emergency. Face reality, that’s what you have. The controller’s voice goes to that wonderfully soothing tone they have and you get precisely what you need, assistance from someone who is trained and lives for this sort of thing.

That controller is going to take action to try and help you save your own life. Despite your pride and concern about paperwork (there is no paperwork associated with a declaration of an emergency, the paperwork nonsense is one of aviation’s oldest myths), what you really need, as the Waco Kid asked for in Blazing Saddles, is all the help you can get. I suggest you take it. When the ceiling is low and visibility is lousy, there is a lot of stuff you can’t see that will hurt you. It’s time to climb. Once you have the clearance, press on, and fly the remainder of the trip to your destination, shoot the approach and land.

If you don’t have the approach plates with you, and the weather dictates an instrument approach, admit it and get the information you need. Yes, many of us live by the behavioral code that it’s better to be dead than embarrassed, but too many die by it as well.

When to Air-File

There are some additional considerations to pop-up IFR. In a conversation with John Conroy, a controller in Grand Rapids, Mich., who has been doing the ATC thing for 20 years, he mentioned that the most common pop-ups he gets are guys who have been motoring along in good weather but get close to their destination and find it has gone well below forecast.

They call approach control and he issues a clearance. In that sort of situation he virtually never gets the SAR information, as he says he can see the airplane on radar and will know where to tell folks to look if it drops off the screen.

He did say that he occasionally would get a pop-up where the pilot wants to go several hundred miles. In that case Conroy will get the SAR information, or if the workload is heavy, ask that the pilot call Lansing FSS and air-file an IFR flight plan.

Normally, in that situation, he sees the flight plan show up on the computer moments before the pilot comes back on the frequency so it’s just a matter of issuing the clearance. He recognizes that there are times a pilot will try to call FSS to air file but can’t reach anyone, so he’ll put in a longer route clearance for the pilot. By the same token, Conroy doesn’t much care for the pilot who is simply too lazy to file before departing and calls up just after takeoff on a nice day for a pop-up clearance.

Conroy is the first to admit that there are some variables a pilot should consider. When he gets a call from a pilot who is down low, trying to stay VFR and can hear the fear in the pilot’s voice, he’s going to do his best to provide a clearance as smoothly and quickly as possible. If he’s swamped with traffic and the call is from a guy safely on top, with plenty of fuel, priorities may dictate that he have the pilot stand by before he can put together a clearance.

The ones that scare him are the ones who are down low, have been trying to scud run, gotten somewhat lost and are down to about 15 minutes of fuel before they call. He repeatedly said that he hopes pilots will call early enough so that they can get a clearance in time for it to help.

There are times that Conroy admits he is simply too busy to accept a pop-up and will refuse, but that is only when he is satisfied that the weather is good VFR and the pilot has viable alternatives.

He has had pilots try to get around the IFR reservation system into Oshkosh during the EAA convention by asking for a pop-up to OSH. He says he’ll give them a clearance, but it won’t be to OSH. He’ll get them to an airport as close as he can, but that trick won’t work to escape the reservation requirement.

Pilots’ Point-of-View

In preparing this article I spoke with a number of pilots. Most expressed experiences that closely matched my own. If you work with the controller and behave somewhat professionally, pop-up instrument clearances are usually easy to get. I did hear a few distressing stories and noticed one common thread. Women seemed more likely to have difficulty getting a pop-up clearance than men. I don’t know if there is some lingering sexism at ATC, but I have to wonder based on what is admittedly anecdotal evidence.

The bottom line is that controllers have a lot of discretion in how they handle pop-up clearances. The attitude and philosophy of the individual controllers plays a big roll in the ease of obtaining a clearance. However, I firmly believe the vast majority recognizes that they are there to serve the flying public, want to do so as far as they can within the rules and are fully aware that issuing a pop-up clearance may be the thing that saves the lives of a planeload of people.

After many years of handling lawsuits involving weather-related crashes, it is my opinion that as a pilot, your decision to get a pop-up clearance can be the one that causes you to continue flying for many years rather than ending your career against a hard place shortly before going to a hot one.