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What Instrument Pilots Need To Know About IFR Clearance, Copy, and Readback

The objective of this tutorial is to help pilots new to instrument flying master all aspects of the IFR clearance. This includes copying, understanding, and the reading back of all types of clearances issued by ATC.

Newly rated instrument pilots, or those in training for the rating, typically view clearance copy and readback with more than a little trepidation. However, there is a method that will take the mystery out of the IFR clearance. This method, along with a little practice, will make clearance copy and readback a routine and stress free part of your instrument flying endeavors.

TYPES OF ATC CLEARANCES YOU WILL ENCOUNTER

There are 5 basic types of IFR clearances. They are;

  1. The departure clearance
  2. The holding clearance
  3. The re-route clearance
  4. The approach clearance
  5. The missed approach clearance

There are three steps to mastering the copy and readback of the clearances listed above. The first one is to develop your own personal shorthand for quickly writing the clearance as it is given by ATC. Since controllers talk faster than most pilots can write, the use of shorthand is an absolute necessity!

The second task is memorizing the basic format for all 5 types of IFR clearance. The information in a clearance is always given in the same order, or format, every time. Memorizing this format allows you to anticipate what the controller is going to say, before it is said.

The third step is to practice writing simulated clearances using your personal shorthand and reading them back to your instructor or an experienced instrument pilot.

A common mistake new instrument pilots make is trying to write everything the controller says. Doing this will result in becoming task saturated which leads to confusion, frustration, and anxiety. The keys to avoiding this trap are to memorize the standard format, utilize IFR shorthand, and write as little as possible, without excluding critical details.

Here is a partial list of the IFR shorthand symbols I have been using for the past 45 years as an instrument pilot.

EXAMPLE OF IFR SHORTHAND

A/F               As Filed

M                 Maintain

M2               Maintain 2 (thousand feet)

RWY             Runway

HDG             Heading

H/                 Hold

H/N              Hold North, East, South, or West

EFC               Expect Further Clearance

RT, LT           Right Turn, Left Turn

NVB              Not Valid Before

V                   Void

INOB            If Not Off By

NLT              No Later Than

RLSD            Released 

M                 Maintain

DEP              Depart

RV                Radar Vectors
X                   Cross

INTC             Intercept

A/B               At or Below

A/A               At or Above

D                   Direct (then name of fix)

EX                 Expect

60/10A        Expect 6000 feet within 10 minutes

We will now discuss each of the 5 basic clearances and use IFR shorthand to copy them.

THE DEPARTURE CLEARANCE

Every IFR departure clearance is issued using the following format;

Clearance limit/route/altitude/departure frequency/squawk/

special instructions

This is an actual clearance I copied during an IFR flight from Allentown, PA (ABE) to Pottstown, PA (N47).

“ATC clears Arrow 1468 Tango to November 47 direct East Texas, Victor 29, Pottstown, direct, maintain three thousand, expect four thousand ten minutes after departure, contact Allentown departure on 119.65, squawk 4235.”

Let’s look at how this clearance fits into the standard format.

The clearance limit is N47/the route is direct East Texas, Victor 29 PTW, direct/ the altitude is 3,000 expect 4,000 within 10 minutes/departure frequency is 119.65/squawk is 4235/no special instructions.

Using my personal IFR shorthand, and writing as little as possible, it would look like this;

N47 ETX V29 PTW D M3 EX4/10A 119.65 4235

I avoided getting behind in copying this clearance by not writing everything the controller said. For example, there was no reason to write down “ATC clears Arrow 1468Tango” since I knew I was being cleared, I knew what kind of airplane I was flying, and what my N number was. Those details are easily spoken from memory.

Also, it is not necessary to write the words “contact Allentown departure on…” since it is always the 5 digit number that follows the altitude assignment. It is also not necessary to write the word “squawk” as it is always the four digit number that follows the departure frequency.

This clearance is a bit more complex, but easily copied by using IFR shorthand and writing as little as possible.

We are departing the uncontrolled Mount Pocono Airport (KMPO) for the Lancaster, PA Airport.

“Pilatus 524 Romeo Delta is cleared to KLNS direct Wilkes-Barre, Victor 93 Lancaster, direct, maintain three thousand, expect eight thousand within ten minutes after departure, contact Wilke-Barre Approach on 120.95, squawk 4302, you are releases at 2212, void if not of by 2217, if not off by 2217, contact clearance delivery on 125.3 no later than 2227.”

Using my personal IFR shorthand, it would look like this;

KLNS LVZ V93 LRP KLNS M3 80/10A 120.95 4302 RLSD 2212 V2217 INOB 2217 125.3 NLT 2227

Notice that using IFR shorthand, it was possible to reduce 6 lines of text to just 2 lines by writing as little as possible. Naturally, you must still fill in what wasn’t written in shorthand from memory. However, being able to fill in the missing words is easy once the standard format is memorized.

THE HOLDING CLEARANCE

Holding clearances are issued when it is temporarily not possible to continue flying to your filed destination. This could be due to traffic, thunderstorms, another airplane making an approach ahead of you at an uncontrolled field, or a whole host of other reasons. The holding clearance uses the same basic format as the departure clearance with some differences. The format for the holding clearance is;

New clearance limit/route (to the holding pattern)/holding instructions/altitude/expect further clearance time/ current time on the controller’s clock

The holding clearance often begins with a courtesy call from the controller that sounds like this;

“Cessna 757 Xray Uniform I have holding instructions when you are ready to copy.” There is only one correct reply and that is “Standby”. Do not feel pressured to accept the clearance until you have the autopilot on, pencil in hand, and courage peaked. With those things done, you are now you are ready to copy.

“Cessna 757Xray Uniform you are now cleared to the LAAYK Intersection via Tango 216 to hold east on the zero nine zero radial, left turns, maintain 6 thousand, expect further clearance at two three four four, time now two three one zero and one half.”

This clearance fits into the standard format like this;

New clearance limit is the LAAYK intersection/route is the RNAV airway T216/Holding instructions are to hold east of LAAYK, left turns/altitude is 6,000 feet/Expect further clearance is 2344Z/Current time is 2310 and one half.

Using my personal IFR shorthand, I would write it like this;

LAAYK T216 H/E 090 LT EFC 2344/2310

THE RE-ROUTE CLEARANCE

Occasionally, the route you were flying must be changed. This is usually due to a traffic conflict, but it could also be for weather or some other reason. The result is that the controller must issue a re-route clearance. The standard format is;

New clearance limit/new route/altitude/special instructions

Like with the holding clearance, the controller will usually say;

“Saratoga 1375 SIERA Delta I have an amendment to your route when you are ready to copy.”

As always, the universal reply should be “Standby.” With the autopilot on, pencil in hand, and courage peaked, initiate your misfortune by saying “Ready to copy.”

“Saratoga 137 SIERRA Delta you are now cleared to the destination airport (N40) direct Selinsgrove, Victor 30, East Texas, direct, cross East Texas at and maintain 5 thousand.”

This clearance fits into the standard format like this;

New clearance limit is still destination airport (N40), new route is direct to the Selinsgrove VOR, Victor 30 East Texas VOR direct/special instructions are to cross ETX at, and maintain 5000 feet.

Using my personal IFR shorthand, I would write it like this;

 SEG V30 ETX D X ETX M5 D N40

Again, I have eliminated all unnecessary wording and reduced 3 lines of text to one.

APPROACH CLEARANCES

The fourth of the five basic clearances is the approach clearance. There are actually two different approach clearances, one format for operating in radar contact, and another for non-radar. The non-radar clearance is the easiest of the two, with a standard format that looks like this;

Clearance to an Initial Approach Fix (IAF) or an Initial Fix (IF)/ altitude to maintain until established on the approach/ clearance for the approach/special instructions

In some cases, this type of clearance may also be issued while in radar contact. However, a typical approach clearance in a non-radar might look like this; we are being cleared to fly the RNAV(GPS) Approach to Runway 28 to the Hazelton Regional Airport, PA.

“Saratoga 137 SIERRA Delta is cleared direct YOLBU, maintain 4000 until established on the final approach course, cleared GPS Runway 28 Approach to the Hazleton Regional Airport, report missed approach or cancellation on this frequency or by phone, cleared frequency change to advisory.”

This clearance fits into the standard format like this;

Cleared to YOLBU (IAF)/ maintain 4000 until established/ Cleared for the approach/special instructions that deal with declaring missed approach or cancellation.

Using my IFR shorthand, it would look like this;

D YOLUB M4 CLD GPS RWY28

THE APPROACH CLEARANCE WHILE IN RADAR CONTACT

This type of clearance is normally given when flying an approach to a Class B, C or D airport. The standard format is as follows;

A heading to intercept the final approach course/ an altitude to maintain until established on the final approach course/ clearance for the approach/special instructions.

This is a typical approach clearance for the ILS Runway 13 Approach to the Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE).

“Pilatus 42 Papa November, fly heading 170 until intercepting the final approach course, maintain 3000 until established, cleared ILS Runway 13, contact the tower on 120.5 at MOOVY.”

It fits into the standard format like this;

The heading to intercept is 170 /we are to maintain 3000 feet until established on the final approach course/we are cleared ILS Runway 13/our special instructions are to contact the tower at the MOOVY intersection.

There are several things that make this the most challenging and intimidating clearance you will face as an instrument pilot.

First, the controller will never give you a heads up call that you are about to get a mile-long clearance, at machine gun speed. In addition, you will be expected to process a tremendous amount of information, read it back without hesitation, and get everything right on the readback.

Another problem you will face is that the approach clearance will be issued when you are just a minute or so from intercepting the final approach course. This precludes saying “Standby” or even copying the clearance down.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to mastering this type of approach clearance. However, knowing the standard format is crucial. It takes practice, good situational awareness, and anticipation to mentally process and read back the approach clearance. Here are some tips to help mitigate the difficulties you will experience.

Know that you are on final vectors to intercept the final approach course by being situationally aware. If your vector heading is within 20 to 40 degrees of the final approach course, an approach clearance is imminent. Anticipate what the controller is about to say, and be ready for the clearance. If you are at the altitude for crossing the final approach fix, that is what you will be told to maintain until established.

Say to yourself “The next thing the controller is probably going to say is maintain three thousand until established…” This will prepare you for the clearance. Another tip is to practice getting, and reading back these kinds of clearances with your instrument instructor before taking them on in flight.

THE MISSED APPROACH CLEARANCE

The clearance you will receive upon declaring a missed approach depends upon whether you are operating in radar contact or not. In a non-radar environment, the controller will simply say “Fly the published missed approach.” However, in radar contact, the clearance can be a bit more challenging.

Once established in a stabilized climb, with gear and flaps up, declare a missed approach. Try to copy the controller’s instructions if they are complex, but do not sacrifice control of the airplane to do so.

There is no set format for the missed approach clearance while operating in radar contact as there are too many variables. But in general, it would be;

Heading or course to fly/clearance limit/altitude/frequency /special instructions

Here is a sample missed approach clearance while operating in a radar environment.

“Cherokee 1663 Juliet, fly runway heading, climb and maintain three thousand, reaching three thousand, cleared direct East Texas to hold as published, contact Allentown Approach Control on 119.65.”

If you had time to write it down, it should look something like this; 

RWH M3 D ETX H/AP 119.65

SUMMARY

Increasing your proficiency level and confidence during the copy and readback of IFR clearances will take time and practice. Here are some suggestions that may speed the processes.

  1. Read this text more than one time and follow the suggestions I have offered.
  2. Some technically advanced simulators use a new system called PilotEdge, where you speak to real controllers on simulated IFR flights. This is a great way to master clearance copy and readback without the expense of a real airplane.
  3. Have your instructor or an experienced instrument rated pilot read simulated clearances to you. Copy them using your IFR shorthand and read them back. Use a voice recorder during these sessions and listen to your read backs for quality control.
  4. If you are already instrument rated, file IFR in VFR conditions. This will give you an opportunity to copy and read back real clearances without having to worry about flying in the weather.

If you are still in training, encourage your instrument instructor to file IFR on every training flight. There is no better way to gain experience and confidence than copying real clearances from real controllers. If your instructor won’t do this, you are flying with the wrong instructor.

  • Save all of the clearances you have copied while operating in the IFR system and study them later for format. You can also critique your IFR shorthand in the process.
  • Listen to controller terminology while operating under IFR. Become a student of “controllerspeak”. This will greatly improve your ability to copy and read back clearances like a professional. It will also aid in anticipating what the controller will say.
  • Listen to other instrument pilots on the radio and critique how they communicate with ATC. You can learn from their techniques, both good and bad.

As always, I hope this tutorial has been helpful in mastering the copy and readback of IFR clearances.

ADDENDUM

Airline pilots get IFR clearances via the pre-departure clearance, or PDC, that magically appears on the cockpit printer. It might start with my first officer saying;

 “Hey Joel, looks like our clearance just came up on the printer.”

Below is an actual IFR clearance I received via data link for my retirement flight from KSFO to KJFK, on January 14, 2105. Note the comments from ATC that says it is the captain’s retirement flight.

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