Questions and Answers About IFR Radio Procedures

Here are some of the questions about IFR radio procedures I’m asked most often.

Q: Am I required to use my call sign at the beginning or end of my transmission?

A: According to the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), you may use your call sign at the beginning or end of a transmission.

It’s not easy to find this answer in the AIM because it’s embedded in explanations of other procedures. Under 4−2−3. Contact Procedures, sub-paragraph c. the AIM says, “If the situation demands your response, take appropriate action or immediately advise the facility of any problem. Acknowledge with your aircraft identification, either at the beginning or at the end of your transmission, and one of the words “Wilco,” “Roger,” “Affirmative,” “Negative,” or other appropriate remarks; e.g., “PIPER TWO ONE FOUR LIMA, ROGER.”

Further down in that same section, under sub-paragraph d. Acknowledgement of Frequency Changes, the AIM gives this example: “United Two Twenty−Two on one two three point four” or “one two three point four, United Two Twenty−Two.”

Countries following the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) rules for air traffic control state one’s call sign must be added to the end of every transmission. Here in the U.S. you may begin or end with your call sign.

Q: When cleared for an instrument approach, do I have to read back the exact title of the approach procedure ATC cleared me to fly?

A: Yes and no. Sorry for that wishy-washy answer but here’s the hard truth. If Approach Control clears you, for example, for the ILS Zulu Approach, Runway 18, and you read back “[Your call sign], cleared for the approach,” likely the approach controller will not ask you to repeat your read back to include the name of the approach. Approach controllers know intercepting a final approach segment is a very busy phase of flight. The controller will not pester you for greater detail in your read back during this phase if you omit the name of the approach.

However, if you read back, “[Your call sign], cleared for the ILS Yankee Approach, Runway 18,” and you were cleared to fly the ILS Zulu Approach, Runway 18, the controller will demand a correct read back of the cleared approach. In this example, an ILS Yankee approach differs procedurally from an ILS Zulu approach even though both approaches are ILS’s and both lead to the same runway. The controller will want verification you are about to fly the correct procedure if you read back the wrong name.

Q: What is the exact phrase I should use to tell a controller I need a clearance repeated slowly?

A: There is no exact phrase. Be courteous and tell the controller, in your own words, to please repeat the last clearance slower. Here’s how I say it: “Please say that again slowly for [my call sign].”

Q: When given a clearance to descend “at pilot’s discretion” do I need to tell the controller when I initiate the descent?

A: Yes. Example: I’m currently level at 12,000. ATC says, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, at pilot’s discretion, descend and maintain 8,000.” Of course, I’ll read back that clearance immediately. Later, when I decide to start my descent, I’ll say, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta is vacating one two thousand.” Usually, all ATC says in reply is, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, roger.”

Q: If ATC tells me to descend to 8,000 but I’d like to remain at my current altitude as long as possible for fuel savings, turbulence avoidance, etc, is it okay to ask the controller for the option to descend “at pilot’s discretion”?

A: Sure, if you really want to mess up the controller’s plan. Almost always, when ATC tells you to descend, it’s for flow planning or traffic deconfliction. When you ask for “pilot’s discretion” you are asking the controller to recalculate his flow plan or to juggle his traffic priorities to prevent a traffic conflict. He may help you out but your request will probably throw a wrench in the works. I strongly urge to you to not make this request, even if you hear other less considerate pilots do it.

Q: Got any tips on how to copy a route clearance?

A: Yes, but there are far more than I can include in this single article. I have a complete course in how to copy route clearances in a program I created called “Clearance Magic”. The program is available at IFRclearance.com. Yep, that was a shameless self-promotion. While I’m on a roll, I’ll also point out the big book at the top of this page, Radio Mastery for IFR Pilots, has a complete discussion of IFR radio procedures, techniques, and hands-on exercises to make you a better IFR communicator.

You may have a question I haven’t addressed in this article. So please, go ahead and ask. I’m right here at Jeff@ATCcommunication.com.

Answer to the question asked in IFR Flight Radio Newsletter, Issue 6: A visual approach.

Newsletter? Absolutely. If you aren’t in on my free newsletter and you’re mildly curious, check out the details in the right column of this page.

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2 thoughts on “Questions and Answers About IFR Radio Procedures”

  1. ”Q: If ATC tells me to descend to 8,000 but I’d like to remain at my current altitude as long as possible for fuel savings, turbulence avoidance, etc, is it okay to ask the controller for the option to descend “at pilot’s discretion”?

    A: Sure, if you really want to mess up the controller’s plan. Almost always, when ATC tells you to descend, it’s for flow planning or traffic deconfliction. When you ask for “pilot’s discretion” you are asking the controller to recalculate his flow plan or to juggle his traffic priorities to prevent a traffic conflict. He may help you out but your request will probably throw a wrench in the works. I strongly urge to you to not make this request, even if you hear other less considerate pilots do it.“

    Hi Jeff,
    Do you think the ‘less considerate pilots’ description might be open to a re-visit, in some circumstances?
    For example, ‘turbulence avoidance’ is mentioned. If a pilot knows that descending to 8,000 will take the aircraft into some nasty IMC and knows turbulence will be continuous moderate at the lower altitude, ATC may not know the flight conditions, the pilot does. So if a pilot requests whether remaining higher might be available (for say, 20 miles), asking might not be ‘less considerate’. It might simply be a request to see whether ATC could accommodate, for weather avoidance. If the controller can, they might be able to coordinate (with the next sector) and accommodate (in un-congested airspace). If they can’t, pilot complies with descent, and that’s it.
    If controllers have a planned flow, but might have scope to accommodate, pilots have a plan too … and trying to avoid turbulence, seems worth a short request to check if that’s available … to remain at xxx altitude for 20 miles, or until xx miles west of yyy navaid.

    Rather than thinking in terms of 121 operations on a flow into a busy arrival sector, do you think the answer might change, for say a g.a. piston twin, 50 miles from destination?
    Perhaps the ‘less considerate pilots’ isn’t applicable in all circumstances?
    Continuous moderate, and/or occasional severe TB, can be brutal.
    Hope that makes sense?
    -Mike

    1. Mike,

      Entering moderate turbulence in a general aviation aircraft can be anything from annoying to outright hazardous. Turbulence doesn’t necessarily have to threaten the structure of your aircraft to be considering hazardous. If the intensity of the turbulence makes reading your instruments difficult, or causes your autopilot to disengage, or simply makes manual flying very difficult, your margin of safety is reduced. No argument at all that severe turbulence, even in a brief encounter, can be dangerous. Certainly anytime safety is an issue, you may request an amended clearance to maintain safety. Requesting a delayed descent to avoid hazardous weather, is simply good airmanship. I suppose I should clarify that I don’t recommend asking ATC for a delayed descent simply for convenience. Thank you for the question.

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