Air Traffic Control Clearances


The student should gain an understanding of air traffic control clearances, and how they relate to instrument flight operations.


  • Terminology
  • Clearances


  • pen and paper
  • Instrument Flying Handbook
  • Instrument Flying
  • laptop
  • enroute chart and approach plates

Instructor actions

  • Describe what ATC clearances are and why they're important
  • Discuss elements of clearances and appropriate responses
  • Evaluate student knowledge with questions emphasizing understanding rather than rote
  • Have the student solve multiple scenarios
  • Conclude with an oral quiz, identifying and correcting errors

Student actions

  • Arrive with completed homework assignment
  • Maintain active involvement by responding to questions and taking notes
  • Practice reading back clearances to ATC in several scenarios
  • Complete an oral quiz and demonstration of the concepts

Completion standards

The lesson will be complete when the student can describe and respond to air traffic control clearances with minimal instructor guidance.

Teaching outline

  • An ATC clearance authorizes us to proceed under IFR in controlled airspace
  • When ATC issues a clearance, do not deviate from it unless:

    1. an emergency occurs
    2. an amended clearance has been issued
    3. compliance will violate a FAR
  • ATC clearances are required for operations in class A and B airspace at all times

IFR clearances

  • With a flight plan, always required to operate IFR in controlled airspace

    • flight plans get deleted if not activated within an hour of the proposed departure time
  • Clearances issued on the ground via clearance delivery or ground control

    • from non-towered airports, if we can reach ATC they can issue clearance
    • we can also pick up a clearance once we are airborne
  • Clearance void time

    • no longer valid following
    • must be airborne prior
  • Clearances will always contain the following information in the same order:

    1. Aircraft identification
    2. Clearance limit
    3. Departure procedure
    4. Route of flight
    5. Altitudes (and expected times for each)
    6. Holding instructions
    7. Additional special information
    8. Frequency and transponder code information
  • Copy clearances using shorthand

    • Clearance limit
    • Route of flight
    • Altitudes and holding
    • Frequency
    • Transponder code
  • Review all clearances received

    • does it make sense?
    • can it be complied with?
  • Notify ATC or delivery immediately if issues exist
  • If the clearance can be accepted, read the clearance back to ATC
  • Requesting amended clearances or notifying ATC of deviations is the responsibility of the pilot in command
  • Abbreviated IFR departure clearances - route will be "as filed"

Enroute clearances

  • In cruise, we can:

    • operate and move within the cleared altitude ranges, if any
    • continue to execute an instrument approach at the destination
  • VFR on top allows us to climb through IFR to VFR conditions

    • when on top, we're still on an IFR flight plan
    • VFR cruising altitudes must be used
  • Tower enroute control

    • used for short routes between terminal areas
    • handed off in short succession between local facilities

Approach clearances

  • Approach control will clear us for the requested or assigned approach

    • read back instructions
    • at this point we can execute the approach to completion
  • Contact approach

    • can only be requested by us as pilots
    • authorized by the controllers
    • only allowed to runways with a published approach
    • ground visibility greater than 1 sm
    • remain clear of clouds
  • Visual approach

    • issued by the controller, intended to reduce workloads and expedite traffic
    • pilot must have aircraft ahead or the airport in sight
    • weather must be 1,000 ft and 3 sm
    • remain clear of clouds
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