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ATC clearance quandary
For many years, ATC has been giving or modifying clearances by adding, for example, "Cleared via waypoint X to then intercept the ABC VOR radial to V1001," when there is a perfectly good waypoint at that intercept point. They know whether an aircraft is RNAV or GPS equipped but still give out a radial to a waypoint as if all we had were charts and a VOR. This causes confusion and wastes time. Every time I ask clearance delivery or other ATC personnel, they always say they don't know why this is done.
_ATP, Citation CJ3
- Many clearance questions puzzle pilots on occasion, so we tracked down a retired FAA controller, now serving as a trainer for FAA about this and other pilot irritants concerning clearances and the follow-on departure. Clearances issued may seldom match a clearance filed due to agreed-upon departure routes for a given airport and the surrounding ATC sectors.
Letters of agreement between sectors establish routes for departing aircraft so the controller knows where aircraft will appear on the radar screen before talking to the pilot. If an airport is on the edge of an ATC sector, the departure procedure may be to keep the aircraft in the controller's airspace long enough to effect a handoff. At times, ATC separates airplanes from airspace. The route may also keep the aircraft out of arrival or departure corridors for nearby busy airports.
When departing uncontrolled airports, the clearance and following departure may be complicated because ATC cannot give the pilot a vector until the aircraft reaches the minimum vectoring or minimum altitude for IFR operations. This requires the pilot to be responsible for terrain and obstacle clearance until reaching that altitude.
The former controller states FAA computers have not really stayed current with technology. The system that creates the clearance may not read the code signifying the aircraft is equipped with GPS or an FMS RNAV system. The local controller who issues the clearance does not generate the clearance. The clearance comes from prearranged routing as mentioned earlier which may or may not take into consideration aircraft equipment but more on routing aircraft in a certain direction.
Since the route is the same for all aircraft regardless of equipment, the clearance ends up being long, "non-RNAV" descriptive. ATC cannot issue a clearance directly to an intersection for non-RNAV aircraft so we get clearances that include a VOR and radial, only to find a named intersection at the end of that radial! These clearances must be descriptive enough also in the case of lost communication where the aircraft departs, goes IMC and is not able to talk with ATC.
Other items that further cloud the air, so to speak, is the named intersection may be on low altitude charts but not on high altitude charts (or vice versa), depending on the aircraft and its planned route. So, after getting the ATC two-step on the questions so far, this author decided to move on to the next pilot irritant.
After deciphering a long exhaustive clearance, complete with chart excursions and a painful search of navaids and intersections the flightplan is finally entered into the FMS (albeit often in the wrong direction!) and you are ready to depart—only to be given a radar vector on departure in a different direction not even close to as cleared.
As stated earlier, the ATC controller who handles aircraft on departure is not the one who generates an ATC clearance in the first place. Departure controllers want to move aircraft quickly and can see the RNAV equipment code of the aircraft and once radar contact is established can offer direct to an intersection or navaid which hopefully coincides with your desired direction.
Pilots can avoid some consternation by filing the preferred route or at least the first part of a preferred route to get their flightplan into the FMS more quickly and on their way. Airport facility directories (AFDs) have many of the preferred routes for the parts of the country covered by the AFD volume—or go online to fly.faa.gov and look under "products" then "Route Management Tool" (RMT) to find routes by airport. This database of airports and routes can also be downloaded in a PDF file, which this author found easier to use than trying to guess what combination of information FAA wanted on the RMT website.
Another method to use is call the tower directly and ask what route you will receive when departing in a certain direction if no preferred route is available, especially in a time crunch or when the passengers have already told you to hurry up because they are late. Maybe the fix will come in the promised NextGen ATC system coming to an airport near you.