Picking Up an IFR Clearance Enroute

The other day I departed Henderson, NV (KHND) on a local VFR instructional flight in an Extra 330LC. When my student and I arrived in the runup area, a Cessna 210 was idling nearby. Its pilot had been there a while, and he was carrying on an extended conversation with ground control about his IFR clearance to an airport in southern California. ATC had issued a complicated revision to his filed route. Because KHND abuts the Class B surface area for KLAS and is bounded by rapidly rising terrain to the east, south, and west, getting out of Henderson under IFR in a light aircraft can be challenging and time-consuming.

We completed our pretakeoff checks and departed before the C210 pilot looked up from his kneeboard. We cleared the Class D airspace without hearing the tower clear him for takeoff. Similar situations exist at many other airports that lie within busy airspace, are not served by a SID, or have poor radar coverage.

To avoid long delays and circuitous routings from ATC, when weather permits, I frequently depart VFR and pick up my IFR clearance en route. The keys to making this procedure work:

  • File an IFR flight plan before departure and use a VOR or other fix along your route as your “departure point” in block 5 of the flight plan form. Choose a fix that isn’t too close to busy airspace or a known arrival gate. Controllers working the sector around such airspace might be too busy to issue a clearance right away, and you might then have to hold under VFR until they can work you in.
  • The filed ETD should be the time you expect to be over the fix you entered in block 5, not the time you plan to take off.

I also enter “Departed XXXX” (where XXXX is the ID for the airport) in the remarks field to indicate the airport where I started the flight.

Using this procedure, your filed flight plan probably won’t time out, even if you won’t ask for your clearance until a couple of hours after takeoff, because the departure time in the flight plan is based on the place and time where you expect to get your clearance, not when you took off from the departure airport.

Using an appropriate en route fix, usually a VOR (but an RNAV waypoint or intersection can work, too) as the “departure point” helps ensure that the appropriate ATC facility gets your flight plan.

As you approach the fix filed as your departure point, you can talk to approach or center, as appropriate, and they’ll almost always have your clearance readily available. If you’re already receiving VFR advisories, the controller may even offer the clearance to you before you ask.

You can find (to a good approximation) the appropriate center frequency on an en route chart before you take off or in the “nearest” pages of your GPS while you’re en route. You can also find a center/approach frequency on an approach plate for an airport near the fix you specified as your departure point. An approach facility often owns the airspace below about 10,000 feet around airports with published procedures, so if you’re cruising at such altitudes, you may get your clearance from an approach controller, not someone at a center.

If you need further help and haven’t noted the appropriate frequency before takeoff, contact flight service with your position, and they’ll give you a frequency to try.

Back to the C210 at Henderson. Given that the weather is usually good VFR in the Las Vegas area, a much better procedure for a flight into say, southern California, is to file an IFR flight plan with a “departure point” of, for example, DAG or PMD, and an ETD that accounts for the time you expect to need to fly from KHND to arrive over that fix. Here’s a routing into Long Beach that might work well.

I also use this procedure often when flying from eastern WA or OR back into Seattle, where an IFR letdown is frequently required even when the skies are CAVU east of the Cascades.

Having filed an IFR flight plan that begins over a fix such as YKM, I typically depart VFR from a non-towered airport (e.g., KBDN), and proceed toward YKM, where several airways and arrivals into the Seattle area begin. I call Seattle Center (if I’m not already getting flight following) 20-30 miles from YKM and my clearance is ready.

The same procedure works when departing a towered airport, such as KGEG. In fact, because I file a VOR such as ELN as the departure point and my ETD is the time I expect to be over ELN, the tower probably won’t have an IFR flight plan for me, so no confusion ensues either when I depart, or when I request my clearance to Boeing Field from Seattle Center near Ellensburg.

It’s important, of course, to use this procedure only when the weather allows a safe, comfortable departure and initial cruise under VFR. No scud-running that risks a CFIT accident. And you must make sure to contact ATC and receive an IFR clearance before you encounter IMC or fly beyond the fix you filed as your departure point.

For more information about CFIT, see the Instrument Procedures Handbook (PDF) and the CFIT Safety Topic at the AOPA Air Safety Institute website.

To learn about a related topic, Composite Flight Plans, see AIM 5-1-7.


3 Responses to Picking Up an IFR Clearance Enroute

  1. Al Powers says:

    I frequently fily VFR out of a grass strip located in a narrow valley and pick up an IFR clearance after I have flown 5 or 10 minutes and climbed to an altitude that will let me talk to center. Before takeoff I file by telepohone to a waypoint defined by the radial and distance off a VOR. Sometimes my arrival at the starting waypoint varies substantially from what I had given as my estimated time off, but I have never had a complaint or a problem getting the clearance when I call in.

    Nice guys in Seattle Center !.

    Al Powers

  2. Paul says:

    During my instrument training I did this on one of the legs of my cross country worked great. Also, leaving Henderson last weekend I did the same thing headed back to San Diego. Listed the Thermal VORTAC as my departure point. Crusing along on flight following I got my clearance from the guy at center. By the time I hit the super busy guy at SOCAL tracon I fit right in. I do like this better than trying to get a pop up clearance. I’ve been turned away on those before.

  3. Great post, thanks. This page is still at the top of the Google search results 4.5 years after its authoring for a good reason.

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