5 things every IFR pilot needs to say

Single Pilot IFR is one of the most dangerous types of flying in general aviation. The biggest reason is it requires high workload and multitasking. Multitasking is from the Latin phrase ubadus multitaskus, which means doing more than one thing badly at the same time. The human brain is always more effective when it can focus on one thing. That one thing should be flying the airplane.

Over the years I’ve found five key phrases that, when told to ATC, reduce workload and make IFR much easier.

“Say Again Slower” is most useful when trying to copy a clearance, but also in the air. Many people, including controllers, make the mistake of trying to save time on a busy frequency by talking too fast. This backfires by creating mistakes and using even more time to repeat and correct instructions. Another way to combat this problem is by talking slowly yourself. People tend to mimic the speed they hear.

“Standby” is the key behind one of the most important aviation safety rules. Aviate, then navigate, then last and only if you have time comes communicate. If you are busy briefing an approach, programming avionics or just busy getting the plane stabilized, let ATC know that you are busy and call them again when you have time.

“Negative ATIS” is one of the most useful phrases available. It’s hard enough to fly a plane and listen to one radio. Trying to listen to a second radio in busy airspace can make flying harder.   When you tell a controller that you are negative ATIS, you are letting them know that you aren’t ready for the approach. They only have two choices. They can either give the ATIS to you (Cockpit Resource Management) or give you time to get it yourself. It’s usually easier and faster to give it to you.

“Vectors for Time” is not found in the Pilot-Controller Glossary. It’s a great example of just telling the controllers in plain English that you need a little help. Rushing into an approach you’re not ready for is an easy way to fall behind and get into trouble. If you are instructed to turn left and descend to intercept the localizer before you are stabilized, just ask for their help. A great response is “I’m not ready for the approach, can you give me some vectors for time?” They will put you on some long, straight legs out of the way that are easier than a holding pattern. This will give you time to get stabilized and set up.

Last and most important to our safety as a pilot is to tell the controllers no when something won’t work. The NTSB reports are full of pilots who agreed to something they weren’t ready for. My best example is when ATC asks me to make a maximum forward speed on an approach in actual IMC. Airlines, which have a much lower accident rate than GA, all mandate something called a stabilized approach. Completely changing a practiced configuration and rushing procedures can be really dangerous.

Remember that you are Pilot in Command. Remember that controllers are there to help you be safe, and they will, as long as you ask them for help.

Did I get it right or wrong? What are some other key phrases that have helped you?

21 Comments

  • Good piece — thanks!

    Instead of “tell the controllers no when something won’t work,” I suggest the single word “unable,” followed by a very short explanation or alternative suggestion if appropriate, e.g.

    “ATC: climb and maintain 9,000 ft.”

    “Pilot: unable 9,000, due to icing risk.”

    “Unable” seems to be one of the words controllers respect and respond to without a lot of discussion.

  • I think perhaps we do want to be as prepared as possible for the unexpected lest we put the other guy in a bad spot. The max speed on approach example is a good one. If I tell the controller no, I can’t make 130 kt on approach in my 182, then he has to slow down the jet behind me which might ball up that guy’s stabilized approach; or vector me out till there’s a bigger opening in the line.

  • Pilots flying single-pilot IFR need to not be afraid to declare an emergency when it’s warranted (icing, engine problems, and other essential equipment failures). Declaring an emergency gets you all kinds of help and the special treatment you deserve particularly if you are the only pilot on board. I do not know how many times I have declared an emergency in over 40 years of flying but I can tell you I have never had to provide a written explanation to ATC even when I was given priority handling. They like happy endings and hate paperwork as much as we do.

  • For the younger pilots out there: many times you are doing touch and goes and realize that you don’t see number one (which you are supposed to follow) or the the downwind leg you were instructed to fly is getting longer and longer, I use ” tower please call base for Cherokee 1234″… Simple and reduced a lot of stress in my pilot days.

  • Very good advice, Gary. It’s easy to get in a rush and that’s the last thing you want to do while in the clouds. The pilot in command of the airplane has to be the pilot in charge of the situation.

  • I fly a BE20 single pilot around 500 hours per year so get a lot of practice multitasking. Your suggestions are good and I’ll add one more. I don’t know what the Controller’s Handbook says but instead of trying to listen to 2 radios at once, if I’m busy, I’ll wait until the center to approach handoff to listen to the ATIS and call the FBO. This may take a minute or so but I’ve never heard any complaints from ATC about a slow checkin.

  • When I’m VFR, I don’t mind pushing my airplane’s nose down and making “best forward speed”, such as for a contact or visual approach, whatever that speed happens to be. But when I’m on an instrument approach in the soup and ATC asks for that, my response will be something like “roger, that will be 90 knots”, because that’s the final approach speed I regularly fly. It is safer to stay with familiar procedures, and it lets ATC know for their planning needs.

  • What all pilots need to know and remember is, ATC is Customer Service based. Also, not all Control Towers are staffed with FAA controllers. Some are contract controllers contracted by the US Government from ATC services and some might only have military experience.

  • I agree with everything, however a lot can be avoided by some self help.

    Single pilot should prepare before takeoff. Most of these delays and help requirements could be avoided most of the time when there is no change of weather or a diversion to other than your planned alternate.

    One real aid for students (and me today) is a condensed approach check list taped to the instrument panel a close to the attitude display as you can get! Then teach time and /or distance requirements to get steps completed as you move along. (It seem that the separate paper check list is bypassed as soon as time becomes not enough)

    My single pilot IFR is in my Swift, F8, A4, and A7. None of these could/should I risk being behind because of a casual attitude or unprepared. (by the way, the Swift and early F8 and A4 had no autopilot)

  • All great points, and very comprehensive explanations. I use them all in my instructional repertoire.
    Here’s one you might want to add to add to your list: “Vectors Behind…”.
    One concept that I drill into my students is to be very specific about where they need to be for a FAC intercept, otherwise ATC will just dump them in on the approach wherever it it is convenient for ATC.
    For instance, on the OAK ILS 28R, us little Bug-Smashers are normally vectored to intercept the FAC at GROVE Intersection at 3400 FT. If we’re approaching from the East to Northeast, not a problem to go direct to GROVE, make a turn and start on down the approach. However, approaching at 3400 FT from the North or West, NorCal Approach often gives us a turn of more than 90 degrees, well inside of GROVE, sometimes nearly on top of URZAF. It’s the ol’ Slam-Dunk.
    Sure, it’s doable if you’re a very cagey, experienced Instrument Pilot, and you’ve been to this rodeo a few times, but for an Instrument student, the wheels will most certainly fall off the cart. If they can even make the intercept without blowing through the localizer, they are now way high, and need to start descending at a very rapid clip to get down to the glideslope. And of course, Norcal also wants them to give best forward speed for a Gulfstream in-trail (the reason for the early turn), and contact Oakland Tower 118.3, thank you very much. Hilarity oftentimes does not ensue…
    My solution is for my students to specifically request “Vectors behind…”. If NorCal wants to turn us in early, we simply say “Unable. Requesting vectors behind GROVE”. We will gladly take a delaying vector to let the Gulfstream blow past us, then get turned around and intercept the localizer well below the glideslope in a more leisurely fashion.
    We try to keep it copacetic…

    • Charles makes a good point about approaches. When I used to be based at the big airport in Ottawa, Tower got to know the call-signs of the local privately-owned planes and what each of us was (and wasn’t) capable of.

      I even got turned inside the FAF a few times for the ILS 07 approach, but even though I wasn’t (and still am not) an IFR wizard, I was comfortable with that at the time because (a) I could look forward to a well-lit, 8,000 ft runway ahead of me, and (b) I knew the airspace well. I don’t think they would try that with a transient pilot, but if they do, it’s important to follow Charles’s advice and propose an alternative.

  • Sorry Gary,

    You are way off course with this one. ATIS is a loop recording that is receivable for many miles from the airport at even the lowest altitudes. Knowing when to “work on it” is part of 91.103 compliance. That (aeronautical) decision should be considered and made before departing. A busy controller may give you the weather but will most certainly omit other important details typically found on the ATIS ie: Notams — Connector closures, Lighting OTS, Navaids OTS, etc. I like to know in advance: the active runway, approach in use and any atypical expectations ie: LAHSO. The value of the ATIS code (letter) is that once you have it; Keep the ATIS freq in the flip/flop for a quick review between the hand off from Center to Approach. We should all know from experience that the next ATIS code (letter) is to be expected approx 10 min before the hour. That’s no big deal to manage. Expecting ATC to spoon-feed the weather because a Pilot is not ready for an arrival into the terminal area does NOT add up to CRM. I would call that just the opposite: A Pilot flying way behind the airplane. Any Pilot who comes to me for a Flight Review or IPC better be proficient at getting the ATIS, ASOS or AWOS or they can expect to keep flying (with me) until they do. Maybe that’s why I don’t do many FRs or IPCs and that’s just fine with me.

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