IFR Phraseology


IFR Phraseology



This Lesson will cover the basics of Air Traffic Control communications when IFR.


What You Need to Know

When flying IFR in the US, the general flow of Air Traffic Control communication is that you start by retrieving the ATIS information at the origin airport, then check in with the Clearance Delivery Controller there. Essentially, you're then passed from Controller to Controller until arriving at your destination and being handed from Tower to Ground there. 

However, in VATSIM, some of your flight may be in space that is uncontrolled by virtue of a lack of staffing, at which point you'll be told, "{callsign}, leaving my airspace, {Facility} is offline, radar services terminated, frequency change approved," and should read back, "Going to 122.8, {callsign}." Then, when re-entering controlled space anywhere along the rest of the flight, you'd check in with your callsign, position, and altitude. The new Controller will issue a new squawk or have you Ident in order to radar-identify you; then, once verifying your radar contact, will issue your next instruction.

First, let's start with some general reminders regarding ATC communication, much of which was covered in the P1 rating:

  • When initiating a call to an Air Traffic Control facility, you start by giving their callsign, then yours, then your message. When checking in initially to a new Controller to whom you were not handed off from another facility, you should always initially give your position (including altitude, if airborne), and intentions. If climbing or descending, your altitude report should include both current and destination altitudes.
  • The first thing you should do after filing your flight plan is check the origin airport to see if they have an ATIS recording posted. If they do, then upon your initial check-in with the Clearance Controller, you should include somewhere in your initial transmission that you "have information Alpha" (or whatever the applicable ATIS ID was). Later, just as you start your descent toward your destination airport, you should retrieve the ATIS for that location. When you're handed off from Center to Approach, upon checking in with Approach you should note that you "have information Bravo" (or whatever letter, as applicable).
  • Most acknowledgments include reading back key pieces of information, to verify to the Controller that you heard them correctly. ALL acknowledgments end with your callsign.
  • Controllers will sometimes use shortened versions of callsigns, particularly General Aviation ones. You should never respond with a shortened callsign unless the Controller has first used that shortened callsign with you.

Next, let's examine a comprehensive general guide for the usual Air Traffic Control exchanges that a pilot might have during a standard IFR flight. Some of these exchanges may vary depending on the exact circumstances. Also, this phrasebook assumes you are under Air Traffic Control coverage the entire flight.

For any of the below instructions marked "Expect": if you feel you should be expecting an instruction and you haven't been given it, the best way to gently prod your Controller is to call in with your callsign and position. Their natural reaction will be to see where you are and what you're doing; so, that should be enough to get their attention, and they should know the next step. If it's not clear what you're looking for, and they check back with just "Roger" or something else non-committal, simply say, "{callsign}, request descent instructions" or whatever appropriate step it is you think you should be looking for, and you'll usually get the Controller back in the game -- or, they'll let you know when you can expect that instruction, and maybe even explain the reason you haven't been given that clearance yet!

Also, remember that a lot of these handoffs from Controller to Controller aren't going to happen if one is handling duties of one or more positions below their own. VATSIM etiquette is to refer to the position that you're calling by its own name, not necessarily by the name of the facility being covered; i.e. if you're getting your taxi instructions from Miami Approach, you'd call them Miami Approach, not Miami Ground.

Anytime you are flying on VATSIM and you have questions about anything you are instructed to do, ask your Controller to "say again" and/or clarify. Often, they will repeat the instruction verbally and send it via text, which can be helpful if the issue is understanding a facility name, route waypoint name, or other location-specific term you're unfamiliar with. If not, it's not a bad idea to request that they "Say again via text." Sending them a PM is acceptable if you don't want to tie up the frequency, but, understand that any time-sensitive commands should occur over the main channel. PMs are best used to clear up any confusion later on, rather than for real-time instruction.

(1) DO NOT add the words "as filed" here; it's redundant and unnecessary. Of course you want it "as filed," that's why you filed it that way. You'd never ask for your food "as ordered" or your dentist appointment "as scheduled." Now, when ATC clears you, if they didn't have to change your route, THEY will say "cleared via {blah blah blah} AND THEN AS FILED" meaning, "you were approved on the route you requested; we didn't have to make any changes." And then you read that back -- thus being the only time you, as a pilot, actually use the words "AS FILED". This is a malapropism that has apparently been instigated by the AI-based Air Traffic Control on Microsoft Flight Simulator, and perpetuated by VATSIM pilots.

(2) Push and start might in rare circumstances need Ground approval, particularly if pushing onto a taxiway.

(3) This is where you'd first call and "Request push and start" if you were directed to do so by Clearance.

(4) Rather than "Contact Tower on...", you might instead get "Monitor Tower...". This means to switch to their frequency but DO NOT CALL IN, not even to advise that you're monitoring. The request to monitor instead of contact specifically means DON'T contact them! They will call you when they're ready. This is usually done when the Tower channel is exceedingly busy, such as during fly-ins and other well-attended events. You still acknowledge the command to Ground and then switch, but, wait for the Tower controller to initiate the contact post-handoff. The Ground Controller will have let the Tower Controller know you're coming over.

(5) If Tower and Departure services are being provided by the same VATSIM controller, instead of this handoff you'll usually get asked "{callsign}, say altitude leaving."  They're looking for you to respond with an altitude report just as you would if you were checking in with Departure, below.  Sometimes, the controller expects the pilot to simply make that transmission without being called first.  So if you depart and the controller seems to have forgotten about you, proceed to your next transmission in the line below.

(6) If you get this call from Approach without the intercept instruction but just the Initial Approach Fix, you've just gotten cleared on the dreaded full approach procedure

(7) "Negative Contact" is actually the standard response to a request to report the airfield (or traffic, if applicable) in sight.  However, I tend to prefer the more concise "looking" because "negative contact" takes longer to say and also sounds like you looked once, didn't see it, and gave up.  Whichever you choose, you don't want to say "not-in-sight" because that can be misheard as "got it in sight".  I even recommend NOT reading back the instruction as "will report field in sight," because your message might be heard as "{something something} field in sight."  If a pilot responds in the negative, i.e. that they don't see it, the controller will continue to provide heading and altitude adjustments to get them closer until they do.



     1: When told by the Ground Controller to monitor Tower on a given frequency, the pilot should:

                  a. read back the new frequency and state their callsign, switch over, and check in.
                  b. read back the new frequency and state their callsign, switch over, and advise that they're monitoring.
                  c. read back the new frequency and state their callsign, switch over, and wait to be called.
                  d. none of the above.

     2: Which of the following is a true statement about ATIS recordings?
                  a. major airports in VATSIM always have ATIS recordings.
                  b. the pilot should advise the letter ID of the ATIS on check-in with Clearance at the origin, and with Approach at the destination.
                  c. the letter ID of the ATIS corresponds to the first letter of the airport's IATA ID.
                  d. all of the above.
                  e. none of the above.

     ANSWERS: 1. C ... 2. B

Rob Shearman, Jr. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)
Chief Flight Instructor, VATSTAR
DISCLAIMER: all information contained herein is for flight simulation purposes only.
revised October 2017

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