Maybe it’s just that I don’t like to think on the fly, but I’m a huge fan of pre-loaded decisions. One of these is the departure alternate for IFR.
A departure alternate is an airport and approach you’ll fly if trouble finds you seconds after you enter the clouds. These are required for many commercial operations if the conditions make an IFR return to the departure airport unlikely or impossible. They’re not required for GA, but you should consider making them part of your standard IFR planning whenever ceilings preclude a VFR return.
Returning to your departure field isn’t always the fastest option, even if an approach to that airport is an option. Once you’re in the clouds, you’ll need an instrument approach or vectors below the clouds to land. Because airports are often aligned on similar headings in a given area, it may be fastest to continue flying straight ahead and join the final approach course for an airport ahead of you rather than do an about-face.
Returning to your departure might require overflying before a second-course reversal to start heading back down. That’s a long time with a problem aircraft.
If it’s a toss-up, consider which airport has the better maintenance services, fire, and rescue, or simplest, surest instrument approach. That’s your departure alternate. If the best choice is an instrument return, great. You just left there so you’ll have most of the frequencies ready to go.
No matter what, it’s best to have that airport selected and the approach you’ll want, ready and briefed. Load the navaid frequencies and the approach directly into your navigator if you can. You’re flying a departure, so the approach part of your flight plan is probably free. You can delete it at your leisure when you’re enroute with everything humming nicely. If nothing else, you can probably set up an ILS frequency into your navigator when you’re using GPS for navigation on departure.
It’s important to know what constitutes a VFR return for your area. Just because the airport is reporting ceilings of 1200 AGL doesn’t mean ATC can let you back down to 1200 if you have an issue. You might still need an instrument approach.
So consider the minimum vectoring altitude (MVA) for your area. If you don’t know it, ask the tower or an Approach controller before you depart. If ceilings are above MVA, you can get vectored down below the clouds from wherever you are when Murphy strikes and then get lined up for a visual landing at the airport. If not, expect an instrument approach and make a departure alternate plan.
Watch This Video:
“Preloading the Departure’s Approach”
Take this thinking to its extreme and you’ve got the proverbial zero-zero departure. True “zero vis” is probably taking things too far because you can’t even see the runway well enough for a takeoff roll. But let’s consider going IMC immediately on rotation: insane or reasonable?
Transitioning to instruments prior to entering the clouds is a healthy habit, so for a near zero-zero takeoff, that means looking down at the AI while still on the ground and then pitching for a climb. The action isn’t that different from a normal takeoff with an airport near minimums, and once you’re 200 feet above the ground, it’s essentially the same as a go-around from minimums—except you’re already configured for the climb with a plan as to where you’re going. We don’t usually consider the go-around from minimums insanely risky, so why the below-minimums departure?
I think it’s more perceived risk than actual risk. My stand is that so long as you have a departure plan covering the fact that you can’t come back, this kind of departure is no more—or less—risky than any flight profile in low IFR.
ForeFlight Question of the Month:
How do you add an instrument approach to your ForeFlight navigation log?
A. Select the approach from the plates tab and then send it to the map.
B. Tap the airport on the map, and then tap “add approach” from the pop-up window.
C. Go to the full airport page, select the approach, and tap “add to route.”
D. Edit the nav log and tap “procedure” to select and add the approach.
Jeff Van West is PilotWorkshops’ Creative Director with the primary responsibility for managing the development and creation of the company’s pilot proficiency training programs, including our flagship IFR and VFR Mastery programs.
For 19 years, Jeff ran many noteworthy aviation media projects with his own firm, Van West Communications, including magazines, books, videos and live seminars. Jeff previously served as editor-in-chief of IFR Magazine and co-editor of Aviation Consumer, and his work appears in AOPA Pilot, Flight Training Magazine, Plane and Pilot, and AVweb. He’s an experienced CFII/MEI with ratings for single- and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes, and gliders. Jeff was the creator of the first pilot transition program for new Cirrus aircraft.
"Descend and maintain" is such a staple of IFR communications it might as well be a single word. Yet there are times when that's the last thing you want to do. Maybe those clouds are bumpy and you have the family on board. Maybe they're icy and you need to minimize your exposure. Maybe you just like the tailwinds where you are and want to keep them for as long as possible before you absolutely must descend to land.
For whatever reason, you don't want to descend only to level off at some intermediate point. You want to descend later, or uninterrupted to a point below the area of concern.
It Never Hurts To Ask
Sometimes, ATC volunteers this kind of freedom with a clearance of, "... descend at pilot's discretion, maintain 3000." You hear this more often in the sparely populated spaces. However, you can certainly ask for the freedom. If ATC issues a descent you'd like to delay, reply with:
"Request descent at pilot's discretion."
You may get a crossing restriction, such as, "... descend at pilot's discretion to 3000. Cross FIXIE at 3000." If that works for you, terrific. If not, it's time to negotiate.
Keep your request as clear as possible because you're asking for something out of the ordinary.
"Approach, we'd like to remain at 6000 until we can get an uninterrupted descent to 2000 to minimize our time in the turbulent/icy/scary/icky (circle one) clouds."
Be prepared to negotiate. "We can accept vectors off course if that helps. Thanks." Remember that altitude changes have three primary purposes in the controller's mind: To keep aircraft separated, to give you a reasonable transition onto the approach at your destination, and to meet local airspace procedures as to who controls which aircraft in which blocks of sky.
You and the controller may need to get creative to meet everyone's needs. Freedom to not descend may cost you some time in a weird side vector. You may have to give in order to get.
Of course, if the situation warrants it, you can always use the E-word and get any altitude you need, but we're trying to keep this low-key. Remember, the family is in the back.
There are a couple of other tools that we often forget about that can be helpful here. Asking for pilot's discretion obviously works, but you can't go back up once you vacate an altitude.
Let's say you're really not sure about those clouds 500 feet below you. Will they have ice in them or not? Getting a block altitude might be just what you need. If you were at 6000, you might request, "... 6000 block 4000 for about 10 miles ..."
Once approved, you own all altitudes from 6000 down to 4000 and back up. Now you could dip your toe into the troubled altitude and see if it's likely to be an issue. If not, great; you can convert your block altitude back into a solid IFR altitude and continue. If there is an issue, you can retreat back to 6000 and plan your next move.
The other tool is a cruise clearance. You won't get one coming into White Plains, NY, but you can get them at low-traffic areas or hours. The beauty of the cruise clearance is that it is pilot's discretion all the way to the pavement. If you request, "... cruise 6000," and it's approved, you can stay at 6000 as long as you want, even as you get established on a published approach.
You can go as low as the MEA or published minimum for any segment of the approach—and that's any approach you want. You could even cruise to a point in the clear on a published route and then request a contact approach to stay out of the clouds to make it to the airport visually.
That's the beauty of knowing what to ask for. Sometimes ATC couldn't care less what altitude you fly, while for you it makes all the difference.
Sometimes you want to climb in a specific way or over a specific place. When I lived in Seattle, we had a local procedure called a shuttle climb. The issue was that climbing eastbound over the rising terrain toward the mountains in winter might turn you into a flying Slurpee.
The solution was requesting a "Shuttle climb over Puget Sound." This was a series of vectors, first north, then south, then back north again, and so on, until you broke out on top or felt comfortable turning east.
It was common to find no ice at all, or just a trace of rime, climbing over the Sound even when there were PIREPs of ice by the hills. You also had low, warmer terrain below in case you did find ice and had to turn tail back home.
ForeFlight Question of the Month:
Most of the information about icing is found in the imagery section of ForeFlight. To find direct information about actual or predicted icing you should look in:
A. The Icing section of imagery. It's all collected there.
B. Icing and G- AIRMETs/ SIGMETs
C. Icing, G-AIRMETs/ SIGMETs, and PIREPs.
D. Icing, G-AIRMETs/ SIGMETs, PIREPs, and relevant radar.