Pilot's tip of the week

IFR Clearance at a Non-Towered Airport

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Subscriber question:

"I was departing IFR from Greenville, ME and no one would answer the published clearance delivery frequency (which calls Flight Service). I was able to take off and get it in the air, but it was barely VFR. How do I get my clearance if this happens?" — Rob M.

Jeff:

“The short answer to your question is you use a published phone number for a nearby airport. A little backstory makes the reason clear.

Back in the day, the primary method when you needed an IFR clearance before takeoff was calling Flight Service on the pay phone in the FBO, getting your clearance, running out to the airplane, and trying to get airborne before the void time you negotiated over the phone.

That was unless you were lucky enough to have a Remote Communications Outlet (RCO) that let you reach Flight Service via the radio from the runup area. (There were also GCOs, which were radio-to-phone systems that sometimes worked.) Then cell phones entered the scene and so many people called for their clearance that a dedicated phone number was created just for IFR clearances.

Fast forward a bit more and the FAA started publishing phone numbers in the Chart Supplement for each ATC facility to get the IFR clearance directly from a controller. This was an even better solution because it removed the middleman of a Flight Service Specialist. It was so good that Flight Service retired the dedicated phone number several years ago.

Here’s the catch you fell into: If there’s still an RCO or GCO for your departure airport, that’s what’s published in the Chart Supplement (or in ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, etc.) to call Flight Service to relay your clearance from Boston Center. For Greenville (3B1) that’s 122.3—which didn’t work for you. (It’s possible you forgot to tell them which airport you were at or what frequency you were using, but they should have found you after a second or third call.) That leaves you trying to reach Boston Center directly from the ground (120.25) or departing VFR and trying to call them in the air …

… or you look at nearby Jackman, ME (59B), which doesn’t have an RCO so the phone number for Boston Center is published: 603-879-6859. The insider tip is it’s usually just one phone number for the whole facility. So you can call the number published for Jackman and get the same person Flight Service would have relayed with via the RCO at Greenville. Just between you and me, if I had cell service and Bluetooth headset I’d skip the RCO and do this from the get-go.

If you try this trick, make sure the remote airport you pick has the same ATC facility as the airport you’re actually departing. If you tried this with Dexter, ME (1B0) just to the south, you’d see the ATC facility was Bangor Approach. That’s not the phone number you want—although I’m sure that controller could look up the right phone number for you.

Note that these phone numbers are published for many towered airports as well. If the tower is open, always call for your clearance on the radio using the Clearance Delivery frequency if one is listed, or Ground if no frequency is listed. The phone numbers for towered airports are primarily there for when the tower is closed—making them non-towered airports. Sometimes the primary approach facility is also part-time, so you’ll see a second phone number to use for your clearance when no one answers at the first one.”

Have you ever departed VFR into conditions you didn't want to simply because you couldn't get your IFR clearance on the ground?

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