VATSIM - IFR Procedures

IFR Procedures and Protocol

Since most online flying is down under IFR, we'll start there. In the VFR section we'll talk about what procedures differ for visual flight. Much of the steps are similiar, differing only in the details of the step. We assume you are connected at this point. When in doubt, real world procedures apply.


STEP 1. Flight Plan

A flight plan is only required under IFR and we'll need to do one here. Before filing, decide where you are going, obtain the charts for your departure and destination airports, and decide on a route. Use an Altair flight plan or check the VATSIM ARTCC website for your departure location. Most of these have flight plans you can use. Check the weather at departure and destination (use ACARS feature on the Squawkbox FMS or ServInfo). Determine your cruise altitude based on direction and length of flight. FSNavigator or other utilities like FSBUILD are useful aids for flight planning.

Enter the flight plan. Right-click in SB to bring up the menu. Select ATC Functions and then File Flight Plan. Enter the following pieces of information:
1. Select IFR as the type of flight
2. Select the aircraft type from the list
3. Enter the expected true airspeed at cruise in knots
4. Fill in the ICAO code of the departure airport, e.g. KLGB
5. Enter the departure time in UTC. You can leave actual time blank
6. Provide the cruise altitude in feet or flight level as appropriate
7. List the waypoints in the Route of flight. Use DPs, STARS and airways as appropriate.
8. Fill in the ICAO code for the destination airport
9. Provide the expected time enroute
10. Put in any remarks as appropriate (e.g. new to VATSIM, have charts, voice, hello message to Tettie, etc.)
11. Fuel on board info is for your use
12. Provide an alternate airport if your destination is closed or you have to divert because of wx


STEP 2. Contact a controller to request clearance

Who do you contact? I'm glad you asked! This is easy in the real world and a little tricky on VATSIM because it depends on what controller positions are staffed. To make matters worse, the controllers don't always know the rules (remember, it's a hobby for them too and some are experienced, some are just beginning). Not a problem in the real world (I hope!).

At busy airports, class B in particular, and during scheduled fly-ins, staffing can be pretty good and mimic real world closely. Let's use LAX as an example. You would normally contact CLEARANCE DELIVERY. In this case LAX_DEL or LAX_V_DEL. Note the "V" in the controllers callsign. When present, this signifies he (or she) has voice. When absent, you must communicate using text-only. Type in the SB window after switching to controllers frequency.

Bring up the SB menu and select the ATC Directory option. A list of available controllers is presented. Double-click on the one you want and it will switch your COM1 frequency (for text) and Roger-Wilco (if voice-enabled).

If a CLEARANCE DELIVERY position is not available, and it rarely is, then start working your way up the ladder. Next would be GROUND, continuing down the list if that position is not staffed. Use the first one staffed to obtain your IFR clearance.

Position Example Callsign Comment
Ground Control LAX_V_GND Contact when ready for taxi. Delivery, ground and tower positions all sit in the same place (the tower cab) and control traffic on the surface and in the air immediately around the airfield.
Tower Control LAX_V_TWR Contact when instructed by GND or for taxi if no GND postion
Departure/Approach LAX_V_DEP or LAX_V_APP Departure and approach share a facility called a TRACON. Approach can always handle anything a Departure position can handle. Departure positions are rarely staffed.
Center LAX_V_CTR Center normally handles enroute traffic. For each position, once you have made initial contact with a DELIVERY, GROUND, TOWER or whatever, leave them for the next only when instructed to do so. Center can provide any of the services the other positions provide, although strictly speaking would not control ground and tower traffic. As a practical matter, assume they do and contact them when the lower positions are not staffed.

What if you are not at a busy airport? First, the same rules apply. Start by looking for DELIVERY then work your way up the ladder. But if you are at KLGB and you see a LAX_TWR, don't contact them. You are now looking for a LGB_TWR position. What if there is no tower, but approach control is staffed? Again suppose you are at KLGB and you see LAX_APP on. It so happens that LAX_APP (SOCAL Approach) covers the airspace above KLGB and would be able to give you clearance. But what if you are further away, let's say Santa Barbara (KSBA). Should you contact LAX_APP? The answer is no, you would only contact SBA_APP who covers that airspace. If SBA_APP is not on, but LAX_CTR is, you'd contact center. Confused? Don't worry about it. If you are unsure or are unfamiliar with the airspace, contact your best guess, and ask for clearance or ask if they can give you clearance. They'll happily refer you to the appropriate position if it's not them.

What if there are no controllers at all in your area? Best bet is to clear yourself. Assume controllers have cleared you, and take off using uncontrolled procedures. Keep an eye out however, and contact a controller who is online when you approach his airspace, or if he comes online after you have departed. You don't have to ask for clearance however, just assume you've already been cleared. Clear?


STEP 3. Interact with ATC

Some general rules...

Listen before you transmit. Wait about five seconds before keying your mike to ensure someone else is not in the middle of an exchange.
Do not use a common key (like the space bar) for the microphone key. Using the space bar for the mike means that when you do type text, you will be "clicking" your mike every time you hit the space bar. Very annoying for everybody else.
Readback controller instructions. You are not required to readback everything, but enough to assure you understood the instruction. You MUST readback all "hold short" instructions, should readback most of a clearance, and should readback altitudes, headings and airspeed instructions. A simple "roger" or "wilco" may suffice for other commands.
Be brief. Others are waiting to transmit. Use standard phraseology, no need to readback everything to the controllor, get on and get off. This helps avoid radio congestion.

Pilot/Controller dialog for a typical flight follows. There are many variations and circumstances not covered here, but common interactions are included for an entire flight.

Step Pilot Controller Comment
Obtain Clearance "Ground, ALT000 requesting IFR to KSBA" "ALT000, clearance on request, standby" Initial contact. If the airport has AUTOATIS, obtain that first.
no response needed "ALT000, you are cleared to KSBA, vectors to VTU, then as filed. Climb and maintain 5000. Expect 6000 ten minutes after departure, departure frequency is 124.65, squawk 0201." He might first say "clearance is available, advise ready to copy." He wants to make sure you are ready to write this down before he goes through it.
"Ok, cleared to KSBA, vectors VTU, climb and maintain 5000, 6000 in ten, departure control 124.65, and we'll squawk 0201, ALT000" "ALT000, your readback is correct. Pushback and start is approved, call me when ready for taxi." Use the mnemonic: C-R-A-F-T. Clearances will always follow this format
Clearance limit - all the way to KSBA in this case
Route - vectors VTU, then as filed
Altitude - 5000
Frequency - 124.65
Transponder - 0201
Taxi "Ground, ALT000 ready for taxi" "ALT000, taxi to runway 24L via taxiway Delta" This implies you may cross all runways on the way to 24L, but not onto 24L.
"Delta to 24L, ALT000"  
Takeoff "Tower, ALT000 holding short 24L, ready for depature" "ALT000, winds are 260 at 5, runway 24L, cleared for takeoff" GND may hand you off to TWR on the way to 24L, or you might have to call GND first. Either way, don't leave a controller's frequency until he gives you a "contact tower on xxx.xx"
"Clear for takeoff, 24L, ALT000"   Taxi onto the runway, and off you go.
Depature "Tower, ALT000 is passing 1,000 for 5,000" "ALT000, contact approach 124.65, good day" Tower might hand you off without calling him if he's really on the ball.
"124.65, ALT000, good day"   From the Squawkbox ATC Directory, find DEP (more likely APP) and switch to it. Look for the position with the 124.65 frequency.
"Departure, ALT000 is passing 2,000 for 5,000" "ALT000, turn right 320, direct VTU when able, climb and maintain 6,000" When checking in, always give the controller your present altitude, and if climbing or descending, your target altitude.
"right 320 direct VTU, up to 6,000, ALT000"    
Cruise   "ALT000, contact Los Angeles Center on 135.80, good day" Depending on the route of flight, distance and altitudes, you will be handed off to whatever controller is managing the airspace you are about to enter. Who that is depends on what controllers are online at the moment.
"135.80, ALT000, good day"   Now find LAX_CTR on the ATC Directory. Look for the position with the 135.80 frequency.
"LA Center, Good afternoon, ALT000 with you 6,000" "ALT000, Los Angeles Center. Radar contact. Continue as filed."  
"Wilco, ALT000"  
Descent and approach   "ALT000, contact Santa Barbara Approach on 125.4, good day"  
"125.40, ALT000, good day"   Switch to SBA_APP.
"Approach, Good afternoon, ALT000 with you 6,000" "ALT000, Santa Barabara Approach. Turn left 250, vectors for the ILS 07, descend and maintain 4,000." Now you know you'll be flying the ILS for runway 07.
"Left 250, down to 4,000, ALT000"    
  "ALT000, turn right 340, descend and maintain 2,000" He's turning you to a base leg
"Right 340 and 2,000, ALT000"    
  "ALT000, you are 8 miles from NAPPS, turn right 040 to join the localizer, maintain 2,000 until established, cleared the ILS 07 approach" You may descend below 2,000 per the approach once established on the final approach course (the localizer).
"Right 040, 2,000 until established, cleared for the approach, ALT000" "ALT000, contact the tower 119.70, good day"  
"119.70, ALT000, Good day"    
Landing "Tower, ALT000, 5 miles out for runway 7" "ALT000, Santa Barabara Tower. Winds are 030 at 10, runway 07, clear to land."  
"Clear to land, ALT000"   On the ground, Tower might tell you to "take next taxiway to the left, contact ground" or you might call him "clear of the active" once you are clear of the runway.
"ALT000 is clear runway 07" "ALT000, taxi to parking" On the ground, Tower might tell you to "take next taxiway to the left, contact ground" or you might call him "clear of the active" once you are clear of the runway.
"To the ramp, ALT000"   Once at the gate or parking, it's not necessary to call ground or tower, but some VATSIM controllers seem to like that.
"ALT000 at the ramp shutting down, thanks for the service, good day" "ALT000, flight plan closed, have a good day"  

This example has been shown with most ATC positions manned. If, for example, this flight were flown with only LAX_CTR online, the procedure would be the same, you'd simply start by contacting LAX_CTR for clearance, and would not be handed off to other controllers as shown here.

Various staffing combinations will exist from time to time. Another common situation would be to find only TWR or only APP manned. Suppose Approach is the only position online for your location. Again, the procedure would be the same, except your first contact would be with APP, not GND. Then when you would normally be handed off to Center, APP would say "ALT000, you are leaving my airspace, radar services terminated, frequency change approved. Good day." Here you would say something like "Roger, switching to advisory, thanks and g'day." You switch to the UNICOM frequency which is the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency anytime you are flying uncontrolled (no ATC online for your airspace).


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