Communication Facilities (Part One)

The controller’s primary responsibility is separation of aircraft operating under IFR. This is accomplished with ATC facilities, to include the FSS, airport traffic control tower (ATCT), terminal radar approach control (TRACON), and air route traffic control center (ARTCC).

Flight Service Stations (FSS)

A pilot’s first contact with ATC is usually through FSS, either by radio or telephone. FSSs provide pilot briefings, receive and process flight plans, relay ATC clearances, originate Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), and broadcast aviation weather. Some facilities provide En Route Flight Advisory Service (EFAS), take weather observations, and advise United States Customs and Immigration of international flights.


Telephone contact with Flight Service can be obtained by dialing 1-800-WX-BRIEF. This number can be used anywhere in the United States and connects to the nearest FSS based on the area code from which the call originates. There are a variety of methods of making radio contact: direct transmission, remote communication outlets (RCOs), ground communication outlets (GCOs), and by using duplex transmissions through navigational aids (NAVAIDs). The best source of information on frequency usage is the Airport/ Facility Directory (A/FD) and the legend panel on sectional charts also contains contact information.

The briefer sends a flight plan to the host computer at the ARTCC (Center). After processing the flight plan, the computer sends flight strips to the tower, to the radar facility that handles the departure route, and to the Center controller whose sector the flight first enters. Figure 2-6 shows a typical strip. These strips are delivered approximately 30 minutes prior to the proposed departure time. Strips are delivered to en route facilities 30 minutes before the flight is expected to enter their airspace. If a flight plan is not opened, it will “time out” 2 hours after the proposed departure time.

Figure 2-6. Flight strip.

Figure 2-6. Flight strip. [click image to enlarge]

When departing an airport in Class G airspace, a pilot receives an IFR clearance from the FSS by radio or telephone. It contains either a clearance void time, in which case an aircraft must be airborne prior to that time, or a release time. Pilots should not take off prior to the release time. Pilots can help the controller by stating how soon they expect to be airborne. If the void time is, for example, 10 minutes past the hour and an aircraft is airborne at exactly 10 minutes past the hour, the clearance is void—a pilot must take off prior to the void time. A specific void time may be requested when filing a flight plan.

ATC Towers

Several controllers in the tower cab are involved in handling an instrument flight. Where there is a dedicated clearance delivery position, that frequency is found in the A/FD and on the instrument approach chart for the departure airport. Where there is no clearance delivery position, the ground controller performs this function. At the busiest airports, pretaxi clearance is required; the frequency for pre-taxi clearance can be found in the A/FD. Taxi clearance should be requested not more than 10 minutes before proposed taxi time.

It is recommended that pilots read their IFR clearance back to the clearance delivery controller. Instrument clearances can be overwhelming when attempting to copy them verbatim, but they follow a format that allows a pilot to be prepared when responding “Ready to copy.” The format is: clearance limit (usually the destination airport); route, including any departure procedure; initial altitude; frequency (for departure control); and transponder code. With the exception of the transponder code, a pilot knows most of these items before engine start. One technique for clearance copying is writing C-R-A-F-T.

Assume an IFR flight plan has been filed from Seattle, Washington to Sacramento, California via V-23 at 7,000 feet. Traffic is taking off to the north from Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) airport and, by monitoring the clearance delivery frequency, a pilot can determine the departure procedure being assigned to southbound flights. The clearance limit is the destination airport, so write “SAC” after the letter C. Write “SEATTLE TWO – V23” after R for Route because departure control issued this departure to other flights. Write “70” after the A, the departure control frequency printed on the approach charts for Sea-Tac after F, and leave the space after the letter T blank—the transponder code is generated by computer and can seldom be determined in advance. Then, call clearance delivery and report “Ready to copy.”

As the controller reads the clearance, check it against what is already written down; if there is a change, draw a line through that item and write in the changed item. Chances are the changes are minimal, and most of the clearance is copied before keying the microphone. Still, it is worthwhile to develop clearance shorthand to decrease the verbiage that must be copied (see Clearance Shorthand).


Pilots are required to have either the text of a departure procedure (DP) or a graphic representation (if one is available), and should review it before accepting a clearance. This is another reason to find out ahead of time which DP is in use. If the DP includes an altitude or a departure control frequency, those items are not included in the clearance.

The last clearance received supersedes all previous clearances. For example, if the DP says “Climb and maintain 2,000 feet, expect higher in 6 miles,” but upon contacting the departure controller a new clearance is received: “Climb and maintain 8,000 feet,” the 2,000 feet restriction has been canceled. This rule applies in both terminal and Center airspace.

When reporting “ready to copy” an IFR clearance before the strip has been received from the Center computer, pilots are advised “clearance on request.” The controller initiates contact when it has been received. This time can be used for taxi and pre-takeoff checks.

The local controller is responsible for operations in the Class D airspace and on the active runways. At some towers, designated as IFR towers, the local controller has vectoring authority. At visual flight rules (VFR) towers, the local controller accepts inbound IFR flights from the terminal radar facility and cannot provide vectors. The local controller also coordinates flights in the local area with radar controllers. Although Class D airspace normally extends 2,500 feet above field elevation, towers frequently release the top 500 feet to the radar controllers to facilitate overflights. Accordingly, when a flight is vectored over an airport at an altitude that appears to enter the tower controller’s airspace, there is no need to contact the tower controller—all coordination is handled by ATC.

The departure radar controller may be in the same building as the control tower, but it is more likely that the departure radar position is remotely located. The tower controller will not issue a takeoff clearance until the departure controller issues a release.