How to Copy an IFR Clearance Like a Pro

The task that befuddles most  instrument pilots in training doesn’t involve flying at all! Prior to taxi, and sometimes prior to engine start, we need to copy and read back an IFR clearance. This is generally the most complicated set of instructions issued by Air Traffic Control throughout the whole flight, and it usually comes fast enough to make any pilot’s head spin! But if you know what to listen for, you can copy even the most confusing clearances like a pro.


First, we need to take care of some preliminaries. Unless you are lightning fast with a pen, you’ve got to develop your own shorthand for the ATC lingo found in most clearances. Remember, some controllers put the MicroMachine man to shame on the radio. So why write out “fly runway heading” when you can just write RH? Below is a table of symbols I use for common instructions.

ATC Phrase Shorthand / Symbol
Clear C
Fly Runway Heading RH
Turn Right/Left Heading # ← 330 or → 030
Climb and Maintain 3,000 Feet ↑ 3

There is no rule for ATC shorthand. Use whatever system makes sense to you, and change it as needed. Just make sure you can read it afterwords!

Be Prepared

When you make the initial call to pick up an IFR clearance, you have to be ready for it. Like I said, some controllers will read your clearance fast, so make sure you have a good pen and a piece of paper ready before keying the microphone.

Know the Format

In almost all cases, IFR clearances are issued in the same order. This makes readback habitual (easy) once you get the hang of it. For this reason, a lot of CFI’s teach the CRAFT acronym.

It’s easy to use, just write CRAFT on your kneeboard vertically and copy your clearance in the order given:

Clearance Fix (usually the destination airport)
Route (typically “AF” for as-filed)
Altitude
Frequency (departure frequency to call once airborne)
Transponder

Putting it All Together

Suppose you receive the following clearance:

“Cessna 12345 cleared to Nashville as filed, fly runway heading, climb and maintain three thousand, expect seven thousand one zero minutes after departure, departure frequency one two four point six five, squawk two seven one three.”

Your kneeboard should look something like this:

C BNA
R AF RH
A ↑3     7     10
F 124.65
T 2713

Practice Makes Perfect

As I said, these clearances come fast and it takes some time getting used to the format. Luckily, there is a resource for web-savvy pilots to gain some practice. Visit LiveATC.net, a website that streams live air traffic control audio from major airports over the web. Try listening to Boston clearance  delivery with a paper and pencil. Copy and mentally read back clearances as they come and compare your response to that of other pilots! It’s a great way to gain months of free experience for just a few hours at home.

If you’re still having trouble, don’t be discouraged. Clearances are a common bump in the road for most pilots: it will all come to you with a little time and patience.


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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

6 Replies to How to Copy an IFR Clearance Like a Pro

  1. This kind of shorthand is very very helpful. I use something like it. The PPL/IR organisation published a (members-only) guide to it which I found very helpful. Based on that and my experience, can I add a few tips?

    1) Draw a line under an item to indicate ‘not below’ and above an item to indicate ‘not above’. These kinds of instructions are often given in the UK when entering or leaving controlled airspace or when flying VFR.
    2) Draw a circle around anything that you’re supposed to report. EG “report localiser established” would be the abbreviation LOC with a circle around it.
    3) I write DME distances with a small ‘d’, e.g. “report two DME” would be 2d with a circle around it.
    4) I write FLxx (e.g. FL100) for flight levels, Axx (e.g. A50 = 5,000 feet) for altitudes. In Europe transition levels vary and we often use flight levels at quite low level, not 18,000 as in the US.

    Hope this is helpful! :)

    Matthew

  2. Eric says:

    I try to preload my clearances as much as possible. I filed, so I should be able to expect most of the clearance before I request it.

    I do a similar trick, although I make sure to write down the “K” if I’m cleared to an airport in the US (ie KPAE is “Paine Airport” vs PAE “Paine VOR”). I also make sure to do my altitudes in hundreds – 3000 is 30, 3500 is 35, etc, and my altitude block on CRAFT would read A 20 E 40/5 (climb & maintain 2000, expect 4000 in 5 minutes).

    When I get an ATC frequency I try to copy whether it’s center or approach, as that can get things started off on the wrong foot with a controller, ie F (c)28.5 for Seattle Center 128.5.

    Finally, I check my flight on FlightAware before I go – if any route changes have occurred, they’ll show up in the route block. FlightAware pulls live off the ATC computer and will show the most current revision. With complicated reroutes it can save a lot of time.

  3. Clearances in most parts of Europe are now very simple, thanks to Standard Instrument Departures. A typical departure from Geneva Runway 23 towards North East reads like:

    Cleared to destination via KONIL4C departure, sqwak 1234.

    The route denomination comes from the exit point (KONIL) version (4) and variant (C). Charts are published for all SIDs. In this case, the KONIL4C includes all of the following information:

    “Climb on GVA VOR Radial 226 until passing 1.700 feet or 3.0 DME, whichever is later, then turn right heading 030 to intercept QDM 030 to GLA NDB, climbing to flight level 090. Contact Geneva Departure on 119.525 when instructed.”

    But I had to go through a voice exam which required me to read and repeat such a departure route clearance!

    The good part of SIDs is that you can easily guess from runway in use and flight plan what you will get. The IFR route in flight plan starts from the end of the SID, and there are usually one route per runway per exit point.

  4. Paul says:

    I use a similar system as far as shorthand. Here is how a typical cleareance would look like:

    CLR JFK PLUMM APE AF 030 370 10 118.85 SQ4256

    Another note to add to preperation:

    If I’m flying out of a unfamiliar airport I’ll try and quickly glance through the SIDs to get familiar with the names. That is one of the trickiest parts of the read back at least for me.

    Also have a print out of your filed route handy to compare to your actual cleared route.

    Great suggestions Patrick.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    Before we depart, we receive a release from the company with our “planned” route on there. In most the cities that we fly out of, we receive a Pre-Departure Clearance (PDC) with our final ATC assigned route. So the art of copying down a clearance and getting it right the first time is slowly becoming a thing of the past. But, if you are new to IFR flying, it is a terrific skill to have to be able to copy a clearance down quickly and accurately though you may not use it much later…but…when the time comes, that old muscle memory will kick in and you will successfully copy the clearance.

    The same goes for holds and re-routes. If you have a good idea what to expect, which you can do by listening to the clearances being given to the pilots in front of you, then when you are given holding clearances and re-routes, you will have a good idea what is coming and can refer to the arrival procedures.

    One final note. Always check your routing against the IFR charts and in your Flight Management System (FMS). I’ve been guilty of going the wrong way more than once, but never since that second time. Shame on me…!

    And if you are EVER in doubt, ASK!

    Jeffrey

  6. Allan Woolf says:

    Just what I needed for my IF test
    thanks a million
    Allain

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