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How Trusting An IFR Clearance Caused A Pilot To Get Dangerously Close To Terrain

You're supposed to be protected from terrain and traffic conflicts when you're flying under IFR, right? So how can accepting an IFR clearance turn deadly? Forgetting the limitations of your airplane is one mistake that can lead to problems. Here's what happened to a Baron pilot in California...

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Pilot Error, or ATC Error?

In California, an Oakland Center Air Traffic Controller was handed a Beechcraft BE55 Baron leaving Fresno Approach Control's airspace. The pilot was climbing to an altitude below the Minimum IFR altitude along its route. The controller filed a safety report through NASA ASRS:

"The BE55 filed an IFR altitude of 12,000 feet which was not appropriate for his route. The lowest IFR altitude that is appropriate for his route of flight was 17,000 feet. Fresno Approach attempted to hand him off to ZOA Sector 16 [Oakland Center] while climbing into high terrain, which is adjacent to their airspace. The Oakland Center controller called Fresno Approach, attempting to resolve the unsafe situation by providing them an altitude to climb above the Minimum IFR Altitude (MIA) and a time restriction to make sure that the aircraft could get above the MIA.

The poor climb performance of the BE55 made it impossible to climb at a sufficient rate to safely get above the MIA. Fresno Approach handed BE55 to Oakland Center with the BE55 in an unsafe rate of climb into high terrain. He was flying into the side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The Oakland Center controller had to vector and spin BE55 in Fresno Approach airspace to avoid the terrain."

The Oakland Center controller concluded with some words of final advice...

To avoid this type of unsafe situation in the future, I recommend that Fresno Approach learn how high the terrain is which is adjacent to their airspace. They should also become familiar with ZOA's MIAs [Oakland Center's MIAs] for those areas and be able to identify a poor climbing aircraft that is routed through those high terrain areas.

Fresno Approach could have done a better job of noticing that the BE55 was underperforming climb requirements. But who is really responsible? In this case, the pilot...

How Pilot Error Played A Role

The pilot accepted a clearance that the aircraft wasn't capable of handling. It's easy to become lulled into the comfort zone that ATC is going to take care of you when you're IFR. In reality, though, you need to think hard about the instructions given to you. If you or your aircraft is not capable of maintaining a clearance, don't accept it. Know your performance limitations well, and always plan to fly a route that works for your airplane. That includes icing conditions, terrain, and oxygen requirements.

When You Need To Be Careful While Accepting A Clearance

Beyond aircraft performance, there are a few times when you need to be cautious when accepting clearances...

1) Adverse Weather: ATC has no great way of determining the exact in-flight weather conditions that you're experiencing. For instance, if ATC gives you a climb or descent through icing conditions, you might need to ask for a different clearance.

2) Gliding Distance: Be wary of ATC giving you offshore, low altitude vectors in a single engine aircraft. While it isn't required on personal flight, it's a very good idea to be able to glide to land, so ask for a different vector or altitude. Don't hesitate to briefly explain your safety situation to ATC.

Swayne Martin

3) Fuel Burn: If you're taking a long cross country, fuel planning becomes a serious concern. ATC reroutes and altitude changes can vastly change your fuel requirements, so don't forget to calculate for new route mileage and fuel burn levels.

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What You Can Do

One of the most important things you can do while flying IFR is to think before you accept a clearance. Can your aircraft handle the performance requirements? Do you have enough fuel? What's the weather like? Are you prepared for the new route? Is this safe?

You should ask yourself all of these questions when ATC gives you a clearance. Don't fall into the habit of blindly following instructions given to you. As the pilot, you're the final authority for the safety of your airplane and passengers, and it's your responsibility to tell ATC when a clearance won't work for you.


Have you been given a clearance that didn't work? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He holds multi-engine and instrument ratings, and is an aviation student at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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