Ambiguous Clearance


CAT III asked me to post this question and volunteered to do some research in his network.

On an IFR flight to XXX airport, I was given a clearance to fly direct XXX. However, the XXX VOR is located a few miles from the XXX airport and in the middle of crowded airspace (and the approach frequency is also very busy).

So my question was, what would ATC expect you to fly in the event of a total comm failure? 1) Direct to the XXX VOR (which was west of the field and not an initial approach fix for the approach in use), then to the IAF (which was east of the airport) or 2) just direct to the IAF as you already had a direct clearance.

I talked to several local controllers for that airspace and got different answers, then the FSDO and got different answers and finally the guy who trains the controllers.

The answers ranged from: “it really doesn’t matter because if you lose comm we’ll just watch where you fly and clear the airspace in front of you”, to “there is no way to know - you need to ask the controller which he meant when he gave you that clearance” to #1 and #2. In the real world, I would ask, but given the crowded radio freq, thought this is something a pilot should know to avoid adding to the chatter.


Sounds like you didn’t receive your full clearance? If it was me and I was on the ground, I would have asked for further clarification so I would hear my full clearance to my destination.

If it was in the air, and it was an amendment, you should have heard the words “expect “further clearance” X number of minutes”. I would have asked for that myself.

Technically, if you are cleared to the XXX VOR, you are to hold, as you haven’t received the further clearance.

But since COMS went out, and you didn’t get a full clearance, assuming you still have electrical, squawk 7600 and do what you have to do to get on the ground.

No electric, transponder is useless anyway and you have a potential emergency developing anyway, so clearance is tossed out the window and you do what you have to do to make it to terra firma. At least that’s how I would handle it.

I think the first sentence is the “real world”, though I sure can’t talk for ATC. I’d suspect after a few calls to your tail number, if you are unresponsive, they will start “pushing tin” to keep your airspace clear. They already know your destination.



Yes, I received my full clearance on the ground and then received this amended clearance about 15 miles from the airport/VOR.

Agreed, but this clearance wasn’t to XXX VOR, it was just “cleared to XXX”, which was both the name of the airport and the VOR (it was the name, not just the three letters).

That is what the controller said too. Basically, you worry about getting back on the ground and we’ll take care of traffic.


Oh ok that’s a little different, then I would have clarified it in the air. I have KJAN airport and JAN VOR so I can relate to what you are saying.

Sounds like the controller didn’t make it clear, and in my case, I have never had them clear me direct to KJAN, they will say cleared direct to JAN VOR, expect further clearance…

So, I would have clarified it immediately by asking am I cleared to the VOR or the airport no matter how busy the frequency.

Had it been the VOR, controller remissed by not giving you a further clearance time. Had it been the airport, then that is your clearance assuming you are to land there.

What you describe is a safety issue even without a COM failure. A NASA form should be filed as well.



CA Flier,

Is this the Jackson MS airport?


Probably not, I am based in KMBO, and used KJAN as my example :smiley:

I think CAFlier is based on the left coast.

See … 04&start=0 for my positive experiences with KJAN.



That’s what I thougt too. I have a full set of regs and Jepps here. If I know some more of the specifics I can easily sort this out.

Used to do it in my sleep. And in court.


Hopefully my 26 Nov 2007 15:21 posting 3rd paragraph and on in this thread is the ultimate resolution (especially the NASA report). :smiley:

If not the ultimate resolution, if you could please post your thoughts so this pilot can learn from others, it would be most appreciated!



Agree, that’s exactly what I did in this situation. However, it occurred to me that I should already know the answer and not have to ask. As it turns out, there is no agreement in controllerdom on what that phaseology means. I have about a dozen opinions on this one up and down the chain of command at the FAA.

If the VOR is not an initial approach fix, yes. If it is an IAF, then no. (In this case it was not).

Since I responded with the question of whether he meant the VOR or airport and he answered immediately, there was no safety issue. There was enough comm gear on that plane that a total comm failure would have been more than a six sigma event.


Help with what you say above?? (my own airport approach rather then KJAN) … R+OR+GPS-A

The IAF and FAF is the VOR as you can see. I am using my own airport rather then KJAN as everything revolves around the VOR, including holding.

Does this approach contradict what you say above or am I missing something on what you are saying?

I am making the assumption the ATC phraseology is correct, and cleared me to the VOR and expect further clearance, yada yada yada due to inbound GPS 17 traffic (traffic flow management). (ATC usually will give reason for amendments).



OK liebrama here goes:

Fist the FAR:

91.185 IFR operations: Two-way radio communications failure.
(a) General. Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, each pilot who has two-way radio communications failure when operating under IFR shall comply with the rules of this section.

(b) VFR conditions. If the failure occurs in VFR conditions, or if VFR conditions are encountered after the failure, each pilot shall continue the flight under VFR and land as soon as practicable.

© IFR conditions. If the failure occurs in IFR conditions, or if paragraph (b) of this section cannot be complied with, each pilot shall continue the flight according to the following:

(1) Route. (i) By the route assigned in the last ATC clearance received;

(ii) If being radar vectored, by the direct route from the point of radio failure to the fix, route, or airway specified in the vector clearance;

(iii) In the absence of an assigned route, by the route that ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance; or

(iv) In the absence of an assigned route or a route that ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance, by the route filed in the flight plan.

(2) Altitude. At the highest of the following altitudes or flight levels for the route segment being flown:

(i) The altitude or flight level assigned in the last ATC clearance received;

(ii) The minimum altitude (converted, if appropriate, to minimum flight level as prescribed in 91.121©) for IFR operations; or

(iii) The altitude or flight level ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance.

(3) Leave clearance limit. (i) When the clearance limit is a fix from which an approach begins, commence descent or descent and approach as close as possible to the expect-further-clearance time if one has been received, or if one has not been received, as close as possible to the estimated time of arrival as calculated from the filed or amended (with ATC) estimated time en route.

(ii) If the clearance limit is not a fix from which an approach begins, leave the clearance limit at the expect-further-clearance time if one has been received, or if none has been received, upon arrival over the clearance limit, and proceed to a fix from which an approach begins and commence descent or descent and approach as close as possible to the estimated time of arrival as calculated from the filed or amended (with ATC) estimated time en route.


These air traffic answers are completly unacceptable and will get somebody killed:

CAFlier wrote:
The answers ranged from: “it really doesn’t matter because if you lose comm we’ll just watch where you fly and clear the airspace in front of you”, to “there is no way to know - you need to ask the controller which he meant when he gave you that clearance” to #1 and #2. In the real world, I would ask, but given the crowded radio freq, thought this is something a pilot should know to avoid adding to the chatter.

Para. B VFR straight forward land as soon as practicable. My personal advise is to go somerwhere other than the nearest international airport!

Para. C IFR. It looks real scary but it is pretty straight forward.
Picture it as a flow chart. If you are initially given an airport clearance “N12345 is cleared to the Jacksonville AIRPORT via…” then you have an airport clearance.

If the clearance is “N12345 is cleared to the Jacksonville VOR” then you have a short range clearance and the controller is required to issue what to expect. “expect further clearance for the the ILS Runway 16 left approach.”

If you aren’t sure if you have an airport clearance or a short range clearance screw the radio traffic and get a clarification. That is your job as the PIC.

If comm should fail then any of the above paragraphs should get you on your way.

If CAFlier loses com and has an airport clearance and is in IMC then you should proceed to the approach fix for the runway known to be in use that you have the equipment and certifications for. That info may be in your possesion from the controller, the ATIS if you can get it or in the worst case from the information you received in your preflight briefing. Yes ask the guy at the FSS or at some airports you can call the ATIS or AWOS on the phone. You did get a preflight briefing didn’t you?

Still using the Jacksonville MS example (you can find the SIAP elsewhere at flightaware) proceed to the JAN VORTAC (the IAF) or ALLEN LOM (another IAF) at your last assigned altitude start a descent or decsent and approach as close as possibel to your ETA and fly the approach (JAN R150 & LOC crs to the ALLEN LOM and shoot the approach (no PT)). If shooting the approach off the LOM then the full approach procedure is required - PTs are real bummers.

ATC should be protecting all altitudes from your last assigned or others required for this part of the let down to the IAF altitude 2200 ft. at JAN.

When you break out during the let down proceed VFR if able to the field, determine the active runway and land. If not VFR land straight ahead. Watch the tower for a light gun signal.

You will get to see the FSDO guy. Be nice and show him your notes and explain what happened.

And by all means file that NASA report.

:bulb: Tip of the day keep a copy of the lost comm FAR taped to your knee board. If it is in your flight bag you may find that you have way to many alligators crawling aroud the cockpit to search for it.

Hope this helps some. This is alway a lively discussion topic and I would be interest to see what becomes of it.

MR. FSDO GUY—IF YOU ARE OUT THERE JUMP IN. After all I’m just a dumb retired controller.


Isn’t this what I said above in my 14:53 and 15:21 postings??? I made the worst case scenario assumption IMC

And CAFLier did respond to me saying he got a clarification right away based on my question. He just didn’t put that in his original posting.

So other then the ambiquous ATC instructions, sounds like he did everything “textbook”. He had a question about a clearance given, he asked, and he got an answer. So, I don’t see anything “unsafe” that happened other then an unclear clearance which I am taking was rectified quickly. The unsafe factor was short at best.

The problem I see is that ATC did not give him a EFC which in effect would be a “show stopper” in the decision making process especially if the COMMS went ghost up. **Clearly a NASA reportable event. **

I would have queried ATC what should I / can I expect (in plain English) had it happened to me since it was an amended clearance that did not include the destination airport based on CAFliers description.

I won’t be shy to ask for vectors until I fully understand either. I’d suspect just from my own experiences, the controller would rather me fess up not understanding then plunder around and being a risk to life and limb.

I did this once myself, when I got an amended clearance by Potomac approach on my way up to Baltimore. I asked for vectors because I wasn’t prepared for an amemdment, and fessed up right away asking for vectors until I got the airplane configured (and enroute map that was so nicely folded on the back seat unfolded so I could identify the victor highways that the Garmin 430 lacks).

Based on the ATC voice, sounded like he appreciated me fessing up right away, dunno. Once I got myself oriented, configured the plane, I notified approach accordingly. Aviate, Navigate Communicate is drilled into us pilots.

Of course, the above communications with ATC is moot if I am Nordo anyway.

I live by the statement, rather sound dumb on the radio then do something dumb flying.

Providing you have cell phone service from the plane. Preflight a couple hours before just may be invalid by the time you arrive at your destination.

AGREE!!! Missing EFC is not good for IFR ops VMC or IMC.

AGREE!!! I put the light gun instructions along with my emergency checklist instructions in a readily handy place (laminated and put in my door pouch).



Funny that you mention the Potomac TRACON…mmm :wink:


To make this example work, imagine that both the field and the VOR are called Jackson. You get an amended clearance to Jackson (not specifying whether it is the field or VOR) and every comm radio in the plane, including any handhelds immediately die, but your nav radios are intact.

In that case it would not matter whether the controller meant the VOR or the field, because the VOR is an initial approach fix and therefore you can begin your approach upon reaching it (let’s further assume that you arrive there at the estimated time of arrival). If he meant the clearance to be to the field, you could still begin the approach upon reaching the VOR because it is the initial approach fix for the approach in use at the field to which you were cleared. Relevant FAR is:

(3) Leave clearance limit. (i) When the clearance limit is a fix from which an approach begins, commence descent or descent and approach as close as possible to the expect-further-clearance time if one has been received, or if one has not been received, as close as possible to the estimated time of arrival as calculated from the filed or amended (with ATC) estimated time en route.


Ok, makes perfect sense.



Why is this so difficult? Seems like a straightforward clearance.

N12345 cleared to XXX airport via direct. [you must be in a /G or other RNAV airplane, right?] Maintain 2000, expect 4000 ten minutes after. Departure frequnecy 123.95, squawk 5201. [non-towered field - time now 06 after the hour, clearance void if not off by 12 after the hour]

What is the problem with that?

If I had com failure and the distance was VERY short I would NOT squawk 7600 right after take off since ATC needs to know who are BEFORE you run off and squawk 7600. Right? If you should be squawking 5201 and you take off and suffer a massive com failure [you were told to keep the smoke inside the boxes right?] BEFORE they confirm in radar contact they’ll never REALLY know who it was who took off.

If you are VFR and this happens, just find an airport and land - or go back to your origin and circle and wait for the light gun. If non-towered - enter the pattern and land, then call Approach - you DO have the phone number to approach with you, right?

If you are IFR, then you simply continue to your destination and land. Select the appropriate approach for the weather it was when you departed, fly it and land. Alternatively, select the approach to the longest runway in case the wind has shifted. They’ll clear that approach of traffic for you and towered or not - plan to land at the time set in your flight plan.

If you are IFR, suffer a total electrical where you lose COM and NAV, i.e., the squawk does not work - you are in a world of hurt given that ATC may NEVER see you. No one has commented about that one - but all ATC has left is primary skinpaint mode. whether they can identify you that way - and can then clear the path, depends on whether it is your day to die. If you suffer total electrical failure you lose the VOR heads and the panel GPS - how do you navigate? Thats where the portable GPS comes in I guess. You can mostly fly an approach with one of those - at least the later Garmin units with the approaches built in and the extended centerlines.

I have NEVER received an EFC in a garden variety clearance as set forth above. To lose all COM on such a short flight seems to also indicate a total electrical failure - so the 7600 squawk seems moot. Set it anyway, but it seems rather pointless.

When I fly IFR I always have the back up radio in reach with the headset attachment on, and the fully charged GPS396 up and running.

As for the whole re-programming the 530 on the fly, I always ask for the vector in my response such as:

“wilco direct XXXXX, request vector while resetting nav” The controllers know which way THEY you want to go so they always have the vector right in front of them and are happy to get you moving in the right direction. Alternatively, if you know roughly where you need to go, reset the AP heading bug and fine tune when you have it all set.

I have hand flown IFR in the soup many times, and heard the mantra that safe pilots can hand fly when tuning a radio and real men do not need autopilots, and we all passed the IFR checkride doing just that. Well, while I do think that I can hand fly and approach more precisely in a small airplane by hand, since I can anticipate the corrections better than any GA autopilot, using an autopilot for basic aircraft functions is simply much much safer.

I’ll ask you to try something. Find a CFI-I. Take off into a 2000OVC. Trim it up and then while handflying start trying to reset a panel GPS to fly direct to an intersection while maintaining heading and altitude, configuring the VOR head, writing down the changed clearance and responding to ATC. It ain’t EZ.


Note, the activities described in this thread was an enroute scenario not a departure clearance.

Agree with what you say above, and I brought that out earlier about equipment failure but I think the point of the whole thread was to “nit pick” what if scenario based on CAFlier’s original post and FARS. Ya know, typical classroom bantering not real world flying.

I didn’t have any problem with the clearance myself, other then clarifying whether it was to the airport or VOR. CAFlier clarified later he did chime up for a clarification.

However, there was a remiss on ATC in that “formally” if you get an amendment to a fix that wasn’t your destination, you are to get an EFC and that was missing.

In the real world, like you said, EFC doesn’t happen on a regular basis just as in the real world, you don’t leave the fix at an EFC, you fly the plane and ATC clears the airspace in front of you.

Like you (and stated earlier), I don’t hesitate to ask for vectors while getting myself set up for a new clearance.

My experiences are that ATC is glad to oblige as this way I am not plundering around aimlessly and they know where I am going and when based on their vectors.

Without the amendments part, I do this quite frequently as to maintain my currency, I actively seek IMC when doing my approaches and you are so right, and the only words in my head are aviate, navigate, communicate and it takes every bit of effort to keep that in my mind :smiley: along with doing everything else required to remain upright!

Usually, for currency purposes, I look for 700 OVC, go over to HKS, knock out a few ILS approaches, swing by KJAN for an approach and then back to KMBO for the VOR Alpha. Usually takes about 1 1/2 hour flying time. If it gets longer then a month, I will ask for altitudes that will put me in the clag even if I can’t do the full appproach in IMC, as to me, maintaining proficiency is not hood time. And of course do that one mandatory hold somewhere someplace.

So yeah, this thread doesn’t quite meet the real world, no different then any other thread that talks FARS :smiley:



You missed the question entirely. It was what do you do if the clearance doesn’t specify whether XXX is the airport or VOR and they have the same name and the VOR is located several miles away from the field. Would you fly to the airport (the IAF actually) or to the VOR (assuming that the VOR is not the IAF).


CAFLier - ok - I get it.
I see it but that was not stated in the original question - which was that:

You get cleared to XXX - however, XXX VOR is close to the airport by several miles. The implied question is: what was the clearance to? The VOR or the Airport. I understand. This was not a legal clearance. Simple as that.

You are required to assume if it is the airport. I would assume it is [but then, I would ask- but thats just me :wink:] an airport since most folks do not land at VORs and they tend to make lousy destinations for aircraft. Very short runways, no approaches, no bathrooms or food.

Of course, if I assume then I make an ass of you and me - which is why you need to ask!!!


In really packed airspace a controller does not want you checking a chart, setting up your nav radios and all the other stuff before turning.

Many controllers, myself included, issued a turn as part of the clearance i.e. “N12345 turn left heading 260, receiving Kessel proceed direct.”

Simple straight forward and gets the job done with no hassel.