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 1 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.

Communication Facilities of Air Traffic Control System
Figure 1. Flight strip
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.

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.

Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)

TRACONs are considered terminal facilities because they provide the link between the departure airport and the en route structure of the NAS. Terminal airspace normally extends 30 nautical miles (NM) from the facility with a vertical extent of 10,000 feet; however, dimensions vary widely. Class B and Class C airspace dimensions are provided on aeronautical charts. At terminal radar facilities, the airspace is divided into sectors, each with one or more controllers, and each sector is assigned a discrete radio frequency. All terminal facilities are approach controls and should be addressed as “Approach” except when directed to do otherwise (e.g., “Contact departure on 120.4.”).

Terminal radar antennas are located on or adjacent to the airport. Figure 2 shows a typical configuration. Terminal controllers can assign altitudes lower than published procedural altitudes called minimum vectoring altitudes (MVAs). These altitudes are not published or accessible to pilots, but are displayed at the controller’s position. [Figure 3] However, when pilots are assigned an altitude that seems to be too low, they should query the controller before descending.

Communication Facilities of Air Traffic Control System
Figure 2. Combined radar and beacon antenna
Communication Facilities of Air Traffic Control System
Figure 3. Minimum vectoring altitude (MVA) chart
When a pilot accepts a clearance and reports ready for takeoff, a controller in the tower contacts the TRACON for a release. An aircraft is not cleared for takeoff until the departure controller can fit the flight into the departure flow. A pilot may have to hold for release. When takeoff clearance is received, the departure controller is aware of the flight and is waiting for a call. All of the information the controller needs is on the departure strip or the computer screen; there is no need to repeat any portion of the clearance to that controller. Simply establish contact with the facility when instructed to do so by the tower controller. The terminal facility computer picks up the transponder and initiates tracking as soon as it detects the assigned code. For this reason, the transponder should remain on standby until takeoff clearance has been received.
The aircraft appears on the controller’s radar display as a target with an associated data block that moves as the aircraft moves through the airspace. The data block includes aircraft identification, aircraft type, altitude, and airspeed.A TRACON controller uses Airport Surveillance Radar (ASR) to detect primary targets and Automated Radar Terminal Systems (ARTS) to receive transponder signals; the two are combined on the controller’s scope. [Figure 4]

Communication Facilities of Air Traffic Control System
Figure 4. The top image is a display as seen by controllers in an air traffic facility. It is an ARTS III (Automated Radar Terminal System). The display shown provides an explanation of the symbols in the graphic. The lower figure is an example of the Digital Bright Radar Indicator Tower Equipment (DBRITE) screen as seen by tower personnel. It provides tower controllers with a visual display of the airport surveillance radar, beacon signals, and data received from ARTS III. The display shown provides an explanation of the symbols in the graphic
At facilities with ASR-3 equipment, radar returns from precipitation are not displayed as varying levels of intensity, and controllers must rely on pilot reports and experience to provide weather avoidance information. With ASR-9 equipment, the controller can select up to six levels of intensity. Light precipitation does not require avoidance tactics but precipitation levels of moderate, heavy, or extreme should cause pilots to plan accordingly. Along with precipitation, the pilot must additionally consider the temperature, which if between –20° and +5 °C causes icing even during light precipitation. The returns from higher levels of intensity may obscure aircraft data blocks, and controllers may select the higher levels only on pilot request. When uncertainty exists about the weather ahead, ask the controller if the facility can display intensity levels—pilots of small aircraft should avoid intensity levels 3 or higher.

Tower En Route Control (TEC)

At many locations, instrument flights can be conducted entirely in terminal airspace. These tower en route control (TEC) routes are generally for aircraft operating below 10,000 feet, and they can be found in the A/FD. Pilots desiring to use TEC should include that designation in the remarks section of the flight plan.

Pilots are not limited to the major airports at the city pairs listed in the A/FD. For example, a tower en route flight from an airport in New York (NYC) airspace could terminate at any airport within approximately 30 miles of Bradley International (BDL) airspace, such as Hartford (HFD). [Figure 5]

Communication Facilities of Air Traffic Control System
Figure 5. A portion of the New York area tower en route list (from the A/FD)
A valuable service provided by the automated radar equipment at terminal radar facilities is the Minimum Safe Altitude Warnings (MSAW). This equipment predicts an aircraft’s position in 2 minutes based on present path of flight—the controller issues a safety alert if the projected path encounters terrain or an obstruction. An unusually rapid descent rate on a nonprecision approach can trigger such an alert.

Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC)

ARTCC facilities are responsible for maintaining separation between IFR flights in the en route structure. Center radars (Air Route Surveillance Radar (ARSR)) acquire and track transponder returns using the same basic technology as terminal radars. [Figure 6]

Communication Facilities of Air Traffic Control System
Figure 6. Center radar displays
Earlier Center radars display weather as an area of slashes (light precipitation) and Hs (moderate rainfall), as illustrated in Figure 7. Because the controller cannot detect higher levels of precipitation, pilots should be wary of areas showing moderate rainfall. Newer radar displays show weather as three levels of blue. Controllers can select the level of weather to be displayed. Weather displays of higher levels of intensity can make it difficult for controllers to see aircraft data blocks, so pilots should not expect ATC to keep weather displayed continuously.
Communication Facilities of Air Traffic Control System
Figure 7. A center controller’s scope
Center airspace is divided into sectors in the same manner as terminal airspace; additionally, most Center airspace is divided by altitudes into high and low sectors. Each sector has a dedicated team of controllers and a selection of radio frequencies because each Center has a network of remote transmitter/receiver sites. All Center frequencies can be found in the back of the A/FD in the format shown in Figure 8; they are also found on en route charts.
Communication Facilities of Air Traffic Control System
Figure 8. A/FD center frequencies listing
Each ARTCC’s area of responsibility covers several states; when flying from the vicinity of one remote communication site toward another, expect to hear the same controller on different frequencies.

Center Approach/Departure Control

The majority of airports with instrument approaches do not lie within terminal radar airspace and, when operating to or from these airports, pilots communicate directly with the Center controller. Departing from a tower-controlled airport, the tower controller provides instructions for contacting the appropriate Center controller. When departing an airport without an operating control tower, the clearance includes instructions such as “Upon entering controlled airspace, contact Houston Center on 126.5.” Pilots are responsible for terrain clearance until reaching the controller’s MVA. Simply hearing “Radar contact” does not relieve a pilot of this responsibility.

If obstacles in the departure path require a steeper-than-standard climb gradient (200 feet per nautical mile (FPNM)), then the controller advises the pilot. However, it is the pilot’s responsibility to check the departure airport listing in the A/FD to determine if there are trees or wires in the departure path. When in doubt, ask the controller for the required climb gradient.

A common clearance in these situations is “When able, proceed direct to the Astoria VOR…” The words “when able” mean to proceed to the waypoint, intersection, or NAVAID when the pilot is able to navigate directly to that point using onboard available systems providing proper guidance, usable signal, etc. If provided such guidance while flying VFR, the pilot remains responsible for terrain and obstacle clearance. Using the standard climb gradient, an aircraft is 2 miles from the departure end of the runway before it is safe to turn (400 feet above ground level (AGL)). When a Center controller issues a heading, a direct route, or says “direct when able,” the controller becomes responsible for terrain and obstruction clearance.

Another common Center clearance is “Leaving (altitude) fly (heading) or proceed direct when able.” This keeps the terrain/obstruction clearance responsibility in the flight deck until above the minimum IFR altitude. A controller cannot issue an IFR clearance until an aircraft is above the minimum IFR altitude unless it is able to climb in VFR conditions.

On a Center controller’s scope, 1 NM is about 1⁄28 of an inch. When a Center controller is providing Approach/Departure control services at an airport many miles from the radar antenna, estimating headings and distances is very difficult. Controllers providing vectors to final must set the range on their scopes to not more than 125 NM to provide the greatest possible accuracy for intercept headings. Accordingly, at locations more distant from a Center radar antenna, pilots should expect a minimum of vectoring.