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Here's the scenario:

The flight starts night VFR, with broken ceiling at destination (class C airspace) and expected to improve according to the pre-flight abbreviated briefing. I'm IFR certified but prefer to stay VFR to dodge icy clouds along the way.

Now I'm about 15nm from my destination, talking to approach control, and the ATIS calls the ceiling overcast: it's apparent I'll have to file IFR one way or another. Approach is busy, but not overwhelmed.

What is the best way to handle this situation on the radio? I have the ATIS, picked an approach and have a squawk code (advisories):

a). Do I ask approach directly for the IFR clearance, and what is the officially sanctioned phraseology? Also: do I have to cancel IFR when I'm on the ground/see the runway, i.e., is the clearance to descend thru the layer and shoot an approach a 'real' IFR flight plan?

b). Ask approach if I can change frequency to FSS, file with them, then return to approach to pickup the clearance (and cancel when on the ground/view of runway)?

c). Other?

I did read How do you request a "pop up" IFR clearance?. In my scenario I have the time to call FSS, there is no emergency, I'm on flight following and could complete (b) if that's the best way to go.

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

Since you are already on flight following you are already in the system (ATC has a flight strip for you and a datablock on the radar). Just call ATC and ask them for IFR to your destination.

Austin Approach, Cessna 12345, request IFR to Austin

Since you have flight following ATC already knows your type, equipment suffix, location and altitude, so I wouldn't bother repeating it. ATC should reply

Cessna 12345, Austin Approach, you are cleared to the Austin Bergstrom Airport via radar vectors, maintain 2000 feet
Cessna 12345 fly heading 270, expect the ILS approach to runway 35R

If you are already in the approach environment you probably won't get a climb to an IFR altitude, you'll just be given whatever altitude they need for the arrival flow.

If you are landing at a towered airport you will not need to cancel IFR as the local controller will do this for you. If you are landing at a non-towered airport you will need to radio ATC or FSS or telephone FSS to cancel your IFR service.

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Thank you for the detailed answer. – user2105469 Mar 24 '14 at 21:36

See also this question about popup IFR

"Back in the day" (began the grey bearded geezer who hasn't flown IFR in a long time), you'd just tell Approach something like

"Approach, Cessna 123, (possibly insert location info), request IFR, approach XYZ".

The rule I was taught is "who are you, where are you, what do you want".

You already have a squawk & you're already talking, so it should be simple. I'd expect to hear back "Cessna 123, IFR approved, maintain current heading, ..."

If I recall correctly, Tower or Ground closes your IFR plan for you - they know you landed.

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I missed the bit about being 15 nm out. My concern is how long would it take FSS to notify Approach that you want IFR. Since you're already talking to Approach directly, my inclination would be to cut out the middle man. I may be wrong :-) – Dan Pichelman Mar 24 '14 at 19:25
Just saw your response. That's what I would do too, less work for all, but there seems to be a stigma -if that's the right word- about the pop-up so close to the destination. Maybe I should file further out when I get the first inkling that the ceiling isn't improving (can't upvote yet) – user2105469 Mar 24 '14 at 19:27
...ATC still has to fit me in, I understand that... – user2105469 Mar 24 '14 at 19:35

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