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Introduction

Pop-up IFR clearances are an accepted way to transition from VFR to IFR flight by obtaining an IFR clearance. They are well documented from a controller's perspective in this Tarrance Kramer article appearing in AvWeb and from a pilot's perspective in this Rick Durdan article appearing in AvWeb.

These related Aviation.SE questions also address the topic:

Clearly, this is an accepted way to obtain an IFR clearance; I have made use of the option myself plenty of times.

Legal Background

Now, pop-up clearances are often requested and granted with no previously filed IFR flight plan which, on the face of it, would seem to be in violation of 14 CFR 91.173 which states (emphasis mine):

No person may operate an aircraft in controlled airspace under IFR unless that person has—
(a) Filed an IFR flight plan; and
(b) Received an appropriate ATC clearance.

14 CFR 91.169 gives the information required for filing that required IFR flight plan, which states, in part (emphasis mine):

Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, each person filing an IFR flight plan must include in it the following information: [...]

(I omit the long list of actual information)

The Question

The first part of my question is:

  1. Does a request for a pop-up IFR clearance constitute filing a flight plan?

    Is there an unwritten (or perhaps written) understanding that the request for the IFR clearance constitutes filing a flight plan to the extent required by 14 CFR 91.173?

The second part of my question is:

  1. Why is the full list of information required for filing an IFR flight plan not required, in fact, of a pilot requesting a pop-up IFR clearance?

    If ATC issues an IFR clearance without this information, is that a tacit, but legally valid, authorization to exclude the information otherwise required by 14 CFR 91.169?

Is all this actually codified somewhere that I am not aware of?

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    $\begingroup$ I have found in FAA Order JO 7110.65W, which describes ATC procedures, that ATC considers a pop-up to be an airfile IFR Flight Plan. Not enough info to build a strong answer for you. Perhaps some of our resident ATC folks will chime in soon. $\endgroup$ – Porcupine911 Mar 1 '16 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Porcupine911 Well, if it is "airfiled" then I guess that says that you are filing it, which pretty clearly answers the question... $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Mar 1 '16 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Lnafziger Without having read JO 7110.65W yet, the "airfiled" bit would seem to answer only my first question. $\endgroup$ – J Walters Mar 1 '16 at 6:04
  • $\begingroup$ Yes its filing a flight plan. The reason you don't need all the info is because you are brought into the IFR system in that sector, and no pre-vetting of the flight plan is done, as when you file with fought service. $\endgroup$ – rbp Jul 9 '16 at 21:04
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I think Porcupine911 nailed the first question perfectly with the reference to JO 7110.65W: A "pop-up" IFR clearance counts as filing an IFR flight plan.
ATC considers it an "airfiled" flight plan (VFR-to-IFR), and the controller talking to you will take at least the bare minimum information necessary to enter you into the ATC system and generate a flight plan / strip for your aircraft.


Your second question is a little more complicated, but the short answer is that pop-up IFR clearances aren't "tacit authorization to omit information required by 91.169", but controllers are busy people and don't have time to key all that into the computer when they're supposed to be working traffic.

The longer version is that what you probably should be doing to get an IFR clearance in-flight is calling the local flight service station over the radio and air-filing your IFR flight plan with them, then checking in with ATC (who will have all the information Flight Service took from you and entered into the computer, without having to tie up their frequency interrogating you for it).

The FAA (or at least the ATC organization) is not without a heart though: They understand that if you're calling them for a pop-up IFR clearance it means you're in a bit of a situation (like IMC closing in on you with no good "out" that will allow you to remain VFR) and you need to get into the system before you hit the ground, a building, or another aircraft.
Giving the controller the bare minimum skeleton of a flight plan allows them to get you into the system and under positive ATC control to ensure you're operating at a safe altitude without any traffic conflicts, which satisfies the first of the three ATC operational criteria ("Safe") -- the other two (Orderly & Expedient) are a lower priority and can be dealt with later.

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  • $\begingroup$ Three great articles on Pop-Up IFR that you might want to look at for more info: Rick Durden's "Pop-Up IFR", Tarrance Kramer's "Pop-Up Clearances", and Don Brown's "Say Again?" #46, which gives a controller's perspective $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 1 '16 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ The first two articles I referenced in my question :) $\endgroup$ – J Walters Mar 1 '16 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ I'd add that ATC flight strips and the computer systems that are used don't have the ability to even store the extra flight plan data, so we don't bother asking usually. $\endgroup$ – slookabill Mar 1 '16 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ Calling flight service from the air is unrealistic because a pop up is usually requested when the weather is deteriorating. If you radio FSS, file a flight plan, and then go back to ATC. to pick up your clearance, you'll probably have to wait 5 or 10 minutes for the flight plan to make it into the system. All while trying to stay VFR $\endgroup$ – rbp Jul 9 '16 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ @rbp If you've already wandered into bad weather you have an urgency situation (possibly bordering on an emergency) - you probably don't have time to call flight service, and you have plenty of reason to file directly with a controller. Conversely if you're in good weather but your destination an hour away is forecast to drop below VFR minimums you have plenty of time to call up flight service, file in the air, and pick up your clearance at a convenient waypoint later in the flight: That's being pragmatic and responsible :) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jul 11 '16 at 4:10
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Here are two relevant definitions from the FAA's Pilot/Controller Glossary (my emphasis):

FLIGHT PLAN− Specified information relating to the intended flight of an aircraft that is filed orally or in writing with an FSS or an ATC facility.

And:

ABBREVIATED IFR FLIGHT PLANS− An authorization by ATC requiring pilots to submit only that information needed for the purpose of ATC. It includes only a small portion of the usual IFR flight plan information. In certain instances, this may be only aircraft identification, location, and pilot request. Other information may be requested if needed by ATC for separation/control purposes. It is frequently used by aircraft which are airborne and desire an instrument approach or by aircraft which are on the ground and desire a climb to VFR-on-top.

So according to the FAA's own definitions, a flight plan may be filed orally with ATC, and an abbreviated flight plan is specifically intended for pop-up clearances.

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  • $\begingroup$ All that is true and helpful, but ancillary to the question. Oral filing of flight plans is not in question. According to the more legally binding 14 CFR 91.169 which I quoted in the question, ATC authorization is required for such an abbreviated flight plan. Thus my question. I am not going to downvote, as the info might be helpful for others, but this answer does little to answer the question. $\endgroup$ – J Walters Mar 1 '16 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ @JonathanWalters Well, it depends how you see it but I disagree about "ancillary". I understood that you're asking if a pop-up IFR request is considered to be a flight plan under 91.173, which means the definition of 'flight plan' is a key point. But it's not a big deal: as you said the answer is obviously yes anyway, otherwise every pop-up clearance would lead to an FAA enforcement action. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Mar 1 '16 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate that perspective, and I do see what you mean. $\endgroup$ – J Walters Mar 1 '16 at 15:24
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To add on to voretaq7's excellent response, the bottom line for ATC is that full flight plans and IFR pop-ups will be handled the same way for separation and sequencing, etc. Pop ups are more work for the operational controller trying to separate airplanes, but they will almost always grant them workload permitting.

Filing the full flight plan through FSS or DUATs is the best for everybody. The controllers get the proposed plan 30 minutes prior to departure and don't have to play 20 questions on frequency. The pilots get better service and more complete search and rescue data on file, which may sound trivial but is actually really important!

BTW - you can actually file an IFR flight plan to begin mid flight. I've seen many times when a flight will have VFR legs before and after the IFR segment. Kind of handy if you are anticipating weather down the road but want to remain VFR as much as possible.

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One additional aspect of pop-ups. Air filing a flight plan with FSS, and then going to ATC to pick it up, saves the controller typing, and makes friends. You might be talking with FSS already to get updated Wx if you don't have a fancy cockpit.

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