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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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    $\begingroup$ You will also be told to report IFR cancellation in the air of on the ground with approach, otherwise with the one-in one-out rule, nobody else can land at the same field until you cancel your IFR. $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2017 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ It's called "popup IFR" but there's no guarantee that ATC will grant it base on their workload, afternoon IFR flight plans are supposed to be submitted an hour in advance. If you expect IFR at your destination then file an IFR flight plan. The flight plan doesn't have to start at an airport and can start at an intermediate fix or navaid near your destination. $\endgroup$
    – Steve Kuo
    Oct 12, 2017 at 16:04

3 Answers 3

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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. Don't bother asking for a frequency change to FSS to file a flight plan, only to come right back on and ask to pick it up.

Austin Approach, Cessna 12345, request IFR to Austin

Since you have flight following ATC already knows your type, equipment suffix, location and altitude, so don't repeat it. ATC should ask

Cessna 12345, verify you are qualified for and capable of IFR flight?1

and after you (hopefully) reply in the affirmative will issue:

Cessna 12345, cleared to the Austin Bergstrom Airport via fly heading 270, vector to ILS Runway 35-Right final approach course, maintain 2000.

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.

This method is faster than filing with FSS and easier for ATC (they don't have to approve a frequency change, wait around for you to file, then have you come back and wait further while your flight plan works its way through the system). However, bear in mind that none of the "extra" search-and-rescue information you would give to FSS (fuel and souls on board, emergency equipment, filed alternate, aircraft color and markings) will be recorded.2

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.


Footnotes

1This is a relatively new requirement after a non-IFR-rated pilot accepted an IFR clearance and subsequently crashed.
2Some facilities will have you rattle all that information off on the controller's frequency or a separate unused frequency and then mark that down in the flight plan remarks, just to have it on the tapes in case it's needed. If you're only 15 miles from your destination they probably won't do this but it's a possibility.

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    $\begingroup$ I would add to this that (if possible & necessary) wait until you have been switched from center to approach before asking as the process on their end is different. If you are on Center and ask for the approach, they are required (for loss of comm procedures) to clear you for the entire approach including getting you to the IAF whereas approach can clear you to the IF. I do this all the time flying from Phoenix to San Diego where the overcast has come in and I need to shoot the ILS to KCRQ. If I request IFR from LA Center I get JLI-OCN-HOMILY-ESCON but from SoCal I get direct to ESCON. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Jan 8, 2019 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Note that as of 2020, you call ATC directly (not FSS) to cancel IFR after landing at a non-towered airport. The phone number should be in the A/FD remarks for any airport without an existing RCO/CD freq. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Mar 10, 2021 at 13:14
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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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  • $\begingroup$ 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 :-) $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2014 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ 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) $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2014 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ ...ATC still has to fit me in, I understand that... $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2014 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ Controller workflow and congestion are a consideration. If the work load is light, short notice may work fine. If the workload is high, then I usually ask if it would be possible to work me in. One time, I was given a hold with a 45 minute EFC time, but the weather went south unexpectedly and there was allot of traffic. There was also a plane with a radio problem on frequency. As it turned out, I only held for and entry and one loop, once the controller got things worked out. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Jun 12, 2017 at 18:03
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If you're in the Center environment (realizing that you specifically said approach control), you can expect to be granted an IFR clearance based on workload. A Center controller would have the option of telling you to remain VFR, and if that means turning around, that's what you do.

Realistically, however, there's a very good chance you'll get your IFR.

The controller may ask if you are capable and qualified for IFR flight, but this is usually asked in distress situations. If you call me and ASK for IFR, you've just informed me that you are capable (aircraft is outfitted for IFR) and qualified (you're an actual IFR pilot), just as if you had just taken off VFR and requested right after you got the wheels up.

There are other caveats.

Filing through radio while in the air BEFORE you get close in will normally get you quicker handling.

In Denver Center, terrain is always an issue, and VFR aircraft often fly below our minima. Be prepared for the need to climb in VFR conditions to our minimum vectoring altitude, which is higher than what is prescribed in 14 CFR 91.177.

Also, you'll normally get lower priority than IFR aircraft going to the same destination.

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