January 03, 2022
It is easy to think that if you only fly VFR flights and do not have an IFR rating, you have no need to know anything about IFR comms. The truth is that there are good safety-related reasons for VFR pilots to invest some time learning the basics of IFR communications.
As a VFR pilot, you know that you are supposed to stay out of the way of IFR pilots. Of course, this is a whole lot easier to do if you know exactly where said IFR-piloted aircraft are located. The problem is that IFR pilots use very different terminology to report their locations. Even if you are monitoring the correct frequency, it may be hard for a VFR pilot to understand what an IFR pilot is saying. This language barrier creates the potential safety hazard of a VFR aircraft inadvertently and unknowingly getting in the way of a large, fast-moving IFR aircraft.
This is why it makes sense for VFR pilots to learn the terminology used by IFR pilots as they make their approaches and landings. Understanding IFR comms vernacular will make IFR radio traffic that much more useful to the VFR pilot when navigating shared airspace.
For example, a couple of the most common IFR-specific terms you will hear regarding positions leading up to landing are:
Fix / Intersection / FAF
Officially called a final approach fix (FAF), this is an FAA designated reference point which IFR pilots use for approach. FAFs are usually about 5 NM from the airport and about 1,500 ft AGL. Since FAFs do not show up on standard sectionals, it helps to familiarize yourself with the names and locations of FAFs near your local airport. This way, when you hear an IFR pilot call out their location at a particular FAF, you will know exactly where that aircraft is and whether you are in the way or not.
Joining the localizer / ILS
The localizer, or instrument landing system (ILS) is a radio signal that is sent out from the airfield. The signal is oriented along the runway centerline, and it can help an IFR pilot to line up with the runway from miles away. If you hear a pilot announce, “joining the localizer,” they usually are at least 6 miles away from the airport and are adjusting their heading to align with the ILS signal.
As a VFR pilot, you may be used to monitoring the tower frequency for your local airport. That is great, but did you know that IFR pilots will make contact on the approach or departure frequencies prior to tower? If you want some advance notice of approaching or departing IFR aircraft which could impact your flight path, it makes sense to know and monitor these additional frequencies.
Weather is notoriously unpredictable and despite the best of flight plans, even a prudent VFR pilot could find themselves in deteriorating flight conditions. If you get caught in a low-visibility situation, ATC may be able to assist you with flying out of it or even landing in it if necessary. The easiest way to do that is if you are familiar with some IFR terminology and procedures.
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