Changes: IFR Practice in the San Diego Region

Disclaimer: The information contained in this post only impacts the San Diego Region. This is not intended to provide guidance on operations in other regions and I have no insight on how other regions operate.


Recently, I received a call from the TRACON team that operates the San Diego region. For those that may not know what TRACON is, it is the Terminal Radar Approach Control and these are the fine men and women that oversee aircraft moving about the San Diego Region. We usually refer to them as SoCal Approach/Departure (or just SoCal) while flying Their primary focus is to coordinate and safely manage IFR traffic, but they also lend assistance to VFR traffic as well, workload permitting. Anyhow, the controller was very cool with the mission to do what he could to get this information into as many hands as possible and I am all too happy to help share.


So here is the skinny on a very important change. Let's assume you are in flight training for your instrument rating, or perhaps out working on your instrument proficiency. You will need (or rather, would LIKE to have) the assistance of SoCal with the goal being to create as much of a real world IFR experience as possible.


Until recently, your practice may have been accomplished in this fashion:


1) You either file IFR clearance or obtained a TEC clearance for your FIRST airport that you want to practice at. You will be doing a few different airports but you will fill in SoCal once you are in the air.

2) You obtain your IFR clearance prior to departure and are released.

3) Once airborne you contact SoCal Approach and fill them in on a few of the OTHER airports that you want to practice at for the day.

4) You would get vectored for the approach at your first airport but you have no intention of actually landing. Your goal is to get to the missed approach, fly the missed approach and then move on the the next airport; where this process would be repeated until you conclude your practice for the day.


In this model described, you would have, at some point been required to no longer be an actual, real world IFR flight. As you should know, if you are IFR you would fly the miss as a result of an inability to land the aircraft in a normal fashion, for far to many reasons to list here. So SoCal would provide a 'hint' to you and ask you to cancel IFR prior to flying the final segment of your approach. Usually it would sound something like "N319EG, report cancelling IFR". At which time, you would have probably said "9EG can cancel IFR now". At this very moment, you are NO LONGER an IFR flight... You are a VFR flight. This means that the whole expectation to 'land the plane' is no longer an issue. You can fly the missed, move on to the next airport and get on with the work you need to do.


This was common practice for years. Not anymore... The biggest change is


1)Unless you cancel IFR, you will be required to land the aircraft.

2) You will NOT get your 'hint' to cancel anymore. If you fail to cancel, you must land.

3) If you are IFR and you do NOT land, be prepared to answer as to why. You can expect that SoCal will be looking for legitimate reasons, as any IFR aircraft would need. Examples: a failure to see the airport at minimums, unstable approach, etc... The things that would normally require you to fly your missed approach in a non-training flight.


On the surface, it would appear this is actually just a minor 'procedural' change but there are actually some real implications that you need to be aware of, mostly dealing with efficiency in training and the obligations that SoCal is bound by.


We would always obtain an official clearance so that we were able to practice 'real world' flying and to learn to follow ATC instructions. We would never land but rather just fly the miss to save time & money in training. Actually landing the aircraft, taxing back and then getting a new clearance and then taking off is.... well, costly and time consuming.


In the eyes of SoCal, you are either IFR or VFR. There is no IFR 1/2 or VFR'ish. If you are IFR, they have an obligation to maintain a separation between you and and other aircraft and so they do that. When you are VFR, they point out traffic but it is the pilots responsibility to see and avoid and SoCal no longer has a separation mandate. (Ok, yes, FAR 91.113 says IFR has the obligation too see and avoid too but we are talking about this scenario). So, naturally, they vector IFR traffic to maintain the separation and let VFR maneuver (generally) as they wish.


So.... Here are your options:


1) If you want the REAL feeling of IFR flight, you can still get an official clearance. Just plan on landing and doing all over again for the next airport.

2) You can ask Ground Control / Clearance Delivery for a VFR Practice Approach to your first airport. In doing this, you will get a pseudo clearance that closely mimics a traditional clearance but you will NOT be IFR.

3) You can obtain an official clearance, start your IFR flight and TRY to remember to cancel while en route to your first airport. Of course, when you cancel, you are just like the guy using option 2.


If you are a VFR aircraft you will hear things like "Altitude your discretion".... Or "Resume Own Navigation". These are phrases you generally don't hear on an IFR flight. SoCal uses those on VFR practice approaches as well, so be prepared. Instructors may have to 'pretend' to be SoCal for the student, issuing commands to get the student acclimated to listening for and following instructions. SoCal will pop in occasionally and issue commands, which of course should be promptly adhered to.


It pays to be aware of how SoCal is going to handle things going forward. If you ask me, I am actually enjoying just asking for the VFR practice approach as it allows you to break off for a minute and work on things if needed while not being obligated to the confines of IFR flight. Besides, I get to practice my TRACON impersonations. Oh, and your students will not think it's cute when you say "N319EG, maintain 5167 feet".

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