VFR IFR: The Big Difference in Air Traffic Control

When making the transition from VFR to IFR, one of the big differences faced by pilots in training is the way they communicate with air traffic control. VFR to IFR means going from a relatively informal communication on the radio (VFR) to more formal (IFR) communication.


Pilots flying under VFR can afford to be more free-form, or loose in their communication. Air traffic controllers refer to this as “plain language” communication. For example:

“Chicago Approach, Cessna 9541Q, I’m over the shoreline, just south of the stadium at 3,500, VFR. Request flight following.”

Air traffic control with also tend to use looser, easier to follow language with pilots flying VFR.

“Cessna 9541Q, Chicago Approach, radar contact. Maintain VFR and advise of any altitude changes.”

Standard Eyes

Pilots flying IFR have to use standardized phrases, spelled out in the Aeronautical Information Manual. For example, in response to an ATC instruction to climb:

“Piper 408UK, departing 6,000 for 7,000.”

Copying and reading back IFR clearances follows this same formal pattern. It can be very difficult for a pilot-in-training to absorb sometimes lengthy and formal IFR clearances. This is especially true if the pilot has spent many years flying VFR where talking to ATC may not have ever been a requirement.

Even high-time pilots occasionally struggle with lengthy ATC clearances, especially if the flying workload is already high. It can take years of practice to get into the rhythm and complexity of ATC clearances.

There is really only one way to overcome this obstacle: practice. There are two ways to practice.

  1. Build a lot of flying time, at great personal expense.
  2. Use a training device that gives you a lot experience with ATC without having to pay for expensive flying time.

Click here to see the second, better alternative. Clearance Magic.