By Jeff Pardo
If youve had your Instrument rating for a few years, filing IFR has probably become second nature for you. Before launching on a cross-country, you naturally pick up the phone to file, even when the weather is CAVU. The idea of not filing an IFR flight plan doesnt really occur to you. Until, that is, youre at mid-point on a published departure procedure, wondering why youre doing all this knob-twisting-and youre probably not even headed toward your destination. Wouldnt it be nice to have the privileges of the Instrument rating and the freedoms of flying VFR? Well, you often can.
When it comes to clearances, you can cut some deals with ATC most of the time. Of course, as with anything involving the FAA, there are a few strings attached. However, your concerns should not be over any shadows of duplicity, but instead, heeding a few words of caution.
Perks and Quirks
If youre an Instrument-rated pilot, you already know that being able to file IFR adds a great deal of utility to your airplane. You are no longer restrained when the weather is below basic VFR for the airspace you happen to be in. Also, if you ever need help, its already there. Youre guaranteed automatic separation-though only from other IFR aircraft-you get spoon-fed approach vectors and youre led by the hand through todays modern-day maze of airspace. Those are the perks.
Some quirks exist, also. Sometimes, you have to sit and wait for a clearance-even idling the engine in the penalty box can quickly get expensive. Circuitous routings, or getting stuck at an altitude with headwinds, turbulence, icing or convective weather also are some of the prices we pay. Still, there are many more good reasons than not to fly in the IFR system. For now, well assume visual meteorological conditions (VMC) prevail and that the controller youre talking to isnt distractedly busy.Why VMC? Unless youre a frequent foul-weather flyer by choice, the fact is that most of the time, thats really what we fly in.
Regarding one of these quirks, Im sure that almost every single Instrument-rated reader has at least once gotten an assigned initial heading that pointed them almost directly away from their destination, rather than toward it. Aside from filing for a direct routing (hah!), you could ask for a different altitude or a heading change (though this kind of request is usually expected when ice, convective weather or some other problem is involved).
The first option to consider is when the weather along your route is actually pretty good, but theres a low cloud layer over your departure airport. You dont have to go the whole way IFR, if you dont want to. In this case, the type of IFR clearance you might want to consider is the climb to VFR on top.
You can start off with that request in the remarks section of your flight plan, and your IFR clearance ends as soon as you report reaching VFR on top.Of course, unless youre in Class B, you cant report reaching VFR on top until youre 1000 feet above the cloud layer comprising the ceiling. Youve got to be proactive and be the one who asks for it. If ATC knows where those tops are, theyll tell you. Theyll also ask you to report if you havent reached VFR by the time you reach a particular altitude.
Once youre on top, ATC will re-clear you to maintain VFR-on-top. After that point, if you want to remain VFR-on-top, there are some things to remember. See the sidebar at the top of page 10 for a quick list.
But this doesnt always work. If youre the first one punching through that day, and the tops just arent where area forecasts said theyd be, then what do you do? You might request an amended clearance to some higher altitude, or you might have to contend with a new route, which youre expected to be able to copy and read back, all while youre still climbing in the soup. Alternately, if they give you a clearance limit, you might have to hold there for awhile until they figure out a new game plan (i.e., route) for you. If theres ice where you were hoping to punch through, thats no help.The upshot with this one is, dont use it unless youre fairly sure youll leave the clouds behind and below you.
As for coming back to earth, two strategies can be useful for avoiding lengthy IFR procedures when you get near your destination. One is fairly safe and benign, while the other one is notoriously tricky. The safer of the two is called, quite simply, a visual approach. Either you or the controller can suggest it. In order to fly the visual, not surprisingly, the weather must be VMC (local ceilings must be at least 1000 feet and visibility must be three statute miles or more, e.g., marginal VFR). See the sidebar below left for more visual approach details.
If you report VFR, ATC likely will trust you, in part since its your neck. Either having the airport or preceding traffic in sight will suffice.Warning: In this situation, fudging can prove non-habit forming.
What I mean is that if you get lost in the haze and you dont say so, youre asking for trouble. Be aware here that traffic separation (as well as arrival sequencing to the destination runway) is now your job on this type of approach.
The bad boy of these two sorta IFR approaches is the contact approach, also detailed at left. This one you have to ask for, and you can only get it where there is already a published approach. This clearance makes the most sense for traveling between nearby airports or for pilots intimately familiar with the surrounding area.
Again, its up to you to keep ATC informed on what you can (or cant) see.If in your judgment (or theirs) completing the approach is in doubt, you should accept an alternate clearance. Poor weather, unfamiliar terrain and one mile visibility dont make a safe mix.
How safe these two approaches actually are for allowing reasonable shortcuts to formal and sometimes lengthy approach procedures, as well as how beneficial it might be to take the easy way up through clouds to VFR on top, all depends on how well you adhere to their limitations. In general, if youre a compulsive law abider, stay figuratively on top of the weather, and maintain your instrument skills, then these procedures represent an operational advantage, allowing you to save a bit of time as well as money.
Stuff To Watch For
Of course, theres no free lunch. You can be happily droning along on your sort of IFR clearance when, all of a sudden, things take a turn for the worse.
For the folks who usually fly in clear blue skies, clouds represent an approach/avoidance conflict. When I learned to fly, along with the aesthetic satisfaction of communing with clouds and the growing understanding of what they could tell me, I also realized what they could do to me. This is especially relevant for VFR pilots who take the (still quite legal) opportunity to fly above them.
Being able to experience that ethereal realm between air that we cannot see, and the enchanting beauty of moving sculpture that can take the form of smoothly undulating stratus sheets, or the three-dimensional Rorschach topiary of cumulus canyons and cathedrals, is a truly miraculous gift. But so much for my joyously exultant paean to clouds.
Especially if were Instrument rated, why might we want to fly VFR above them in the first place? Aside from the initial rapture of surmounting what were formerly your limits to upward vision, youre probably also going to have: a) better visibility, b) better weather, c) a smoother ride and d) more advance notice of challenging weather ahead. Youre also likely to have less traffic. The higher you go, the more options you have in the event of a power failure, and of course, when youre literally on top in the daytime, it is quite bright and sunny up there. But unless you have an Instrument rating, youd better also have a guaranteed cloudless climb to, and cloud-free descent from your cruising altitude, beginning at your departure point and continuing to your destination.
The “Planning To Stay On Top” and “Staying On Top Of Things” sidebars cover some of the things you should look for in your pre-flight briefing and while en route. When VFR-on-top, keeping the big weather picture in mind is more important than ever before.
With that in mind, here are some additional things to think about and look for to improve the safety of your VFR-on-top operations:
After a cold front passes, except where high terrain is a factor (even in the Appalachians) with building high pressure, when you fly over a layer of scattered clouds, youre likely to have a smooth ride. (Go underneath though, and its likely to be rough as a cob.)
The eastern side of a high often has descending air, good visibility, scattered clouds, little convection and low tops. On the back side, though, youre more likely to find moisture, rain or possibly thunderstorms (although not usually in the early morning).
With a low scattered layer situation, such as is typical of Florida, visual avoidance of rain showers is practical and relatively safe (except with a frontal passage or worse, such as a tropical depression).
In the southwest, particularly in the high desert country, its usually easy to get above low clouds. Turbulence can be nasty though, especially near the Rockies.
One More Thing
All that is nice to know, isnt it? But, what can you do if, despite your better judgment and prudence, you wind up being stuck up there and cant get down, even if you have an Instrument rating?
Obviously, if convective activity isnt a factor and terrain isnt either, and the cloud bases are high enough, an emergency descent could be done in some relative degree of safety, provided your instrument skills are up to it-and you have an Instrument rating in the first place. Of course, theres always the time-honored 180, followed by a diversion to an airport with good VMC.
Then theres the find a hole method. If its big enough, high enough and you know the terrain is flat enough, sure. But the implications of the phrase sucker hole are just as valid (if not more so) on the way down as they are for the trip up. And in case you thought I would forget, before you try any of the above, call ATC first. Dont hesitate for a second to declare an emergency.
And remember those four Cs: Climb, Communicate, Confess and Comply. If youre not Instrument-rated, and make it back down, start work on the rating (after youve finished kissing the ground).
Dont Abuse The Privilege
Its quite legal to fly VFR on top-that is, in the U.S. And it can be quite safe. But every story has two sides, and the story most every other country has is, dont do it; its illegal for a VFR pilot in most other places around the world.
Yeah, VFR on top is perfectly okay-maybe. As long as you have a good grounding in weather basics, a healthy skepticism about weather forecasts and you always have contingency plans.
Also With This Article
“VFR-On-Top and Over-the-Top”
“A VFR Or IFR Clearance?”
“Two Sets Of Rules…”
“…And Two Different Approaches”
“Planning To Stay On Top”
“Staying On Top Of Things”
-Jeff Pardo is a freelance writer and editor who holds a Commercial certificate for airplanes, helicopters and sailplanes.