Special Gyrations

Special VFR gives you the option to land or take off when the weather is down, but the price is higher risk


-by Nancy Miller

The skills and knowledge every pilot acquires are that pilots toolbox, full of nifty gadgets that help meet the challenges of flight. Some tools, such as following a distance-doubling string of vectors around a Class Bravo, feel like bulky protective gear youd rather not wear. Other tools are worn shiny with constant use.

Like any toolbox, a pilots contains a few tools that get a bit rusty from disuse. Maybe youve never even seen them used, only read about them in a book. Special VFR is one of those tools.

I am lucky enough to have an office on a small hill about a mile from a busy Class D airport. Not only can I listen to the tower, ground and departure frequencies on my scanner, but if 19R is in use I can usually count the seconds until the airplane that just called for takeoff is framed prettily in my office window.

From this vantage point, I witnessed a truly remarkable demonstration of rusty skills on a perfect flying day about two years ago. The visibility was good and the sky was clear – except for a layer of stratus that was hanging out directly over the airport. The weather was VFR for miles around, but the ATIS gave ceilings of 800 feet with 8 miles visibility. The beacon was on.

A pilot called up the tower, hesitantly requesting a special VFR clearance to land. It took her two tries to read back the clearance, but then she was on her way to the runway. Meanwhile, another pilot called up from about two miles outside the Class D. The exchange went something like this:

Cessna 12345 is 6 miles north landing with Oscar.

Cessna 345, remain clear of the Class Delta and state your intentions.

Uh, Cessna 345 would like to land.

Cessna 345, confirm you have information Oscar?

Yes, we have Oscar, and would like to land.

Cessna 345, you say you have information Oscar. The airport is below basic VFR. State your intentions.

That other airplane is landing, right?

Yes. (pause) Remain clear of the Class Delta and state your intentions.

Wed like one of whatever it is that shes having!

News flash: that didnt get them a clearance either. About two radio exchanges later, the pilot remembered what he needed to say and requested a special VFR to land. State your intentions immediately became a clearance into the Class D.

Isnt That Special?
Special VFR isnt particularly difficult. Its just, well, special. It isnt VFR and it isnt IFR, although it contains elements of both. As defined in FAR 91.157, special VFR (or SVFR for short) allows a pilot who is not on an instrument flight plan to enter or leave an airport surface area that lies in controlled airspace in conditions that are below basic VFR as defined in FAR 91.155. In Classes C, D or E (surface), that means less than 3 miles of visibility, or a ceiling less than 1,000 ft.

A special VFR clearance allows you to depart, transition or enter the airspace and maneuver to land, providing you stay clear of clouds and maintain one statute mile of flight visibility. Helicopters have no visibility requirement but must remain clear of clouds.

Although its technically possible to get a special VFR clearance into Class B airspace, all but a handful of the Bravos, and another half-dozen Class C airports, prohibit special VFR operations. Theres a list of these airports in FAR Part 91, appendix D, section 3, or you can just look on your sectional chart. The notation NO SVFR will appear directly above the airport name.

Its easy enough to define SVFR in a few words but the devil is in the details. First, if youre flying on an instrument flight plan, you dont need SVFR. Just shoot the approach, but remember not to cancel IFR until youre on the ground if the weather is reported as below basic VFR.

Of course, sometimes thats easier said than done. Consider one pilot who planned to land at Arcata, Calif., which at the time had a Flight Service Station. The reported conditions were two miles visibility in mist. When he saw the airport, he advised ATC that he wished to cancel IFR and land visually. Youd do better to cancel that on the ground, sir, the helpful controller replied. The pilot got the hint quickly.

Working the Clearance
A special VFR clearance applies only to the lateral limits of the area are defined by the footprint where the Class B, C, D or E airspace reaches the ground. Thus, the airport surface area does not include all of the Class B or C airspace associated with a particular airfield.

In addition to the lateral limits defined by the term airport surface area, SVFR clearances also define an upper altitude limit. Even for Class D airspace, this altitude is usually lower than the ceiling of the airspace.

Note that the dimensions of the SVFR clearance do not alter the normal dimensions of the Class B, C, or D airspace, nor the requirements for entering such airspace. Also, an SVFR clearance is not necessary if conditions are VFR.

Lets say you are approaching Monterey, a coastal Class C airport that often reports weather below VFR due to a marine stratus layer. You are above the layer in VFR conditions and want to transition the Class C. You dont need an SVFR clearance but you do need to comply with Class C requirements. In other words, you must establish two-way radio communications with ATC and be equipped with a Mode C transponder.

If the airport is reporting IFR conditions, the controller may ask if youre in VFR conditions. You might stave off that question by simply stating your situation in your call up: Sierra Approach, Piper Cub 12345 Winters 2200 feet, request transition through the Class C to the northeast, will remain VFR.

There are a few requirements. You need at least a private pilot certificate to get a special VFR clearance. Pilots holding a recreational pilot certificate and solo student pilots are prohibited from using SVFR. In order to fly under an SVFR clearance at night in a fixed-wing aircraft, the pilot must be instrument rated and the airplane must be equipped for instrument flight.

Finally, the pilot has to ask for a special VFR clearance; the controllers cannot volunteer it without a specific request. Although some have been known to hint broadly (Is there anything special I can do for you today?), others wont offer such clues. There is a potential danger that a pilot who doesnt know the procedure will get into trouble trying it.

A solo student pilot in a Cessna 150 came to grief after accepting a SVFR clearance he didnt understand. He approached his destination airport about 35 minutes before sundown. According to his later recollection, the ATIS information was reporting 7 miles visibility with no mention of fog. He also remembered seeing that the rotating beacon was on.

After clearing the flight to land, the tower controller advised the pilot that the field had just gone to instrument meteorological conditions and asked him to state his intentions. The pilot said he wanted to land.

The controller asked him if he wanted something special to land, and the pilot responded that he did, indeed, want something special to land. The controller then asked if he wanted a special VFR. The student pilot said yes, and the controller issued an SVFR clearance. During his approach, the student entered a fog bank and subsequently crashed a mile from the airport. Luckily, he was not injured, although the same could not be said for the airplane.

The Magic Word
At some point in your training, you learned you must utter the magic word special to receive an SVFR clearance. Its one of those things that is easy to forget when you need it most. If youre prone to brain freezes, write yourself a note and tape it to your visor, or invest in one of the many pilot guides that summarize pilot information, including SVFR.

To request a special VFR clearance, simply call up on the appropriate frequency and tell them who you are, where you are, and what you want. Sound familiar? It ought to. Theres nothing strange about the content or order of a special VFR request. At an airport without an operating control tower, your request is made to the controlling agency. The correct frequency can be found in the Airport/Facility Directory.

Heres a typical example of an SVFR request: Concord Tower, Archer 12345, 8 miles west with Tango. Request special VFR to land.

The reply you want to hear is, Archer 345, you are cleared to enter the Concord Class Delta surface area from the west. Maintain special VFR conditions at or below 1,500 feet while in the Class Delta surface area. Report airport in sight.

Since you knew what the controller was going to say, youre ready with your reply. Archer 345 cleared into the Class D, maintain special VFR at or below 1,500, report airport in sight.

From the controllers point of view, special VFR means the controller provides IFR-type separation with other traffic while you work out navigation and collision avoidance. In order to make this a safe procedure inside an airport surface area, the controllers must arrange for you to have the airspace all to yourself. Their job is to coordinate SVFR traffic with IFR traffic so that everything moves smoothly.

Your SVFR clearance will come with an altitude restriction for the clearance, such as maintain SVFR at or below 1,500. This doesnt mean you have to enter the airspace below that altitude, but that you must maintain VFR-legal visibility and cloud clearances above it. If you cant reach the stated altitude in VFR conditions, tell the controller.

If youre flying in hazy conditions, remember that things look farther away in haze than they actually are. You may think you are clear of an airports airspace when the illusion has in fact led you inside without a clearance. Use your navaids and the landmarks on the sectional to verify youre clear.

If you request an SVFR approach to land, youll be expected to do so. Although the controller can approve the option, the airspace usually needs to be freed up for other pilots. It doesnt hurt to ask if you want to do pattern work, but dont be surprised if the answer is no.

Flying VFR in what amounts to an IFR environment requires two concessions from the pilot involved. First, IFR traffic is handled with a higher priority than SVFR traffic. This means that sometimes youre going to be waiting until the IFR flights have been accommodated. If youre airborne, that can mean circling outside the airspace until its your turn. If youve planned badly and are low on fuel, dont keep it a secret just because youre next up for a clearance. An IFR flight that arrives after you can bump you back in line.

Second, you are responsible for requesting an SVFR clearance because, by making the request, you are acknowledging the additional risks and responsibilities that come with the clearance.

Be Picky
Smart pilots are picky about when they use SVFR. Some days are better than others. If the only thing between you and a day of clear flying is a solitary cloud directly over the airport or a dense inversion layer that tops out at 1,500 feet, SVFR can be a great way to get in and out. If the weather is marginal everywhere or likely to get worse in the near future, think twice.

A pilot in Alaska departed with a special VFR clearance in light rain and mist with clouds reported as scattered at 1,000, broken at 1,500 and overcast at 2,200. Witnesses later reported that conditions in the direction of flight were momentarily much worse than those reported at the airport, and the visibility worsened between the time that the pilot received his briefing and when he took off.

He reported clear of the Class E, then collided with an AM radio tower. According to another pilot in the area who happened to be monitoring both the flight service station and the AM radio station, the pilots report was immediately followed by static and loss of signal on the AM radio. The passenger in the accident airplane survived with serious injuries but the non-instrument-rated pilot was killed.

Special VFR shouldnt be an invitation to push your luck, particularly if youre thinking of using SVFR for a departure. If the weather is really rotten, file IFR if you can or just stay on the ground until things improve.

If youve decided to go, the procedure for an SVFR departure is similar to that for arrival. Just make the request to Ground or Clearance Delivery, whichever is the usual first contact.

Ground, Skylane 12345 east ramp with Hotel, requesting special VFR departure to the northeast. Ready to taxi.

It helps to include your direction of travel, even if thats not something ground control at that airport would normally want to know. It gives the controllers time to plan your flight through the airspace and coordinate it with any incoming or outgoing IFR flights.

Sometimes you can speed up the process by accepting a less-than-direct initial heading that will keep you away from the instrument approach flight path. If you really want to leave in that direction, just tell the controller departure to the north, but I can go east if it helps you out.

Note that the controlling agency is not Ground or Tower, but Approach. A higher-priority IFR flight that shows up before you leave can create little surprises, including the cancellation of a previously issued SVFR clearance. Dont try to negotiate your place in line with the tower; its not their call.

Depending on traffic, youll be advised of any delay or cleared to taxi with your clearance on request. When the clearance comes through, it will read something like this:

Skylane 12345, cleared out of the Concord Class Delta surface area to the northeast. Maintain special VFR conditions at or below 1,500 feet while in the Class Delta surface area. Report reaching VFR conditions or exiting the Class Delta surface area, whichever comes first.

Instrument-rated pilots who use CRAFT (clearance-route-altitude-frequency-transponder) for taking down clearances will notice that a special VFR clearance more or less follows this pattern through the first three letters. You dont need to contact Departure and youll be squawking 1200, so the last two bits are not necessary.

Its important to note that the report request is stated from the controllers viewpoint, not the pilots. The controller wants to know when the airspace can be given to someone else. Its simple enough to report reaching VFR conditions.

On the other hand, your SVFR clearance only extends to the lateral limits of the airport surface area. You might want to think carefully before reporting your exit from those limits without first reaching VFR conditions. Chances are youre entering either Class E airspace or the upper tier of a Class C mushroom, either of which requires 3 miles visibility and specific cloud clearances for VFR flight. Unless youre very low, you can be busted.

So what can you do if the haze layer goes up to 2,200 feet and the controllers are issuing SVFRs with a 1,500-foot vertical restriction? Negotiate. Tell the controller what you want to do, such as circle up inside the Class C to VFR conditions then depart to the southwest. If the controllers can coordinate your request with other airspace use, chances are youll get what you need.

Its best to do this negotiation on the ground. Other pilots may have reported where the tops are. Ask the controller if they have any reports. When its your turn, be sure to help everyone else out by reporting the altitude at which you break out.

Occasionally a pilot will want to transition through an airports airspace when the weather is below basic VFR. If you cant transition at your preferred altitude in VFR conditions, this can be handled with an SVFR clearance. If you can maintain VFR, all you need is whatever specific equipment and communications the airspace usually requires.

Finally, remember that pilots arent the only people who may be rusty on their SVFR skills. Dont be surprised if a request for an SVFR clearance in Arizona temporarily throws the controller, even if there is a cloud hanging over the airport.

One pilot I know faced a difficult chore convincing the folks in the FBO that there was a legal way to fly that day. Then his request drew a long pause from the controllers. They recovered nicely after that initial blank stare, and shortly afterward he was enjoying typical Arizona flying weather: the kind of clear blue that makes the rest of the country jealous.

There are limits to the usefulness and scope of special VFR, but it can be just the tool you need when conditions call for it.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Tricks and Traps.”

-Nancy Miller is currently distracted from instrument flying in her Archer by taking care of her new puppy.


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