When the weather’s bad enough to call it IFR, VFR-only pilots are grounded. Except when they’re not.
The day’s mission was to re-familiarize with a long-trustworthy companion, a Cessna 172 owned by close friends, in which I had hundreds of hours flying throughout the eastern U.S. It had been a couple of years, though, since I’d flown it and the ultimate mission was to ferry a co-owner and the airplane from the Mid-Atlantic to Las Vegas. We were planning to depart the next day, but I wanted to check out the airplane before launching.
It was based at a tower-controlled airport reporting two miles visibility in haze and 2,500 scattered. With only two miles’ visibility in Class D airspace, the field was IFR. Of course, we needed three miles just to stay in the pattern and shoot some landings under VFR. It was a pleasant early-summer Saturday otherwise.
Checking in at the FBO, I noticed a handful of pilots in an unhappy mood about the weather. Since there’s often a VFR-only pilot at an FBO grousing about the weather, I didn’t think much about it at the time. The co-owner and I strolled out to the ramp, pre-flighted the airplane, fired it up, copied the ATIS and called ground control with our N-number.
The controller responded with something like: “I don’t see an IFR flight plan for you; say request.” I responded with, “Request special VFR for multiple landings in closed traffic.”
Ground came right back with, “Taxi runway 01 via alpha, advise tower when ready.”
And off we went. It definitely was a hazy day, with no discernible horizon but well-defined ground contact, and we always could see both ends of the runway from the VFR pattern.
Later, a “spy” who was in the FBO while we were out doing touch-and-goes regaled me with what he overheard. It seems one of the pilots complaining about the weather wondered aloud where we were going. This same VFR-only pilot earlier had been told by ATC the field was IFR.
When he learned we were closed-pattern for some touch-and-goes, he got red-faced, yanked out his phone, dialed the local tower and asked how it was we were doing touch-and-goes since he had been told the field was IFR. By the time the party on the other end of the call told him I was operating under a special VFR clearance and a pilot had to request it to receive it, the poor guy was so flustered he left.
What is this special VFR, and what’s it buy you?
Special VFR (SVFR) is defined in FAR 91.157. It’s an ATC clearance allowing you to operate to, from and in controlled airspace below 10,000 feet MSL (i.e., not in Class A, but in Class B, C and D airspace as well as a Class E Surface Area) when the weather is less than required for “normal” VFR. You must request it — ATC won’t offer special VFR — and you need it before entering the controlled airspace.
Fixed-wing SVFR must be conducted with at least one mile of visibility and clear of clouds. That mile is based on ground visibility, although flight visibility can be used as laid out in the FAR.
Helicopters simply must remain clear of clouds; there’s no visibility requirement for fling-wing.
At night, fixed-wing SVFR must be conducted by an instrument-rated pilot flying an IFR-legal airplane. Fixed-wing SVFR is prohibited at many primary airports within Class B airspace; the specific locations are listed in Appendix D of FAR Part 91, at Section 3.
When operating with an SVFR clearance, you don’t need a flight plan, but you do need to plan ahead. The service is offered on a traffic-permitting basis and IFR flights take precedence, so you may be told to remain outside the airspace before receiving a clearance to enter.
Separation is provided by ATC, and you may request ATC vectors under SVFR, but controllers won’t specify an altitude since you are to remain clear of clouds. A minimum altitude —“at or above” — may be part of an SVFR clearance.
For more details, be sure to understand FAR 91.157. There also is useful material in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), at Paragraph 4-4-6, and in FAA Order JO 7110.65, Air Traffic Control.
HOW TO USE SVFR
Special VFR isn’t a substitute for getting an instrument rating, although some pilots might be tempted to use it that way. It’s ideal for how I used it that day, for shooting some landings, but it also can get you in major trouble.
For example, SVFR doesn’t suspend minimum-altitude FARs, and it’s easy to see how a low ceiling with good visibility can at least create an enforcement situation, or put you too close to obstacles.
Special VFR can be a great way to deal with poor visibility or when a low broken layer translates to IFR. It won’t eliminate the need to shoot an approach to get you through a solid layer to the runway, however, thanks to that pesky clear-of-clouds requirement.
And if you’re not comfortable flying without a natural horizon, or don’t have a full set of flight instruments in your panel, you probably should leave well enough alone.
But special VFR can get you back when home plate goes down the tubes, and you can’t or don’t want to do it IFR.
Or you can use it to annoy other pilots hanging around the FBO.
It’s another item in your toolbox, one many pilots forget.