The Best of All Possible Worlds

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the privileges of an instrument pilot but retain the VFR freedoms of choosing your own path in the clear blue? Well, for those of you who have earned an instrument ticket, there are a few strategies at our disposal that might be worth reviewing. There’s nothing underhanded about them either; these options aren’t ploys or smooth moves. They’re well defined ATC procedures. The only “trick” is knowing the few strings that are attached. Here’s how to use the system without abusing it…

I’m sure that almost every single instrument rated iPilot reader has at least once gotten an assigned initial heading that pointed them almost directly away from their destination, rather than toward it. What can you do about that? Well, aside from the never before considered idea of filing for a direct routing (hah hah), you could ask for a different altitude, a heading change (though this kind of request is usually more appropriate in situations where you are facing ice, convective weather, or some other problem), or as a last resort, you could use the “E” word. But we’re not talking back-to-the-wall desperate measures, here.

Most of the planes we fly aren’t certified for “known icing“, nor do they have radar, or lightning detection. Unless you’re a frequent foul weather flyer by choice, the fact is that most of the time, we are really flying on instruments in fairly good weather and that weather provides the instrument rated pilot with some good options…


VFR On Top: When the weather along your route is actually pretty good, but there’s a low cloud layer over your departure airport. You don’t have to go the whole way IFR, if you don’t want to. In this case, the type of IFR clearance you might want to consider is the climb “to VFR on top“.

How to: You can start off with that request in the remarks section (#11) of an abbreviated flight plan, and your IFR clearance ends as soon as you report reaching VFR on top. Actually, to be technically correct unless you’re inside Class B, not until you’re 1000 feet above those clouds that constitute a ceiling. You’ve got to be the one who asks for it, though. If ATC knows where those “tops” are, they’ll tell you. (They’ll also ask you to report to them if you haven’t reached VFR by the time you reach a particular altitude.) And once you’re on top, ATC will re-clear you to maintain VFR on top.

Important Rules:

  • While flying VFR on top, you can change altitude whenever you want, but you must inform the controller of your intentions.
  • You can be “on top” even if there’s another layer of clouds above you, such as when you’re between layers, or even when all the clouds are above you.
  • Also, you are expected to choose from among only VFR cruising altitudes based on your magnetic course.
  • You must adhere to the route they assign you (except that you also must remain clear of restricted areas).
  • You must tell ATC if you can no longer remain in VFR conditions, you have to maintain appropriate distances from clouds (inside Class B that’s “clear of clouds“).
  • You must fly no lower than the published MEA or MOCA.
  • You still have to remain on frequency and maintain communication, and you are ultimately responsible to see and avoid all other traffic.

So, yes, you have freedoms, but the price you pay is adherence to two sets of rules.

When to use VFR on top: If you’re the first one punching through that day, and the tops just aren’t where an area forecast said they’d be, then what do you do? ATC might give you an amended clearance to some higher altitude, or you might have to contend with a new route, which you’d be expected to copy and read back while you’re still climbing through the soup. Alternately, they might give you a clearance limit, and you could have to hold there until they figure out a new game plan (i.e., route) for you. Note: If there’s ice where you were hoping to punch through, that’s no help. The bottom line with this one is not to use it unless you’re fairly sure you’ll leave the clouds behind and below you.

As Paul Craig pointed out in October 2001, there are several ways IFR pilots return to earth. Two strategies can be useful for avoiding lengthy IFR procedures when you get near your destination. One is fairly safe, but the other one is notoriously risky…


The Visual Approach
The safest of the two is called, quite simply, a visual approach. Either you or the controller can suggest it. In order to fly a “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, which is actually at the bottom end of “marginal VFR“). If the field has weather reporting, that part is easy. But if you’re being guided out toward the boondocks, the controller needs a reasonable assurance that the approach can indeed be made visually. Guess where that assurance comes from… If you report VFR, they trust you. (It’s your neck, after all.) Either having the airport or preceding traffic in sight will suffice.

Warning: Fudging, in this situation, can prove non-habit forming. If you get lost in the haze and you don’t say so, you’re literally cruising for a bruising. Be aware here that traffic separation (as well as arrival sequencing to the destination runway) is now yours anytime you’re on this type of approach.

So much for the easy one… The bad boy of these two “sorta IFR” approaches is known as the “contact” approach; read on.

The Contact Approach
This one, only you, the pilot, can ask for. And you can only get one where there is already a published approach. It made sense to have something like this for traveling between nearby airports, or for pilots intimately familiar with the surrounding area. Note that controllers won’t clear you below local MSAs (minimum safe altitudes) but for this one, you only need one-mile visibility and you need only remain clear of clouds. It’s your job to keep that one mile and avoid “contacting” anything, except your wheels against the runway. Again, it’s up to you to keep ATC informed about what you can see, or what you can no longer see.

Warning: If, in your judgment (or theirs), completion of the approach is in doubt, you should accept an alternate clearance. Poor weather, unfamiliar terrain, and one-mile visibility don’t make a safe mix.

THE BOTTOM LINE: These methods allow reasonable shortcuts to formal and sometimes lengthy procedures. How beneficial it might be to take advantage of one all depends on how well you adhere to their limitations, how knowledgeable you are about the current weather conditions somewhere else and how capable you are of quickly changing your plans without endangering yourself (or anyone on the ground). In general, if you’re a compulsive law abider, stay figuratively “on top” of the weather, maintain your instrument skills, and always prepare (or are prepared to accept) a backup plan then these procedures offer an operational advantage. They might also save you a bit of time as well as money — neither of which is as important as your safety!

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