Two of the most enduring mysteries in aviation include managing the pilot/controller relationship and why Special VFR exists, much less how to use it. Every pilot and every controller has a horror story about the other group while newer pilots and controllers simply don't understand their mutual relationship. Too, Special VFR is something that most pilots can't grasp and rarely use. AVweb's Howard Fried tells all.
May 19, 2001
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
the friendly folks at FSSes (Flight Service Stations), who are sort of
stepchildren in the ATC system, to the controllers at the ARTCCs (air route
traffic control centers), the personnel in ATC (air traffic control) are on
the whole, with rare exceptions, men and women are the greatest public
servants in the history of the human race. They will often go way beyond what
is required to serve the flying public. If a pilot asks nicely and makes
reasonable requests, he or she will usually get whatever they want. Of course,
if the pilot makes unreasonable demands he may find himself vectored many
miles out of his way. It's all in how you ask.
I am probably the most polite guy in the airspace. I'm almost always
willing to yield to other traffic. It may cost me 10 or 20 seconds, but what
would I do with that time anyway? Once, when I was on very short final (just
starting to flare), an incompetent local (tower) controller issued the
following instruction: "47 Papa, cancel your landing clearance and follow
the airplane behind you!" I calmly applied power, honked up the gear and
flaps, and did a 360 to land behind the Beech 18 that had been following me
too closely. For all I knew, the pilot of that airplane had some kind of
problem of which I was unaware. As it turned out, there was no legitimate
reason for this action on the part of the controller other than his
Although we never know how we sound to ourselves, apparently I have a very
distinctive voice because controllers all over this part of the country know
me. They are almost invariably friendly and cooperative. When a controller
screws up, I apologize. You simply can't believe the wonderful treatment I get
next time I'm talking with that controller.
I don't know about you, but I find it much easier and infinitely more
beneficial to deal with a human being as opposed to a machine (or computer).
Now, I know that when I file IFR, no matter what routing I specify on the
flight plan I'm going to get the preferred route because that is what's in the
computer, and a computer only knows what it has been fed. Consequently, I
always look up the preferred route and file for that routing. Then, when I get
in the air and am talking with a real live person, I ask for the routing I
really want. If I ask politely and make reasonable requests, explaining my
reasons why, I invariably get what I want. It's all in how you phrase your
request. I start out with, "Sir, your workload and traffic permitting, I
wonder if you would be kind enough to let me...."
For example, I frequently fly from PTK (Pontiac, Michigan) to CGF (Cuyahoga
County, Ohio). The preferred route puts one right smack dab out over the
middle of big water (Lake Erie), and I don't want to be there in a
single-engine airplane. Even so, I file that route. Also, since the route
takes you across a portion of the Class B airspace around Detroit Metro
Airport (DTW), the policy is to keep general aviation airplanes low so they
will be well under the arrivals for Metro, and I want at least 9,000 feet
before I start across the big water. So what I do is this: After filing the
preferred route and receiving my clearance "as filed," as soon as I
get in the air, I request higher, explaining that I want 9,000 before starting
across Lake Erie. Since I ask nicely and explain why, I invariably get what I
when I pass the Windsor VOR (YQG) and get handed off to Cleveland Center, I
request, "direct Sandusky VOR" (SKY). This puts me alongside a
string of islands, all of which have airports on them one of which even has
a published instrument approach and at 9,000 feet MSL. Using this route, I
am never more than two minutes from being able to glide to land.
Next, when I am close enough to reach the far shore, I request "direct
CGF," and I always get it, thus completing a safe trip which otherwise
might not have been quite so comfortable. The alternative would be to go 70
miles out of the way around the lake. Incidentally, during the minute or so
when I'm not within gliding distance of dry land, the engine goes on
"automatic rough" and makes all sort of strange noises. Then when I
can reach the far shore, it magically smoothes out again.
On the other hand, I've heard pilots make all kinds of unreasonable
demands, and boy! Do they ever get a runaround! I've heard pilots cut in on
busy controllers who are attempting to juggle a handful of airplanes and
demand attention to their desires. This is not only impolite, but it is
downright dangerous as well.
you have to do their thinking for them. Back in 1981, when the controllers
believed their union (PATCO) and started their "illegal job action"
(strike), the facilities were all manned by supervisory personnel and the few
who opted not to walk out. During those dark days, nobody but the carriers
could get accommodated in the ATC system. And even the carriers were having a
hard time. On the first day of the strike, the centers were not accepting any
general aviation aircraft. On that day, I was in SBN (South Bend, Ind.),
having just completed a three-day meeting, and I wanted to get home to PTK.
Both SBN and PTK were IFR under a low ceiling with tops at about 3,000 feet.
So I asked SBN approach for a clearance to VFR on top, which I got. I then
climbed to VFR conditions and flew direct to PTK, at which time I requested a
clearance for the approach from the approach facility, which I also got. I
completed the trip without ever talking to center.
A few days later, I had a charter trip from GRR (Grand Rapids, Mich.) to
MEM (Memphis, Tenn.) to Philadelphia (PHL), and back to GRR. Since the first
leg was VFR I had no problem. However, between Memphis and Philly, I
encountered IFR conditions. I very politely asked Cleveland Center for a
clearance and got it. Approaching the Indianhead VOR, Cleveland Center advised
me that New York Center couldn't take me. Knowing that the radar coverage of
each facility extends beyond their specific jurisdiction, I asked Cleveland to
please get on the landline to see if Philadelphia approach would take me since
their coverage starts just a few miles east of the Indianhead VOR. I got what
I requested and completed the trip. Had I not known these things, I would have
been left in limbo somewhere over the Pennsylvania mountains.
Not only do you sometimes have to do their thinking for them, but
occasionally you must force the controller to play your game rather than
falling into the trap of attempting to play his. Once, I had a charter trip
with some businessmen from DET (Detroit City Airport) to JFK (John F. Kennedy
International). I had my IFR reservation to depart on the return trip, had the
airplane loaded, preflighted and ready to go, and then called Pre-taxi
Clearance Delivery and the following conversation occurred (perhaps this would
be better placed in the Short Final page
here on AVweb).
Me: (Just calling to establish communication not ready to write
anything down): "Kennedy Clearance, Queen Air Thirty Quebec."
Controller: (Very rapid fire): "ATC clears 30Q to Detroit City
Airport via (an extremely long and involved clearance climb to, maintain,
cross ... at, turn to ... etc., etc.) thence as filed."
Me: (after a long pause, and then in my very best Italian accent):
"Um, Sir, you donna unnerstan. I wanna go uh Detroit City Aira Porta."
Controller: (Very slowly...) "A T C c l e a r
s Three Zero Q u e b e c t
o D e t r o i t C i t y A i r p o r t
It worked for me!
When I wrote, above, that the folks in ATC are public servants in the
highest sense of the term, I mentioned that there are exceptions. I don't know
how it is today, but a few years ago the controllers at the Atlanta Center had
a bad reputation, not only among the users (pilots), but also throughout the
crystal-clear night when the sky was filled with stars and a full moon, I was
flying from the Tampa Bay area to PTK and had planned a fuel stop at
Knoxville, Tenn. As soon as I was handed off from Jacksonville Center to
Atlanta Center the fun commenced. I was not given a new clearance, but the
vectoring began. I was vectored and directed to fly to the Harris VOR (about
60 miles off my course) and told to maintain 8,000. I was then turned north
for 40 miles or so.
Looking all around the sky (remember this was a perfectly clear night) and
not seeing an airplane or beacon anywhere, I figured this couldn't be for
traffic avoidance. Just to make sure, I rotated the dial of the number two
radio through all the Atlanta ARTCC frequencies and nobody was talking to
anybody. Meanwhile, I was now being vectored back to join the airway just
south of an intersection several miles north of Atlanta. The crossing altitude
for this intersection is 9,000 feet, so I requested niner but was told to
maintain 8,000. As I approached the intersection, I again requested 9,000 and
was again told to maintain 8,000. Finally, just two miles from the
intersection, I was cleared up to 9,000. I barely made it, but now I was back
on the airway.
Another six or eight miles down the airway I was handed off to Knoxville
Approach. Normally on such a handoff I say, "...(new frequency), and good
day to you, sir." This time, however, in as nasty a tone as I could
muster up, I repeated the new frequency and added, "And I certainly want
to thank you for the totally unnecessary tour of the State of Georgia!"
My wife, who had been dozing in the middle row of seats just behind me came-to
with a start and leaned forward to say, "You can't talk to them like
that." My reply was, "I just did."
This sort of conduct is totally uncharacteristic of the way I normally
behave, but I simply couldn't help myself. I then called Knoxville Approach:
"Good evening, Knoxville Approach. Here comes 8744 Echo, with you, level
at nine." The response was, "Good evening 44Echo. You're in radar
contact. You're the guy who told 'em off in Atlanta. Good for you!"
After fueling up and getting a new briefing (cleared all the way) we
departed Knoxville. The next controller I talked to after leaving Knoxville
airspace was Indianapolis Center who also congratulated me for telling them
off in Atlanta. Next came Cincinnati Approach who, using the same language,
said, "44 Echo, you're the guy who told 'em off in Atlanta good for
I got the same comment from Cleveland Center, Dayton Approach, Toledo
Approach and, finally, from Detroit Approach. Obviously the word had been
passed on down the line, and each facility was delighted to see their
colleagues at the Atlanta facility get their comeuppance. As I pointed out, I
am probably the most polite guy in the airspace, but there was one other
occasion when I mouthed-off at a controller, but I won't bore you with the
details. Suffice it to say that I regret having done so on that occasion.
recently received an email from a reader who referred to a statement I made in
an earlier column in which I said that wanting all the eyeballs I can get
watching me. I always use flight following when on a VFR cross-country even
when VFR in the local maneuvering area. The reader wanted to know if flight
following is obtained from the nearest Flight Service Station or directly from
an ARTCC. I answered him by explaining that flight following is provided by
whatever radar facility has jurisdiction over the area in which one is
operating. It is provided on a workload-permitting basis, and aircraft on an
IFR flight plan with an appropriate clearance get priority. Even so, if one
asks politely, a busy controller will usually attempt to accommodate the VFR
pilot requesting flight following service. This is particularly true of
If the VFR pilot doesn't know the frequency of the ATC facility covering
the area in which he/she is flying, after precisely locating himself, he can
call the FSS and obtain the frequency. Then, after calling the facility
(approach or center), and identifying and locating himself by saying,
"Sir, traffic and your workload permitting, I wonder if you would be kind
enough to afford me flight following. I'm en route to..." The controller
will then give the pilot a discrete transponder code and identify him on
radar. The controller will request that the pilot advise of any altitude
change. Although it is likely to automatically be accomplished anyway, the
pilot might ask the controller, "Sir, I wonder if you would be kind
enough to hand me off to the next controller down the line when I leave your
addition to having another pair of eyeballs watching for traffic for you,
there is another advantage to using VFR flight following: It helps make the
VFR pilot comfortable in the ATC system. When a VFR pilot undertakes
instrument training, he or she discovers that flying the airplane is the easy
part. For most pilots, the difficult part of instrument training is learning
to live in the ATC system. I explain to the instrument student, "When the
weather is really grim and you can't even see your own wingtips, there's
nobody up there but you and the pros the guys that earn their living by
shoving tons of iron around the sky, and they know what they are doing.
Although the airplane responds to the same immutable laws of nature, it is a
different ballpark and if you want to play in it you'd better know what you're
doing and how to get along in the system."
Another reader suggested an article on Special VFR (SVFR). He sent the
suggestion to the entire staff of AVweb and I said I'd run with it. His
request reads as follows:
"I have been reading AVweb for quite some time, and use many
of the articles for referral and refreshment. Yours is a very useful site!
I am a new pilot, about 250 hours total. Some things I know well enough
to get certificated, but there seems to be a vast amount of information not
quite 'in the book.' Special VFR is one of those things. I am finding out
that it is pretty much glossed over. For example, I never knew you could use
it at non-towered airports.
May I suggest a real in-depth article on the subject of SVFR, with all
the little nuances? It would be most helpful."
I could even volunteer to do a column on the subject, one AVwebber had
jokingly responded by writing, "Maybe you don't read much about it
because anybody dumb enough to ever use it has already augured in by now and
ain't doin' much writin' about it. "
And it was no time at all before another respondent had his own story to
"From a personal experience about 20 years ago, I can say that, if a
non-instrument-rated pilot is stupid enough to go scud running in low
ceilings and has the weather close in on him, Special VFR is a great way to
get a clearance to land at a towered airport that has gone below minimums.
All-in-all an instrument rating is the way to go but...."
Over the years there have been several suggestions that SVFR be abolished.
This is a result of the FAA's usual knee-jerk reaction to the disproportionate
number of accidents that occur under SVFR. This, I believe, is the result of
two factors: One, there are always a few foolhardy individuals that persist in
abusing the privilege that SVFR affords us. Two, by its very nature, SVFR is
an invitation to crash.
Simply stated, Special VFR lowers the flight visibility and cloud-clearance
requirements of controlled airspace for the purpose of letting an airplane in
or out, in effect temporarily making that area uncontrolled airspace. Thus
understood, the question of SVFR at non-towered airports is readily explained.
Thought of as temporarily uncontrolled airspace, all the pilot requires by way
of weather minimums is one mile of visibility and the ability to remain clear
of clouds. At the busy airport where I operate with a lot of training going on
and on those occasions when the ceiling is 900 feet and the visibility
underneath is good, if there is no IFR traffic, a student and instructor can
work in the pattern on a series of SVFR clearances. This, I suppose, is one
legitimate use for SVFR. It must be remembered, however, that during this
period, IFR traffic has priority. Thus, if there is inbound (or outbound) IFR
traffic in the Class D airspace (or expected in that airspace) the pilot
seeking an SVFR clearance must orbit, or otherwise hold outside the Class D
airspace until all IFR traffic is clear. Then, and only then, can the VFR
pilot get his clearance to enter. I remember being berated by a VFR flight
instructor who was out with a student and caught in IFR conditions waiting for
a SVFR clearance when I popped up and asked for an IFR clearance to get into
the airport. The poor guy had to wait until I got on the ground.
an instructor, I always caution my students regarding the use of the SVFR
privilege. I always tell them about the brand-new private pilot who took a
friend and started to go for lunch (first passenger for the $100.00 hamburger)
from PTK (Pontiac, Mich.) to LAN (Lansing, Mich.) a distance of about 65
miles. Both the departure and destination airports were reporting ceilings of
800 to 900 feet and visibility of two to three miles with no weather reporting
stations in between. The terrain between the two is fairly flat, and there are
no obstacles except for a couple of towers southeast of the Lansing Airport.
But what the brand-new private pilot didn't seem to realize that the weather
along the way could be worse! When they found the wreckage with two bodies it
was in an orchard about 35 miles along the way on a straight-line course from
PTK to LAN. It is episodes like this that give special VFR a bad name, and
there are a lot of such episodes.
Conversely, I always point out the legitimate use for SVFR by setting up a
couple of hypothetical situations in which SVFR is an extremely useful tool.
Suppose a pilot wanted to go from PTK to TVC (Traverse City, Mich.). The
straight-line course goes directly over FNT (Flint, Mich.) and MBS (Saginaw,
Mich.). Weather is such that PTK is reporting a clear sky and two miles in
haze; FNT sky clear and three in haze; MBS sky clear and five miles
visibility. It has been steadily improving over the last three hours and
forecast to continue to do so.
The pilot can sit on the ground for another hour or so waiting for PTK to
come up to VFR minimums, or he can ask for a special and get on his way.
Another good example is this: The pilot is at TVC and wants to come back to
PTK. It is VFR all the way when he starts out. Going southeast, he is flying
at 5,500 feet MSL but, as he passes MBS, he is forced down to 3,500 because of
a lowering cloud deck. Going past FNT, he is forced further down to 2,500. He
gets the ATIS (Airport Terminal Information Service) at PTK and gets a shock.
PTK is now reporting a ceiling of 900 feet and 10 miles visibility. He now has
two choices: One, he can go back and land at FNT and call someone to come and
get him or, two, thoroughly knowing the territory, he can request a special
and come on in.
of these hypothetical examples are provide excellent illustrations of just how
good a tool SVFR can be if used judiciously. But, of course, the real purpose
for Special VFR remains for the VFR pilot caught out in unforecast IMC
conditions and requiring a safe escape route. Since we're paying for all these
services, and we might just as well take advantage of them, but lets all be
careful just how we use them. It is unfortunate indeed that so many pilots
abuse the privilege afforded by SVFR that we may see it taken away from us.
And, believe me, it can happen. I have seen several attempts already and the
next one just might succeed. It would be a shame to lose this privilege
because of the thoughtlessness of a few. There are so many valid uses for it.
Although I now know it is not true, I had believed that Special VFR was
created for use at a specific airport from which I used to operate, AGC
(Allegheny County Airport). AGC lies east of Pittsburgh, Penn., and, back
before they cleaned up their environmental act, the steel mills poured so much
smoke and other crud into the air that with the prevailing wind from the west,
the visibility at AGC was almost always less than three miles. However, once
one got a few miles away from that immediate area, it opened up to beautiful
blue skies and sunshine. Consequently, it was routine for VFR pilots to
request SVFR to get in or out of Allegheny County Airport.
Here in the northeastern Midwest, summertime stationary high-pressure
systems often present limitations to the visibility due to haze. By the third
or fourth day of a high pressure system's influence, the haze layer has grown
to top out at about 6,000 feet MSL and the visibility has gone down to barely
a mile. If the VFR pilot opts to request a special VFR clearance and gets on
top of the haze line, he/she can barely see the ground straight down. As for
slant visibility forward, there is none. This is definitely not a situation in
which the VFR pilot should attempt to operate.
Special VFR can be an excellent tool for a knowledgeable pilot to use when
an IFR clearance is impractical or impossible. In the hands of a savvy
controller and experienced pilot, using SVFR can work magic when other options
won't work at all. However, since it is something of an "orphan," it
is rarely used and even more rarely practiced. Before asking for or accepting
an SVFR clearance, pilots must be familiar with the associated rules and
ensure they and their aircraft are appropriately equipped and prepared.
Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this
column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That
way others may benefit from your input.