Eye of Experience #40:
The Pilot, ATC, and Special VFR

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.


Eye Of ExperienceFrom 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 incompetence.

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.

Ask Nicely

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 have requested.

Then 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.

Job Action

Sometimes 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.

More Application Of Imagination And Ingenuity

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!

Tour Of Georgia

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 system.

One 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 you.”

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.

VFR Flight Following

I 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 over-water flying.

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 area?”

Another Benefit

In 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.”

The Subject Is Special

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.”

Before 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 tell:

“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.

What It Is…

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.

…The Bad…

As 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.

…The Good…

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.

Both 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.

…Why SVFR Was Created…

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.

…Summer Haze

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.