Special VFR

It’s not VFR. It’s special.

14

The only time I’ve used Special VFR “in anger” goes back some 20 years, to a less-than-perfect day at a towered airport. I was set to depart the following day, on a mission to ferry a familiar airplane from one coast to the other. At the time, I hadn’t flown the airplane in a couple of years, however, and I wanted to knock out some bangs-and-goes in it to refresh my memory. But the weather wasn’t cooperating: visibility was just over two miles in haze, with maybe a 2000-foot overcast and calm winds. A bunch of VFR-only pilots wanting to go flying that day were in the lounge grumbling.

Checking in on the ground frequency with the current ATIS, the controller advised me the field was IFR and they didn’t have a clearance for me. “Say intentions.” I responded with a request for Special VFR (SVFR) to do some pattern work and was immediately cleared to taxi, request approved. As something of a “Poor Man’s IFR,” my sort of mission one of the challenges Special VFR was created to meet, and there are many others. But Special VFR also offers us the opportunity to fly ourselves into a corner.

What It Is

The International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, defines SVFR as, “A VFR flight cleared by air traffic control to operate within a control zone in meteorological conditions below VMC.” In other words, it’s a set of rules allowing us to fly VFR when weather conditions are reported as less than normally required for VFR. For fixed-wing aircraft in the U.S., SVFR minima are one-mile of visibility and clear of clouds. This obviously differs substantially from the “FAA standard” three miles and 1000 feet minimum requirements, which can create interesting regulatory dilemmas on their own. Rotorcraft have their own SVFR minima—the sidebar, “Helicopter SVFR,” below goes into greater detail on helicopter SVFR.

One thing SVFR is not is an IFR clearance. Sure; it allows us to operate in less than visual conditions, but that’s about it. It doesn’t allow us to enter a cloud, for example, and conditions may be such that leaving the controlled airspace you’re already in can mean you’re operating in IMC without an appropriate clearance, possibly resulting in a FAR violation. More about that in a moment.

Typical uses of SVFR include the pattern work I engaged in, plus entry, exit and transition of controlled airspace. In those instances, SVFR allows us to access that airspace without a formal IFR clearance. Right away, that sentence should raise some alarms for you. The sidebar above summarizes the SVFR FAR while the one below highlights the takeaways from the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual’s discussion of SVFR.

SVFR Gotcha I

Remember when I mentioned a moment ago that SVFR can put you in the situation of operating in IMC without a clearance? Try this on for size.

You’re trying to depart an airport like Ocala (Florida) International Airport-Jim Taylor Field, KOCF. The part-time air traffic control tower is operating, it’s daytime and the weather advertisers are offering two miles in haze under a 1200-foot ceiling with calm winds, which is a widespread condition for the area. That’s a perfect scenario for using SVFR to depart. Since you only need a mile of visibility while remaining clear of clouds under SVFR, you can request and receive an appropriate clearance. It’s also a perfect scenario for a FAR violation. Here’s why.

Suppose your destination is the nearby Marion County Airport (X35) in Dunnellon, Florida. Marion County has an RNAV (GPS) approach, coincidentally serving Runway 23, which basically points at Ocala, so you’re planning to take off on Ocala’s Runway 18, turning slightly right for the short hop to Marion County and flying a straight-in to Runway 23. Ocala’s tower clears you to depart their Delta at or below 1000 feet MSL, or 910 feet AGL. The sectional chart excerpt below shows the lay of the land (including some obstructions reaching as high as 420 feet MSL).

This is a sectional chart excerpt, covering the Ocala (Florida) International Airport-Jim Taylor Field, KOCF. You want to get to nearby Marion County Airport (X35), shown here at the end of the blue line to the southwest. Also depicted are two areas of obstructions on either side of your route, circled in red, just to make it interesting. Thanks to the Class E airspace at Marion County, the only legal way to conduct the proposed flight is to remain at or below 699 feet AGL upon leaving Ocala’s Class D.

The only problem with this plan is that it’ll dump you out into controlled airspace in instrument conditions without an appropriate clearance.

Look closely: The Ocala Class D airspace comprises a four NM radius around the airport. While there’s a Class E surface area charted to the south, you won’t be entering it on this short hop. Beyond Ocala’s Delta is Class E airspace, which the sectional chart’s magenta banding depicts as having a floor of 700 feet AGL, to accommodate approaches into Ocala and Marion County. However, your SFVR clearance is only good for the Class D airspace; the Ocala tower’s jurisdiction ends four miles into your 10 NM hop. If you climb to the full 1000 feet MSL as cleared by Ocala tower, you’ll be in Class E airspace until you descend to at least 789 feet MSL, and 764 feet as you near Marion County. In any case, you’ll likely want to be at an altitude ensuring clearance from the adjacent antennas, just in case your navigation is off a bit. If you stayed at 1000 feet MSL until sighting the runway at Marion County, congratulations, you just flew in controlled airspace when the weather was lower than VMC without an IFR clearance. No, it’s not likely there will be a fed waiting for you on the ramp at Marion County, but you never know.

SVFR Gotcha 2

Another way SVFR can get you into a bind might be more familiar. Let’s say you’re at a different Class D airport and its weather also is below VFR minimums. But the conditions aren’t as widespread as in the preceding scenario at Ocala, and you know there is good VFR about 30 miles away, in the general direction of your route of flight. The local controllers are happy to give you an SVFR clearance to get you on your way. Should you take it?

This is where judgment and experience can pay big dividends. Presuming the terrain over which you’ll be flying for those 30 miles before reaching VMC is relatively flat and not peppered with obstructions, it might not be a bad idea. You can scoot along in reduced visibility or under a low cloud deck until the weather lifts, climb to a preferred cruising altitude and motor on to your destination.

For the first 30 miles or so, you’ll be scud running, with all the attendant additional risks, and SVFR is an open invitation to engage in it. The image below highlights another gotcha in this scenario, involving FAR 91.119, Minimum safe altitudes, and FAR 91.155, Basic VFR weather minimums. Putting aside the CFIT and obstacle-collision risks associated with scud running, you easily can find yourself between a rock and a hard place when trying to comply with all the relevant regulations. Note that the graphic at the bottom of the opposite page is only usable over non-congested areas; over congested areas, you need to be 1000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2000 feet of the aircraft.

Once you’ve cleared the Class B/C/D or E surface area airspace where you obtained an SVFR clearance to exit, you’re likely in Class E airspace, where VFR minimums are the “standard” 1000 feet and three miles. You’ll need every bit of that to stay in legal VFR over non-congested areas, as shown at right.

Since VFR requirements include remaining at least 500 feet below clouds, and operating rules require us to be at least 500 feet above the surface—and the same distance from structures or people—you easily can get “pinched” between the clouds and the surface. Over congested areas, it’s even worse: You need to be 1000 feet from people or structures.

What Is It Good For?

Both of these scenarios might leave you to conclude SVFR is for idiots, and remove it from your bag of tools forever. And that might be good choice. But consider—in addition to doing pattern work at a Class D airport—a situation where there’s an outlying, non-towered airport inside a nearby airport’s Class C airspace. My favorite example is the Westport Airport (71K, known locally as Dead Cow International), a non-towered facility less than three NM from the Wichita (Kansas) Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (KICT), which is in Class C airspace. Again, the weather is less than required for VFR.

Arriving IFR, you shoot the ILS for Runway 1R into Wichita, perhaps descending only to the circling minima of 1800 feet (467 feet AGL) and breaking out underneath the overcast. But you’re not based at KICT; your car is at Westport, for which there’s no published instrument approach. Your normal, good-weather plan is to cancel IFR and motor over to Westport under VFR and land. One way—perhaps the only way—to get to Westport in this weather is to work out with the tower at KICT that you’ll cancel IFR on breaking out and are requesting an SVFR clearance to proceed to 71K and land. That’s an admittedly extreme scenario, but the basic idea—shoot an approach into the larger airport, then cancel IFR and head off to your real destination— is tried and true.

Of course, there are many other scenarios out there that can allow us to make safe use of SVFR. But we need to be careful: Using SVFR easily can lead us into situations where a FAR bust or CFIT occurs, along with meeting some moron out there doing the same thing.


SVFR—What The FARs Say

The FAA regulation describing SVFR weather minima for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters is FAR 91.157. Here are the highlights:

  1. SVFR may only be conducted below 10,000 feet MSL and to the surface within the lateral boundaries of an airport’s controlled airspace. An ATC clearance is required.
  2. SVFR weather minima, except for helicopters (see the sidebar, “Helicopter SVFR,” below), are one statute mile of flight visibility and clear of clouds. “Flight visibility” includes the visibility from a Part 91 aircraft in takeoff position at a satellite airport lacking weather reporting capabilities.
  3. SVFR is not available at night (or in Alaska, when the sun is six degrees or more below the horizon) unless both the pilot and aircraft meet IFR requirements.
  4. Fixed-wing SVFR is not available at several Class B airports. (See FAR 91, Appendix D, Section 3 for a list, or use a VFR terminal chart to determine if the data for the airport in question includes the words “NO SVFR.”) Importantly, helicopter SVFR is allowed when “NO SVFR” is charted.

AIM Guidance On SVFR

If you still have questions after perusing FAR 91.157, the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual may help. Highlights from its discussion (at para. 4-4-6) include:

  1. Pilots must request an SVFR clearance; ATC won’t offer it (although controllers may hint at it: “Is there anything special we can do for you today?”).
  2. An SVFR clearance is granted on a traffic-permitting basis. IFR flight operations take precedence and your clearance to enter or leave controlled airspace may be delayed for this reason.
  3. SVFR clearances are available in Class B, C and D airspace, plus Class E surface areas only. ATC provides separation between SVFR flights and IFR operations. Regardless, ATC does not provide separation after an aircraft leaves the airspace on an SVFR clearance.
  4. Since the pilot must remain clear of clouds, an SVFR clearance will not include a specific altitude. The clearance may include an instruction to fly at or below a certain altitude, due to other traffic, but that altitude will permit flight at or above the minimum safe altitude.

Helicopter SVFR

Special VFR helicopter operations are different. For one thing, the “NO SVFR” admonition at many Class B airports in the U.S. doesn’t apply to helicopters. For another, there is no visibility limitation for helicopter SVFR.

The NTSB’s investigation into the January 26, 2020, crash that killed basketball icon Kobe Bryant and eight others will show their Sikorsky S-76B helicopter departed Santa Ana, California, en route to Camarillo, California, a direct flight of some 69 NM. But the weather wasn’t cooperating, and the helo’s pilot flew a route involving poor weather and challenging terrain.

En route, the helicopter was forced to circle before transitioning the Burbank Class C airspace and the adjacent Van Nuys Class D because a Special VFR clearance wasn’t immediately available, due at least in part to conflicting IFR operations. We’ll never know everything that went on in that cockpit, but we do know the weather required an SVFR clearance.


Jeb Burnside is the editor-in-chief of Aviation Safety magazine. He’s an airline transport pilot who owns a Beechcraft Debonair, plus the expensive half of an Aeronca 7CCM Champ.


This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

For more great content like this, subscribe to Aviation Safety!

Other AVwebflash Articles

14 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve used SVFR just once, but it was really useful. Flying back to San Diego from Baja California in February of 2019, I flew a VOR approach into Tijuana International Airport (MMTJ) under IFR conditions. (Side note: I have the Performance Plus subscription in ForeFlight with the approach plates for Mexico as an add-on to the subscription). Needing to clear US Customs at Brown Field (KSDM) only 1.5 miles away from Tijuana, I’d have to make an instrument departure out of Tijuana, fly out over the ocean for the RNAV approach into Brown or fly the VOR approach into Brown, a circuitous route to the north past Brown and then south for the approach, probably having to climb to 7,000 feet to keep away from the airline traffic into San Diego International Airport. Instead, I filed SVFR out of Tijuana and made the 90 second hop across the border. What a joy. I should note that I am very familiar with both airports, the terrain, and obstacles en route.

  2. SVFR is a great tool and pilots should learn to use it and use it properly. In so many cases where MVFR weather would have required an IFR flight costing delays sometimes into the hours, SVFR is a great way to get into or out of such conditions. I’ve come to rely on this unique and flexible clearance for both departures and arrivals.

    I recall one flight where I was one of dozens of pilots that were headed to Santa Maria for a training course and we were all arriving around the same time. I was the last aircraft to get a VFR clearance to land and then the field went IFR but it was easy to see that it was only because of a few clouds over the airport and one could easily still fly visually. It was legally but not practically IFR. When these dozens of chaps behind me started to arrive and called in as if they were VFR the tower kept having to repeat “The airport is IFR, say intentions” because as you know, they can’t suggest SVFR. Finally one chap figured it out and asked for SVFR and that of course got everyone else to do it too. My point is that if a few dozen airplanes had to all get IFR clearances and fly the approach that would have taken hours but with SVFR, under the conditions, it was far more efficient and I submit much safer too. I think the next time I hear this I’ll just key the mic and say “SVFR.”

    If you know the area and if the weather and airspace permits, SVFR is a huge benefit. Just remember it’s ALL on you and you must always have an out.

  3. I have used SVFR many many times getting into and out of KFDK. It is in a valley and often is IFR while everywhere else is not. A few short miles away you are in the clear. I remember going to a fly in at KLNS. The ATIS had the weather at 2 miles mist no unlimited ceilings. I called the tower 10 our and requested SFVR and was granted it with a clearance Immediately half a dozen other planes asked for SFVR and were told to hold until I landed. The last few miles were indeed in mist but I could see the ground and sky and eventually the airport a couple of miles out. Safe and easy. It is a good tool to have but with caution as the author writes.

  4. I watched a recent YouTube video with a pilot taking a contrller for a flight.
    IIRC, the controller mentioned that the intention of doing the IAP to get under the deck and SVFR over to an adjacent field should alwayd be communicated as earlybad possible. He said that the pilot now on an SVFR clearance was essentially shutting down the airspace for other instrument arrivals until on the ground. I guess that’s why all the Class B fields say No SVFR….

  5. As a former controller, I’ll second that. Although SVFR isn’t true IFR, ATC is still required to separate a SVFR from other SVFRs and other IFRs. So depending on the weather restrictions, that can be done visually or maybe not. If not, then it mostly becomes a one at a time operations until an inbound SVFR has landed (or can be seen) or until a SVFR departure has reported departing the (ooops, almost said control zone) class whatever surface area. And when you are a departure, don’t forget, when you hit the invisible line that exits you from the surface area, you have now got to be legal in some other manner. ATC can’t provide SVFR past that point…no matter how much you might want it.

  6. Jeb: Your figure of flying at 1000 ft AGL is pretty misleading since you don’t note that Class G is 1200 ft AGL in most places and 700 ft AGL near most airports. So, during the day, you don’t need to stay 500 ft below clouds to be legal VFR.

    I use Special V when I can, but only to do pattern work. Asking for it away from runways.

    Best

    Vince Massimini Kentmorr Airpark MD (3W3)

  7. Yea. A contact approach is a kinda odd one, unknown to most pilots. And ATC may in no way suggest or encourage one. A visual we can ask if you want one, not a contact. We would occasionally have a situation where the pilot is running out of IFR options other than us having to give a full approach, which because of his flight conditions and weather just shouldn’t be necessary. Can’t see the airport for a visual or weather too low, but perfect for a contact to the airport from his/her present position. We used to try and say catchy phrases during the pause of “what should I do next” moments…a phrase like “Hey N21 Charlie, will you be needing to “CONTACT APPROACH” if you depart later….huh???? Hint,hint. hint. For ATC, we did have to be kinda careful with contact approaches. With a visual, the pilot has the airport in sight and is expected to proceed on a reasonable and expected flight path to it. With a contact approach, the airport is not necessarily in sight. The pilot has the prerogative to actually wander aimlessly , following roads, whatever, as they maneuver in hopes of arriving at the airport shortly. So, we couldn’t have any other IFR traffic near during this time.

  8. Back in my tower controller days in the 60’s, I had the swing shift all by myself on New Year’s Eve. It was just about time to lock up and go home when a Mooney called for SVFR clearance out of the control zone (yes, it was that long ago). The airport was Gillespie Field (SEE; this is back in the 3-letter days) in Santee, CA, and the Mooney driver wanted to get to L.A. that evening. Weather was normal for a SoCal evening; marine layer overcast with low visibility in haze. Below VFR minimums for both ceiling and visibility. I had enough flying hours by that time to know this was definitely not a good idea, but, having no legal reason to refuse, I issued the clearance and told him to report leaving the control zone. He acknowledged and departed Runway 27. When I last saw him he was still headed straight west. Despite repeated requests on my part, no further transmissions were received. After 15 or 20 minutes, I instituted the accident reporting process and went on home. The next day they found the aircraft and its four occupants splattered along a hillside about 4 miles west. Moral of the story: Use Special VFR with extreme caution.

  9. In your example, the SVFR clearance isn’t only good for the class D – it is good for the entire surface area, including any class E surface area extensions. Check out FAAO 7110.65 7-5-1. PHRASEOLOGY−CLEARED TO ENTER/OUT OF/THROUGH, (name)SURFACE AREA

  10. I have only used SVFR once in 40 years of flying. I had stopped (unfortunately) at a towered airport in upstate NY to refuel coming back from Oshkosh and when I went to leave the field was IFR due to a fog bank to the northwest but within the D. I was heading southeast and it was fluffy scattered. I asked for SVR and was given a clearance to taxi. Unfortunately, there was ONE other airplane on the field just landed after doing touch and goes and the controller got into a long off topic discussion with the instructor as I sat at the beginning of the runway literally watching the fog bank approach the threshold. Finally, I was able to jump in and ask for takeoff clearance and got out 100 feet before the fog got to the runway. It was clear VFR all the way in my direction. I learned my lesson and avoid controlled fields when the weather is iffy.

  11. I had a former student that got stuck at Oshkosh one year due to weather. He had to hang around the airport waiting for the weather to improve… until he talked to a fellow pilot who told him about Special VFR. He left SVFR and when he got back to sunny Phoenix he was really mad. He asked why hadn’t I told him about SVFR. When he complained, I responded that SVFR (for a non-instrumented pilot) is the only way I know of to legally commit suicide. That’s why, as an instructor, I did not talk to private pilot students about SVFR.

  12. It works the other way too.

    Closing dew point spread and fog rolling in on the coast. Easily VFR at 3,000ft but things are going south in a hurry. Time to get down. Large ex-Naval Air station below. Next airport is 15 miles north and is still VFR but might not be soon. Below – one runway – still clear as day. One runway half eaten by fog and the other long ago closed. The tower cab and ATIS are in the fog at the edge of the field.

    “Tower this is N1234, 2 to the north at 3,000ft to land – in a hurry.”

    “N1234, tower. Sorry – we are IFR”

    “Tower, N1234 – Request SVFR to land Rwy 16 which is as plain as day from up here”

    “N1234, tower – SVFR on request – cleared to land Rwy 16”.

    If you don’t ask – you don’t get.