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).
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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?”).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.