The Pilot’s Lounge #137: Special VFR


Our resident curmudgeon is in his 90s now and doesn’t make it out to the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport as often as he used to. About five years ago, Old Hack abruptly sold the immaculate Piper Super Cruiser he had bought almost new and announced that was done flying as pilot in command. “I’m quittin’ on my terms, not when some gummint type doesn’t like the way I part what’s left of my hair and starts trying to tell me what to do.” About the same time, he’d discovered the ride hailing companies he could summon from his cellphone and with a comment about being tired of car payments and insurance bills, quit driving, sold his car and moved into a nice assisted living facility. “I wish I had figured this out sooner—I get chauffeured to and from the airport whenever I want to go. Nurse Ratched, or whatever her name is that runs the place, doesn’t like the hours I keep but half the fun is watching her get all worked up because I don’t keep her warm milk and cookies at 8:30 and then lights out schedule.”

I was in one of the beat-up recliners in the lounge considering the pressing issue of what time to fly over to the huckleberry pancake breakfast at a nearby airport this weekend when Hack whacked one of my shoes with a rolled-up magazine.

“Wake up, ya lazy bum. Your snoring is keeping honest people from getting work done; besides, I’ve got something important to show you.”

“I wasn’t asleep, I was thinking.”

“Right. The drool was a dead giveaway.”

I shoved the lever on the side of the chair forward and retracted the footrest. “Ok, I’m awake. You got another money-making scam you want me to contribute to?”

“Naw, my new one is too good for the likes of you.” Hack declaimed, “I just read an accident report on a VFR into IMC crash and it bothers me. I think the poor schmuck might have been OK if he’d understood about special VFR. He flew away from an airport he probably could have landed at after talking with the tower. Then he did the spiral dive out of the clouds into the ground thing. Killed everyone in the airplane. I feel kind of sorry for him. It’s as if his aviation ammo box was missing the bullet that would have saved him.”

“Now you’ve got me interested—you don’t have a soft spot for anybody, much less a pilot who tries to fly VFR into crummy weather.”

“Yeah, I know, but this one got to me. The guy saw an airport and was talking with the tower and then approach control. They were practically begging him to land. It’s a little complicated but it seems to me that if the guy had remembered his training about special VFR he could have gotten a special VFR clearance and landed without much trouble—the weather at that airport wasn’t terrible. Instead, he kept going toward worse weather and lost it.”

“All right, I’m listening. Tell me more.”

Hack recounted the basics of a November 2011 Cirrus crash in the Chicagoland area. The flight departed from Marion, Indiana, in decent VFR weather en route to DuPage airport west of Chicago. The forecast for the Chicago area was for the weather to deteriorate below VFR minimums as the day went on—there was an AIRMET for IFR weather conditions developing over northern Illinois. The pilot was intending to drop off his daughter, so she could return to college, then he would head home—he had tickets for a pro football game near his home the next day. Before departing, the pilot told the line crewmember who fueled the airplane that the weather was forecast to be VFR in the Chicago area.

About an hour after departing from Marion, the pilot contacted DuPage tower for landing. He was already in the Class D airspace and apologized for inadvertently flying over the airport—saying that he’d seen it as he flew over. The weather was reported as overcast at 900 feet, with three miles visibility. Had the clouds been 100 feet higher, the airport would have been VFR. The controller told the pilot that the airport was IFR and, as per procedure, asked the pilot his intentions.

A conversation ensued between the pilot and controller. The controller seemed to be encouraging the pilot to land at DuPage, but the pilot said he didn’t want to land and then get stuck for the rest of the day. He asked if there were airports in the area with better weather and was told that Chicago Executive, to the northeast, was VFR. The pilot also spoke with approach control, started toward Executive briefly and, in exchanges with approach, seemed unsure of what to do. He eventually told ATC that he didn’t want to mess with the weather and “was gonna get out.”

He pointed the Cirrus northwest, toward worse weather. Within a few minutes he’d lost control of the airplane and crashed.

Old Hack looked at me. “Ya know, he had a moving map GPS in that airplane, he’d flown over and seen DuPage Airport. All he had to do was ask for a special VFR clearance into DuPage, the controller would have hit him with the magic controller wand and his weather minimums would have instantly become one-mile visibility and stay out of the clouds instead of the 1,000 and 3 of Class D airspace.

“Now I can’t read the pilot’s mind, but I did my share of scud running and when I’ve got an airport in sight when the weather is iffy, it makes sense to land on that airport. You don’t throw something like that away. I can’t help but suspect that the pilot didn’t remember his training about special VFR, so he was worried about getting busted for going into an airport that was IFR or maybe landing and not realizing he could leave, so he’d miss the football game. I can just imagine how bad it was—trying to keep the airplane right side up under or in a low ceiling and not aware that I could solve my problem by getting a special VFR clearance.

“Plus, you can use a special VFR clearance to get out of an airport like DuPage when you know that the weather is better not far away. I’m not sure, but it seems possible that if the pilot had gotten a special VFR into DuPage, he could have unloaded his passenger, fired up and gotten a special VFR to head back southeast where the weather was VFR.

“By the way, didn’t you tell me that you used to use special VFR quite a bit when you flew out of Ann Arbor?”

“I did,” I responded. “That airport was built on a swamp and often would have ground fog in the morning. Every place around would be reporting clear and a million and the vis at Ann Arbor would be less than three miles before the fog burned off. I’d ask for a special VFR clearance, get it and depart. With the clearance the visibility requirement was only a mile and I had to stay clear of any clouds. Within a couple of minutes of taking off I’d be away from the area of fog. I’d fly with my student in the practice area and by the time we were coming back the fog would be gone, and the airport was solid VFR.”

Hack looked serious. “That makes sense. Before I talked with you I looked up the special VFR regs. They apply in Class B, C, D and E airspace—where E goes all the way to the ground—and you don’t have to have an instrument rating to take advantage of it. From what I’ve been able to find out, it’s most often used in Class D airspace where things aren’t as busy as in B and C because special VFR can’t delay instrument operations. You have to wait on the ground or outside the airspace for instrument traffic to clear out before the controller can give you a clearance. The important thing is that you have to ask for special VFR; the controller can’t offer it.”

I laughed. “I remember listening to a controller telling a pilot who wanted to depart VFR from a Class D airspace airport that the weather was IFR and then asking the ‘what are your intentions?’ question that they’re supposed to ask in that situation. The pilot was clueless. He kept saying that he wanted to depart, and the controller kept telling him that the field was IFR. At one point the controller asked, ‘Is there anything special that you’d like?’—one of the broadest special VFR hints I’ve ever heard from a controller—but the pilot still didn’t get it. He finally parked the airplane and shut down.”

Hack looked pensive. “Now you see why this accident bugs me. I don’t know if I ever got a special VFR clearance in the time I was flying. But the whole idea of magically getting new VFR weather minimums if I needed them just stuck with me. I figured it was a good thing to have in my hip pocket if I ever needed it. You know how much I disliked talking to ATC, but when the weather comes down and a controller can do something that helps keep me alive, I’m going to make the call.”

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.