What’s So Special About Special VFR?


Air traffic control offers a smorgasbord of mostly legal ways to run the scud without running from the law. We’ll consider four procedures that blend IFR with VFR to expand system utility. They are: Visual approach, contact approach, VFR-on-top (OTP), and special VFR (SVFR). That last sounds like an item on the Airport Cafe menu: “I’ll have the special VFR with curly fries.”

“All out of curly; how ‘bout shemp?”

ATC exists to “safely expedite the flow of air traffic through the National Airspace System.” Or something like that, an ethos I encountered at the FAA Academy in 1979.  The experience was largely a screen to see who had the moxie to keep numerous callsigns in their head and separate them from each other without radar. Lamely called “3-D chess,” I view ATC, instead, as Jenga-in-motion, wherein pieces are stacked in a precarious structure and shifting the wrong one will cause your career to collapse. Barring failure, air traffic arrives via instrument approach procedures or, weather permitting, a visual approach.

Visual Approach

ATC routinely vectors IFR arrivals for visual approaches, provided the ceiling is 500 feet above the Minimum Vectoring Altitude (MVA) and visibility is 3 miles or greater. “Airport in sight,” the captain reports, and the controller replies, “… cleared visual approach …” The IFR arrival then proceeds visually to the runway while still on its IFR clearance and is expected to remain clear of clouds and terrain and possibly follow preceding traffic: “… follow that Airbus, cleared visual approach …” When a pilot agrees to “follow” or “maintain visual separation” from another aircraft, the agreeable pilot also becomes responsible for wake turbulence separation. In Class E surface airspace, the IFR inbound is usually separated from other IFR traffic on a one-in-one-out basis.

Here’s the sticky pretzel. The visual approach is an IFR clearance but is not a standard instrument approach procedure and has no published missed approach. Sorta. ATC will issue alternate instructions should the visual approach go awry, at which point the IFR aircraft is treated as a “go-around” and worked into traffic pattern or returned to the IFR flow for another try. Don’t report “airport/runway in sight” unless you know you’ll maintain that vision.

Contact Approach

The contact approach is the visual approach’s gutsy cousin. ATC will not vector for a contact approach; the pilot must request it. Why? Because it’s down low, back alley, legal scud-runnin’ that’s fun and convenient, but in the wrong hands can endanger all on board and perhaps a cow on the hillside the pilot didn’t see.

Like the visual approach, the contact approach is an IFR clearance, and although not itself an instrument approach procedure, there must be an operable published instrument approach procedure at that airport. Unlike the visual approach, the pilot only needs 1 mile visibility and ground contact, meaning the pilot sees the ground without contacting it. Doing so triggers paperwork, and being suddenly dead won’t excuse the crew from filing.

There’s no need to see the runway or airport to request a contact approach. If it’s your backyard, where you know every windmill and determine that you can make it home mostly alive, then it’s your call, “… request contact approach.” While there’s no published missed on a contact approach, if the controller thinks you’re nuts, and weather won’t permit a successful arrival, the controller should issue “alternate instructions,” ideally including the word, “climb.”  

VFR-On-Top (OTP) and SVFR

Can’t decide between IFR and VFR? The former can seem so demanding, while the other lacks the gravitas for serious missions. Request VFR-on-top. It’s gluten-free, and controllers will love you for asking, although some might not understand your request. “You’re cancelling IFR?” Your polite response is: “Negative, I’m still IFR but requesting a VFR altitude.”

On-top clearances can be used enroute or combined with an IFR climb through clouds to an OTP altitude. Once the aircraft is established on-top, ATC’s separation responsibilities shrink. The flight remains on an IFR clearance but maintains a VFR altitude plus appropriate VFR cloud clearance. It’s like you’re not there but still receive ATC following and traffic alerts. Nearing the destination, you’ll be cleared to descend through clouds for an instrument or visual approach. OTP can be used even without a cloud in the sky.

The fourth procedure is special VFR (SVFR). As the NTSB noted in the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash, marine cloud layers are common along the California coast. I used to fly in California and worked at Monterey tower and approach. When clouds slide off the bay to partially cover airports with low ceilings, pilots and controllers get creative with SVFR.

Special VFR is not an instrument procedure. It’s a way to enter, exit, or transit Classes D, C, B, plus E surface area without an IFR clearance when conditions are less than VFR (1000-foot ceiling, 3 miles vis). Fixed-wing SVFR is often prohibited inside Class B. SVFR between sunset and sunrise requires the pilot to be instrument rated in an IFR-equipped aircraft.

Like contact approaches, ATC should never initiate SVFR; pilots must request it. Once cleared — “… maintain special VFR at or below (altitude) …” — the SVFR airplane remains clear of clouds with a skinny 1-mile visibility (simply clear of clouds for copters). You’re courting grief if you don’t know the territory, but SVFR is a good tool if you do. At Monterey, the marine layer would linger offshore during the day and slide in near sunset. The airspace might be 60 percent covered in low clouds and 40 percent clear. Tops were often low, so IFR pilots would get clearances to pop through the layer and cancel IFR shortly after wheels in the well. VFR-only pilots who knew that the highway route northeast toward Salinas was clear would request SVFR.

As soon as one SVFR cleared our airspace (ARSA back then; now Class C), we’d launch another SVFR, unless it would delay IFR traffic. SVFR worked so well that one day a pilot ordered up “one of them specials.” From the tower we watched him take off, but instead of turning in the clear sky toward Salinas, he disappeared into the clouds and minutes later reported, “On top, cancel my special VFR.” He sounded so adorably proud that the supervisor barely had the heart to explain he’d illegally climbed through the clag. Remedial training emphasized that as special as special VFR is, it’s not that special. Thusly enlightened, the pilot subsequently took proper advantage of special VFR and even ordered the curly fries.

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  1. In Iowa, where Paul spent much of his indentured servitude, it’s “Ketchup”. (laugh)

    Thanks for a great tutorial on navigation using these “special” procedures. I’m posting it on the bulletin board at my FBO so that all may learn. Some younger pilots may need further tutorials as to who “Shemp” and “Curly” are (what? No MOE?) It is said that a writer should write for his/her intended audience–which would seem to indicate that this is meant for older pilots. We consider it a paean to the “cognoscenti”–we actually ENJOY these literary obscure references by “The Two Pauls!”

    • So that was the secret message by Phil, ‘No Moe’. Moe from the three stooges must have been slapping his bald head. ‘No Moe, No Moe’…’No Moe, No Moe’…
      I wonder what is says when it is played backwards 😜

  2. Another good use of a contact approach is where the official weather is less than 1000 or 3 but out the windshield looks like an easy visual approach.

  3. In the late 60s I flew our FBOs Instrument training Cardinal to Louisville to pick up some freight. I had a commercial Lic but no Instrument rating. I asked for and received a special VFR from an intersection West of SDF and got sequenced toward the old runway 01. The haze in that area was very common back then and it was difficult to judge vis but you could see the ground. I got vectored to the ILS and noticed that the ground had vanished. The approach controller said he didn’t have a strip on me and asked If I had filed a flight plan. I replied in the negative. He then asked if I had an Instrument Rating. Again Negative. He replied “continue your approach”. I saw the runway lights at about 300 feet and landed. A not so genial Fed met me on the ramp and gave me hell but I told him the wx was OK til I started down on final and I thought the safest thing was to fly the ILS and land. At the time I had passed the Inst Written exam and had maybe 8 or 10 hours under the hood. It was pretty dumb but I learned from it.

  4. The charted visual flight procedures at KSFO are a case study in “FAA complexese.” Check out the conditional weather requirements and the charted “go-around” procedures.

  5. “Another good use of a contact approach is where the official weather is less than 1000 or 3 but out the windshield looks like an easy visual approach.”

    My best use of a contact approach flying a King Air–often, the weather is about 1,000′ broken and good visibility. From higher altitude, I know that the broken area is widespread, lots of holes–but the problem with holes is that if you cancel IFR, you have to maintain horizontal separation of 2000′–and at higher speed, that means you need a hole well over a mile in diameter. Requesting a contact approach allows you to fly “clear of clouds.”
    Still need to keep a sharp lookout, though, there may be VFR traffic in the climb looking to go through those same breaks–though they SHOULD be maintaining cloud clearance minimums. Is it LEGAL? Yes–but to go back to another increasingly-obscure Iowa reference (“Ya gotta know the TERRITORY!”) (“The Music Man”). Navigation is on your own!

    “Shortcuts” as explained by Paul are the aviation version of the old legal axiom–“A GOOD lawyer knows the law–the EXCEPTIONAL lawyer knows the EXCEPTIONS!” (smile)

  6. Years ago I used a contact approach clearance to avoid flying through a thunderstorm at the outer marker on an ILS when on downwind I could see my home airport was clear VMC. When cleared I just flew a 1 mile base to final to miss the previously mentioned weather. Things you can do in a Caravan! When I started flying jets those companies did not have the ops spec allowing contact approaches, I am sure for obvious reasons. As Clint Eastwood said in one of his movie lines, “ got to know your limitations”.

  7. If I’m not on an instrument flight plan, I don’t like getting close to controlled airspace where I will be getting vectored (controlled) by ATC in less than favorable conditions. ATC can not see the clouds, and under VFR you as PIC must remain clear of the clouds.
    I was flying in from the Bahamas to KFXE and passed through KFLL’s air space. I was at the cloud layer level when KFLL approach directed me into the clouds. I replied to the instructions to turn with, “un able I’m VFR and IMC to my right”… Approach was also directing departures. I heard the clearance for a large Delta aircraft directed my way. The controller gave me the same instruction, this time with kind of a panic tone. I responded NXxxx turning to heading XXX and announced I was IMC.
    I was not instrument rated at the time, though I had passed my instrument written and did have enough hours for a check ride. I was not instrument rated, more important, I was not on an instrument flight plan and had no plans for going IIMC. But, there I was.
    I could have chosen to take on the large commercial jet heading toward me. A large jet that could pop out of a cloud at any moment, or take my chances with the soft puffy cloud to my right. I picked cloud.
    There has been lots of discussion about IIMC lately, and I’ve had this happen more than once.
    I was lucky, unlike most pilots, I had spatial disorientation training at the FAA training facility in Oklahoma. Also, because I had just flown about 750 miles over the islands, mainly using my instruments to navigate, my instruments were set for instrument flight.
    What if I had just taken off and my instruments weren’t set? When I’m going into controlled airspace I always prepare my instruments and myself as if I’m going IMC, even if I’m not on an IFR flight plan..

  8. Our non-IFR strip’s location under the edge of a MOA coupled with a relatively high MVA in the “clear” direction precludes getting an IFR vectored descent into VFR conditions when the ceilings are 2000 AGL or lower. Fortunately there is a towered airport with IFR approaches only 7 miles away over flat ground, and getting a SVFR out of their control zone after a successful approach let me get home a number of times. Can be a powerful tool but definitely a “use with caution” one.

  9. Good article but for me it created more questions than answers. I would like to speak with the author (and other CFIs) of the AV Web February 18, 2021 article by Paul Berge entitled “What’s So Special About Special VFR?”

    I am open to suggestions as to forums for the discussion but will suggest the EAA Forum EAA IMC Club(http://eaaforums.org/forumdisplay.php?26-EAA-IMC-Club) although I doubt it is ideal because of limited activity and other issues.

    [email protected]