The Long Way Around To VFR On Top


A Story Not For The Squeamish…

When AVweb reader Steve Biddle asked an innocent question about flying VFR above a cloud layer, he initiated a long and tangled quest through the annals of the FAA, the confusion of the GA masses, and the arcana of the U.S. airspace system. Today, almost two months after Biddle’s query was chosen as a Question Of The Week, we have an official, certifiable, FAA answer … that is, if you consider an answer from an FAA staffer who signs his e-mails as “Member, Loyal Order of the Flackosaurus Aeronauticus” to be official in the official sense. FAA Flight Standards spokesman Les Dorr, who braved the cloudy corridors of the FAA to get us this response, says: “Sorry for the delay [this arrived about four weeks after our initial request]. Here ‘tiz … The main question was, ‘Can a VFR-only pilot legally fly over a cloud layer in VFR conditions, then descend and land, all maintaining VFR visibility and cloud-separation requirements?’ The answer is yes. VFR-over-the-top is not addressed in 14 CFR Part 91, so only the basic VFR weather requirements of Section 91.155 [Basic VFR weather minimums] apply.”

Dorr wrote: “VFR-on-top is an aircraft on an IFR clearance that has requested and received permission to operate at VFR altitudes of their choice in VMC from ATC, but is still considered to be an IFR aircraft. Although it is not prohibited by the regulations, [VFR-only] pilots who choose to fly on top need to consider their options in the event of a situation that might require an immediate landing. A simple need to land for some minor issue, such as a sick passenger, could turn into a life-threatening emergency.”