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COPA participates in VFR over the top HIRA

By John Quarterman


COPA’s expertise in our sector of aviation was called upon as part of a Hazard Identification and Risk Analysis (HIRA) conducted by Nav Canada in preparation for a new section of their Manual of Operations (MANOPS) to provide guidance to Nav Canada controllers in their interaction with aircraft conducting VFR over the top (VFR OTT) operations.


While pilots, controllers and Flight Service Specialists are governed by the Canadian Air Regulations (CARS), controllers are also subject to additional documentation which is authored and maintained by Nav Canada, but approved by Transport Canada.

This documentation – the MANOPS – describes and specifies how controllers do their job. Most everything a controller does in relation to providing service to aircraft IFR or VFR is subject to their training and the rules and directives laid down in the MANOPS. Much of the controller’s understanding of how to do his/her job is derived from the MANOPS.

One of the facts which became clear during the HIRA is that for various reasons a MANOPS revision was never done for VFR OTT operations. Consequently, how controllers treated VFR over the top aircraft has been a trial and error process worked out by the individual ATC and FSS units managing the VFR OTT aircraft.

In some cases, lacking clear direction and with no understanding of what training pilots with the VFR OTT rating get, controllers were confused about the differences between VFR OTT and Special VFR.

Due to controllers’ requests and their own advance assessment, Nav Canada decided to remedy the lack of written direction and has proposed a set of MANOPS changes to educate and direct the controllers about VFR OTT.

The HIRA process

In this process Nav Canada identified several stakeholders ranging from internal IFR and VFR control units that routinely deal with VFR OTT aircraft to the industry associations whose members would be impacted by the MANOPS procedures.

COPA was identified as the industry Association representing the greatest number of affected aviation users and pilots. COPA was the only external organization that took part in the HIRA apart from the various Nav Canada departments chosen to participate.

Hazard Identification and consequent Risk Analysis

In the process of conducting the HIRA, several participants identified and brought forward for discussion the possible concerns that they felt might impinge on the safety of the VFR OTT operations and which they felt should result in an impact on the MANOPS. Each of these concerns was examined in turn and a decision was made on whether a hazard exists. These concerns, which survived the scrutiny and became identified as valid concerns (but not Hazards) are:

- IFR aircraft in climb and descent profiles coming in proximity to VFR OTT aircraft operating between layers. Pilots need to be aware that while operating between layers of cloud there is the still the possibility of VFR aircraft being in the vicinity.

- Under the regulations, aircraft operating under VFR OTT may have less navigational equipment than their IFR brethren (single VOR or ADF), thus excessive vectoring "off-airway" and off-route by ATC may cause VFR OTT aircraft to have less situational awareness than planned. ATC needs to be aware that VFR OTT aircraft should be free to follow their planned route as much as possible.

- Under the regulations, aircraft operating under VFR OTT may have much less fuel reserves than the IFR aircraft, and may have fewer options for landing if the weather at airports in-between their origin and destination is less than VFR. Nav Canada personnel again need to be aware and be sensitive to the VFR aircraft possible fuel limitations.

- Nav Canada personnel for several reasons need to be aware that aircraft operating VFR OTT are operating under that rule-set and also the VFR OTT limitations. Without being informed that an aircraft is VFR OTT, an ATC unit could erroneously conclude that the aircraft is Special VFR. Under the current procedures stated in the AIM, pilots are not always encouraged to inform ATC that they are VFR OTT. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM – TP14371) should be augmented to make this recommendation.

There were no actual Hazards identified as a result of the HIRA.

Actions resulting from the HIRA

The good news for COPA members is that Nav Canada was not and is not contemplating asking for any changes in the regulations to training, aircraft equipment or weather minima necessary for VFR OTT. COPA was asked to help in and participated in, clearing up, the misunderstandings extant before the HIRA and many of the participants are much more comfortable with the provision of ATC service to VFR OTT aircraft.

The message that expediting VFR OTT traffic is a necessary operational tactic, has been reinforced by COPA’s participation.

Nav Canada plans to insert the passage below in the AIM to cover off the fuel reserves issue:

TC AIM RAC 2.7.4.

A person may operate an aircraft VFR Over-the-Top (VFR-OTT) provided certain conditions are met. Those conditions include weather minima, aircraft equipment and pilot qualifications.

Pilots should indicate during communications with ATS units that the flight is VFR OTT. Deviations from the intended route of flight might be necessary when transiting control zones or terminal control areas. Pilots should take into consideration the additional fuel requirements this may cause.

CAR 602.116 specifies the weather minima for VFR-OTT, and a summary of the minima follows: …

COPA has agreed, to do our part to educate pilots and emphasise to our members that the fuel reserves for VFR OTT, permitted under the CARS, are bare minima, and that a prudent pilot must take into account the possibility of adverse headwinds, weather diversions en route, and ATC diversions due to traffic or other factors. Lacking suitable diversionary airfields in-between, a sensible pilot would carry much more fuel than the regulations allow.

It should be noted (as always), that the possibility for change is still there until the ink on the MANOPS is dry. Transport Canada must still approve what has been accomplished, and that remains to be seen.

COPA is reasonably confident, given the information to date, that the future of VFR OTT remains unchanged and may well be safer, as a result of this exercise.