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VFR over the top


There are days when VFR is marginal or not possible. VFR Over the Top (OTT) may be a viable choice on some of those days.

The pilots in the following incidents pushed the weather over cloud and became trapped and lost. The extra instrument training they would have received as part of the VFR OTT training and appropriate weather planning for VFR OTT flight may have prevented their predicaments.

A C-172 was on a VFR flight from Springbank to Red Deer, Alberta and the pilot first reported to Red Deer FSS he was east (DF bearing 076) of Red Deer and above cloud. FSS provided the pilot the altimeter setting and asked him if he was IFR capable (he was not).

The pilot then reported in cloud and descending, and shortly after reported below cloud and was given VDF assistance to find the airport. The weather at the time of the incident was: METAR CYQF 231800 30010KT 8SM BKN013 14/10 A2981 RMK SC7.

A Beech A36 Bonanza was en route VFR from Brandon, Manitoba to Wetaskiwin, Alberta when the pilot became trapped and lost on top of cloud. Winnipeg ACC Controllers observed the target until it was lost on radar southeast of Wainwright while the target was heading northwest.

The military range safety office at CFB Wainwright was advised of the situation as they were active. The aircraft was subsequently identified on radar with Edmonton ACC and kept clear of Wainwright airspace. The pilot advised Edmonton ACC that he was then clear of cloud and would continue onward for a landing at Wetaskiwin.

The pilot of the privately-registered Beech BE23 Musketeer, VFR Dawson Creek to Chilliwack, B.C. contacted the Area Control Centre 80 NM North of Williams Lake (CYWL), VFR on top of cloud at 13,500 feet.

The pilot was not sure of his location. The controller worked with the pilot until he was able to descend VFR below cloud near CYWL.  

Many pilots think they can sneak up and over the cloud for a short distance and they will again encounter VFR conditions. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. It is the spur of the moment decision that gets us into trouble.

There are often times, especially in the mountainous areas of the country, where it is possible to climb VFR to on top of cloud and then descend VFR near the destination.

VFR OTT when planned is often a safer alternative to “scud running.” VFR OTT training is not that time consuming or expensive. Fifteen hours of dual instrument time is required. Five hours you already have with your PPL and five more can be obtained in a certified flight simulator. There is no exam or flight test.

The instructor must review with you:

  • Airspace classification and operating procedures:
  • The correct interpretation of METARs, TAFs, GFAs, PIREPs, SIGMETs, and NOTAMs and how they apply to VFR OTT flight situations including determining:

a. the stability of air masses affecting flight;

b. weather trends and the suitability of departure, en route and destination weather for the time of the flight; and

c. the bases and tops of cloud layers using the area forecast and understanding their significance to VFR OTT flight;

  • Human factors, including hypoxia, judgment, decision making, disorientation, and illusory sensations that may occur while flying above or between layers of cloud, and cockpit resource management applications to VFR OTT flight;     
  • The control and performance instruments, scanning techniques, the scanning pattern and instrument terminology.
  • The use of ADF, VOR or GPS, including:

a. operation, limitation and errors,

b. how to obtain ADF, VOR or GPS information from aeronautical charts,

c. how to locate the aircraft position,

d. how to home to a station or waypoint,

e. how to track to eliminate drift,

f. interception of a pre-determined track or waypoint, and

g. how to identify station passage.  

The recommending flight instructor must determine by the end of the dual instrument instruction that the candidate is able to perform the following exercises.

  • Full Panel (Aeroplanes and Helicopters)

a. maintain coordinated straight and level flight,

b. carry out climbs and descents at various rates,

c. conduct climbing and descending turns at various, specified angles of bank to specific headings, and

d. control and manoeuvre the aircraft within:

+/- 10 degrees of the assigned heading,

+/- 100 feet of the assigned altitude,

+/- 10 knots of the assigned airspeed, and

+/- 10 degrees of the specified angle of bank.

  • Partial Panel (Aeroplanes only)

a. maintain straight and level flight,

b. conduct rate one timed turns to specific compass headings, and

c. control and manoeuvre the aircraft within:

+/- 15 degrees of the assigned heading,

+/- 200 feet of the assigned altitude, and

+/- 15 knots of the assigned airspeed.

  • Unusual Attitudes (Aeroplanes and Helicopters)

Under partial panel conditions recover from nose high and nose low unusual attitudes promptly, correctly and smoothly using coordinated control inputs, and with a minimum loss of altitude.

  • Radio Navigation

a. tune and identify the ADF or VOR facility and test the receiver or, for GPS input or retrieve and verify the required waypoint,

b. determine the aircraft position relative to an NDB or VOR station, or GPS waypoint,

c. efficiently intercept and track a desired track or radial within +/- 10 degrees or, for GPS, within +/- one nautical mile, and 

d. identify station or waypoint passage.

The aircraft requirements are:

  • pitot heat,
  • attitude indicator,
  • turn coordinator or turn and bank indicator,
  • radio,
  • radio navigation equipment for safe navigation,
  • gyroscopic heading indicator or stabilized magnetic direction indicator, and 
  • in Northern Domestic Airspace, a direction indicator not dependent on a magnetic source.

Even if you don’t think you will ever fly VFR OTT, the extra instrument training will be beneficial and you never know when it may come in handy.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies medevacs from Victoria in a Lear 25. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.

Got an aviation safety story to tell? Dale Nielsen would like to hear from pilots who have educational aviation experiences to relate. Excerpts from these stories will be used in upcoming safety articles. Dale can be contacted via e-mail: