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Special VFR has a purpose, but…


We are nearing our destination and the weather has deteriorated to an 800 foot ceiling and 2 miles visibility. Continuing to the airport VFR is no longer possible since VFR in a control zone is flight visibility of not less than 3 miles and we must remain 500 feet above ground with separation from cloud of 1 mile horizontally and 500 feet vertically.

We have two options – divert or request Special VFR.

Special VFR may be available to us if the visibility is better than one mile, we are able to remain clear of cloud and we are able to maintain visual contact with the ground. We must request Special VFR from a Tower Controller or an FSS Specialist. Special VFR will not be offered by ATC personnel.

Special VFR will only be approved if the visibility is better than one mile, there is no current or pending IFR traffic on approach or departure, and the work load of the Tower Controller or FSS Specialist permits it.

It is the pilot’s responsibility to avoid other aircraft and to remain within his/her own piloting capabilities and within the capabilities of the aircraft.

To get Special VFR, our aircraft must be radio equipped. NORDO aircraft cannot get a Special VFR clearance by phone. Special VFR may be approved for an arriving aircraft at night, but it will not be approved for a night departure.

A C-172 pilot departed for Fort Nelson, B.C. knowing the weather there was below VFR, but he assumed that he would get Special VFR to enter the control zone and land. When he approached the control zone, he was informed that the weather had deteriorated to a 500 foot ceiling and ½ mile visibility in fog. He was denied Special VFR and he did not have the fuel to divert to another airport. He circled outside the control zone for almost an hour before his fuel situation forced him to land on the highway.

Special VFR is designed to get us onto the ground when the weather deteriorates below VFR limits. It should not be used as a planning tool. As the C-172 pilot discovered, if the weather is already below VFR or is forecast to be below VFR, it doesn’t take much more deterioration to send it below Special VFR limits.

Special VFR may also be used to depart an airport that is below VFR limits if the weather outside the control zone is above VFR limits. The same rules apply for requesting Special VFR and for its approval

The pilot of a Piper Cherokee requested Special VFR while taxiing for departure. The FSS Specialist said that he would get back to him with the clearance. Moments later, the Cherokee pilot radioed that he had taken the active runway and was in his take-off roll. He was in the air before the FSS Specialist could stop him.

Special VFR requires a clearance even at an airport with an FSS. We must not enter a control zone from the air or the ground without a clearance if the weather is below VFR limits. The Cherokee pilot was not aware of this.

An FSS specialist or a Tower Controller will know if there is an IFR aircraft that has just departed or if one is about to depart. The Specialist or Controller may have to check with an IFR Centre Controller to learn if there will be a conflicting IFR aircraft on approach, so there may be a slight delay in getting the clearance.

In the situation described above, there was an inbound IFR aircraft in the early stages of its approach. The Special VFR request would have been denied to the Cherokee pilot until the IFR aircraft pilot had cancelled his/her IFR clearance or had landed. The FSS Specialist had to make a choice, either demand that the Cherokee immediately return for landing or request the Centre Controller hold the IFR aircraft until the Cherokee had departed the control zone. Due to the continuing deterioration of the weather, it was decided that holding the IFR aircraft was the safest choice.

A C-172 pilot requested and received a Special VFR clearance to depart an airport. Ten miles from the airport, the pilot radioed that the weather was not improving as expected, and in fact was deteriorating. He requested to remain under Special VFR and return for landing. He had difficulty finding the airport and requested assistance from the FSS Specialist. This airport FSS was equipped with VHF DF equipment and the pilot was given a heading to follow to the airport.

Departing Special VFR can have its hazards as seen from this incident. Based on all forecasts and reports we have to be certain that we will encounter good VFR conditions outside the control zone.

Many of us do not have much experience in poor visibility conditions. One mile is not very far. With such poor visibility, it is easy to climb slightly and lose sight of the ground. At this point, it is easy to become disoriented.

In Special VFR conditions, we are close to the ground and we will be in serious trouble if we do become disoriented. We must not lose ground contact. If we do, we must immediately go on instruments, climb, head for VFR conditions if possible and call for assistance.

The other problem that may arise in low light conditions is a gradual, unnoticed descent that may take us right into the trees or the ground. We must keep one eye on the altimeter whenever we are flying low level in poor visibility conditions.

We should slow down whenever we are operating in poor visibility conditions. This will give us more time to see hazards and make decisions. The airspeed we will slow to will depend on our aircraft type. A little flap will help maintain visibility over the nose of the aircraft and stay above the slow flight regime. We need to be looking outside and we need to be able to manoeuvre the aircraft without worrying about stalling.

Special VFR has a purpose; we should use it with discretion. Fly safely.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies air charters. He still freelances as a flying instructor and seminar facilitator. 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: