Visual Flight Rules

Visual Flight Rules, commonly called VFR, are a set of rules that apply to planes flying by visual reference. This is in opposition to IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), flown without visual references.

This set of rules allows a pilot to fly in most airspace without a flight plan, clearance, or ATC communication.

VFR flying requires constant vigilance for other traffic and reliance on oneself for navigation.

When you are flying VFR you must be in VMC.

Of course, while flying VFR you may choose to use air traffic control services to:

  • Get help in an emergency
  • Get directions
  • Get traffic advisories
  • Get clearance through airspace or to land

How do I know if I’m flying VFR?

Did you file and open an instrument flight plan? If not, then you are flying VFR. You must comply with all VFR regulations including visibility and cloud clearance minimums.

Visual Meteorological Conditions

Visual Meteorological Conditions, or VMC, are a set of weather conditions that allow for flying VFR.

Generally, VMC means good weather, but it also technically means that you are far enough between the clouds to allow for safe VFR flying.

For example, when flying IFR you might be popping in and out of clouds every few minutes.

If ATC notifies you about traffic then you must try to find the other plane. However, this only applies if you are in visual conditions at that moment. If you happen to be inside of a cloud you just respond with “IMC”.

In addition, it is also possible that you are near clouds and you can’t see the other plane because he is in a cloud. I will always take a quick look but if there is a chance that I can’t see the other plane because there is a large cloud right where he should be, I will still say “IMC”.

I am letting the controller know that the conditions where I am flying are not sufficient for VFR, even though I may be outside of a cloud at that time.

How do you know if you are in VMC?

I’ve devised a set of easy rules to help you remember the cloud clearance and visibility requirements for VMC.

Never Be 100% Sure

When I was a student pilot I had to fly a night cross-country flight with my instructor. I carefully planned the route and filled out my navlog. We took off in a Cessna 152 and proceeded to the destination, Carol County Airport in Maryland. About halfway through the flight, I was able to see the rotating beacon in the distance and I continued towards it.

I was 100% sure I had found my destination. I descended towards the airport and entered the pattern. As I landed I noticed that the runway number was wrong! This meant that the facility directory must not have been up to date. I taxied off the runway and then my instructor gave me the news. I had landed at York airport, in Pennsylvania. These two airports are 20 miles apart!

If I had not been 100% sure I would still have been evaluating the situation as I flew. That is why I will never tell you that I am more than 99% sure. This is a safeguard to ensure that I keep thinking and taking in new information to find the truth.

A huge 1% difference

My choice to be 100% sure meant that the new information (wrong runway number) was immediately treated as wrong! But if you take the 99% sure attitude, then you will treat new information as the truth and constantly reevaluate what you are seeing. If I had been 99% sure then I would not have put down my map and navlog. Instead, I would have seen rivers and cities and roads all in the wrong place and figured out where I really was.


An F-15 pilot was departing Elmendorf Air Force Base on a stormy night with a formation of 8 total F-15s. He realized he had an instrument problem and was moments from crashing. This led him to a calm feeling as he sat and awaited his fate.

Resignation means giving up. This hazardous attitude is one of defeat and pessimism. It can turn a dangerous situation into a deadly situation.

Signs of Resignation

It’s not too hard to spot resignation if you know what to look for. If you find yourself thinking some of the thoughts below (in bold) then you are experiencing resignation to some degree.

  • “I can’t fix this situation.” Wrong! You have the controls. You can absolutely change your situation at any time.
  • “This is just bad luck.” Wrong! In aviation, there is no luck, you make your own destiny. Take action.
  • “Someone else will make the decision.” No, you are the pilot in command, you are the one making the decision, even if you try to let someone else do it.

Don’t resign yourself to resignation

When you realize you are suffering from resignation, don’t resign yourself to your fate… something. You can always make things more positive for yourself by continuing to work at it. You are not helpless.

What happened to that F-15 pilot? He realized that he still had a chance to save himself, and he did! Read the full article about the F-15 incident here.

Cruising Altitude

When flying anywhere you need to climb, cruise, and then descend. But you must comply with the rules and fly at certain predetermined altitudes.

The Rules: Neodd and Sweven

When you are flying above 3000 feet AGL you must fly at an even-numbered thousand feet if you are traveling west. That is what sweven means. If you are traveling directly South, or on any Westerly heading then fly on the even-numbered thousands.

Conversely, if you are traveling East or directly North, fly at an odd thousand (neodd).

For IFR flights to the East you will fly at 5000 or 7000 or 9000 feet, etc….

For VFR flights you must be 500 feet above these altitudes. So a VFR flight to the West would cruise at 4500 or 6500 or 8500 feet, etc….

These rules are for cruising altitude, meaning that if you are flying up above 3000 to practice an emergency descent then you can just climb to whatever altitude you want.

Why is this rule in place?

This rule is a bit of a compromise between safety and simplicity.

When two planes approach head-on their closure speed, the speed at which they are approaching each other, is very high. Even a relatively slow 152 will approach another 152 at around 180 knots TAS if they are head-on. For faster planes like an arrow traveling at 150 knots the closure speed is 300 knots!

It is safer to fly at these altitudes because VFR planes flying East will always be 1000 feet vertically separated from VFR planes flying West. Furthermore, they will be separated by 500 feet from all IFR traffic.

This is great, but there is a problem! What if planes approach nearly head-on but both traveling East? One of them could be traveling 010 degrees (which is East of North) and the other could be flying at 170 (which is East of South).

This is where the compromise comes in. The rule could split the compass into 4 segments but then it would be more complicated and difficult to remember.

Always stay vigilant looking for traffic that might be climbing/descending, not following the rules, or might be at a near head-on angle.

Are you on a Collision Course?

When an aircraft approaches you head-on, you are on a collision course. When you are following directly behind a slower plane, you are on a collision course. In these cases, it’s easy to tell that you are on this collision course and you can quickly decide to correct by turning to the right.

But what if another plane approaches at an angle? How can you quickly determine if you will collide or not?

Luckily there is an easy way to figure this out immediately!

Ask yourself,  is the other plane moving across my window? Look at the other plane and which part of your window it is in.

  • If it is not moving then you are on a collision course
  • If it is moving forwards then it will pass in front of you
  • If it is moving backward then it will pass behind you

Note: “Forwards” means that the plane appears to be traveling across your windscreen in its forward direction. “Backwards” means that the plane is moving across your windscreen towards its tail (although in reality it is obviously still going forwards).

You must decide in each situation how to handle it. A good rule of thumb I use is to give way and pass behind the other plane if it only requires a small course correction. This works in most cases and it tends to be safer because the pilot in the other plane may not see you.

Handling Passengers Part 3: Loud Passengers

Every year my home airport hosts a Fall Flying Festival and I always volunteer to fly passenger rides. These rides are given at a steep discount and they are always very popular.

To handle the demand the pilots shut down at a predetermined spot on the ramp and stay in the seat while loaders get the passengers switched out.

One year I reached the last flight of the day and two young children, probably around 8 years old, were placed into the back seat of the 172 I was flying. Takeoff went smoothly and I could hear them talking amongst themselves over the intercom. Soon they discovered that they could make loud noises into the microphone and startle each other. Continue reading “Handling Passengers Part 3: Loud Passengers”