How safe is special VFR
Tool or trap? Tell us what you think
Ever heard of the government coming up with a legal method to get around one of its own regulations? I have -- it's special VFR (SVFR), a clearance procedure that allows departure or arrival into controlled airspace without an IFR clearance when the visibility is at least one mile and the pilot can remain clear of clouds.
The FAA came up with this procedure to safely expedite departures and arrivals without an IFR clearance when weather conditions warrant. The method is designed to alleviate our frustration when we know that visual meteorological conditions (VMC) exist less than five miles away from the airport, and we are stuck on the ground in instrument meteorological conditions. Or we can't land because a light mist at the airport has lowered visibility to less than three miles. In short, SVFR increases the utility of flying. But how safe is it? First let's talk more about what's required.
Weather for a SVFR departure or arrival can be determined by listening to the ATIS, ASOS, or AWOS. Absent any of those weather reporting services, the pilot is permitted to determine from the cockpit if the visibility is at least one mile and the departure or arrival can be conducted clear of clouds. (Helicopters are permitted to operate SVFR when the visibility is less than one mile.)
When departing, pilots must be absolutely certain that the weather is VMC within a reasonable distance from the airport. Pilots determine this from flight service, pilot reports (pireps), or another official weather-reporting facility. But remember the reporting station may be distant from your outbound route of flight, and weather can change over a short distance. Discovering continuing IMC weather outside the SVFR clearance limit is not my idea of fun.
Student pilots are not permitted to request SVFR on solo flights, and SVFR is not allowed in most Class B airspace. SVFR is not permitted at night unless the pilot is instrument-rated and the aircraft properly equipped for instrument flight. Given this, I've never understood why a pilot wouldn't just file IFR at night rather than dangerously scud run to or from an airport. One reason could be that the airport weather might be below IFR approach minimums, but not below SVFR minimums. Circling visibility minimums for IFR could be greater than one mile, but SVFR requires only one mile of visibility. Regardless, approaching an airport at night SVFR with one-mile visibility isn't advisable and is an accident waiting to happen.
Also keep in mind that pilots requesting a SVFR clearance could be extensively delayed because IFR traffic has the priority. Here you are, waiting on the ground or in the air, while IFR aircraft are doing missed approaches or departing. Typically, this could take 10 minutes per arrival or departure. With one departure and two inbounds you could be delayed 30 to 45 minutes. Do you have that much reserve fuel?
A typical request for an SVFR clearance from an airport is straightforward and would go something like this:
"Hagerstown Ground, Piper Four-Five-Two-Three-X-ray at the east ramp ready to taxi with the ASOS information. Request SVFR clearance, southwest bound."
Ground control might respond with:
"Piper Four-Five-Two-Three-X-ray. Hagerstown Ground. Cleared out of the Class Delta airspace to the southwest. Maintain SVFR while in the Class Delta airspace at or below 1,500 feet. Report clear of Class Delta or VFR, whichever occurs first. Taxi to runway two seven." For an SVFR approach to an airport, a typical request for landing is made to the tower, with the addition of a request for SVFR.
Is SVFR safe? The answer is a conditional "yes" given proper training, complete knowledge of and appreciation for existing conditions, and sound judgment. Most pilots I instruct know something about SVFR but have never used it, nor have they been specifically trained in its procedures. I haven't seen any private pilot courses of study that address SVFR in other than a perfunctory manner. This scenario illustrates how a pilot can get into trouble with a SVFR departure clearance:
A non-instrument-rated pilot wishes to depart Hagerstown (Maryland) Regional Airport for a daytime flight to Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia. Hagerstown ASOS reports an 800-foot ceiling and two miles visibility with ground fog. The weather is below VFR minimums, but the visibility is at least one mile and the pilot can remain clear of clouds. He can legally depart the airport with a SVFR clearance. He learns from flight service that the weather is marginal VFR to VFR to the south and west all the way to Charleston. The FSS has no pireps to offer within 50 miles of Hagers-town. The pilot requests a SVFR clearance from the tower. (At a nontowered airport, a SVFR clearance is obtained from ATC via a remote communications outlet [RCO], a ground communications outlet [GCO], or a telephone call.) The pilot must request a SVFR clearance because ATC is not permitted to offer or even suggest the clearance.
The pilot departs, but soon realizes that the weather report is inaccurate. Within 15 miles southwest of Hagerstown it is still below basic VFR minimums, if not worse than back at the airport. He is now outside of Class D in less-than-VFR conditions with no instrument rating. The pilot asks the tower for permission to return SVFR, re-enter the Class D, and land at the airport. The tower denies his request because it has incoming IFR traffic.
The pilot is now illegal and has caused a problem, if not an emergency, for himself and ATC. He is in mountainous terrain with the ridges obscured. The pilot wisely declares an emergency and is told to immediately climb to 4,000 feet on a 090 heading and contact Potomac Approach. Declaring an emergency was a life-saving decision for this guy.
Unfortunately, some pilots might try to fly to another airport and land in less-than-VFR conditions with no SVFR clearance. This is risky at best, not to mention illegal. The good news for this pilot is that he made a successful landing with an SVFR clearance at an airport that fortunately did not have IFR traffic approaching; the slightly bad news is that the FSDO wants to talk to him after he lands. In many cases, the FAA only wants to be sure that the pilot understands the risk of his decision and has learned from it. We cannot overemphasize that an audience with the FAA is far preferable to the alternative.
Recent pireps would have helped this pilot to make the right decision not to attempt a SVFR flight under these conditions. A few years ago, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation launched an interactive online program called SkySpotter that encourages pilots to issue more pireps when flying in weather or turbulence. If our pilot had received a pirep from a pilot flying southwest of Hagerstown, he probably would not have taken off.
To fly SVFR safely, it is essential that the pilot know all there is to know about the airport and the area surrounding it. I'm talking about terrain and obstructions such as towers, buildings, cranes, and power lines; landmarks and roads that will provide orientation; and checkpoints that lead to and from the airport. The pilot in the scenario either was not aware of or chose to ignore the fact that there are mountains south and west of his departure airport. I question his judgment for taking off with a SVFR clearance into mountainous terrain in the first place.
Students should be taught that SVFR is not a license to operate in less-than-VFR conditions whenever they want. It should be used only in specific circumstances.
If conditions warrant, take your student into SVFR conditions with a clearance. You don't want them to be unprepared and inexperienced the first time they attempt SVFR on their own. Train them in SVFR procedures and have them experience the conditions in which it can be safely utilized. Better still, push them to get an instrument rating as soon as they earn their private certificate. This provides a viable option when considering SVFR.
SVFR is a controversial procedure, and there is always spirited discussion about its relative safety. Used prudently, it can get you down safely if you aren't instrument-rated or current and it's below VFR minimums. On the other hand, does it carry unwarranted risks? We'd like to know what you think. E-mail ASF and let us know your opinion.
Richard Hiner retired from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation as vice president of training. He can be contacted at by email.
By Richard Hiner