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IFR Fix: The VCOA optionIFR Fix: The VCOA option

Here’s a drill you probably didn’t practice on your last proficiency flight. Do so on your next ride and it may be a learning experience for you, your instrument flight instructor, and even air traffic control.

A practice scenario might go like this: The weather is VMC at your departure point, but instrument conditions loom in the vicinity and are forecast to prevail along the mountainous route.

Your aircraft will be heavy, and as you review IFR departure procedures, you note the unusually high climb gradient required after takeoff. Converting the gradient to rate of climb, there’s concern that the published aircraft climb performance may leave you little margin.

You could wait out the weather, or you could add a fuel stop so you can depart with a lighter fuel load—both time-consuming alternatives of uncertain effect that might add to fatigue later.

There’s another possibility: When calling for your IFR clearance, you could request a visual climb over airport (VCOA) departure.

The Pilot/Controller Glossary defines a VCOA as “a departure option for an IFR aircraft, operating in visual meteorological conditions equal to or greater than the specified visibility and ceiling, to visually conduct climbing turns over the airport to the published ‘climb-to’ altitude from which to proceed with the instrument portion of the departure. VCOA procedures are developed to avoid obstacles greater than 3 statute miles from the departure end of the runway as an alternative to complying with climb gradients greater than 200 feet per nautical mile. Pilots are responsible to advise ATC as early as possible of the intent to fly the VCOA option prior to departure. These textual procedures are published in the ‘Take-Off Minimums and (Obstacle) Departure Procedures’ section of the Terminal Procedures Publications and/or appear as an option on a Graphic ODP.”

Don’t fly a VCOA “cold.” If you expect to make a flight soon on which VCOA might become useful, practice the maneuver beforehand.

For real or for practice, the prompt to give ATC early notice of your intentions is good safety advice. “Instructor pilot reports electing to use the visual climb option during the DVT1.PXR departure from DVT [Phoenix Deer Valley Airport] and is questioned by ATC as to what departure is being flown,” says the synopsis of a report filed with the Aviation safety Reporting System to demonstrate confusion that arose from using a published VCOA departure that was unfamiliar to ATC.

Have you ever flown a VCOA? If so, share your experience in the comments below.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: ATC, Advanced Training, Instrument Rating

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