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Instrument Tip: Over and out

Flying a visual climb over airport

Instrument flight rules are peppered with minutiae that, depending on your perspective, either restrict what a flight can do, or enable pilots to pull off otherwise impossible trips.

The visual climb over airport (VCOA) is one such example. If you fly in mountainous terrain, VCOAs can be a way to depart an airport you wouldn’t otherwise be able to leave. Normal instrument climb gradients are based on being able to maintain a 200-foot-per-nautical-mile climb until reaching the minimum en route altitude. When an obstacle pierces that climb gradient more than three miles from the airport, such as in the mountains, the minimum climb gradient increases. A VCOA allows the pilot to visually circle above the departure point until reaching the “climb to” altitude and before proceeding on course, thereby negating the need to meet a higher climb gradient.

Flying a VCOA requires a bit of advanced planning. First, the weather must meet VFR minimums up to the “climb to” altitude. This is because the climb must be done entirely in visual conditions. The aircraft must also be capable of performing the climb within the specified visibility boundaries, which create the protected airspace. This is usually a few miles away from the airport and is easy for most scenarios. Finally, you must request the VCOA with air traffic control as soon as possible prior to departure. This could be in the remarks section of the flight plan, or during the clearance delivery process. Otherwise ATC will expect you to fly the standard instrument departure or obstacle departure procedure, and probably won’t be happy when you start circling the airport.

You can find the specifics for an airport’s VCOA procedure in the takeoff minimums section of the approach plate books. First check out the obstacle departure procedure, and if you don’t feel comfortable with what it lays out, check for a VCOA and consider it as an alternative.

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Ian J. Twombly
Ian J. Twombly
Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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