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How To Use A 'VFR-On-Top' Clearance

You just popped through a layer of overcast clouds on an IFR cross-country flight and it's perfectly VFR, as far as the eye can see. Is it time to request a VFR-on-top clearance?

What's The Point?

According to the FAA's Instrument Flying Handbook (IFH), "pilots on IFR flight plans operating in VFR weather conditions may request VFR-on-top in lieu of an assigned altitude. This permits them to select an altitude or flight level of their choice (subject to any ATC restrictions)."

This can be helpful if you're slightly above, or in between layers, and you want to stay out of the clouds. Flying for extended periods of time through solid IMC can be fatiguing (and the view isn't nearly as good!).

Staying out of the clouds can make your passengers more comfortable too. There's typically less turbulence when you're in VMC, there's no doubt a better view, and it helps your passengers avoid air sickness.

A "maintain VFR-on-top" clearance doesn't restrict you to operating only above an IMC layer, either. The clearance permits operations above, below, between layers, or in areas where there is no meteorological obstruction.

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Requesting A "Climb To VFR-On-Top"

VFR-On-Top is a request you need to initialize with ATC. You can request to climb through clouds, haze, smoke, or other weather layers with the intent of either operating "VFR-On-Top", or cancelling your IFR clearance after you reach VFR conditions.

Keep in mind, your clearance to operate "VFR-on-top/VFR conditions" does't cancel your IFR flight plan. And in busy airspace, you may not be able to get the clearance due to conflicting traffic, or ATC workload. More on that below...

Do You Know Regulations You Need To Follow?

When you're flying on an IFR flight plan, a VFR-on-top clearance comes with a few stipulations:

  • You must fly at the appropriate VFR altitude as prescribed in FAR 91.159.
  • You must comply with VFR visibility and distance-from-cloud criteria prescribed in FAR 91.155.
  • You must comply with IFR regulations applicable to your flight. That means you must adhere to minimum IFR altitudes, your ATC clearance, position reporting, radio communications, course to be flown, etc.
  • You should advise ATC before any altitude change when operating VFR-on-top. This ensures ATC can provide accurate traffic information and separation.
  • VFR-on-top is not permitted in Class A airspace.

When you fly VFR-on-top, you may receive traffic advisories from ATC about other pertinent IFR or VFR aircraft. HOWEVER, when you operate in VFR conditions, it's your responsibility as PIC to see and avoid other aircraft.

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What About "VFR Over-The-Top"?

It's easy confuse "VFR-on-top" with "VFR over-the-top." A VFR on-top clearance is an IFR clearance that allows pilots to fly at VFR altitudes.

VFR over-the-top, on the other hand, is an operation where you maintains VFR cloud clearance requirements while operating on top of an overcast layer. This usually happens when departure and destination airports have good weather conditions, but a low overcast layer exists in between. You can depart, climb, cruise, and descend in VFR conditions along your route, even while IFR conditions may be present at lower altitudes (though we don't really recommend this, especially if you're non-instrument rated).

Have you ever requested a VFR-on-top clearance? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. In addition to multi-engine and instrument ratings, he holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525). He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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