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What's Special VFR, And When Can You Use It?

Special VFR - Primary Maurizio Pucci

You probably got here by voting on whether or not you could land in Fort Collins, so let's see what the answer is.

The weather at Fort Collins (KFNL) was 3SM visibility and 900 foot ceilings, and you were given three options:
  • Divert to KFNL and stay 500 feet below the clouds
  • Pick up a Special VFR (SVFR) clearance and divert to KFLN
  • You can't divert into KFNL

So what's the right answer? Let's start with option 1.

Can You Stay 500 Feet Below The Clouds?

Fort Collins Sectional

Based on the chart, KFNL is Class E airspace to the surface (magenta dashed line). So what's the minimum weather you need in Class E airspace during the day?

  • 3SM visibility
  • 1000' above clouds
  • 500' below clouds
  • 2000' horizontal from clouds

So, can you fly into KFNL and stay 500 feet below the clouds VFR? The answer is no. According to FAR 91.155 (c), it says that:

Except as provided in FAR 91.157, no person may operate an aircraft beneath the ceiling under VFR within the lateral boundaries of controlled airspace designated to the surface for an airport when the ceiling is less than 1,000 feet.

Since Class E is controlled airspace, and the ceilings at Fort Collins are 900 feet, we have to throw this option out the window.

What About Special VFR?

So will option 2 work for you? The first step here is to figure out the minimum weather you need for Special VFR. According to FAR 91.157, it's:

  • 1 SM flight visibility
  • Clear of clouds

That looks like it will work, but it brings up the next question: can a non-instrument rated private pilot get a Special VFR clearance? The answer is yes, as long as you're flying between sunrise and sunset.

It's important to keep in mind that SVFR is possible at night, but the requirements go up significantly: you must be qualified for instrument flight under FAR 61, and your aircraft must be equipped for instrument flight. Basically, you need to be ready to go IFR.

Who Do You Call?

So now that you've decided SVFR is an option, who do you call? Flight Service is a great place to start. While Flight Service can't give you an SVFR clearance, they can coordinate with the Air Traffic Control facility that is in charge of the airspace where you're headed. FSS is a great place for VFR pilots to start, because their frequency is marked on VFR charts, unlike center and approach control frequencies that you might have to dig for in an Airport Facility Directory.

When you call Flight Service, you'll ask them for a Special VFR clearance into Fort Collins. Then, they'll call up ATC, get the clearance, and relay it back to you.

Will You Get The SVFR Clearance?

Now that you've asked for an SVFR clearance, the next question is, will you get it? As long as there's no IFR traffic currently flying into Fort Collins, you'll most likely be cleared SVFR into the airport. However, if another airplane is in the Class E airspace under IFR, you won't get the clearance. That's because IFR traffic has priority over SVFR.

Cessna Approach Armando G Alonso

Why Use SVFR?

If you're already under a cloud ceiling, Special VFR is a good way to get to an airport that has better facilities. Airports like Fort Collins typically have better approach and runway lighting systems compared to smaller, uncontrolled Class G airports, and that gives you a big advantage in poor visibility.

Plus, you're more likely to have ramp tie downs, taxi cabs and courtesy cars at the airport. After all, if you're going to have to wait out the weather, you might as well do it from a comfortable FBO or coffee shop, rather than sitting in your airplane waiting for the weather to clear.

Can You Get SVFR In Bigger Airports?

You can get SVFR into larger airports as well, like Class D, C, and even some B airports. However, many Class C and B airports don't allow SVFR - they're listed in FAR 91, Appendix D, Section 3.

An Option When You Need It

You should never use SVFR to scud run or push your limits in bad weather, however, if you find yourself in rapidly changing conditions, SVFR is a good way to get yourself safely on the ground.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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