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How To Fly A Visual Climb Over Airport (VCOA) Under IFR

Boldmethod

If you're in mountainous terrain and can't safely maintain the required climb gradient for an instrument departure, a VCOA might be a great option. Here's what you need to know before you fly one under IFR.

But First, What Exactly Is A "VCOA"?

According to the FAA's Instrument Procedures Handbook (IPH), "a visual climb over airport (VCOA) is a departure option for an IFR aircraft, operating in VMC (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. A VCOA is a departure option developed when obstacles farther than 3SM from the airport require a climb gradient of more than 200 ft/NM."

"Obstacle avoidance is not guaranteed if the pilot maneuvers farther from the airport than the specified visibility minimum prior to reaching the specified altitude." So, if the VCOA requires 3SM of visibility, you must remain within 3SM of the airport during your climbing turns over the airport.

Once you climb to the VCOA's minimum altitude and crossing point, you must then be able to continue your climb at the standard 200 feet per nautical mile all the way to the MEA along your IFR route (unless specified otherwise).

Per TERPS requirements, the FAA has also added an extra 250 feet of safety margin between the top altitude of the VCOA departure and surrounding terrain, to ensure safe separation.

Put simply, you can think of a VCOA as the "departure" version of a visual approach under IFR.

The Scenario

You're flying out of Bishop, California (KBIH) to Sacramento, California (KSMF). While the weather is clear directly overhead the airport, instrument conditions prevail along your mountainous route, covering the mountain tops nearby. The Bishop Airport is surrounded on two sides by mountains reaching well over 13,000 feet in elevation. The winds are out of 300 degrees at 25 knots, so you plan to depart from Runway 30, which requires a climb gradient under IFR of 285 feet per nautical mile to 10,500 feet MSL.

With a full plane, you're on the edge of acceptable climb performance and don't think you have enough margin to safely climb at 285' per nautical mile. Fortunately, you see that there's another option.

The "Visual Climb Over Airport" (VCOA) for all runways at KBIH requires a climb in visual conditions to cross the Bishop airport at or above 13,000 feet MSL before proceeding on course. To take off from Runway using the VCOA, you must have 3 miles of visibility and 9,000 foot ceilings.

Since the airport is at an elevation of 4,124 feet MSL, when you add ceilings of 9,000 feet AGL, you get an altitude of 13,124 feet. That's why the VCOA requires a climb in visual conditions to 13,000 feet MSL.

Boldmethod

Maintaining Obstacle Clearance Is Your Responsibility

When flying a VCOA, "obstacle clearance responsibility rests with the pilot when he/she chooses to climb in visual conditions in lieu of flying a DP and/or depart under increased takeoff minima rather than fly the climb gradient" (FAA).

VCOAs Require Extra Coordination With ATC

Before you depart, you must request the VCOA from ATC during your IFR clearance. Controllers are human too, and they might be unfamiliar with the procedure because they're not often used. This is why the FAA requires pilots flying VCOAs to specifically request this procedure from ATC. After all, the last thing you want is for ATC to unexpectedly find you circling the airport on an IFR clearance when they thought you'd be flying a normal DP.

NATCA

Would You Ever Fly A VCOA?

If you found yourself in a situation like this, what would you do? Would you fly a VCOA, or change your flight planning to take off at a lower weight or different time, ensuring you can make climb gradient restrictions? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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