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Special VFR Clearance: How To Use It

A Special VFR Clearance can get you into or out of an airport with low ceilings and visibility. But do you know when you can use it, and if it's a good idea?


Requirements For A Special VFR Clearance

To get started, let's look at normal VFR cloud clearance requirements.

FAR 91.155 (c) 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.

So what does that really mean? If you're flying into or out of an airport that has Class E, D, C or B airspace to the surface, you need a minimum of 1,000' ceilings to operate under VFR.

If the ceilings are less than 1,000', you're going to need an IFR clearance to get in or out...or you're going to need a Special VFR clearance.


If an airport is reporting lower than 1,000' ceilings, but you determine you can safely fly to or from the airport, an SVFR Clearance may come in handy.

The first step 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

There's a lot of judgment that goes into flying under an SVFR clearance, and it's best used for localized weather that's hovering at or near the airport.

You should never use SVFR to scud run or push your limits in bad weather, however, if you find yourself in rapidly changing conditions, or if the airport is sitting under a small, localized cloud layer, SVFR may be a good way to get yourself safely on the ground.


Who Can Get A Special VFR Clearance?

If you're a non-instrument rated private pilot, you can use a Special VFR clearance from sunrise to sunset. But what happens when the sun goes down?

Do You Have Your Instrument Rating?

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.

This makes sense, right? 1 mile of visibility at night is not a lot to work with. If you meet these qualifications and an instrument approach is available, picking up an IFR clearance is usually the safest option.

Live from the Flight Deck

Who Should You Call For Clearance?

If you've decided SVFR is an option, who do you call?

If you're flying into a tower controlled field, the tower is a great place to start. Depending on where you are, they may need to coordinate with an approach or center facility, but they can usually coordinate the clearance.

And if you're flying into a non-towered airport, 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 or an approach chart.

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


Who Actually Uses Special VFR?

Now that we've covered all of this, who actually uses Special VFR? The Coast Guard, for one. Coastal airports (especially West Coast) often have ceilings under 1,000', but Coast Guard helicopters typically operate lower than 1,000' anyway.

The solution? Instead of picking up an IFR clearance, they can pick up a Special VFR clearace, fly out of the surface area of the airport, then cancel their SVFR clearance and operate in Class G airspace (which is 1SM, clear of clouds at 1,200' AGL and lower).

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.

Have you ever picked up a SVFR Clearance? Tell us why in the comments below.

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