A Guide to Understanding Basic & Special VFR Weather Minimums (Airplanes Only)

Understanding the weather minimums for VFR and Special VFR flight can be a bit confusing depending on what airspace you are operating in. In this article I’ll try to help you understand the minimum requirements for visibility, cloud separation, and ceilings.

When flying VFR, you need to stay in VMC…Visual Meteorological Conditions, and stay out of IMC…Instrument Meteorological Conditions. Let’s start by looking at the cloud clearance and visibility minimums based on which airspace you are flying into and out of.

DISCLAIMER: This guide is for airplanes only. This is a guide only, to aid in understanding. This is not a substitute for studying the regulations straight from the FAA publications.

Class A

It’s simple. No VFR allowed. That was easy!

Class B

  • Visibility requirement – 3 statute miles
  • Distance from clouds minimums – Clear of clouds

Class C

  • Visibility requirement – 3 statute miles
  • Distance from clouds requirement – 1,000 ft above, 500 ft below, 2,000 ft horizontal

Class D

  • Visibility requirement – 3 statute miles
  • Distance from clouds requirement – 1,000 ft above, 500 ft below, 2,000 ft horizontal

Class E

Under 10,000 ft MSL

  • Visibility requirement – 3 statute miles
  • Distance from clouds requirement – 1,000 ft above, 500 ft below, 2,000 ft horizontal

At or above 10,000 ft MSL

  • Visibility requirement – 5 statute miles
  • Distance from clouds requirement – 1,000 ft above, 1,000 ft below, 1 statute mile horizontal

Class G (Uncontrolled)

Class G is considered uncontrolled airspace, but still has VFR weather minimums. There are a few nuances here so pay attention.

1,200 ft AGL or Below, Day

  • Visibility requirement – 1 statute mile
  • Distance from clouds requirement – Clear of clouds

1,200 ft AGL or Below, Night

  • Visibility requirement – 3 statute miles
  • Distance from clouds requirement – 1,000 ft above, 500 ft below, 2,000 ft horizontal

Above 1,200 ft AGL, Above 10,000 ft MSL

  • Visibility requirement – 5 statute miles
  • Distance from clouds requirement – 1,000 ft above, 1,000 ft below, 1 statute mile horizontal

Class G Night Exception

Under 1,200 ft AGL, if the visibility is less than 3 statute miles but not less than 1 statute mile, during night hours, you may operate within an airport traffic pattern, ½ mile of the runway, and stay clear of clouds.

The difference lies in the “clear of clouds” vs.the 1,000 ft above, 500 ft below, 2,000 ft horizontal rule. Note also, that this applies only to aircraft within the traffic pattern, within ½ mile from the runway.

Ceiling Minimums

Basic VFR flight is limited to flight with a ceiling of 1,000 ft. within the lateral boundaries of controlled airspace.

In other words, you cannot takeoff from an airport that has controlled airspace to the surface, when the ceiling at that airport is less than 1,000 ft. This would include Class B, Class C, Class D, and some Class E airports.

Some Class E airports have controlled airspace to the surface, and others do not. Check the aeronautical charts for the area and airports you will be flying in to see whether or not you need to be concerned about ceiling minimums.

Ceiling Definition

The ceiling is defined (in the Pilot/Controller Glossary) as “the heights above the earth’s surface of the lowest layer of clouds or obscuring phenomena that is reported as “broken,” “overcast,” or “obscuration,” and not classified as “thin” or “partial.”

There you have it. If an airport is reporting the clouds to be broken or overcast, that makes a ceiling for VFR flight.

Special VFR Weather Minimums

If you wish to fly in and around airports where the airspace is controlled to the surface, below Basic VFR conditions, you must obtain a Special VFR clearance from ATC. Here are the conditions in which you can obtain a Special VFR clearance

  • Below 10,000 ft MSL
  • Within lateral boundaries of airspace that goes to the surface.
  • Stay clear of clouds
  • Visibility of 1 statute mile or greater.
  • Between sunrise and sunset, unless the pilot is instrument rated and the aircraft is equipped for IFR flight.
  • No taking off or landing at an airport under special VFR unless
  • Ground visibility is 1 statute mile
    • If ground visibility is not reported, use the flight visibility (visibility from cockpit of aircraft in takeoff position if the airport is a satellite airport that does not have weather reporting capabilities)
    • A satellite airport is an airport other than the primary airport the airspace is centered around, but still within the airspace at the surface.

Requests for Special VFR clearances should be made to the tower of the primary airport inside the airspace by radio or telephone. If at a Class E airport surface area, the request can be made to a Flight Service Station or center facility.

What Is Marginal VFR (MVFR)?

Another term you’ll sometimes hear in aviation is Marginal VFR (MVFR). This is a term used on meteorological reports and charts. The Weather Depiction Chart is an example of a meteorological chart where the term is used. It is not a term used for establishing VFR weather minimums.

Since you asked, Marginal VFR is used to describe conditions of ceilings 1,000-3,000 ft, and visibility of 3 to 5 statute miles. If you are planning a VFR flight, and you see MVFR conditions along your route, it should raise your eyebrows. Make appropriate plans to avoid the possibility of entering IMC.

Instructors tips

An interesting mnemonic you can use to help memorize the cloud separation minimums for Class C, D, and E is “152.” This can be used for the 1,000 ft above, 500 ft below, and 2,000 ft horizontal distance. Imagine a 1 on top of the cloud, a 5 below, and a 2 off to the side.

In case you can’t tell, the FAA gives VFR pilots a long leash when it comes to weather minimums. But just because it’s within regulations to do something doesn’t mean it’s wise to do.

For instance, just because it is within regulations to fly at night at an uncontrolled field with 2 miles of visibility in the traffic pattern doesn’t mean it’s very wise. In fact, I see no good reason to do this, or intentionally get yourself into a situation where you have to. I also see no reason to use a Special VFR clearance unless you are instrument rated. This is where personal minimums come into play.

Personal Minimums

Every pilot should develop their own set of personal minimums when it comes to the types of weather and conditions they are willing to fly in.

This is especially important for non-instrument rated pilots. If you don’t have an instrument rating, and you continuously find yourself wanting to push the limits on the type of whether you are comfortable flying in, do yourself, your relatives and your fellow pilots a favor and get the instrument rating. While doing this, you’ll learn how to fly properly on instruments alone, and give you more flexibility on when it’s okay to go up.

As pilots, the go/no-go decision is difficult at times. There’s days where you just want to get up in the air. It’s an itch that needs to be scratched. Trust me, I know I’ve been there many times. But there are sometimes when we just have to say no to ourselves.

Work with your instructor, other instructors, and your fellow aviators to get advice on how to set your own personal minimums. Write them down and stick to them!

Conclusion

VFR minimums can be a little confusing. Okay, they can be very confusing! It’s important to know these minimums for written exams and checkrides. But what’s more important is to UNDERSTAND the minimums from a practical standpoint.

Of course, the most important issue when it comes to minimums is safety. Establish those personal minimums as soon as you become a certificated pilot. It should be the first thing you do after becoming a Private Pilot.

What about you? Do you have personal minimums established? What are some examples? If you don’t have them, why not!? Thanks for reading!

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