Visual Flight Rules Meaning: What does the VFR Mean for Pilots?

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February 15, 2021
Visual Flight Rules Meaning: What does the VFR Mean for Pilots?
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In the mid-1960s, Boeing built the first spacecraft that NASA sent to the moon. An impressive feat after decades of aeronautic evolution. It’s these first innovators that helped shape visual flight rules. 

There's something awe-inspiring about those who roam the sky. 

With this role comes great responsibility. As we know, Boeing transitioned from space flight to air flight. Their innovation in the air and your passion for aviation are directly intertwined. Whether you're transporting goods, providing services, or flying in the name of protection —  you're carrying precious cargo. Behind every great pilot is a sharp awareness of protocol. 

Visual flight rules (VFR) are the single most important piece of piloting an aircraft. VFR are simply a set of regulations that an aircraft can operate in clear visual conditions such as sunny, clear days. As a pilot, the ability to memorize these protocols and execute them with grace will be your main objective. A steady hand and a keen eye are strengths that will ensure a safe trip, no matter the destination. Cloudy days, low visibility, extra fog — any adverse weather conditions should be avoided under VFR to ensure safety when operating an aircraft. 


Flight Control: Your Air Traffic Control Crew 

Behind every operation of complex machinery lies a talented squad who are the maestros. In the world of flight, that's your air traffic control crew.  

In aerospace, the air traffic control team is composed of a dedicated, calculated group of specialists. You measure your own safety with tools like visual and meteorological flight rules. Air traffic control uses a slew of calculations to keep airflow as secure and coordinated as possible. 

When the air traffic control squad does their job, there is quite literally no margin for error. A foot too far in the wrong direction could cause a collision. An upstream wind with unstable gusts could change the course of things in an instant. 

Air traffic control is poised, anticipatory, and highly skilled in addressing crises if they should arise. While you accept direction from air traffic control, observe their habits, and ask for feedback.  

The easiest way to become the best at what you do is to challenge your own knowledge by practicing with your team in one-off scenarios. When you zoom out of the visual flight path, observe what it takes to track from the control tower. 

This will help you build an appreciation for the delicate nature of the safe flight. Every pilot should strive to be responsible and complete individual checks on the maintenance of their aircraft before a trip. Equipment checks exist to stay on top of day-to-day operations.  

From fuel gauges to oil temperature checks, making sure everything meets the necessary criteria sets you up for following visual flight rules more seamlessly. 


The Beginning of Your Journey 

Establishing airspace classification marks the beginning of your journey. When following visual flight rules, the pilot is only allowed to fly in specific weather expectations. This guide is referred to as visual meteorological conditions (VMC). 

If these expectations are not met, no one is going anywhere. Without proper visual meteorological standards set, the entire aircraft, its passengers, and cargo is at risk. 

As road dwellers, we can imagine how difficult that might be. Driving through a blizzard without being able to see two feet in front of you is a no go. And that's with the stability of the road. In the air, you are completely dependent upon the weather conditions the area is creating. 

Additionally, with flight, there may come a time where you'll take off for your journey and midway through end up in a snowstorm. If in an unpredictable or unforeseen weather pattern, an emergency landing may be necessary. 

These scenarios are why visual flight rules are so integral. Eventually, lives may depend on it. Including yours. 

Having sufficient visibility means guaranteeing safe passage from one destination to another. Being able to ensure this is vital. Digesting standards with many variables may feel a bit tricky at first. 

If you stick to the conditions and check off the boxes required for safe flight, you will start to build confidence in your ability to apply these standards quicker and more efficiently as time goes on.  

The minimal standards of visual meteorological conditions to be met differs from country to country, whether or not you're flying in regulated or unregulated airspace and if you're flying in daylight or the darkness of night. 


Visibility and Weather 

On average, inclement weather makes up 70% of flight delays. While we can't control mother nature, there are guidelines for moving through storms and jagged weather patterns. 

These guidelines shift into requirements to ensure safe flight. This preserves the framework of years of trial and error.  

At times, these rules may feel oddly specific. But when we consider other specializations, there are just as many, if not more minute details to keep in mind. With great responsibility comes a greater need to pay attention to detail. 

Generally speaking, if you have visibility of three statute miles (~5,000 meters+), then you're good for liftoff. Visibility, cloud clearances, and varying altitudes are core pieces of visual meteorological rules. 

Visibility and cloud clearance are going to be your main focus when dissecting visual flight rules. If you find yourself with green lights on those, you set yourself up for successful compliance. 

Visual flight rules involve steps such as glancing over the nose of your airplane when cruising, keeping an eye out for a "vanishing point". Experimenting with estimation while in the air will be an immense help.  

Of course, when approaching a weather or visibility situation that feels unsafe, you will have to determine if it matches the basic weather minimum expectations. 


Visual Flight Rules 

Under Part 91 FAA regulations, all aircraft are required to do an annual inspection. Having an accurate and active transponder is crucial so you can communicate with your team. Every aircraft is required to have an emergency locator transmitter that must be inspected every 12 months. Airspace is split up by class; A, B, C, D, E, and G.

  • Class A relates mostly to smaller aircraft like gliders. Class A provides waivers to satisfy the special request to climb near 18,000 feet. 
  • Class B relates to airspace that carries high traffic. Think of the busiest airports you know. How do they manage so many flights flowing to and from? This airspace is controlled and navigated by air traffic control. 
  • Class C connects radar to flight. The pilot communicates through radio and transponder before they are granted access to Class C airspace. 
  • Class D has direct, concise instructions regarding cloud ceilings and visibility. 
  • Class E relates to federal airspace and requires a visual flight rule of three miles from the typical one mile of other classes. This is helpful in avoiding infiltrating another airplane’s space by accident. 
  • Class G is a space with very limited rules. As long as the sky is clear and you have one mile of visibility, you’re good for takeoff. 

The visual flight rules practiced on the ground changes dramatically when airborne. There are lots of tools and responsibilities sitting in your lap. The best way to practice these rules is to never make assumptions, know your data, and apply it. If you have questions, make sure you ask them, even when in flight! 


Visual Flight Rules vs. Instrument Flight Rules 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses so many acronyms, it's easy to get lost in them. In addition to visual flight rules, instrument flight rules are also a set of standards for piloting an aircraft. 

Pilots following instrument flight rules (IFR) will also take guidance and instructions from air traffic control. As an IFR pilot, you are able to better critique weather ahead and make decisions a few steps ahead of pilots who are flying solely by visual flight rules.  

The main reason for this is due to the use of weather instruments. Your instruments will provide you with crucial information. The path to fly onward, what the weather is trying to tell you, and data that is necessary for air traffic control to continue guiding you. 

Decision making and resourcing is a big part of the instrument-rated pilot accreditation. Your ability to make a judgement call when the weather is getting worse will be invaluable. To bite the bullet and turn around in the name of everyone's safety is what will set you apart from everyone else. 

Instrument rating requirements will give you an idea of what knowledge is necessary to fly as an IFR pilot. It is a collaboration of the FAA manual and standards that air traffic control uses. 

The privilege to connect with air traffic control is a learning experience on its own. You will be absorbing a goldmine of knowledge while communicating back and forth with them. 

Debriefing after a flight is a great regulation and reflection time. Whether you achieved a safe flight with unfavorable conditions or you narrowly nailed an emergency landing due to a storm, having that constructive and positive feedback from air traffic control will keep you informed of tips for future flights.  

While IFR presents a bigger challenge, it is digestible. When the time arrives for you to become instrument rated, you will, by proxy, become a better, more capable pilot. Your awareness of safety and protocol will translate into how smooth your flight is.  


Hurdles to Scale 

Visual flight rules are just one piece of the enormous, complex, and exhilarating nature of life as a pilot. Exploring aeronautics is to follow in the footsteps of some of the most brilliant and brave folks in our history. 

In more recent years, women have shown up to the call of aviation. More empowered to try their hand at a male-dominated industry. As of 2019, according to Women in Aviation International (WAI), there are a total of 52,740 (7.9%) female-identifying pilots.  

This historical number serves as a reminder that in any industry, no matter who you are or where you come from, you can do anything you feel passionate about.  

Furthering your education gives you a pivot point in the world that many don't have access to. The unique nature of aeronautics connects you to a niche that unites people in their will to explore, maintain safety, and get the tough job done honorably. 

With so much to learn, it is important to remember that these are all buildable concepts. If you are interested in aeronautics, continue doing your research with the blogs on Spartan’s site. 


A Bright, Flight Future 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for piloting is projected to grow “five percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations” as trade and industry make its way back into the core of our economic growth.  

There are many formalities in the fight for flight. Expressing your desire for meaningful work and expansive growth is a real experience. 

Picture flying your own plane down during sunset. A birds-eye view of colors and atmosphere unavailable to the grounded eye. Pilots don’t have the same uninspiring views from their office as your average person. 

Connection and acceptance of academic tools will provide a safe landing pad for you to begin your flight training. Following your dreams is always easier when you have a great guide to teach you the ropes. When it comes to visual flight rules and aviation expectations, there are so many resources available to you.  

Spartan College of Aeronautics & Technology aviation flight program and instruction are comprehensive, giving you the opportunity to learn the topics and skills necessary to be a safe and qualified pilot. 

Interested in Learning More?
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