These days, with GPS-direct clearances available for IFR flights, you may think that filing for a VFR-on-top clearance doesn’t make sense. And being governed by both VFR and IFR rules may not sound particularly attractive either. But there are times when these clearances can be very handy. When there are localized low clouds, as there often are in coastal areas, you may want to file a VFR-on-top flight plan simply to get out of the airport environment and to an area where you can practice maneuvers, sightsee or whatever it is you wish to do without the restraint of specific headings or altitudes. Or if you want to have a little bit more flexibility with your route, controllers may be more inclined to allow you to take shortcuts since you have the ability to see and avoid traffic.
VFR-on-top should not be confused with VFR over-the-top, which refers to flying over a cloud layer in VFR operations and not on an IFR flight plan. You could, however, file a VFR-on-top flight plan and cancel IFR once you’re in VFR conditions, if you so wish, just as you could with any IFR flight plan. But once you cancel IFR the services you receive from ATC will be more limited. ATC also has no obligation to continue giving you flight following should the controller get too busy. If that is the case, the controller could drop you out of the system — something he or she can’t do if you’re still flying under IFR rules. So there is a benefit to maintaining that IFR flight plan and staying VFR-on-top.
Before you consider filing for a VFR-on-top clearance, you need to realize that certain airspace won’t allow it, such as Class A airspace and certain restricted areas. Provided you’re staying out of those types of airspace, there are several ways you can get established as VFR-on-top. You can file VFR-on-top to an airport by putting “VFR-on-top” in the remarks section of the flight plan form. You can also file to a fix somewhere near the practice area, if your intent is to practice maneuvers.
You can also skip the filing step and request a VFR-on-top clearance from ground control or clearance by simply requesting an IFR climb to VFR-on-top. You can expect your clearance to have a clearance limit at some fix (an intersection or VOR, most likely) as well as initial and final altitude assignments (i.e., climb maintain 3,000, expect 5,000 in five minutes). The clearance will likely also contain information about what to expect if VFR conditions have not been reached once the fix has been reached.
If you are in an unfamiliar area or are unclear on the best way to file, it’s a good idea to ask a local instructor for advice. In some cases there is local terminology that may help you. At Santa Monica Airport (SMO), for example, pilots can request a “Sadde climb” in lieu of an “IFR climb to VFR-on-top,” indicating that the clearance fix will be the Sadde Intersection.
The IFR climb to VFR-on-top works great in uncongested airspace, but in busy areas, such as the airspace around Los Angeles, this type of clearance may not get the first priority. At least that’s what local pilots claim. So if release times are a concern, instead of requesting IFR to VFR-on-top with ground or clearance delivery, you can pick an airport, ask for a tower en route to that airport and, once on top, request VFR-on-top or cancel IFR altogether. In other words, if you don’t initially file for a VFR-on-top flight, you can request it once you have penetrated the cloud layer.
Let’s assume you filed ahead for your VFR-on-top flight. Once you have been released to take off, have complied with the departure instructions and are established in VFR conditions, you need to let ATC know that you are on top. When the controller gets back to you and confirms that you are VFR-on-top, you need to comply with VFR weather minimums and switch to an appropriate VFR altitude based on your magnetic course (even thousand plus 500 if you’re flying westbound and odd thousand plus 500 if you’re flying eastbound). You should also be aware that your selected altitude must be higher than the minimum IFR altitudes.
Before you switch altitudes you should also let the controller know your intentions. If you’re doing maneuvers you can choose a segment of airspace between two altitudes, which you would refer to as a block. But regardless of what altitude or altitudes you choose, you need to comply with the controller’s instructions if the altitudes you’ve selected don’t work for him or her. While VFR-on-top, you must “comply with instrument flight rules that are applicable to this flight; i.e., minimum IFR altitudes, position reporting, radio communications, course to be flown, adherence to ATC clearance, etc.,” according to the Aeronautical Information Manual. You also have VFR rules to contend with. You need to maintain separation from other airplanes and appropriate separation from clouds, based on the airspace you’re flying in.
So while VFR-on-top generally gives you more freedom while still maintaining IFR status with the controller, you also must realize that you have to comply with both IFR and VFR rules. If the reason you’re requesting VFR-on-top is to get a more direct route, you may save just as much time by simply requesting a routing direct to a fix of your choice. As long as you have the appropriate equipment on board and there is no traffic conflict, it is quite likely that your request will be approved. But if you’re going out to practice maneuvers above the clouds, VFR-on-top is a great option.