Mixing And Matching VFR and IFR Plans

Sometimes you need the best of both worlds.

Mark Phelps

Pilots at my airport in New Jersey sometimes face a dilemma over whether or not to file IFR or go VFR. With the airport nestled just west of New York's massive Class B airspace, the choreography we need to dance through on an IFR departure can be frustrating — especially when the weather is clear. For example, we often find ourselves pointing the nose in the wrong direction for several miles before finally being funneled toward the infamous Brezy intersection through which almost all northeast-bound IFR flights must pass. So if the weather cooperates, a lot of folks just file VFR and trust to luck for a clearance through the Class B airspace (or fly over it).

The problem is that sometimes weather on the other side can be questionable. And it would be comforting to be on an IFR flight plan, especially when the destination is coastal Cape Cod or the off shore islands Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. The Aeronautical Information Manual (section 5-1-7) has guidance on composite flight plans; that is a combination VFR/IFR flight. It says such flight plans will be accepted by the Flight Service Station (FSS) of the departure point. If the VFR portion is first, the pilot should report the time of departure to the FSS with whom the flight plan was filed, then close the VFR portion and request the IFR clearance with the FSS nearest the point where the two flight plans change over. The AIM stresses that it is the pilot's responsibility to ensure that the VFR flight plan is closed, and that visual meteorological conditions prevail until operating on the IFR clearance.

As for filing the other way around — IFR for the first segment — most pilots would probably just cancel their IFR clearance and continue the trip under VFR flight following. But for those who would prefer, they can file the second portion of their flight as a formal VFR flight plan. If the pilot has a change of heart (or weather) and wishes to extend the IFR clearance beyond the clearance limit, the AIM recommends advising the controller at least five minutes before reaching the IFR clearance limit. If the amended/extended clearance does not come through before reaching the clearance limit, the pilot should expect to hold, either in a standard pattern at the fix of the clearance limit, or as depicted on the chart.

Mixing VFR and IFR can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth, but under the right weather conditions, a composite flight plan can be just the ticket. It certainly beats trying to negotiate a pop-up IFR clearance while dodging clouds that you had a good reason to expect were there.

Call to action: If you have any tips of your own you'd like to share, or have any questions about flying technique you'd like answered, send me a note at enewsletter@flyingmagazine.com. We'd love to hear from you.