When Is VFR Recommended (over IFR)?

VFR with flight following can be the best of both worlds.

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Even with a stone-age /U-equipped airplane, I have always preferred to file IFR for most flights. That's for a number of reasons familiar to all instrument pilots. In order of priority, the top four are: traffic advisories; not having to worry about TFRs or other restricted airspace; no bobbing and weaving over, under and around clouds to remain in visual conditions; and finally, it's good practice.

Granted, my personal minimums are particularly conservative. So most of my IFR flights are conducted under mostly VFR conditions — especially the final segment nearby the destination airport. Depending on the recency of my experience, I am comfortable climbing and/or descending through a layer of cloud to visual conditions. Even without an autopilot, I am not uncomfortable flying for extended periods in IMC. But if clearance changes and complex vectors start coming hot and heavy, I am always prepared with an escape strategy — even if it involves telling the controller I need a safe, simple vector to VFR conditions well off my planned route. I like to have at least three comfortable options in my back pocket at all times.

I suspect there might be a lot of IFR-rated pilots who, like me, use the rating as an extra safety net, an added measure of utility for basically VFR flying under marginal conditions. And that was what I had in mind for my trip to and from Oshkosh last week. I had IFR flight plans prepared, but in the end, I opted for the added flexibility of flying VFR. On the way to Oshkosh, it was because I wanted to be able to adjust my route as necessary to stay clear of thunderstorms. I chose to take a southerly path from home base in New Jersey with the idea that I would cut north when XM Weather showed I could do so with at least 20 miles' buffer. I knew that good VFR conditions would prevail wherever the thunderstorms weren't, so it seemed like a good strategy. As it turned out, I was right, though I was also mentally — and financially — prepared to stop overnight and let the cold front pass over if the storms did not dissipate as forecast. In this case, the last three of the four big advantages to IFR were not a factor. First, I was well briefed on airspace restrictions, and was assured of good flight following availability to backstop my own data. I had high confidence that VFR conditions would prevail as long as I stayed far enough away from the storms. And as much as I would have liked the practice of filing and following IFR procedures, this time I was more concerned with completing the mission as expeditiously as possible.

The trip home a week later was similar. IFR departures from EAA AirVenture are discouraged, so I have always departed VFR. In the past, I have filed an IFR flight plan home to New Jersey from my fuel stop — in this case, Sandusky, Ohio. But this year, the forecast was as close as you can get to a money-back VFR guarantee, so I simplified my life by planning VFR direct the whole way home. I flew most of the flight above the puffy cloud layer at 11,500 feet and had a smooth, cool ride with splendid cooperation from ATC on my flight following. 'Direct' is good.

On the flip side, I have had trips where the forecasts led me astray, and I either had to maneuver like a scared running back on a busted flea-flicker, or air file an IFR flight plan — which is a complex procedure that taxes controllers, is stressful without an autopilot and sometimes just isn't possible. There have been times when my best choice was to land VFR, and then file an IFR flight plan from the ground — a real waste of time.

But at least on this trip to and from EAA AirVenture, the VFR strategy worked perfectly. I'm not sure if today's ATC environment makes it easier to fly VFR under flight following than ever before, or if it's just a coincidence. But it worked well, and makes me think that flying under NextGen and ADS-B could ultimately follow similar guiding principles in IMC. Pilots with the Big Picture on a cockpit display choosing and flying their own best routes with controllers directing traffic and backstopping collision avoidance. The best of both VFR and IFR worlds.

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.