Fly VFR like IFR

How to use IFR tactics for a safer VFR flight, even if you're not IFR-rated.

VFR Like IFR Big
VFR Like IFR Big
illustration by Robert Goyer

I was reviewing last week’s spate of accidents and ran into another handful that fall clearly in the category of VFR accidents that would not have happened had the pilot been operating under instrument flight rules. A couple of these accidents happened when the pilot flew into power lines while en route, something that, obviously, would not happen while on an IFR flight plan.

As you know, there’s nothing that prevents an instrument-rated pilot from filing and flying an IFR flight plan in clear weather, and many pilots, myself included, often do just that. There are many benefits, including the controller taking responsibility for your traffic separation, for clearing you through or keeping you away from active special use airspace and for providing altitudes and routing that (if followed, it goes without saying) ensure terrain clearance. You’re also protected against inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), since none of your routings or procedures need to change just because you find yourself in the clouds. Except in the case of ice or extreme weather, IMC is a total non-emergency.

For those pilots who choose not to file an IFR flight plan for whatever reason, including the possibility that they are not IFR rated, there's a lot to be said for flying a VFR flight as though you were on an instrument flight plan by asking for VFR flight following and by conducting the flight and comporting yourself as if you were flying IFR.

With flight following the level of service is substantially less than it is when you’re on an IFR flight plan. The controller can, in fact, cancel flight following at any time. In most cases, if they’re not very busy, the controllers are happy to help. The benefits to you are many. You get traffic advisories (though no mandatory separation), flight tracking (nice for peace of mind if anything were to go wrong) and easy if not automatic transition into Class Charlie or Bravo airspace when you’re in the arrival mode.

Using flight following also enforces a kind of discipline that goes a long way toward improving safety of flight, even for those pilots not instrument rated or current. Best of all, the service is still 100 percent free of charge.