Head in the clouds?

ATC does a fine job providing separation and traffic alerts to pilots when and where their capabilities allow it. For the airspace system to function safely and efficiently, however, it’s critical that VFR pilots stay out of the clouds and adhere to certain minimums. FAR 91.155 prescribes the basic VFR weather minimums, cloud distance, and flight visibility for the different classes of airspace.  

The VFR visibility and cloud distance minimums vary depending on the class of airspace and whether it’s day or night. Everyone should know the minimums, but VFR pilots (excluding student, recreational, and light sport pilots) operating below 10,000 feet msl can always stay compliant in all classes by observing the following basic minimums: flight visibility—3 statute miles; distance from clouds—500 feet below, 1,000 feet above, and 2,000 feet horizontal.   

At times, even IFR pilots need to stay out of the clouds. When flying visual approaches under IFR, pilots must remain clear of clouds. There’s a notable case where an airline captain accepted a visual approach for landing and allegedly flew through a cloud layer reported as a broken ceiling. In that case, the FAA was unable to prove that the pilot flew through clouds, but it did prove he busted cloud clearance minimums required by the carrier’s operating specifications and which mirrored the standard VFR minimums. The FAA suspended the airman’s ATP certificate, but the sanction was waived by the timely filing of a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) report.

Also, remember the “see and avoid” rule (FAR 91.113), which the weather minimums are meant to support. The rule applies to every one of us; it applies to VFR flights and to IFR operations when weather conditions permit. When VFR operations are conducted in marginal VFR conditions adherence to see and avoid is challenging. When VFR operations are conducted in conditions where the cloud clearance and flight visibility are less than minimums, it is unsafe and a clear violation of FAR 91.155. Unless you’re on an IFR clearance, it’s advisable to keep your head and the airplane out of the clouds.   

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Mike Yodice
Mr. Yodice has been a pilot since 1979. He took instruction at the historic College Park (MD) airport and co-owns a Piper Cherokee and flies the family Piper J3-Cub.
Topics: FAA Information and Services, Pilot Protection Services, AOPA Products and Services

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