The difference between VFR and IFR flying explained

VFR meaning, minimums, and the differences between IFR and VFR flying.
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Beautiful shot of a plane VFR flying, just above some white, wispy clouds.

Being cognizant of the FAA’s Visual Flight Rules, or VFR, is one of the most important practices a safe pilot can follow. VFR is often associated with another acronym, IFR, which is short for instrument flight rules. In my experience, these terms are spoken of so frequently in aviation, it is assumed everyone knows what VFR and IFR mean. But for many people learning to fly an airplane, there are so many nuances to each, knowing IFR from VFR is no easy task.

Flying VFR into IFR conditions is likely the most dangerous thing a non-instrument-rated pilot can do. While knowing the appropriate weather conditions in which to fly requires much more than 5 minutes of thought, this article is meant as a simple overview as to what VFR and IFR flying conditions entail.

I’ve produced, edited, and shot a series of pilot safety videos for ICON Aircraft and have passed the FAA Private Pilot Ground Exam and the FAA Small UAV Exam. The following are my own words and points of view. What’s more, given that I’m only a remote pilot, I had Sam Shepherd, a Certified Flight Instructor, review this article for accuracy.

Here’s what you should know about visual flight rules and becoming instrument rated…in 5 minutes.

What are the VFR minimums?

Shot of an airport beacon where it is indicated that VFR flying is not allowed.
When the beacon is on, VFR flying is off.

In order to fly under VFR, conditions must allow the pilot to fly with:

  • At least 3 miles of overall visibility
  • 500 feet below any cloud
  • 1,000 feet above any cloud
  • Maintain a lateral distance of 2,000 feet from any cloud

VFR minimums can change based on your altitude, time of day, and the nature of the airspace. But if you are in class C, D, or E airspace and under 10,000 feet during the day, the above is true.

Many pilots assume that they need to see the ground in order to fly VFR but this is not always so. As long as a pilot maintains a distance of 1,000 feet above and 2,000 feet from the clouds, they are flying within visual flight rules and do not need to use the ground as a visual reference.

IFR Meaning

A simulator to practice becoming instrument rated to fly IFR.
An example of what an IFR simulator might look like. Courtesy CC via Matti Blume.

All pilots are designated as an “Airman” by the FAA and are technically given a certificate (what is often referred to as a license). A pilot certificate can also include a specific rating. For instance, a private pilot can take instruction to fly under IFR, or instrument flight rules. Upon successful completion of this training, they will receive an instrument rating. This instrument rating allows a pilot to fly either IFR or VFR, depending on the prevailing conditions, equipment of the aircraft, and the intentions they declare in their initial flight plan.

Understanding the difference between a certificate and a rating is key. Two pilots can both be private pilots, but only one may have an instrument rating and therefore be able to fly under IFR.

Is IFR the same as IMC?

IFR and IMC are often used interchangeably. However, IFR and IMC are fundamentally different terms. IMC is short for instrument meteorological conditions and establishes the specific weather conditions requiring a pilot to fly under IFR. While IFR describes the rules that a pilot is flying under when the conditions are IMC.

VFR vs. IFR = the rules you are flying under
VMC vs. IMC = the conditions deciding which rules you are allowed to fly

Appropriately, VMC stands for visual meteorological conditions and establishes that the minimums are met for a pilot to fly VFR.

What makes an airplane approved for IFR?

Shot through the cockpit of a play flying what looks to be VFR and not IFR.
Olga Ernst via Wikimedia Commons

A TOMATO FLAMES is an acronym that sounds a bit goofy but is very popular among pilots. It is short for the minimum equipment an airplane must have to fly IFR:

  • Altimeter
  • Tachometer (for each engine)
  • Oil pressure gauge (for each engine using pressure system)
  • Magnetic direction indicator
  • Airspeed indicator and
  • Temperature gauge (for each liquid-cooled engine)
  • Oil temperature gauge (for each air-cooled engine)
  • Fuel gauge indicating the quantity of fuel in each tank; flotation gear; and pyrotechnic signaling device
  • Landing gear position indicator (if aircraft has retractable landing gear)
  • Anti-collision lights
  • Manifold pressure gauge (for each engine with an adjustable-pitch propeller)
  • Emergency locator transmitter (ELT)
  • Seat belt

How does a pilot become instrument rated?

An instrument rating requires that a pilot holds at least a PPL and the following:

  • 50 hours as a Pilot in Command flying cross country*
  • 40 hours of simulated or actual instrument time
  • 15 hours of flight instruction towards an instrument rating

It’s safe to budget anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 for instrument training, testing, and the check ride. It’s worth highlighting that becoming instrument rated could lower the cost of a pilot’s insurance. Many underwriters look favorably on pilots who have additional training.

Is it true that VFR means you don’t need to talk to a control tower?

Not really. Whether or not you talk to a control tower is not a matter of flying VFR or IFR but of the class of airspace you are flying in. Breaking down the six classes of FAA Airspace is for another article. But realize that if a pilot is in airspace classified as Class D or higher (Class A being the highest) you will more often than not be talking to a control tower.

Special VFR meaning

Original photo of a plane VFR flying over LAX airport.
View from the “Special Flight Rules” LAX Corridor. The corridor is classified as uncontrolled airspace, meaning you don’t need tower approval to ingress. You do need to declare your intentions to other pilots on a dedicated frequency while flying through, however.

Special VFR (SFVR) is a pilot request to fly VFR when the visual flight rule conditions are not met. For example, if visibility is less than 3 miles and a pilot wants to fly without an instrument flight plan—in other words, fly VFR as opposed to IFR—they request permission from the tower controlling the local airspace to fly Special VFR. SFVR during the day requires at least 1 mile of visibility and be clear of clouds.

Here are a few terms to help break all of this down:

  • Marginal VFR (MVFR) – Marginal VFR describes conditions where weather minimums are on the edge of being VFR i.e. they are marginal. Note that the minimum requirements for VFR are on the edge of marginal.
  • SFVR Night – It is possible for a pilot to request Special Flight Rules at night. However, a pilot and the aircraft they are flying in must be instrument rated.
  • Air Traffic Controller (ATC) – ATC are the towers helping pilots navigate and pass through airspaces near busy airports. They are responsible for granting SVFR clearances.
  • Special Flight RulesSpecial Flight Rules (SFR) are often confused for Special VFR but they are disparate terms. Special Flight Rules are usually corridors that allow pilots to bypass high traffic areas without gaining clearance from ATC. They are related to airspaces and not flying conditions.

Final Minute

It can’t be said enough how dangerous it is to fly VFR during marginal or IMC conditions. A pilot only needs three hours of simulated instrument time to receive their private pilot license. While an instrument rated pilot will have at least 40 hours of simulated instrument training. Developing your skills behind the flight controls is important for any pilot. But with all the pilots I’ve ever spoken with, knowing how to safely plan every flight is arguably the most important. Understanding weather patterns, reading pilot reports, listening to tower communications, and knowing nav charts are just a few skills that don’t require you to step into a cockpit. Honing these skills should always be a primary focus as they will help prevent you from flying VFR into IMC conditions and will overall make you a safer, more prepared pilot.

This article was written by:

Sam is a Certified Flight Instructor with multiple instrument ratings (CFI, CFIII, MEI) based out of Thrust Flight in Addison, Texas.

Paul is the Founder & Editor of in5minutes.com. He is a Certified Salesforce Marketer, FAA Drone Pilot, HSK Chinese Speaker, Ham Radio Operator, NASM Personal Trainer, and Certified Canon operator amongst other things. He hosted and produced the first original programs for Hulu and Twitch and helped launch a pilot program for teaching soft skills to incarcerated students. He currently runs content marketing for an aerospace company in Los Angeles. If you'd like to request a consultation, contact Paul here.

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