VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules, which are a set of regulations that determine when and where an aircraft can fly in.

Pilots can use VFR mostly under clear weather conditions if they maintain a proper distance from clouds.

The alternative to VFR is IFR, Instrument Flight Rules.

IFR is stricter than VFR and requires more training to be qualified to fly under. 

While VFR is generally easier to learn to fly under than IFR, IFR pilots are better skilled than VFR ones.

IFR pilots can fly in airspace restricted for VFR pilots, while also being able to fly in less than ideal weather conditions and through clouds.

Whether a pilot should fly VFR or IFR mostly depends on the weather conditions of their flight.

The Difference Between VFR & IFR

VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules, while IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules.

Pilots either fly under VFR or IFR, depending on their flight’s weather conditions.

The FAA sets specific values for ceiling and visibility for both set of regulations.

The Benefits of Flying VFR

VFR is less restrictive than flying VFR, and it’s easier to obtain certification to fly under VFR.

In contrast, IFR includes an official flight path and is more restricted.

Most leisure and comfort travel flights are under VFR conditions.

For example, private planes operate under VFR for personal travel, aerial photography, and gliding.

Pilots also report that it’s easier to complete search-and-rescue missions under VFR. 

VFR is also preferable for flying in good visibility conditions and in busy airspace.

There could be long delays for IFR departures at a busy airport. 

The Benefits of Flying IFR

Pilots who are qualified for IFR can fly in almost any weather conditions and fly in airspace where VFR pilots aren’t allowed.

IFR-qualified pilots can fly in clouds at night or during fog.

IFR flying is also more precise since the instruments remove uncertainty, especially about the aircraft’s position.

Also, less than 3 miles of visibility should be unrestricted for IFR flights whereas at least 3 miles of visibility must be unrestricted for VFR flights

How Pilots Choose Whether to Fly under VFR or IFR

Weather conditions dictate whether a pilot should fly under VFR or IFR.

IFR is preferable if the plane has a low ceiling and needs to fly through clouds. IFR is also preferable in low-light conditions.

Flying IFR ensures that the flight is safe from terrain and air traffic. 

VFR is better for private and commercial pilot maneuver training or leisure flying.

VFR is less restrictive than IFR, so it’s preferable for leisure flights.

Ultimately, a flight should choose the set of regulations to fly under based on its goal and weather conditions. 

Flying VFR is Easier Than IFR

VFR is generally easier to fly under, especially if the weather is clear.

All pilots are taught VFR when they learn how to fly.

In contrast, IFR is harder to learn, but pilots with IFR qualifications are better skilled than those with are just qualified to fly under VFR. 

An IFR pilot may find it easier to fly under bad weather conditions than a VFR pilot, since IFR pilots follow predetermined routes.

IFR pilots also don’t have to worry about finding airports or avoiding airspace as long as they follow their navigation aids correctly.

Related: 3 Best IFR Training Glasses

When Pilots Can Fly Under VFR

Different classes of airspace assign VFR eligibility at different altitudes:

  • Class A airspace does not allow VFR in any circumstances, while classes B, C, D, and E allow VFR at 3 statute miles with a minimum distance of 500 feet below, 1000 feet above, and 3000 feet of horizontal distance from clouds.
  • Class G airspace permits VFR at 1 statute mile with 500 feet below, 1000 feet above, and 2,000 feet of horizontal distance from clouds. 

Note that pilots need to make sure that they have the required equipment for VFR flights.

What is Special VFR?

A Special VFR (SVFR) flight is permitted by air traffic control to fly within a control zone.

An SVFR flight needs at least one mile of visibility during daytime with no clouds present.

Night SVFR flights need a pilot with an instrument rating as pilot-in-command, and to fly an IFR-certified airplane. 

An example of an SVFR flight would be when a plane leaves an airport in controlled airspace to fly in uncontrolled airspace.

The visibility levels for this flight should be below the minimum needed for VFR flights in control zones, but not below the lower minimum for VFR flights in uncontrolled airspace. 

And Marginal VFR

Marginal Visual Flight Rules (MVFR) need a ceiling between 1,000 to 3,000 feet and/or three to five miles of visibility.

The pilot must maintain VFR cloud clearance at 700 or 1,200 feet AGL in Class E airspace. 

An MVFR flight also requires the pilot to remain 500 feet below the clouds to avoid IFR traffic.

For instance, the pilot would have to fly at 2,500 feet above ground level if the cloud bases are at 3,000 feet above ground level. 

In conclusion:

  • VFR stands for visual flight rules, which are a set of regulations for pilots flying under clear weather conditions.
  • VFR is less restrictive than its alternative, Instrument Flying Rules (IFR), but IFR-rated pilots are more skilled and have undergone more training.
  • IFR pilots can fly in airspace restricted to VFR pilots and can fly through bad weather.
  • Whether a pilot flies VFR or IFR mostly depends on the weather conditions of their flight.
  • It can be fine to fly VFR under clear weather, but a pilot should use IFR during bad weather.
  • VFR is also used more for leisure flights. 

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.