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VFR vs. IFR Flight Everything You Need to Know About The Difference

It’s a difference that could save your life. Visual Flight Rules vs. Instrument Flight Rules are an important part of the Private Pilot’s License and the Instrument Rating. It’s not necessarily the sexiest part of flight training, but proper utilization of VFR and IFR will make you a top flier. Today we are going to …

VFR vs. IFR Flight Everything You Need to Know About The Difference »

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It’s a difference that could save your life. Visual Flight Rules vs. Instrument Flight Rules are an important part of the Private Pilot’s License and the Instrument Rating. It’s not necessarily the sexiest part of flight training, but proper utilization of VFR and IFR will make you a top flier. Today we are going to define what VFR and IFR are, why we fly IFR and the importance of the decision between VFR vs. IFR. 

Let’s get you ready to file.

What are Visual Flight Rules (VFR)? 

Visual flight rules are certain requirements a pilot uses when flying in visual meteorological conditions (sometimes called “VMC”). There are many specific rules regarding cloud and weather avoidance, but, in short, VFR means no flying in anything other than clear blue sky. These flight rules are extensively covered in your Angle of Attack Online Private Pilot Ground School

It’s important to remember that VFR and IFR are sets of rules that apply both to pilots and airplanes. Some airplanes will be equipped to fly using both, but others are only VFR equipped. It’s important to double-check your plane and make sure you are properly equipped. 

VFR vs. IFRWhat are Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)?

Instrument Flight Rules are the standards used for flying into less-than-ideal weather (often called “Instrument Meteorological Conditions”). These rules are expansive. So expansive that to fly IFR, you need to obtain an entirely separate Instrument Rating. The Instrument Rating is known to many as one of the most difficult ratings/licenses to get (rivaled only by the CFII). 

Nobody understands the demands of VFR vs. IFR flying quite like pilots in the Alaskan bush. That’s why you can trust that Angle of Attack’s online Ground Schools for both Private and Instrument tests are the best of the best. Our instructors have dealt with all kinds of weather and can best train you for VFR or IFR. 

Why do we fly IFR?

If you’re like I was, you might be hesitant to get your Instrument Rating. I remember after finishing a grueling eleven months of flight training to get my Private, the last thing I wanted was to go back to flight school. Especially for a rating, I had very little intention of using (why on earth would I fly in anything less than clear blue skies?). But when I had the opportunity, I decided to give it a shot, and I’m sure glad I did. 

IFR WeatherOne afternoon, after I got my Instrument, I took off on a beautiful summer day in mountainous East Tennessee, bound for Birmingham for lunch. While the weather was beautiful going to Birmingham, on the way back, things changed much quicker than I or the NOAA metrological reports expected. I was soon faced with a low deck of solid overcast clouds at 3,000 feet on approach back to my mountain airport. Without an Instrument Rating, I would have been stuck. There was no hole in the clouds between Tennessee and Birmingham. And I would have been circling until I ran out of gas or worse, into a mountain. Using the instrument rating I never intended to use, I could focus on the instruments and bust through the thin layer of clouds at about 2,500 feet. I spotted my home airport below and was able to complete the approach visually.  

 

Controlled Flight Into Terrain

Little did I know that on that short lunch flight, I had almost faced the most common killer in aviation: “controlled flight into terrain.” Controlled flight into terrain means the airplane is working perfectly fine. Still, the pilot becomes so disoriented by unintentionally flying VFR into IMC that he or she flies the plane into the ground. 

Perhaps the most famous example of a VFR into IMC fatality was the final flight of John F. Kennedy Jr. over Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy’s crash, along with countless others, demonstrates the importance of taking the next step and getting your instrument rating.

 

IFR flying provides certain protections which are not readily available to those flying under VFR. Even if you never fly into a cloud, having an IFR-equipped airplane and pilot will make for a safer and confident journey. Flying through and above the clouds provides for safer travels.

Forrest Gump said it best after Lieutenant Dan told him they wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore after their Apple stock boomed: “Good, that’s one less thing.”

IFR doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about the weather, but now marginal in-flight weather becomes “one less thing.” If you don’t believe me, here are Chris’ thoughts on the importance of an Instrument Rating in 60 seconds or less. 

 

Is VFR or IFR better? 

The best answer to this question is that it’s flight-specific. Each flight is different. From weather to traffic to navigation, no two flights are the same, and each flight will have its’ own demands. A good rule of thumb is that if you are even debating this question in the pre-flight… go IFR. It won’t hurt you to pick up that clearance to have that extra coverage. Plenty of good pilots have met their match flying VFR into IFR conditions, but you could likely be the first NTSB case of a crash flying IFR into VFR conditions. 

VFR Flight Following v. IFR?

This is a question that has become harder to answer as time and technology have progressed. Cross-country flights in clear weather which the extra cautious pilot might have filed an IFR flight plan “just in case,” have now likely been replaced by the advent of “VFR flight following.”  

VFR flight following allows you to fly VFR; however, it also provides ATC radar coverage and weather/traffic updates. It doesn’t provide the same IFR protections, but it’s pretty darn close. If you want the same ATC coverage as IFR, choosing to fly VFR with flight following isn’t a bad option. But if the weather is going to be a factor… IFR is still the only way to go. Remember that ATC can always deny your request for VFR flight following, so don’t always count on it. 

If you want more tips and tricks about flying IFR, check out this video of Chris’ flight from North Dakota back to Alaska. Along the way, he encountered some serious IFR, and it put his skills to the test. 

Flight rules are not the reason you choose to get your pilot’s license, but understanding them will make the difference between a marginal pilot and a great pilot. Knowing and respecting the limitations of both pilot and plane will keep you out of the headlines. If you are debating the advantages of getting your instrument rating check out our YouTube channel and then our Online Instrument Ground School. It’s a decision you won’t regret!

AUTHOR

Michael Brown

Michael Brown grew up flying on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, TN. He obtained his private pilot's license in high school and has instrument and seaplane ratings. Michael graduated from Texas Christian University, where he founded the school's flying club, with a double major in Business and Communications. He is currently a law student at Tulane University, studying transportation law. Michael was named the Richard Collins Young Writing Award winner and has had his legal writing recognized by the American Bar Association's Air & Space Subcommittee. When he is not flying or studying, Michael enjoys riding his bike and cheering on his Atlanta Braves.

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