VFR Flight Above the Clouds

A lot of VFR pilots talk about punching through holes in the cloud deck and flying on top. This usually raises a few eyebrows, and brings up a few questions. Is this legal? And more importantly, is it safe?


Is it legal?

To answer the first question, yes it is perfectly legal to fly VFR above a cloud layer. In fact VFR over the top has a specific FAA definition under 14 CFR 1.1:

VFR over the top, with respect to the operation of aircraft, means the operation of an aircraft over the top under VFR when it is not being operated on an IFR flight plan.

A lot of pilots prefer to fly cross country on top to avoid low-level turbulence which usually stops above the bases of cumulus clouds. Keep in mind that VFR flight visibility and cloud clearance rules still apply, so you can’t get too close to those clouds.

Is it safe?

This is a difficult question to answer, and it depends on the pilot’s individual experience and decision making skills.

As a VFR pilot, flight on top presents a variety of new hazards. Without reference to ground landmarks, a pilot must maintain a higher level of situational awareness through onboard navigational aids. It’s easy to get lost up there.

Cloudscapes can be a hazard of their own. VFR pilots are trained to fly the airplane primarily by reference to the horizon. Sloping cloud layers can create false horizons which may lure the pilot into a descending turn. The attitude indicator and heading indicator will be your best bet to notice and rectify the situation.

Perhaps the greatest hazard is that of getting stuck on top. There is no guarantee that the hole you climbed through is going to be there when you want to come back down. Pilots need to monitor the weather and get back down before the broken layer becomes an overcast.

Flying VFR on top is as safe as you can to make it. If you’re new to the game, then might I suggest that you stay below the deck for a while. For those of you going up top, keep your guard up and fly safe!


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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

6 Replies to VFR Flight Above the Clouds

  1. Jeffrey Synk says:

    Good points! Especially the last paragraph.

    I remember when I was in flight training at FlightSafety Academy in Vero Beach when we had to wear wool pants and white collared shirts even in the humid heat of summer. I was finishing my long cross-country for my commercial rating. I had just stopped off in Daytona Beach for fuel before I was going to continue on to Vero Beach. It was really hot in that Cherokee so I decided to climb above the clouds and instantly got disoriented. I was particularly concerned because of the NASA Space Shuttle landing facility was off to my left and didn’t really want to accidently fly into their airspace.

    The radio was full of chatter so I just started circling.

    A great controller asked if I needed any help and I admitted, “Yeah.” He got me down through some patchy clouds. What a relief! He was then kind enough to ask if I wanted to do the Shuttle tour. Again, I said, “Yeah!” He vectored me towards the Space Shuttle landing strip, coordinated with NASA tower and I got to fly over it before continuing onto Vero Beach.

    Anyway, like Pat says, you can fly VFR on top, just be safe!

    Great post Pat!

    Regards,

    Jeffrey

  2. Sylvia says:

    Another one here:
    http://www.fearoflanding.com/flying/i-learned-from-that/vmc-on-top/

    UK no longer allows VFR on top although I’ve been told not to worry about it as long as the clouds are gappy so you have a view of the ground every few minutes.

    On the other hand, I’ve been caught over the clouds once (flying in from France, where it is allowed … but the clouds went solid and low over the channel) and London Info were very helpful with weather reports so that I knew my destination had clear skies.

  3. JB Pilot says:

    Very enlightening post, Pat! I guess that puts the whole “to fly or not to fly above the cloud” argument to rest, now that you’ve quoted FAA rules.

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