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!