A Special VFR Story

I recently I had a few 'discussions' over the air, with both pilots and tower controllers when I recently requested a Special VFR Clearance at Ramona Airport. Believe it or not, this follows on the heels of two other situations in the past year.... Here is how it played out....


Ceilings were reported on the ATIS as 2000 feet scattered, unlimited visibility... The first potential nice weather day in weeks and everyone wanted to take advantage of it. Students were converging on Ramona airport from all directions to catch up on lost training time. Myself, I had a student that day and we were bound and determined to lock up the perfect landing that day so heavy pattern work was in order. After a while, I noticed one stray cloud wandering toward the airspace, with a base far lower than the rest of its peers. Flying at TPA, it appeared to be at eye level. I watched it for another lap and sure enough, it appeared to be converging toward the traffic pattern. I quickly thought it through and realized that even if the base didn't quite get to me, I may be within the 2000 foot lateral distance that I were required to maintain. No worries! My initial CFI taught me all about Special VFR clearances and I quickly keyed up the mic to request my clearance. The response from the tower was something along the lines of "Say again? What is it your asking for?"... I was a bit stunned, but I calmly repeated my request, stating "There is a cloud, south of the field, with bases right around the TPA and closing to within 2000 feet of my horizontal VFR limits... Can I please have a Special VFR clearance..." The airwaves went silent for a few moments and then it happened... Another pilot in the pattern keyed up and stated "Your are in the pattern, you don't need one..." What? Was I taught wrong? SVFR seemed obvious to me! But, a moment later, the magic clearance came in... "Cessna [1234], Special VFR clearance in effect in the vicinity of Ramona Airport. Maintain Special VFR at or below 3,3000 feet..." I quickly acknowledged my clearance and continued with my day. But I couldn't help but wonder if I was in fact wrong all these years and maybe the tower was just trying to shut me up. My student gave me that look of "What are we supposed to do now??". My response was a confident "Rock on grasshopper, let's keep at it."


Later in the day I began to reflect on the situation and it reminded me of a situation last year that I had... On that day, clouds were reported as 1200 scattered... Of course, that meant that at a 1000 foot TPA, I could be within 300 feet of the bases. Class Delta requires 500 below bases. I asked for SVFR and was told by the tower "Ummmm... Clouds are scattered so that isn't a ceiling. SVFR denied." I was embarrassed initially and just stated ."oh... My apologies" and went on with my day.


Going back to my incident initially mentioned, I was shocked to hear planes transitioning Ramona airspace at 3200 feet, when the bases were clearly below that, and the spacing between the clouds absolutely couldn't have permitted a 2000 foot lateral clearance of the clouds. All of the planes were basically just dodging in and around the clouds. What a trip! But again, I still wasn't sure I was misunderstanding something. So, back to the books.....


AIM 4-4-6 details Special VFR and explains; in short that it allows VFR flight in what would technically be considered IFR conditions, namely the requirement that VFR flights maintain a clearance of 500 feet below, 1000 feet over and 2000 feet laterally from clouds; as well as have at least 3 miles visibility while in the class D airspace. However, under Special VFR you may reduce the visibility to 1 mile and remain clear of all clouds so long as you maintain visual with the ground. It goes on to explain that IFR traffic will have priority and that the pilot MUST request a Special VFR Clearance and that ATC will not offer it arbitrarily.


Interesting.... There must be a FAR that mentions 'Traffic Pattern' or 'Ceiling' mandates... Did a bit more research and found FAR 91.157... Nope. It details what, when granted, Special VFR conditions must exist while under Special VFR. And just as a courtesy states that a 'Pilot's' perception of conditions do not constitute an official weather report. This is important....


After reviewing this information and stewing on it for the day (and well into the night I may add), I decided to have a chat with the controllers at Ramona... In truth, I was still in doubt on my knowledge and with both a fellow pilot AND a controller both "setting me straight", I absolutely must be missing something!


The next day clouds were reporting 1,300 broken at Ramona. How convenient huh? So, here I am again. Can I fly or do I have to push my student out and hope for a clearer afternoon. The requirement for a 1000 foot ceiling exists.... BUT, TPA puts me within 200 feet of the bases. Damn. I called the tower. Amazing folks at Ramona tower....


In short, I had a good talk with the controller and he let me know that my very request from the previous day was a topic of discussion among the controllers. After they had a talk internally it was discovered that even among controllers, SVFR can be confusing with many of the controllers thinking that they can only provide Special VFR if there is IFR traffic operating at the airport. They spent some time reviewing the regs and all agreed that IFR traffic has NO bearing on if a Special VFR can be requested or granted. However, IFR gets the priority should any arrive or be operating, so you may expect to be 'extended' on legs to make room.


I asked for a Special VFR about 20 minutes later and was granted right out of the gate, no questions asked. Yay!


Remember the part about the 'Pilot's perception is not an official report?" Well, that basically provides pilots the ability to make personal assessments, without 'altering' what the ATIS or other official report says. If pilot A asks for a SVFR because they 'think' they may need it, it doesn't mean that a second pilot is obligated to also obtain one... To each their own.

So let me summarize what SVFR is... it is -> ONLY <- for cloud clearance (the big puffy thing you cannot see through while flying) and visibility. Nothing more, nothing less. FAR 91.155 details the minimums cloud clearance and visibility that is required in Class D airspace and there is no exception. None, regardless of the 'activity' your are doing under VFR. If you cannot meet the cloud clearances, or visibility minimums, you must be either a) operating under IFR or b) under a special VFR clearance.

Lastly, Special VFR can be requested in Class B, C, D and E that extends to the surface. You can request Special VFR from a tower, FSS or ARTCC (approach).

As for me and my students; we dig SVFR and they all know when and how to use it. May come in handy someday me thinks. Oh, one last thing... the 'In the Pattern' comment from a fellow pilot..... That's class G, under 1,200 AGL. Ramona is that after 8PM and prior to 8AM, but not at 10AM... Just sayin...


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