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What are Visual Flight Rules?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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Visual flight rules are regulations allowing pilots to operate aircraft using visual navigation in certain kinds of airspace and weather conditions. People operating under visual flight rules are usually not required to file flight plans, and can fly in most airspace as long as weather conditions are clear. Pilots can obtain maps showing different classes of airspace to determine where they can use visual flight rules, and they must also comply with specific orders from air traffic control.

Different countries handle classification of airspace in their own way. Generally, types of airspace are broken up by height and location, and visual flight rules are allowed in most, with the exception of high altitude locations. Pilots operating under visual flight rules must be able to see a certain distance from the cockpit, allowing them to safely navigate and avoid other aircraft. They are expected to consult weather reports and air traffic control before flying to confirm visual flight rules are in force along the length of a whole route.

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When visual flight rules are in place because the weather is clear and the airspace is classed for it, pilots are expected to carry enough fuel to meet the needs of their flight, along with some extra. If they arrive at a destination to find instrument flight rules in place because of fog, poor weather, and other issues, they can use the extra fuel to find another place to land or to hover and see if the weather clears and they can safely land. Under special circumstances, instrument flight rules may be waived.

Basic pilot training qualifies people to fly under visual flight rules. People who want to be able to fly in all conditions and in all air space will need to receive an instrument flight rating. In training for this rating, pilots learn how to use instruments for navigation, allowing them to do things like approaching an airport safely in heavy fog or smoke. Commercial pilots need to have this certification, and many hobby and amateur pilots eventually seek instrument qualification to expand the conditions they can fly in.

For pilots lacking an instrument flight rating, the distinction between visual and instrument flight rules is important, as they cannot switch over in the middle of a flight if necessary. Pilots need to check weather conditions and predictions very carefully before flying. Aviation authorities provide hotlines pilots can call for forecasts, and people can also contact air traffic control in a given region to get information about whether an airport can be approached.

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