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How special is Special VFR?

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Heli-Expo 2023 is being held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, GA March 6 – 9. As always it is a great event. I would encourage you to attend one or more of the many educational events sponsored by HAI. This year I will be presenting “DPE’s Pet Peeves” on Wednesday, March 8th from 10:30 – 11:30. The course is designed for flight instructors, students, and anyone preparing to take a practical test. A full list of the Rotor Safety Challenge courses can be found at here.

Hello Enstrom folks! In this month’s edition of Safety Check, we will see just how special a Special VFR (SVFR) clearance is as it pertains to helicopters. For most of you this is nothing new, but nonetheless, is a good time to revisit the regulations.

There was a period when DHL would advertise that they could deliver international packages to the downtown Chicago business district before 9AM on weekdays. Due to the early morning traffic congestion on the John F. Kennedy Expressway the only way to guarantee the 9AM delivery time was to have a helicopter standing by at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport (ORD). We had special permission to land our Bell Jet Ranger on the DHL ramp that was within walking distance of the arriving international DHL flight. The packages were swiftly hand loaded onto our aircraft for the short 12-minute flight to the new Chicago Vertiport located in the Illinois Medical District (43IL). Upon our arrival, the packages were divided between two to three cargo vans and whisked to their awaiting offices. This was a great contract for us while it lasted.

As you can imagine the weather in Chicago during the winter months is not exactly ideal for VFR helicopter operations. So, our pilots became very accustomed to requesting Special VFR clearance in and out of the Class B airspace at ORD. Do you know the basic VFR weather minimums for Class B Airspace? It is different than Class C, Class D, and Class E. Class B is three (3) statute miles visibility and clear of clouds. A good practical test question might be, “Can a helicopter pilot obtain a Special VFR clearance at ORD?” At a quick glance (see figure 1) the answer is “NO”, however, if you dig deeper into the Legend located on the front page of the Chicago Sectional it states, (see figure 2)” NO SVFR – fixed winged special VFR flight is prohibited.” It only applies to airplanes, so another good reason to be a helicopter driver.

Chicago maps

Summarizing FAR 91.157 — helicopters can request Special VFR (SVFR) during day and night even when the visibility is less than one mile. In contrast, an airplane would only be able to request SVFR with at least one-mile visibility during the day, and the pilot would need an instrument rating during the nighttime. Remember ATC will NOT offer you a SVFR clearance and it is important to remain clear of the airspace until you have requested and obtained the clearance under Special VFR conditions. This is not an instrument clearance and flying in the clouds is prohibited.

Let’s refresh our memories on the VFR weather minimums when operating in Special VFR conditions. It is the easiest one to remember. Clear of clouds, that is it! There are no visibility restrictions or cloud clearances to adhere to. But keep in mind once you depart the Class B into a different airspace you will have to adhere to the basic VFR weather minimums for that specific airspace. If it is Class C, Class D, or Class E surface, the standard (3) 1-5-2 rules apply. If you are transitioning from the Class B straight to Class G airspace then helicopters are less stringent than airplanes where the minimums are clear of clouds with one-half statute mile visibility during the day and one statute mile at night.

To the newer pilots reading this article. Remember, pilots must request a SVFR clearance; ATC won’t offer it. Typically, after you check in with the tower they might respond with, “the field is IFR, say your intentions?” This should be your cue to request the Special VFR clearance into the airspace. I recall one instance as a low-time aviator flying from Goshen, IN (GSH) to Elkhart, IN (EKM). The weather was good VFR at GSH but EKM had lingering lake effect clouds at 800 feet with 6-mile visibility. This was years before we had Foreflight or automated weather stations on the field. I radioed the tower my position and the operator responded, “The field is IFR. Say your intentions.” I was clearly struggling with the proper terminology and as I started to turn back to GSH I remember the kind tower operator finally said to me, “Is there anything special we can do for you today?” Oh yeah!! I am requesting a Special VFR.

Special VFR is a little more “special” for helicopters compared to our fixed-wing counterparts. There is a right time and a wrong time to exercise this privilege. Our professional staff of pilots knew the Chicago airspace like the back of their hand and navigating through the Class B was considered a safe operation. On the other hand, Kobe Bryant’s helicopter accident reminds us of the dangers of operating in IFR conditions. While en route to Camarillo, CA Kobe’s pilot was forced to circle before transitioning the Burbank Class C airspace and the adjacent Van Nuys Class D because a Special VFR clearance wasn’t immediately available due at least in part to conflicting IFR operations. As we have discussed in past editions, do not be pressured to “press on” with the hope it will improve. Never be afraid to land and wait it out. We fly helicopters. We can do that.

Fly safe.

About Enstrom Helicopter

From Rudy Enstrom’s early designs in 1943 to initial testing in a Michigan Quarry in 1957 to aircraft operating on six continents, Enstrom Helicopter Corporation has maintained a reputation for safety, value and performance. Based in Menominee, Michigan and proudly made in the United States, Enstrom has a rich history for design innovation. The goal is to provide helicopters to the customer’s exact specification and deliver support and maintenance worldwide.