Do Airliners Ever Fly VFR?

The safety and flight guidelines issued to every airline by the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) are vast and comprehensive and as the legal departments of said airlines are all too aware, any deviation from the FAA playbook can result in eye-watering fines and financial penalties and can if they’re regularly subverted by an airline, result in their operating license being suspended.

That’s why when the FAA tells airlines that all of their flights need to be conducted and operated according to IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) regulations, they follow their instructions to the letter. 

As airliners are also designed to be flown, and cruise, at an operational ceiling between thirty three and thirty six thousand feet, they fly far higher than the maximum permitted height for VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight.

The height that airliners tend to fly at means that they use less fuel (as the air is much thinner at increased altitude, there is less atmospheric drag so the plane’s engines don’t need to burn or use as much fuel to maintain their cruising speed as they do at lower altitudes), which reduces operating costs of airlines, lowers their ticket prices and makes them a far more attractive option to potential passengers.

These factors, combined with the limited field of visibility that almost every airliner cockpit has mean that it’s incredibly difficult and almost impossible to fly an airliner according to VFR rules during its standard day to day operation.

Having said that, airliners fly the same way that every other airplane does, and just because they’re not flown using VFR, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be flown VFR.

There are times when it’s necessary for an airline to fly one of their planes using VFR rules, and they can and do so. Whether that’s ferrying the plane between maintenance areas or flying it for a special occasion or some other reason that precludes it from passenger operation, it is possible for an airliner to be flown VFR and they often are.

However, FAA guidelines state that no airline can file a VFR flight plan for a scheduled or non-scheduled passenger flight, and any and all flights in which passengers are on board an aircraft must be flown IFR and must have logged and submitted an IFR flight plan. 

How Do VFR Pilots Navigate?

VFR pilots, unlike their IFR counterparts, don't rely on their instruments to fly their airplanes for them or guide them to their destination. At least, they didn’t in the days before GPS (Global Positioning System) handsets, software and smartphone apps became freely available, all of which are now widely used by VFR pilots.

Even though VFR pilots can, and do, use GPS once they’re licensed, in order to obtain a pilot’s license, they need to acquire the navigational skill set that all VFR pilots are taught to use in order to be able to fly. 

Every VFR pilot uses a combination of radio navigation, map reading, visual observation (which is sometimes referred to as pilotage), and an age-old, tried, and tested system known as “dead reckoning” to navigate while flying.  

Dead reckoning is a way of calculating and estimating a current position by applying speed, direction, fuel usage, and heading to a previously acquired point on a journey that’s known as a “fix” or “fixed position”.

By applying these factors to the previously obtained fix, a pilot can estimate their position and where they are on their route and can also figure out how far they have to leave to travel and what their remaining flight time is, and should be. 

While it’s far from a perfect system and is subject to human error and misinterpretation, it’s also a skill that pilots need to learn and use in order to fly. 

But even though they have to learn it, a lot of modern pilots don’t tend to employ it while flying and prefer to place their faith in technology and use a GPS system to help them to get to the final destination on their flight plan. 

How Do You Ask For Flight Following? 

Flight Following is the VFR equivalent of IFR flight instructions and tower guidance. It usually includes flight vectors, weather information, traffic calls, and constant updates via radio from the nearest ATC (Air Traffic Control) facility.

It’s the next best thing to radar and far cheaper and easier to use than having to qualify as an IR (Instrument Rated) pilot and investing in, and flying an IFR airplane. 

The best and most effective way to request Flight Following from any ATC facility is to simply ask for it.  Just open the appropriate radio channel and start talking to the nearest ATC facility and providing you request Flight Following in a friendly, polite, and appropriate manner, they will be more than happy to comply and service and supply you with all of the information that you need.