How High Can A VFR Pilot Fly?

There are, as any student of aviation knows two separate types of flight. All pilots learn how to fly using VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and as soon as they’re licensed to fly, they can study and learn how to become IR (Instrument Rated) licensed if they so desire, even though there is no legal obligation for any private pilot to do so.

But, if you want to fly for a living and get behind the controls of a civilian airliner or cargo plane, you’ll need to be IR rated in order to do so. 

There’s also an altitude ceiling that you’re incensed to fly at if you’re only VFR rated, and that height is the point at which the PCA (Positive Control Area) kicks in.

While it’s a different height according to which country’s airspace you’re flying through, and national regulations can vary widely (and it’s a pilots responsibility to know what the PCA regulations are in the country he’s flying in), in America, the PCA ceiling stands at between seventeen thousand five hundred and eighteen thousand feet, according to the external atmospheric pressure on your flight path.

The PCA is the airspace barrier that separates VFR and IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight, and while IFR pilots can, and do, fly at altitudes below and above the PCA height, VFR pilots can only fly at, or below that height.

As VFR flight is predicated by the pilot’s ability to judge his flight path in accordance with the ground and the horizon, the PCA ceiling is regarded as being, by the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) the safest height at which a VFR pilot can fly without endangering themselves or any other aircraft. 

However, it is possible to get special clearances and permission from the FAA and local ATC (Air Traffic Control) to fly VFR at a height that exceeds the PCE ceiling, as glider pilots can, and regularly, do exceed the maximum VFR height.

Permission to fly above the ceiling is usually granted only when the right meteorological conditions are in place and when the airspace that you’re going to fly in and through has a low volume of, or no, other registered IFR flight plans or traffic. 

Are VFR Cruising Altitudes Mandatory? 

Legally the only time that you need to fully comply with VFR cruising altitudes and the rules associated with them is when you’re flying at a height of three thousand feet or more.

VFR cruising altitudes are also determined by the magnetic bearing of an aircraft, and it is up to the pilot to report their bearing and abide by cruising altitudes that are assigned to the bearing that they are following.

The rules state that if a pilot is flying on a course between zero and one hundred and seventy-nine degrees, then they should be cruising at an odd altitude plus five hundred feet. So, the directional bearing would mean that a pilot should cruise at five thousand five hundred feet, seven thousand five hundred feet, or nine thousand five hundred feet, or any odd altitude plus five hundred feet up to, and including seventeen thousand five hundred feet. 

However, if a VFR licensed pilot is intending to fly a course that’s set between one hundred and eighty and three hundred and fifty-nine degrees, then that pilot needs to cruise at an even numbered altitude plus five hundred feet. 

That means that if a VFR pilot’s course bearing is greater than one hundred and eighty degrees they need to fly at a cruising height of four thousand five hundred feet or any even altitude plus five hundred feet up to a maximum ceiling of sixteen thousand five hundred feet. 

How Far Can You Fly VFR?

When you’re flying VFR, as long as you have the range and fuel to fly the required distance, then you should be able to comfortably fly it, although most experienced pilots wouldn’t recommend flying further than five hundred nautical miles on any single VFR flight. Attempting to cover more distance can increase the risk of succumbing to fatigue and, or a loss of concentration.

One of the most important factors, when flying VFR, is the visual distance that a pilot can see, which is usually entirely dependent on meteorological conditions.

Again, most pilots agree that three miles of clear visibility is the least desirable distance, but sometimes weather conditions can be less than optimal, which can result in pilots either changing their plans and not flying or requiring a minimal safe VFR distance of one mile. 

Which VFR Cruising Altitude Is Appropriate? 

Appropriate VFR cruising altitudes are entirely dependent on the magnetic course bearing that a pilot is following.

Between zero and one hundred and seventy-nine degrees, the appropriate cruising altitude is an oddly numbered one plus five hundred feet between three and eighteen thousand feet (i.e seven thousand five hundred feet) and if the pilot’s course is on a magnetic compass bearing between one hundred and eighty and three hundred and fifty-nine degrees, then the appropriate VFR cruising altitude is an evenly numbered one plus five feet between three and eighteen thousand feet (i.e eight thousand five hundred feet).