Really novice question here: if both the pilot and the aircraft are instrument-rated, why would anyone fly VFR? IFR lets one fly in a wider range of weather conditions and at night while there are no situations where VFR is allowed and IFR isn't. Or are there?

  • 10
    $\begingroup$ Sightseeing is a little hard to do when you are flying an IFR flight plan. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 18:39
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I've read a few articles where an ATC was sending an IFR pilot way out of their way so they cancelled IFR and finished their route VFR to save time $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 20:19
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ IFR is a lot more work. It would be like taking a hike in the wilderness while looking at your phone; oh wait, people do that... $\endgroup$
    – copper.hat
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 2:59
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Many years ago, I got to listen to an advanced instructor teaching an advanced student about "special VFR". One thing he said stayed with me. On a special VFR clearance, you can fly out UNDER the clouds and weather. If you file IFR, ATC is more than likely going to put you IN the clouds and the weather. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ flyingmag.com/flying-vfr-offers-greater-freedom-and-flexibility $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 15:02

3 Answers 3


(This answer is based on light aircraft in the US.)

Leaving aside any scenarios where you must file IFR (class A, IMC) and any where you can't (pilot and/or aircraft not IFR-capable), it comes down to whether the 'overhead' and benefits of operating IFR are worth it for your particular flight. By the way, your question seems to assume that IFR is required at night, but night VFR is legal in many countries.

The 'overhead' of operating IFR is firstly in planning: there are different rules for fuel reserves, altitudes, airspace, alternate airports, weather minimums etc. Generally speaking you need more time and thought to prepare and file an IFR flight plan. Secondly, operating IFR potentially places a lot of restrictions on you: ATC can delay your takeoff, give you vectors that take you miles out of your direct route, put you in a hold, require position reports, and generally keep you busy. As a pilot, you have to perform at a 'higher' - or at least different - level.

For many people, that's already reason enough to file VFR if conditions allow (don't forget that in the US there's no need to talk to ATC at all on many flights). But the purpose of the flight is important too: IFR more or less assumes that you're flying from A to B on a fairly direct route. If you're training, or sightseeing, or dropping parachutists, or just flying around for the fun of it then IFR isn't really appropriate or useful. You can just get flight following instead, which gives you the benefits of ATC keeping an eye on you, without any of the IFR rules to follow.

And regarding your comment about IFR letting you fly in more weather conditions, there's a pilots' saying in the southern US (and probably many other places) that "if the weather's good, file IFR; if it's bad, file VFR". The reason is that Florida and other southern states get a lot of convective activity and it's very common to have to pick your way between thunderstorms and building cumulus towers to get where you're going, or just for a more comfortable ride. By remaining in visual conditions you're able to see what's going on with the clouds and being VFR means you're more or less free to change course and altitude as needed to avoid them. If you're IFR, ATC may put you in a cloud layer where you can't see anything and vector you closer to the buildups than you'd like. VFR just gives you a lot more options in general.

Finally, are there any scenarios where only VFR is allowed, even for IFR-capable flights? This might be different in different countries, but offhand I can't think of any in the US. IFR minimum altitudes are higher than VFR ones, so you can't fly IFR at 500' AGL, but I guess that's not really what you're thinking about. Maybe someone else will come up with something.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Some airports have no IFR landing, for instance. $\endgroup$
    – yo'
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 17:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @yo' ATC can clear you for a visual approach when you're on an IFR flightplan. You have to be VMC at that point, but the IFR flightplan gives you all its benefits up to that point, such as descending through an overcast deck down to the MEA, then report "field in sight" and get cleared for the visual approach from there. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ Having an IFR flight plan to an airport with no instrument approach can be a luxury in some countries, because it depends on (a) GPS navigation onboard the aircraft, or (b) suitable radio equipment (at least an NDB) in the close proximity of the airport. E.g. many islands in the pacific are served by small planes in the local area, and some of them are not even covered by ATC. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ Also, in much of the western US at least, if the weather is bad enough to require flying IFR, I'm not going to go flying. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ There are plenty of mountainous areas where the minimum IFR altitude is unreachably high for a normally-aspriated aircraft without oxygen. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 19:27
  1. VFR is the basics of flight. In VFR, you learn takeoffs, landings, turns, stalls etc., with plenty to visibility to help you recover should things go wrong.
  2. IFR flight puts more workload on the pilot.
  3. You won't want to fly aerobatics in IMC.
  4. IFR requires instruments. Instruments can fail.
  5. IFR requires more planning. You have to choose a route, tune VOR stations, join airways etc.
  6. Not all places have navigation radios on the ground. Many small airports don't have anything more than a grass strip and a few houses beside it.
  7. Sometimes you don't want to stay on predefined routes, for example in a search and rescue mission.

It is true that most commercial operations today are carried in IFR. However there are still plenty of other flights, such as private flights to a cousin's house, sight seeing tours, aerial photography, banner towing, gliding, parachuting, crop dusting, search and rescue etc., that are conducted in good visibility and require the pilots to navigate using visual references.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Add cropdusting to that list... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 17:58
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ For me, and I imagine for most recreational pilots, a good many flights are not between two designated airports, let alone two airports with instrument facilities. Say I'm heading out for an afternoon at the hot springs by the Black Rock, where the 'airport' is a bit of dry lake. Maybe I decide to visit my landsailing friends who're camping at Blue Wing (another dry lake). How do I do that, flying IFR? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer, although I'm not sure exactly what you mean with #6? You can file IFR to a grass strip with no instrument approaches if you want, at least in the US. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 18:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @VladimirF -- I suspect Heathrow is.... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 19:18
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @user IFR flight puts more workload on the pilot: It can, depending on the nature and circumstances of the flight in question. A given IFR flight will typically require greater pilot workload compared with a given VFR flight; the minimum workload required is generally greater. It is certainly a legitimate reason why pilots choose to not fly IFR. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 14:51

IFR would not be feasible for a lot of different types of recreational and professional flight activities.

For a majority of the flying that I used to do at one of my old jobs, I would not have been unable to get an IFR clearance had I wanted to. That notwithstanding, the routing would have been so complicated that it would have increased my workload—not to mention the controller's workload—to the extent that IFR would not have been feasible.

Many types of mountain flying would simply be impossible to do under IFR. The same goes for most ground proximity flying.

While not necessarily recommended, a pilot could fly VFR into an active MOA, whereas an IFR flight would not be cleared into that active MOA.

Regarding weather conditions, the fact is that I could legally fly in worse weather than would be allowable for many IFR operations, though to do so would—in some cases—be against company rules. It simply is not true that there are no situations in which IFR would be allowable where VFR would not.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .