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cloud clearances Image source

I often see charts like the one above showing VFR cloud clearance minima. Since the regs list a minimum distance above clouds obviously VFR flights are allowed to fly over clouds. However, it's not clear what kind of clouds one can fly over: only individual smaller clouds, a broken layer or a solid layer. In the US does a pilot under VFR have to maintain a visual reference to the surface?

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    $\begingroup$ They don't usually give reasons for the rules. I didn't realize at first that the cloud-separation rule was not because clouds are scary. It was because IFR planes could pop out of the cloud, and you and they could get a nasty surprise. $\endgroup$ – Mike Dunlavey Sep 2 '16 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ Paraglider's in the UK just need to remain clear of cloud and have sight of the surface. It doesn't say that sight has to be directly below you... $\endgroup$ – Michael Shaw Sep 4 '16 at 23:20
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Yes, it's legal to operate under VFR without any visual reference to the surface. It's called operating VFR over-the-top, not to be confused with VFR-on-top which is an IFR clearance. Over-the-top is defined in 14 CFR 1.1:

Over-the-top means above the layer of clouds or other obscuring phenomena forming the ceiling.

There are some exceptions and restrictions, though (this list may not be complete):

  • Recreational pilots must have visual reference to the surface (14 CFR 61.101)
  • So must sport pilots (14 CFR 61.315)
  • So must student pilots (14 CFR 61.89)
  • If the pilot has a foreign-based private license then all restrictions on the foreign license apply, which could prevent VFR over-the-top (14 CFR 61.75)
  • Large, turbine or fractionally owned aircraft must be equipped as for IFR (14 CFR 91.507)
  • If flying for an airline or other operator, their OpSpecs must allow it
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    $\begingroup$ Ok, let's see if aviation terminology can get more confusing. VFR-on-top is not in fact VFR. And VFR-over-the-top is a completely different thing. Ugh. No wonder I was confused! $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Sep 1 '16 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW Yeah, the other problem with VFR-over-the-top is that you, unless you're equipped and rated for IFR, you have to be sure you'll have VMC in which to descend on the other side of those clouds. $\endgroup$ – reirab Sep 1 '16 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW It's a description, not a clearance. Many VFR flights aren't in contact with ATC anyway. As it happens, I heard a VFR pilot trying to get down through a cloud layer recently, he asked ATC if any other VFR flights had made it through and if the controller could ask them where they found a hole in the layer. If he didn't find a hole I hope he had plenty of fuel to get him back to somewhere less cloudy! $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Sep 1 '16 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife That's why I was wondering if it was legal to do. It doesn't sound very wise unless you're at least IFR equipped and rated. You could get stuck up there $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Sep 1 '16 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Andrius That would be a great question to ask, I have no idea what the EASA regulations are on this. As for landing, you still need to be IFR to go through clouds. If you get to your destination and there's no hole in the clouds then you have to go somewhere else, or switch to IFR if you can. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Sep 2 '16 at 15:09

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