I’ve been watching IFR checkride prep videos and several of them mention that among the things you can do with your IFR ticket is to:

Fly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) in controlled airspace.

If you have your IFR ticket, you can depart Class G in IMC if you have filed a flight plan. So I’m a bit confused about why they put that restriction on the privilege.

But it also got me thinking. You need an IFR ticket to fly in IMC in controlled airspace, but is there a regulation that says you need one to fly in IMC in uncontrolled airspace? Or does NTSB 3935 mean that flying in IMC without your IFR ticket automatically imply careless and reckless flying?

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ You cannot fly in IMC in any airspace without an IFR rating. What qualifies as IFR changes with the airspace according to the VFR rules. G just has the most relaxed conditions. Usually flying at minimums at low altitude is called "scud running" and greatly reduces your lifespan. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jun 11 '17 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer I can’t find any regulation that says that you can’t fly in uncontrolled airspace without an IFR rating. Can you point me to the regulation? $\endgroup$ – JScarry Jun 11 '17 at 16:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It's pretty simple, if you aren't VFR, you are IMC, which requires an IFR rating. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jun 11 '17 at 17:23
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @JScarry, reference 14 CFR 61.3 (e) (e)Instrument rating. No person may act as pilot in command of a civil aircraft under IFR or in weather conditions less than the minimums prescribed for VFR flight unless that person holds: $\endgroup$ – mongo Jun 11 '17 at 17:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JScarry As a general rule, 91 deals with operations and equipment, and 61 deals with people and qualifications. $\endgroup$ – mongo Jun 11 '17 at 19:45

In the US, an appropriate instrument rating is needed to fly when WX conditions are below VFR minimums, and at night for SVFR. 14 CFR 61.3(e)

Additionally, one needs an appropriate instrument rating to fly under an IFR clearance when in controlled airspace, regardless of the WX.

Notes: ATP and things like a category and class in an airship are exceptions. Also an airplane instrument rating works in gliders. Etc.

Addendum: Specific to the OP's citing a NTSB report, the following comment is added: To rely on the mentioned NTSB report, it is important to read the findings, and understand that, a.) the pilot intended to hit VFR conditions before 700AGL and upon entering controlled airspace, b.) the pilot told people he was taking off despite qualified observers noting 200 ft clouds, c.) the airport where approach was based said they were below IFR, which would leave the pilot few options if he needed to land nearby. Given that, it is easy to agree with the NTSB. Just because something is legal, doesn't mean it is best practice, and in this case it is likely the pilot did not do as stated.

One final point, IFR without a clearance in Class G is a decision which should not be taken lightly. Years ago, I routinely did it, and the airspace was uncontrolled at safe IFR enroute altitudes. Departing a Class G airport, with less than VFR conditions, and expecting VFR before hitting controlled airspace at 700AGL is dubious. The vest majority of my IFR flights in uncontrolled airspace, that were without benefit of clearances, were where there are large areas of uncontrolled airspace, and safe IFR altitudes could be flown enroute. Furthermore, while ATC did not issue clearances for flight in uncontrolled airspace, coordination with ATC where possible, and also with local FSS were done. That is different from popping off an airport that is likely IMC, and stating that one intends to climb into VFR weather before hitting 700AGL and controlled airspace. The frosting on the cake is having the field in the area be below IFR limits for approaches. Good judgment is hard to legislate.

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ Generally, the FAA considers exercising privileges which one is not certificated in as evidence of careless and reckless operation. $\endgroup$ – mongo Jun 14 '17 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ If you are flying in IMC in uncontrolled airspace you are not IFR, you are just IMC in violation of class G cloud clearance requirements. Skud running is still VFR. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Feb 14 at 23:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall, Not sure I understand your comment. If IFR rated and equipped, one may fly IMC in class G airspace, consistent with the rules. Because the airspace is uncontrolled, there are no "clearances" but generally ATC will provide coordination. Today there is much less uncontrolled airspace, and this is less commonplace in the US. $\endgroup$ – mongo Feb 15 at 2:26

The first answer above resolves the initial portion of your question.

The second part of your question involves the issues discussed in the NTSB case (NTSB Order No. EA-3935) found by following your link (https://www.ntsb.gov/legal/alj/OnODocuments/Aviation/3935.pdf).

In this case, the court decided that although aircraft operations without an ATC clearance in uncontrolled airspace under IMC was "technically legal," based on the specific facts and circumstances involved the operation at issue was conducted in a manner that was in violation of FAR 91.13(a). Also, a careful reading of the case reveals that the court determined that operation was "careless" as opposed to "reckless." This is an important distinction.

Further, note that in order to be in violation of FAR 91.13(a) the operation must involve the "life or property of another." So, it is quite possible that if given all of the facts and circumstances surrounding this NTSB case, except that the pilot was alone and owned the aircraft he was flying, no violation would have been found.

Then, going back to your first question (already answered), if the pilot has a current instrument rating, operations under IFR and IMC in uncontrolled airspace without an ATC clearance is not, on its face, illegal. But, be careful to consider all of the circumstances of your flight before you decide to depart.

Lastly, remember ATC does not provide IFR separation between aircraft in uncontrolled airspace. If a pilot receives an IFR clearance from an airport located in "uncontrolled" airspace, the actual ATC clearance/separation does not apply until the aircraft enters "controlled" airspace. The general exception to this is that ATC will not issue a "release" to a following (second) aircraft departing in uncontrolled airspace until the first aircraft is in controlled airspace and positive IFR separation can be assured.

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ Adding to your last paragraph, ATC cannot help with sequencing if unknown IMC aircraft are doing their own thing. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Feb 14 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall that is the whole "risk" with IFR flight in uncontrolled airspace. Anyone can be there, and other than cooperative reporting, or informal coordination from FSS/ATC, there is no universal way to assure separation. Also, FWIW, the use of transponders, MODE/C and ADS-B were not always available. As an example, routine broadcast of position reports were commonplace in remote areas where there was uncontrolled airspace. As an example, northern New York was largely uncontrolled when I first got my instrument rating. $\endgroup$ – mongo Feb 15 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ @mongo, what then is the purpose of "clear of clouds" if you can fly IMC at will? You must either remain clear of clouds, or not... $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Feb 15 at 3:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If not instrument rated and equipped then one must remain clear of clouds. If instrument rated and equipped and current, then one need not remain clear of clouds subject to minimum altitudes, etc. However, if in controlled airspace then one also needs an ATC clearance. Outside controlled airspace, a clearance is not required, and last I checked, could not be obtained. For example IFR departures in uncontrolled airspace will have a provision such as upon entering controlled airspace fly heading 090. The clearance is for controlled airspace. $\endgroup$ – mongo Feb 15 at 9:37
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall -- re "Adding to your last paragraph, ATC cannot help with sequencing if unknown IMC aircraft are doing their own thing" -- but ATC also cannot help with separation if a VFR Piper Cub with no radio or electrical system is skimming just outside a cloud in Class G airspace as the known IFR/IMC aircraft w/ IFR clearance to climb through Class G into Class E comes bursting out of that cloud, and yet no one would be violating the rules in such a case. So asking "is safety compromised if this is the case" is not always a valid test of what is actually the case. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jun 9 at 0:11

The videos you were watching did not mean to imply that you can fly in IMC in uncontrolled airspace without an IFR rating. Rather, it seems that the creators of the videos wanted to avoid suggesting that you can fly in uncontrolled airspace in IMC with an IFR rating.

Some pilots believe that no legal flight in IMC is possible in uncontrolled airspace. (See for example this ASE answer). This is simply not so. If it were, why would some of the approaches into KCVO, which has a Class E floor at 700' AGL, have "minimums" well below that that? (Click here to download approach plates.)

In fact, it is legal for a pilot with an IFR rating to fly in IMC in uncontrolled airspace, at least under some circumstances. However, there is no provision for adequate separation from VFR traffic, which is allowed to fly right up to the edges of the clouds in uncontrolled airspace, at least below 1200' AGL in the daytime. This strange discordance in the FARs had led the FAA to use FAR 91.13, the "catch-all" regulation against "careless or reckless operation", to sanction some pilots for operating under IFR in uncontrolled airspace in some circumstances, as described in this 1993 NTSB ruling, also referenced in this 2016 Letter of Interpretation from the FAA.

Evidently the creators of the videos you were watching wanted to spare you the possibility of sanction, persecution, or prosecution by the FAA or NTSB, and so they chose language that avoided any suggestion that an IFR rating was a blanket license to operate in IMC under IFR in Class G airspace, and chose not to "muddy the waters" by letting you know there are in fact many situations where the FAA does condone operation in IMC under IFR in Class G airspace.

If the FAA had ever at any point made it clear under exactly what circumstances a pilot may operate in IMC under IFR in uncontrolled airspace without fear of sanction, the creators of the checkride prep videos would undoubtedly have included that information in the videos, but unfortunately this is not the case.

This answer begs another question which has not yet been asked on ASE, though it is addressed in some of the links below: "May an IFR-rated pilot flying an IFR-rated aircraft in Class G airspace violate the VFR cloud clearance requirements without an IFR clearance?"

Related ASE answers --

Can an IFR clearance be issued and flown through IMC in class G airspace?

Can an IFR clearance be issued and flown through IMC in class G airspace?

Can an IFR clearance be issued and flown through IMC in class G airspace?

Do you need an instrument rating to fly in IMC in Class G airspace?

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ Lovin' the DV's as always... $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jun 10 at 17:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.