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When talking to approach control for the purpose of performing practice instrument approaches in VMC with a safety pilot, the pilot (and safety pilot) is required to "maintain VFR." However, the pilot is also required to follow the controller's instructions and vectors.

When maintaining cloud clearances in order to comply with the "maintain VFR" requirement, it is sometimes necessary to maneuver around, under, etc. small clouds. Sometimes the maneuvering involves a lot of small corrections: maybe a few thousand feet off course, or going under a cloud by 500 to 1000 feet.

Do controllers expect to be told every time a VFR aircraft in VMC has to maneuver around small clouds? What phraseology is required? For example, is "maneuvering to maintain VFR" sufficient, or do you have to state each turn descent/climb etc.? At busy approaches it seems like a huge annoyance to controllers to call with every little course correction/adjustment to maintain VFR, but perhaps that is what they expect.

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Yes, definitely. Approach is expecting you to fly the approach as published and/or instructed and if you can't do that for any reason then you need to tell them. They may be providing separation between you and other aircraft, and if you start maneuvering without any explanation that could make things difficult for them.

The last time it happened to me I was being vectored when my safety pilot told me that another aircraft was heading towards us. I turned and climbed and then told ATC "maneuvering for traffic, will resume 3000 and heading 150 when able". The controller acknowledged, waited until I was (more or less) back on course and then gave me another vector.

Having said all that, if you can't fly the approach without deviating all over the sky then you should consider if it's really worth it. First, because it may not be very useful or realistic practice, and second because if you put a higher workload on ATC then they may just drop you completely. The ATC orders 4-8-11 say:

[...] ensure that neither VFR nor IFR practice approaches disrupt the flow of other arriving and departing IFR or VFR aircraft. Authorize, withdraw authorization, or refuse to authorize practice approaches as traffic conditions require.

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  • $\begingroup$ You make such a good point about it not being realistic practice if I'm having to maneuver repeatedly! Where I fly there tends to be small puffy clouds scattered in precisely the most inconvenient locations at around 1000 AGL. I've heard of sometimes safety pilot or even a CFI taking someone under the hood through these little cotton ball clouds. The pilot under the hood doesn't see them coming, but you can tell when you go through one, its about 1 or 2 seconds, but its still technically violation of cloud distances requirement. $\endgroup$ – Devil07 Jun 20 '18 at 2:34
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If you are on a radar vectors clearance and you alter heading to maintain cloud separation for any length of time, the controller is going to notice it at some point and ask you what is going on, which would be more distracting than calling in your heading change in the first place, so you should declare heading changes to stay clear of cloud. I would call in "XXX altering heading left to xxx degrees for cloud separation". Not sure I'd climb or descend unless I absolutely had to because I think that can cause more grief for ATC, separation wise, than heading changes.

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My CFI referred to scattered white puffy things too small to hide another airplane as "areas of reduced visibility" rather than "clouds" for exactly this reason. If there are enough actual "clouds" that maintaining VFR is non-trivial, then it's probably best to find another time/place to practice. If it's an everyday phenomenon in your area, though, talk to some local CFIIs for advice. You might even phone/visit the local ATC unit and see what they say; there may be special local rules to address it if it's that bad.

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