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After flying on an IFR clearance through a line of Thunderstorms, ATC provided me the option of a "VFR descent at own discretion". After descending and with the field in sight I requested to cancel IFR, to which her reply was that "you've been VFR this whole time".

My understanding was that a IFR has to be canceled explicitly by ATC (as discussed in this question), although I can't find the reference in the ATC manual (7110.65).

So my questions are:

  • Does ATC need to explicitly state "Cancel IFR" for a flight to transition to VFR?
  • If so, where is this requirement stated?
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  • $\begingroup$ Not sure what link you are referring to (there was none in the original post), but I've added the link to the FAA splash page. $\endgroup$
    – nodapic
    Aug 3 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ Once you have accepted a maneuver specifically described as under Visual Flight Rules why would you think you are still covered by Instrument Flight Rules? $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Bingo, what DJClayworth said. While you may not have specifically said the words "cancel IFR", whatever words you chose to use when accepting a VFR descent apparently accomplished the same thing. You are typically either IFR or VFR, so if you accept one you should not presume to simultaneously be the other. $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth There's at least one example: despite the name, VFR-on-top is an IFR clearance. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Aug 3 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ Whatever answers you get here, I'd suggest you check liveatc.net to see if you can find a recording of your conversation with the controller. Since controllers can't cancel IFR it seems like there may be something that was missed or misunderstood in the exchange. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Aug 3 at 18:58
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Paragraph 7–1–2 of the 7110.65 permits a controller to issue a "clearance" to maintain "VFR conditions" if an IFR-flight-plan pilot requests a VFR climb or descent. The paragraph goes on to say that an "alternative clearance" must be issued if there is reason to believe the pilot cannot maintain VFR.

Remember that VFR is not the same as VMC; there are rules pertaining to cloud clearance that you must follow if told to maintain "VFR."

But of course the Note at paragraph 2–1–4 is very clear that "It is solely the pilot's prerogative to cancel an IFR flight plan." 4–2–10 prescribes the phraseology to confirm that a pilot has cancelled: "(Call sign) IFR CANCELLATION RECEIVED." If you did not hear that, you can assume your IFR flight plan is still active. Reading between the lines of the phraseology prescribed at 7–1–2, my interpretation is that an IFR pilot cleared to "maintain VFR conditions" does not receive IFR separation for a period of time1 but may subsequently be instructed to maintain a set altitude and/or heading and would from that point receive IFR separation again without needing to hear "Cleared to [clearance limit] via..." As I read it, the act of requesting a VFR climb or descent does not necessarily imply a request to cancel IFR altogether.

So to sum up: My opinion of the rule is that the controller was correct, you had been VFR since being issued the VFR descent and you were not receiving IFR separation. But you were still on an IFR flight plan, and that plan had not been canceled yet. The situation was probably muddled by your being close to your destination airport.

If I was the controller I would want to hear you say, whether before or after the VFR descent, "N12345 cancel IFR." If I switched you to CTAF before then I would issue "Report cancellation of IFR in the air this frequency or on the ground at [other frequency]."


1Supporting evidence that a pilot cleared for a VFR climb/descent does not receive IFR separation is found at paragraph 13–2–2a8(a)(9) which deals with the "Conflict Probe" tool used to ensure separation in the oceanic environment. The tool does not account for, among other things, separation provided by using the procedures of paragraph 8–8–5, VFR climb/descent. Of course, VFR pilots are separated from other pilots by the "see-and-avoid" rule, which the Conflict Probe cannot anticipate. But note also that the tool still tracks these aircraft, meaning their flight plans are not cancelled altogether.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good answer, and I typed my comment on the question above before reading this. It does raise some questions though, first and foremost; why might a controller choose to use a potentially ambiguous statement like "maintain VFR conditions" versus something more specific and clear like "deviations +/- 20 degrees approved to maintain VMC, report back on course."? We should all understand the difference between VFR and VMC, (C = Conditions...) why muddy the waters mixing terms? $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael I've never used this but it could be the case that the controller is unable to approve a deviation based on other IFR traffic. I could come up with some scenarios; for example a pilot wants to avoid a thunderhead but retain their IFR clearance in order to get below a cloud layer farther along their route. If the controller can't approve deviations the pilot could request a VFR descent to get below the traffic. Perhaps. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Aug 3 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @randomhead, great answer. That was my mental model; I had not explicitly stated "cancel IFR", but only accepted the descent. When I did explicitly state "request cancelation of IFR" is when she implied that my flight plan had already be canceled. So that was the confusion that lead to the question posted here in the first place... Thank you! $\endgroup$
    – nodapic
    Aug 17 at 20:34
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At KLAR, it was common for Lakes Air B190s to request "VFR climb-on-course", because the departure procedure sends you to the VOR to climb-in-hold.

The phraseology was "climb in VFR conditions, maintain one-five thousand" (their filed altitude), and we'd advise them of any traffic they might be climbing through.

Conversely, if I had multiple IFR targets overflying an airport, and an aircraft coming from a higher altitude that wants to land, I could advise the landing aircraft of the traffic, and inform them to expect lower when clear. If the aircraft then requests a VFR descent, the phraseology is "descend in VFR conditions through XXX." (altitude 1000 feet below the lowest traffic, but at or above minimum IFR)

You're still on an IFR clearance, but in "VMC+see-and-avoid" until the IFR altitude is reached.

In the US, this clearance cannot be used if any part of the restriction is in Class A airspace.

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I have never heard of the type of procedure that you are describing that led to the VFR descent and an automatic cancelation of IFR in the manner you are suggesting. There are several scenarios under which you may be given a "descend at pilot's discretion" or "descend VFR" to some altitude, but still remaining IFR.

Perhaps there was some communication with ATC prior to beginning your VFR descent that satisfied the requirements of an IFR cancelation. I don't know what that would be however. I'm being vague here because there seemingly has to be more information involved in the situation you are describing for ATC to indicate you had previously canceled IFR in some fashion.

However, receiving a VFR climb/descent clearance while on an IFR clearance does not automatically cancel your IFR flight plan. There should be no ambiguity, uncommunicated inference, etc., regarding the cancelation of IFR.

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    $\begingroup$ 7–1–2 a "You may clear aircraft to maintain “VFR conditions” if one of the following conditions exists: 1. The pilot of an aircraft on an IFR flight plan requests a VFR climb/descent." $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Aug 3 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ @randomhead - good point, I do remember that from my old ATC days - although I don't recall ever issuing that particular clearance myself. Still does not cancel IFR plan of course (just the ATC separation requirements during the VFR part). So, must be more to the story if the controller told the OP that he was VFR and no cancelation was necessary. $\endgroup$
    – 757toga
    Aug 3 at 19:43

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