A couple of weeks ago, I was asked what was the difference between VFR on-top and VFR over-the-top. I explained the difference between the two, but found the question interesting. As I thought more about it, I began to realize that there is some confusion with these terms. It occurred to me that, in the past, I had heard pilots use the terms incorrectly. I quickly realized, that of all the line checks I had taken in my career, the topic had never really come up. I think now is a good time for an explanation.
I think the confusion results from the definitions themselves. VFR over-the-top is listed in the General Definitions section of the FAR’s. VFR on-top is not. However, IFR over-the-top is listed in the definitions as well. So where do we get the term VFR on-top? Well, let’s review each term and focus on the language.
VFR over-the-top, with respect to the operation of aircraft, means the operation of an aircraft over-the-top under VFR when it is not being operated on an IFR flight plan. This is the exact definition, as written, in the FAR’s Part 1, Chapter 1.1. Simply put, an aircraft must be filed on a VFR flight plan and operating over the top of the underlying cloud layer or obscuration in visual meteorological conditions.
In order to operate VFR over-the-top, Federal Aviation Regulations require that specific parameters concerning aircraft equipment, weather conditions, and pilot qualifications must be met. Please refer to the following regulations:
Part 91.507 Equipment Requirements
Part 135.159 Equipment Requirements
Part 135.211 VFR over-the-top carrying passengers
Part 135.243 Pilot In Command Qualifications
VFR on top or IFR over-the-top with respect to operation of an aircraft, means an aircraft over-the-top on an IFR flight plan when cleared by air traffic control to “maintain VFR conditions” or “VFR on-top”. VFR on top is associated with aircraft filed on IFR flight plans and cleared to operate over-the-top of the underlying cloud layer or obscuration while maintaining VFR conditions. So, the devil is in the wording.
This issue becomes more complex depending on aircraft category, number of pilots required, gross weight, and passenger carrying requirements. It is incumbent upon the pilot to read the regulations and determine if the requirements are being met to fly VFR over-the-top.
After reading and researching, I realize that this subject tends to take a back seat to more important compliance and regulatory issues. However, it is applicable to most helicopter pilots. The FAR’s are sometimes vague and leave room for interpretation. When in doubt, always use the more conservative approach and contact your local Flight Standards District Office for further explanation and clarification. Point in fact. Every now and again, it is a good idea to read and dissect those definitions. You may just learn something! Good Luck and Good Flying.