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IFR vs. VFR: What’s the Difference between these Two Flying Methods?

The world of aviation has a lot of tricky, specialized terms and acronyms that can be confusing to keep straight at first. If you’re looking into flight training or are new to the industry, you have most likely come across the acronyms IFR and VFR, and you might be wondering what exactly they mean.

This article examines the similarities and differences between these important designations and what they mean to you as a new student. Let’s get started!

Instrument Flight Rules vs. Visual Flight Rules

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) are the two sets of rules for operating any aircraft. The type of flying you use, whether it’s IFR or VFR, will depend mainly on the weather conditions. While there are a number of other factors that influence the decision, it’s usually the weather that dictates whether you fly VFR or IFR.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines weather-related flight conditions for VFR and IFR in terms of specific values for ceiling and visibility. With respect to aircraft performance, a ceiling is the maximum density altitude an aircraft can reach under a set of conditions, as determined by its flight envelope.

IFR requires a ceiling less than 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL) and/or visibility of fewer than three miles. VFR requires a ceiling greater than 3,000 feet AGL and visibility that’s greater than five miles.

Even though instrument flying may seem like a confusing concept at first, especially if you’re just starting flight school, it becomes more clear when you learn the difference between the two sets of rules. If you don’t know exactly what these mean, don’t feel too bad – even veteran pilots can sometimes use simple aviation terms incorrectly.

Let’s explore how these two terms and methods of flying differ and why they’re important to you as a pilot.


When you first start flight school, VFR is the set of rules you’ll learn initially. While we know that VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules, the term actually refers to a set of rules created by the FAA for flight in VMC, or “visual meteorological conditions.” Basically, VMC defines at what time and in which conditions you are allowed to fly with a VFR pilot rating.

For example, you cannot fly through heavy clouds, and in some types of air space, you have to be able to see the ground. Under VFR rules, you’re also responsible for being able to see other aircraft, avoiding collisions and maintaining minimum horizontal visibility of three to five miles.  

VFR essentially exists to ensure that pilots flying visually don’t lose visibility up in the clouds and crash into each other. Since air traffic control is not responsible for keeping VFR airplanes separated, it’s up to the pilot-in-command to avoid a collision. This means that the pilot needs to be able to see in front of and around the aircraft while flying. Early on in flight school, a student pilot must master general areas of expertise as it pertains to the correct general operability of an aircraft under VFR.

Additionally, there are two subsets of VFR, discussed below, that come into play under certain circumstances.

Marginal Visual Flight Rules

If an airport is abiding by Marginal Visual Flight Rules (MVFR) then it has ceilings from 1,000 feet to 3,000 feet and/or three to five miles of visibility. Pilots must maintain VFR cloud clearance in Class E airspace, at 700 or 1,200 feet AGL. No matter what the terrain is like, you have to stay 500 feet below the clouds so you can avoid descending IFR traffic. So, if the cloud bases are at 3,000 feet, you have to fly at 2,500 feet. For those without an instrument rating, you may not want to take off when the conditions are MVFR, as it’s best to fly IFR and avoid the poor flying conditions.

Special Visual Flight Rules

Another subset of normal VFR rules is Special Visual Flight Rules (SVFR). An SVFR flight is a VFR flight that’s cleared by air traffic control to operate within a control zone that’s normally below visual meteorological conditions. In the daytime, you must have at least one mile of flight visibility and clear of clouds. At night, pilots need to hold an instrument rating as pilot-in-command and be operating an IFR-certified airplane.


The harder rating to obtain out of the these two is IFR. Similar to VFR, IFR is a set of rules that govern an aircraft flying in “instrument meteorological conditions”, or IMC. IMC is defined as the type of weather that’s below the minimums prescribed for flight under VFR. Simply put, IFR flying means navigating a plane through rough weather conditions, heavy clouds or under the darkness of night, leveraging cockpit instruments as altimeters, GPS systems and vertical speed indicators.  

It may sound risky to fly by instruments, but once you receive the proper training, it actually improves your safety. Throughout your training, you’ll learn how to use navigational aids like VORs, GPS, and how to fly approaches using an instrument landing system (ILS). Instrument training also includes learning to read weather systems and reports, understanding icing conditions, and how the human body responds to spatial disorientation.

WHile instrument flying may involve a higher degree of precision and professionalism than VFR flying, earning an instrument rating means you won’t be grounded as often because of bad weather—plus, it’s an essential component of advancing your skills and safety as a pilot.

Low Instrument Flight Rules

Low Instrument Flight Rules (LIFR) is a subset of the IFR rating defined by ceilings that are less than 500 feet and/or visibility that is less than one mile. In other words, even experienced IFR pilots may have a hard time flying in these types of conditions.

In Conclusion

Overall, the weather will be the primary factor that dictates whether you fly under IFR or VFR. If you ever feel that the conditions are just too bad to take a risk, there’s nothing wrong with delaying your flight so you can arrive at your destination safely. Remember to listen to local weather reports, and stay in contact with local air traffic controllers so you’ll know which set of rules you’ll need to fly by for each flight. With practice, you’ll soon become well versed in each set of rules, and the conditions that govern each of them.

Do you want to obtain a VFR or IFR rating? Get in touch with the flight instructors at Inflight Pilot Training today!

We are a premier pilot training company serving the Twin Cities and surrounding areas. With a reputable training program and an extensive roster of highly skilled, certified flight instructors, it’s our goal to help you achieve the rating or certification you want. We can help you reach your goals – get in touch with our team of flight instructors to find out more.

For additional information on Inflight training programs, contact us today or call (952) 698-3000.