Saturday, June 14, 2008

Special VFR

We took a short flight from El Monte to Santa Monica yesterday in hazy skies and upon listening to the ATIS information for KSMO we paused. Visibility was 6 miles, but they mentioned scattered clouds (or was it broken clouds?) with a ceiling of 800 feet. Ron and I were debating whether or not we could land there all the way up until he contacted the tower. When the controller said the field was "below VFR minimums, say intentions" we knew we had to ask for Special VFR.

Special VFR allows a certificated pilot to enter the airspace with only 1 mile visibility and the requirement for cloud clearance is simply to remain clear of clouds. That, we could do. The controller, however, is not allowed to suggest a Special VFR clearance, it must come from the pilot. This can lead to some confusion and it did when we were ready to return to El Monte.

Upon calling Santa Monica's ground controller Ron was informed that the field was less than VFR conditions and to say intentions. It didn't quite register with Ron that he hadn't asked for Special VFR and so he asked if we could take off on runway 3, the downwind runway, so as to avoid the clouds that were west of the field. The controller said the field conditions were less that VFR and to Say Intentions. Ron looked at me with a quizzical expression. I mouthed "s p e c i a l" and he caught it. "We'd like a Special VFR departure" and those were the magic word. However, after ground gave us the clearance, Ron switched to tower and announced that we were at runway 3 for straight-out departure and didn't mention Special VFR. It started all over again. Tower sent us back to ground to get a clearance (which we already had, but by this time Ron was so confused he just did what the tower told him to do...allthough if he had just mentioned "Special" we would have been done with it). We started the whole routine over again with ground and this time everything went smooth. A straight-out departure with the wind at our back turned out to be just fine, we didn't try to climb aggressively and took extra caution.

Despite our bungling of the communicaiton the tower controller was super friendly and even had a discussion with us about our lunch plans. Of course, the field was pretty quite without the usual barrage of VFR flights. It was a good learning experience as we discussed the requirements for Special VFR all the way back home and into the next day.

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