What’s the Difference Between IFR & VFR?

The world of aviation has countless terms and acronyms that pilots are expected to memorize. IFR and VFR are just two prominent examples that are critical for student pilots to become familiar with. IFR stands for “instrument flight rules,” whereas VFR is “visual flight rules.” With similar shorthand spellings, people often confuse the two. To better understand their importance, this blog will cover their unique features.


IFR is generally used when the weather is below that of VFR. To legally fly under IFR, pilots are obligated to hold an instrument rating, be on an IFR flight plan, and the aircraft must be equipped for IFR flight. Furthermore, apart from the equipment required for VFR flight, which we will cover shortly, the aircraft must also have equipment listed in Code of Federal Aviation Regulations (CFR) 91.207 which is recalled by the acronym “GRABCARD” and includes the generator or alternator for electricity, rate of turn indicator, sensitive altimeter, turn coordinator, the clock hardwired into the aircraft, attitude indicator, radios appropriate to the flight, directional gyro, and DME, if used above 24,000 feet. Moreover, pilots are expected to have an IFR certificate, be on IFR flight plan, and have IFR clearance when flying in Class A airspace.


Created by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), VFR governs how pilots should fly their aircraft using visual references outside the cockpit. To fly according to VFR, the pilots must have a good view of the horizon, the ground, and stay out of the clouds. For instance, there are specific cloud clearances and visual distances that must be maintained in VFR.

In clear weather, usually called visual meteorological conditions (VMC), pilots can maintain VFR with ease as they can see their surroundings perfectly. However, VFR comes with some restrictions, one being that VFR conditions cannot have less than 3 miles of visibility and the ceiling cannot be less than 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL).

During the daytime, a VFR flight requires that the aircraft have the equipment detailed in the CFR 91.205. Commonly referred to as the acronym “TOMATO FLAMES,” CFR 91.205 includes the tachometer, oil pressure gauge, magnetic compass, airspeed indicator, temperature gauge for each liquid cooled engine, oil temperature gauge, fuel gauge, landing gear position indicator, altimeter, manifold pressure gauge, emergency locator transmitter, and seatbelts.

Comparing IFR and VFR

When comparing IFR and VFR, pilots operating under VFR have more flexibility, meaning that they do need to be on a flight plan or in contact with air traffic control. IFR pilots, on the other hand, must be on an IFR flight plan and be in contact with ATC.

Weather Conditions

When it comes to flight rules, weather conditions are divided into four different categories: VFR, MVFR, IFR, and LIFR. In addition, each category is assigned one of four colors: green, blue, red, and magenta. Green is utilized to designate VFR which is a ceiling of more than 3,000 feet AGL with a visibility range over 5 SM (statute miles). Blue represents the MVFR (Marginal VFR) and designates conditions with ceilings between 1,000 and 3,000 feet AGL, with visibility between 3 and 5 SM. IFR is shown in red and represents ceilings lower than 1,000 feet AGL, with visibility limited to less than 3 SM. Lastly, LIFR (Low IFR) is indicated by magenta, has a ceiling of less than 500 feet AGL, and visibility of less than 1 SM.

Choosing IFR or VFR

According to the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), about half of all weather-related accidents are attributed to continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions. This often happens because the pilot is not properly trained or prepared to fly into IFR conditions, or the plane does not have the right equipment. For casual flights, VFR is the most enjoyable option. When weather is unpredictable, IFR is the better choice. Nonetheless, this does not mean you can fly under any conditions.   


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