Special VFR (SVFR) procedures allow us to get in or out of Class B, C, D or E surface areas when the weather is below basic VFR, but still good enough to fly. In some parts of Alaska they are used routinely, where weather conditions are frequently dicey. A national revision of FAA internal policy caused the Air Traffic staff in Anchorage to re-examine their procedures, which initially caused concern within the pilot community—as Anchorage controllers often respond to requests for “specials” to get pilots in and out of Lake Hood and Merrill Field. When first announced, the use of radar as a tool for separation was the focus. The prospect of changes that could severely impact traffic in and out of area airports loomed large. I am pleased to report, thanks to the efforts of FAA Air Traffic Organization staff in Alaska, that procedural changes are now expected to streamline the process, and many cases increase ATC’s ability to accommodate SVFR traffic.
At a recent meeting of the Alaska Aviation Coordination Council, Merrill Tower Manager Brian Ochs shared the good news with representatives from the aviation industry. A challenge for controllers was the national guidance based on a single surface area. This didn’t adequately address the Anchorage situation with multiple adjoining surface areas: Anchorage International (ANC), Lake Hood (LHD), Merrill Field (MRI), Elmendorf (EDF), and Bryant Army Airfield (FRN). A working group was established across the Anchorage facilities to work the issue—spurred on by concerns expressed from aviation groups and local operators. Last March, FAA held a Safety Risk Management panel meeting, and invited AOPA and other stakeholder representatives to evaluate their plan. In the subsequent months, FAA reviews were held and approval ultimately received to implement new internal procedures.
The process from a pilot perspective remains unchanged. We must ASK for a Special VFR clearance—the controller can’t offer it to us. Ask Clearance Delivery if you want to depart ANC or LHD, or Ground Control at MRI. Arriving traffic may request a special from Anchorage Approach. To address the issue of adjacent, “wing tip to wing tip” operations, ATC defined two cases, high and low visibility SVFR. During High Visibility SVFR conditions, the ceiling is a little below 1,000 ft, but visibility is three miles or greater. When these conditions exist, each facility can issue specials independently. When the visibility comes down to less than 3 miles, a different set of procedures go into effect, and coordination is required across adjacent surfaces. Priority will be given to inbound traffic, and outbound flights will be staggered to reduce congestion over the Point McKenzie area.
We owe a big THANK YOU to the Air Traffic Control staff for going the extra mile to take what could have been a serious impact on access to the Anchorage airports, and developing procedures that may increase the flow of SVFR traffic. When fall weather arrives, and these procedures get more use, ATC would like your feedback. If you have comments or concerns, please contact: David Chilson, Support Manager, FAA Alaska Terminal District, firstname.lastname@example.org, 907-271-2703. Thanks also to the pilots and operators who communicated their concerns to FAA when the prospect of these changes first was announced, and who participated in the Safety Risk Management Panel. This spirit of cooperation has helped reach a better outcome than I think anyone expected when the national changes were first announced!
Post Script on SVFR
While it is nice to have SVFR procedures in our tool kit, we should be extremely cautious in their application. Conditions that require SVFR by definition mean we are working under restricted circumstances, of either ceiling or visibility, which limit our options. We should be very familiar with the airport, local terrain and weather conditions before asking for a special. Under stable conditions a special can speed us on our way to better weather near by, but in other cases they may be leading us into something worse. Check out AOPA’s Air Safety Institute’s article “How safe is special VFR” to explore this topic in greater detail.