Have you ever filed IFR to a destination with no instrument approach? Here’s what you need to do before you take off…
Filing IFR To VFR Airports
You’re planning to fly your single-engine Cirrus SR22 from Denver’s Centennial Airport (KAPA) to the Hoxie-Sheridan County Airport (1F5), Kansas, under IFR. Snow showers along your route prevent you from flying VFR and you see that many airports between KAPA and 1F5 are reporting IFR or MVFR conditions. There’s another problem. Your destination doesn’t have an instrument approach and clouds in the area are overcast at 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the airport. Can you still attempt a flight to 1F5? Of course!
While you’re almost never taught in training how to file IFR to an airport with no instrument approach, pilots do it all the time. If you fly to non-towered airports in rural areas, you’ll face this problem all the time. And if you’re flying to an unmarked airstrip, did you know you can even file IFR to a lat/long position?
There are a few extra planning steps you’ll need to make before you take off, considering you likely won’t have a useable TAF/METAR for weather or an approach procedure for arrival.
What’s The Weather?
First things first, you’ll need to know if the weather is good enough to land under VFR at your destination. Because there’s not an instrument approach, you’ll need the clouds to be higher than the MIA, or the Minimum IFR Altitude for the area.
If there’s an airport reporting weather nearby, use the METAR/TAF to analyze local conditions. Unfortunately for 1F5, the closest weather stations are 24 and 28 miles away, at KOEL and KHLC. That’s a little too far away to accurately analyze weather conditions.
So what’s next? The FAA recently ended publishing textual Area Forecasts. Instead, use the Aviation Weather Center’s Graphical Forecast for Aviation (GFA). Using this tool, you can type in your route from KAPA to 1F5 as “KAPA.1F5”
The GFA allows you to analyze current and forecasted precipitation, cloud top/base reports, ceiling, visibility, and more around the entire United States. Below, you’ll see that the current forecast visibility is between 2-3 miles around 1F5.
Ceilings appear to be just over 2,000 feet above the airport, so let’s say 2,500 feet. That’s about 5,300 feet MSL (2,500′ cloud bases + 2,733′ airport elevation = 5,233′ MSL, rounded to 5,300′ MSL).
Keep in mind, the weather seems to be just outside of the airport and on-field conditions could be vastly different. While the GFA is a great planning tool, you shouldn’t rely on every numerical value it provides because the forecasts cover huge areas of weather and land. Use the GFA as a planning tool for broad weather interpretations.
Now, Let’s Find The “Minimum Instrument Altitude”
In order to land at 1F5, you’ll need the clouds to be higher than the Minimum Instrument Altitude (MIA) for the area. Once you break out of the clouds and have the field in-sight, you can cancel IFR and proceed with a visual approach.
Let’s start with the easiest minimum instrument altitude for your area, the “Off-Route Obstruction Clearance Altitude” (OROCA). Take a look at your Low, IFR Enroute Chart. Over 1F5, the OROCA is 4,900 feet MSL. That’s great news for your flight! You’ve already predicted that the clouds will be somewhere around 5,300 feet MSL. If the current conditions hold, you should be able to break out of the clouds under IFR, spot 1F5, and land.
In this case, the OROCA for the area was low enough for you to break out of the clouds. But what if the OROCA isn’t low enough? Keep in mind, OROCAs take into account obstructions across an entire quadrant on your IFR enroute chart, so an obstacle 25 miles away could skyrocket the minimum altitude by thousands of feet.
You have another option, called the Minimum Vectoring Altitude (MVA). An MVA is the lowest altitude that ATC can vector you around a particular section of airspace. Approach and Center controllers can divide their scopes into small sections of airspace, separating obstacles and terrain from areas with lower vectoring altitudes. When radar coverage is available from an approach or center facility, MVAs are a great way to get as low as possible over a VFR airport. But unfortunately, MVAs aren’t published on your IFR charts.
You can, however, find MVAs published online. Click here for FAA MVAs and MIAs. Keep in mind, these drawings aren’t easy to decipher and unless you’re an ATC controller, and figuring out where an airport is located on an MVA chart might be tough.
Having Trouble With Planning? Ask ATC
If you can’t figure out the MVA over an airport, the easiest way is by asking ATC “What’s the MVA over XXX?” You could do this on the radio with approach or center control, or call the ATC facility on the phone as you plan your flight.
The Catch: You Must File An Alternate
If you file an IFR flight plan to an airport with no instrument approach, you must have an alternate filed, even if the weather is completely clear. (FAR 91.169) In addition, your alternate must either have an instrument approach (use your standard alternate minimum requirements) or have weather allowing descent from the MIA to a landing under VFR.
Another Option: Descend To A Nearby IFR Airport
If you’re flying to an airport with no instrument approach and the clouds are low, check to see what instrument approaches are available at nearby airports. You can descend below the clouds while approaching another airport, break out of the clouds, land, and cancel IFR.
Then take off, maintaining VFR under the clouds to your nearby destination if conditions are safe and you feel comfortable. Alternatively, use a lower MVA nearby to break out of the clouds, descend, cancel IFR, and make visual contact with your destination.