Many of those new to aviation either haven’t heard the terms VFR/IFR or have heard them but do not understand what they mean.
There are two sets of rules by which we can fly.
1. VFR – Visual Flight Rules
2. IFR – Instrument Flight Rules
We always start our training following VFR. The key is the word “Visual”. That is, we must be able to look and see where we are going or put in another way:
Visual flight rules (VFR) are a set of rules by which a pilot operates an aircraft in weather conditions generally clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going. The weather must be better than basic VFR weather minima, that is, in visual meteorological conditions (VMC), as specified in the rules of the aviation authority in the country in which you are flying. The pilot must be able to operate the aircraft with visual reference to the ground, and by visually avoiding obstructions and other aircraft.
Therefore under VFR you cannot fly in cloud and must also stay a specified distance away from cloud.
Under VFR we navigate by Visual Reference to features on the ground. We draw our track on our map and then cross reference features on the ground that lie on our track like. Useful features include things like roads, railway tracks, radio masts, towns, coastlines, rivers, lakes, hills, mountains, wheat silos etc.
VFR flying has its place and can be used effectively for recreational flying and some professional flight activities like crop dusting, VFR flight instruction or taking tourists on “joy flights” however it is totally impractical for Airline and other high altitude activities. When you’re at 40,000 feet, flying at night and/or over a cloud layer and/or over an ocean, VFR is not a practical way to go.
Thats why we have a second set of rules: IFR by which most commercial flight operations take place. Of course IFR is always required under IMC (Instrument Meteorological conditions) however whatever the conditions, Airlines will always file an IFR flight plan.
Because IFR flights often take place without visual reference to the ground, a means of navigation other than looking outside the window is required. A number of navigational aids are available to pilots, including ground-based systems such as DME/VORs and NDBs as well as the satellite-based GPS/GNSS system. Air traffic control may assist in navigation by assigning pilots specific headings (“radar vectors”). The majority of IFR navigation is given by ground- and satellite-based systems, while radar vectors are usually reserved by ATC for sequencing aircraft for a busy approach or transitioning aircraft from takeoff to cruise, among other things.
So for anyone considering learning to fly, you can expect to first learn VFR flying techniques and then to move to IFR as later in your course you undertake your Instrument Rating training. Both skills are fun to learn and help make you a great pilot.