Pilot's tip of the week

Assigned Altitudes Under VFR


Subscriber question:

"I was on VFR Flight Following and the controller told me to maintain at or above 4500 feet. That was fine until I needed to descend for my destination and couldn’t get a break to ask. I started down and was chastised for it. But I was VFR, so altitude should have been my choice, right?” — Dave W.


“You’re not the only one who’s found himself in this dilemma. Pilots are encouraged to use Flight Following services when available only to find themselves stuck with an ATC restriction that they can’t remove because of frequency congestion.

And I have some bad news for you: You probably did bust a regulation. The relevant paragraph is 14 CFR 91.123 Compliance with ATC clearances and instructions which says:

(b) Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised.

The FAA Chief Legal Counsel has issued several opinions on this subject. The most pertinent is the Karas 2013 opinion, which we’ll link in the comments below. It states in part:

Pilots flying in controlled airspace must comply with all ATC instructions, regardless of whether the pilot is flying VFR or IFR, in accordance with§ 91.123(b). ATC instructions include headings, turns, altitude instructions and general directions … A pilot flying VFR in Class E airspace, which is controlled airspace, is not required to communicate with ATC; however, if a pilot is communicating with ATC and ATC issues an instruction, the pilot must comply with that instruction.

The FAA Legal opinion is pretty clear—and these are the folks that will rule on a pilot deviation. If you want to keep your license, you must comply with ATC instructions, even while VFR and in Class E airspace.

I’d recommend any pilot files a NASA ASRS Report after landing if caught by such a situation.”

If you were VFR and assigned an altitude by ATC, couldn't get in a descent request, and were about to overfly your destination, what would you do?

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