Pilot's tip of the week

Flying VFR Through a TFR


Subscriber question:

"The situation is as follows: I'm flying VFR and I have not filed a VFR flight plan. However, I've picked up flight following and, therefore, am 'squawking and talking' with ATC. Can I transit through the outer ring of a TFR?" — Michael H. 


“Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) were around long before 9/11, but that event brought a rapid expansion. Despite the name, they can be permanent, as in security TFRs, or truly temporary such as VIP TFRs. They’re structurally the same. There’s an inner core where no traffic is allowed (usually a 10 NM radius) and an outer ring where traffic is allowed under the conditions specified in the TFR NOTAM. These conditions usually require being on an active IFR or VFR flight plan and “talking and squawking” with ATC.

This is where the confusion arises. ATC can always tell if you’ve filed IFR because it’s in the system. However, ATC has no access to VFR flight plans. So, ATC will happily give you a code and flight following through the outer area—but they assume that you’re in compliance with the rest of the NOTAM, which requires a VFR flight plan.

Can you get away with it? It’s like cheating on your taxes. Anybody can do it until they get caught.

There are other TFRs, like the ones around stadiums. These are usually only a 3 NM radius around the stadium. Because sports stadiums are in cities near major airports, ATC must vector aircraft through the TFR as part of a normal traffic flow. For example, if the Milwaukee Brewers are playing a home game, ATC will have to vector traffic landing at Milwaukee (KMKE) or Timmerman (KMWC) through the TFR. In this case, the ATC vector is enough because the NOTAM authorizes “flights specifically arriving at or departing from an airport designated by ATC using standard ATC procedures and routes.”

Firefighting TFRs (aka Hazards to Aircraft) are a different story. They are usually much larger, include higher altitudes, and irregular shapes. Don’t count on ATC to get you through a Firefighting TFR.”

Have you ever flown around a TFR because you didn't know how to get permission to transit it?

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