Takeoff Minimums

While mechanical failure is potentially hazardous during any phase of flight, a failure during takeoff under instrument conditions is extremely critical. In the event of an emergency, a decision must be made to either return to the departure airport or fly directly to a takeoff alternate. If the departure weather were below the landing minimums for the departure airport, the flight would be unable to return for landing, leaving few options and little time to reach a takeoff alternate.
In the early years of air transportation, landing minimums for commercial operators were usually lower than takeoff minimums. Therefore, it was possible that minimums allowed pilots to land at an airport but not depart from that airport. Additionally, all takeoff minimums once included ceiling, as well as visibility requirements. Today, takeoff minimums are typically lower than published landing minimums, and ceiling requirements are only included if it is necessary to see and avoid obstacles in the departure area.
The FAA establishes takeoff minimums for every airport that has published Standard Instrument Approaches. These minimums are used by commercially operated aircraft, namely Part 121 and Part 135 operators. At airports where minimums are not established, these same carriers are required to use FAA-designated standard minimums: 1 statute mile (SM) visibility for single- and twin-engine aircraft, and 1⁄2 SM for helicopters and aircraft with more than two engines.
Aircraft operating under 14 CFR Part 91 are not required to comply with established takeoff minimums. Legally, a zero/ zero departure may be made, but it is never advisable. If commercial pilots who fly passengers on a daily basis must comply with takeoff minimums, then good judgment and common sense would tell all instrument pilots to follow the established minimums as well.

Aeronautical Information Services charts list takeoff minimums only for the runways at airports that have other than standard minimums. These takeoff minimums are listed by airport in alphabetical order in the front of the TPP booklet. If an airport has non-standard takeoff minimums, a T (referred to by some as either the “triangle T” or “trouble T”) is placed in the notes sections of the instrument procedure chart. In the front of the TPP booklet, takeoff minimums are listed before the obstacle departure procedure. Some departure procedures allow a departure with standard minimums provided specific aircraft performance requirements are met. [Figure 1]
Weather and the Departure Environment Takeoff Minimums
Figure 1. Examples of non-standard takeoff minimums for Colorado Springs, Colorado

Takeoff Minimums for Commercial Operators

While Part 121 and Part 135 operators are the primary users of takeoff minimums, they may be able to use alternative takeoff minimums based on their individual OpSpecs. Through these OpSpecs, operators are authorized to depart with lower-than-standard minimums provided they have the necessary equipment and crew training.

Operations Specifications (OpSpecs)

Within the air transportation industry, there is a need to establish and administer safety standards to accommodate many variables. These variables include a wide range of aircraft, varied operator capabilities, the various situations requiring different types of air transportation, and the continual, rapid changes in aviation technology. It is impractical to address these variables through the promulgation of safety regulations for each and every type of air transport situation and the varying degrees of operator capabilities. Also, it is impractical to address the rapidly changing aviation technology and environment through the regulatory process. Safety regulations would be extremely complex and unwieldy if all possible variations and situations were addressed by regulation. Instead, the safety standards established by regulation should usually have a broad application that allows varying acceptable methods of compliance. The OpSpecs provide an effective method for establishing safety standards that address a wide range of variables. In addition, OpSpecs can be adapted to a specific certificate holder or operator’s class and size of aircraft and type and kinds of operations. OpSpecs can be tailored to suit an individual certificate holder or operator’s needs.
Part 121 and Part 135 certificate holders have the ability, through the use of approved OpSpecs, to use lower-thanstandard takeoff minimums. Depending on the equipment installed in a specific type of aircraft, the crew training, and the type of equipment installed at a particular airport, these operators can depart from appropriately equipped runways with as little as 300 feet RVR. Additionally, OpSpecs outline provisions for approach minimums, alternate airports, and weather services in Volume 3 of FAA Order 8900.1, Flight Standards Information Management System (FSIMS).

Ceiling and Visibility Requirements

All takeoffs and departures have visibility minimums (some may have minimum ceiling requirements) incorporated into the procedure. There are a number of methods to report visibility and a variety of ways to distribute these reports, including automated weather observations. Flight crews should always check the weather, including ceiling and visibility information, prior to departure. Never launch an IFR flight without obtaining current visibility information immediately prior to departure. Further, when ceiling and visibility minimums are specified for IFR departure, both are applicable.
Weather reporting stations for specific airports across the country can be located by reviewing the CS. Weather sources along with their respective phone numbers and frequencies are listed by airport. Frequencies for weather sources, such as Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS), Digital Automatic Terminal Information Service (D-ATIS), Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS), Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), and FAA Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) are published on approach charts as well. [Figure 2]
Weather and the Departure Environment Takeoff Minimums
Figure 2. Examples of weather information of various flight information publications (FLIP)


Visibility is the ability, as determined by atmospheric conditions and expressed in units of distance, to see and identify prominent unlighted objects by day and prominent lighted objects by night. Visibility is reported as statute miles, hundreds of feet, or meters.

Prevailing Visibility

Prevailing visibility is the greatest horizontal visibility equaled or exceeded throughout at least half the horizon circle, which need not necessarily be continuous. Prevailing visibility is reported in statute miles or fractions of miles.

Runway Visibility Value (RVV)

Runway visibility value is the visibility determined for a particular runway by a transmissometer. A meter provides continuous indication of the visibility (reported in statute miles or fractions of miles) for the runway. RVV is used in lieu of prevailing visibility in determining minimums for a particular runway.

Tower Visibility

Tower visibility is the prevailing visibility determined from the airport traffic control tower at locations that also report the surface visibility.

Runway Visual Range (RVR)

Runway visual range is an instrumentally derived value, based on standard calibrations, that represents the horizontal distance a pilot sees down the runway from the approach end. It is based on the sighting of either high intensity runway lights or on the visual contrast of other targets, whichever yields the greater visual range. RVR, in contrast to prevailing or runway visibility, is based on what a pilot in a moving aircraft should see looking down the runway. RVR is horizontal visual range, not slant visual range. RVR is reported in hundreds of feet, so the values must be converted to SM if the visibility in SM is not reported. [Figure 3] It is based on the measurement of a transmissometer made near the touchdown point of the instrument runway and is reported in hundreds of feet. RVR is used in lieu of RVV and/or prevailing visibility in determining minimums for a particular runway.
Weather and the Departure Environment Takeoff Minimums
Figure 3. RVR conversion table

Types of RVR

The following are types of RVR that may be used:
  • Touchdown RVR—the RVR visibility readout values obtained from RVR equipment serving the runway touchdown zone.
  • Mid-RVR—the RVR readout values obtained from RVR equipment located near the runway midpoint
  • Rollout RVR—the RVR readout values obtained from RVR equipment located nearest the rollout end of the runway.
  • Far End RVR—when four RVR visibility sensors (VS) are installed, the far end RVR VS is the touchdown RVR VS on the reciprocal runway. The far end sensor will serve as additional information.
RVR is the primary visibility measurement used by Part 121 and Part 135 operators with specific visibility reports and controlling values outlined in their respective OpSpecs. Under their OpSpecs agreements, the operator must have specific, current RVR reports, if available, to proceed with an instrument departure. OpSpecs also outline which visibility report is controlling in various departure scenarios.

Adequate Visual Reference

Another set of lower-than-standard takeoff minimums is available to Part 121 and Part 135 operations as outlined in their respective OpSpecs document. When certain types of visibility reports are unavailable or specific equipment is out of service, the flight can still depart the airport if the pilot can maintain adequate visual reference. An appropriate visual aid must be available to ensure the takeoff surface can be continuously identified, and directional control can be maintained throughout the takeoff run. Appropriate visual aids include high intensity runway lights, runway centerline lights, runway centerline markings, or other runway lighting and markings. With adequate visual references and appropriate OpSpec approval, commercial operators may take off with a visibility of 1600 RVR or ¼ SM.


Ceiling is the height above the earth’s surface of the lowest layer of clouds or obscuring phenomena that is reported as broken, overcast, or obscuration and not classified as thin or partial.