Activating your flight plan just might save the day
There's an old adage that went along the lines of, "When the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the airplane, we can take off."
Recent statistics indicate that more than half of the pilots involved in mishaps did not file a flight plan before the accident flight. I wonder if they are the same pilots who don't bother to get a weather briefing of any kind before they fly.
There is a lot of paperwork associated with modern flying. For the airlines, there are manifests, schedules, training records, and reports, just on the pilot side. Then there are bid sheets and all the other documentation needed for crews to arrange schedules. Airline paperwork seems endless.
If you're learning to fly at an FAR Part 141 flight school, it may not seem much better. Is it an almost full-time task to keep track of all the student policies, syllabi, lesson plans, and other government-required training records? Never mind the actual flying. Like it or not, there is a lot of paperwork.
Add to that your own pilot's flight log, stuff on the Internet, weather briefing notes, weight and balance calculations, airport radio frequencies, elevations and diagrams, sectional charts-throw in the en route charts and terminal publications required for flight under instrument flight rules (IFR), and you're probably justified in screaming, "Enough!" Can we go flying now?
You might think so. But not quite yet. There's one more form you should fill out-and it may be the most important of all. It's called FAA Form 7233-1, dated August 1982. PIC responsibility Paragraph 91.103 of the federal aviation regulations says this under the heading of Preflight Action:
"Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. This information must include-
"(a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC."
FAR 91.103 says that the PIC also needs to be familiar with winds, temperatures, takeoff and landing distances, aircraft performance, airport elevations, runway length and slopes, gross weight, etc.
The only way that you can really comply with these requirements is to do your homework, develop a plan, and carefully execute what you've planned. As a pilot, you are required to do all those things before every flight.
After you've gone to all that trouble, why not finish the job, and complete that final piece of paperwork? FAA Form 7233-1 is better known as the FAA Flight Plan form, and it hasn't changed for more than 20 years now. It is shown in Figure 5-1-2 of the current Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and can be found in the members-only section of AOPA Online.
What you put down on that form is far more than just more paperwork. It's an insurance policy that indicates you've done your homework. It could also have a significant payout.
A good flight plan is your ticket to a smooth flight, with no glitches that haven't been at least considered; few surprises; a way to check your progress; and a guarantee that someone will be looking over your shoulder as you fly, taking into account all the details of your route.
It's also your assurance that if something goes amiss, somebody will be looking for you within 30 minutes if you don't show up where and when you said you would. Those few extra minutes could be the difference between a good outcome and one that isn't so good.
View a flight plan as the most significant checklist you ever ran. It ticks off most of the important things that have to be considered for any flight. We've all known pilots who let us know in no uncertain terms that they didn't need a checklist (or a flight plan). They'd say, "It's all right up here," while pointing at their heads. Have you ever known anyone who got lost because they hadn't planned the flight very well-or landed gear up because they didn't "need" a checklist?
Your flight school, through its aircraft rental agreement or other published policies, may require that you file a flight plan for every cross-country flight. And the FAA requires that you file-and activate-a VFR or IFR flight plan before you can be given permission to fly into temporary flight restriction (TFR) airspace, like that accompanying President Bush's travel. So why not get in the habit now of filing, and using, a flight plan?
The planning behind the plan
A written flight plan represents what you intend to do and it says that you've considered everything you're supposed to have considered-ahead of time-according to the regulations, good judgment, and sound operating procedure.
Don't fill out the flight plan form until all of the following have been completed. Filling out the flight plan (FAA Form 7233-1) implies that you have:
- Used current aeronautical charts to scope out your departure, en route, and destination checkpoints.
- Obtained a good weather briefing on your point of departure, route of flight, destination, and alternate airports in case things don't go as planned.
- Planned the details of your flight-route, speed, times, fuel consumption, fuel reserves, contingencies, etc.-based on the actual and currently forecast weather.
- Checked notices to airmen (notams): "local" within your nearest flight service station's area; "distant" in areas to which you'll fly outside your local FSS area; and FDC, which address the status of navigation aids and other significant factors. FDC notams effective more than 400 miles from the departure FSS must be specifically requested by the pilot.
- Checked for TFRs along your entire route of flight. (These can pop up with almost no advance notice, and can change, so recheck them at every en route stop.)
- Made alternate/contingency plans for the possibility that the flight cannot be completed as planned. Headwinds may cause your fuel reserves to drop below the minimum requirements (and your personal minimums are likely higher than that); the visibility could deteriorate or ceiling drop; or winds may increase at your destination airport, and not permit a safe landing.
- Completed a kneeboard pilot's log, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's flight planning sheet, or some similar formal flight log form and progress sheet to help you keep track of pertinent information like course, checkpoints, fuel consumption, radio frequencies, airport details, special notes, and other ready-at-hand info for the flight.
- Determined how you're going to open and close your flight plan, on departure and when arriving at your destination-regardless of whether you're VFR or IFR.
Then-and only then-file the flight plan you've written down on the FAA form. There are several ways to do this: by telephone (800/WX-BRIEF) with the nearest FSS; in person if your airport has a flight service station; via DUAT; with the dispatcher at your flight school or FBO, if it offers this service, using whatever method it provides to keep track of you; or, after departure, by radio with the nearest FSS.
These are only some of the points that you might want to consider before you ever write or file your flight plan. The flight plan itself is important, but after all, the plan is just a checklist for use by the pilot, Flight Service, air traffic control-and search and rescue, should the need arise.
Types of flight plans
Some flight schools have their own kinds of local flight plans, dispatch logs, or other mechanisms for keeping track of their people and airplanes. Most important is that flight plans serve as a trigger for concern in the event an aircraft is overdue.
Aside from these local procedures, the FAA offers (and, for some operations, requires) various types of more formal flight plans: VFR, DVFR, IFR, and Composite VFR/IFR. Each of these has a specific purpose.
Why don't more pilots file flight plans for VFR flights? One of the standard reasons is, "Well, I'm just flying around the local area. I know where I'm going; I don't need a flight plan," or some similar logic.
Could the real reason be that they think it's just too much trouble to actually plan the flight, get the weather, check the notams and TFRs, and do all the rest of that stuff that you should do before you officially file?
If it's true that practice really does make perfect, filing VFR flight plans regularly is good training for pilots who will later complete an instrument rating and fly IFR. In that light, consider what FAR 91.103 means-it's the planning that really counts.
While you're thinking, also consider what could happen if you're forced to make a precautionary or emergency landing in some remote area and your cell phone battery is dead (or there's no cellular service), the handheld transceiver doesn't work, the temperature will be below freezing (and you didn't bring any warm clothing)-and you didn't file a flight plan. But then, you were just flying around, weren't you?
After filing a VFR flight plan, you have to activate it when you take off and close it when you're finished flying. (If you fly IFR, ATC normally does that for you.) The same planning should go into a VFR flight as an IFR flight, so why not file? If you're out more than 30 minutes longer than you planned, someone will come looking for you. (For more on search and rescue, check out the AIM, paragraph 6-2-7.)
DVFR (Defense VFR)
In the increased environment of national security that exists today, flight plans are required before penetrating or flying in Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ). Expanded information can be found in FAR Part 99, "Security Control of Air Traffic."
Were you aware that, as of this writing, there was an ADIZ established around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area? Probably not, if you don't fly there. The next ADIZ could be created where you do fly. It pays to check.
A primary requirement of FAR 99.11, ADIZ Flight Plan Requirements, is that the pilot must file, activate, and close a flight plan with the appropriate aeronautical facility.
IFRIf the weather is below VFR minimums and you plan to penetrate controlled airspace, an IFR flight plan and an ATC clearance based on that flight plan are mandatory. Complete details on how to complete an IFR flight plan are in the AIM, paragraph 5-1-7.
There are some hard and fast rules on flying under instrument flight rules (IFR), and the AIM outlines all of them. One such provision is to advise ATC if your average true airspeed changes in flight by more than 5 percent or 10 knots, whichever is higher, from that filed in your flight plan. Another factor to consider is that if departure is delayed more than an hour after your planned departure time, the computer will probably drop your clearance, unless you've informed ATC of a delay. Some facilities, generally not as busy as others, allow a bit more time.
The AIM contains another little jewel of note: Although the flight plan form contains 16 separate items, the book says, "The information transmitted to ARTCC [an air route traffic control center, which handles traffic between terminal areas] will consist only of flight plan blocks 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11." That might seem inconsequential, but it means that the folks at your destination airport won't have the foggiest idea of where you're going if you should have to execute a missed approach and elect to proceed to your alternate airport.
"Mixed" flight plans are those with both IFR and VFR segments. Check both "VFR" and "IFR" boxes in Block 1 of the flight plan form. If the first part of the flight is IFR, ATC will normally issue an IFR clearance to the point at which the VFR portion of the flight will begin. After reporting VFR over that point, ATC should be advised to cancel the IFR portion of the flight plan. Then the pilot should contact the nearest FSS and advise them to activate the VFR portion of the flight plan. Composite flight plans are explained in the AIM, paragraph 5-1-6.
All plan types
Regardless of flight plan type, be careful to use the appropriate aircraft equipment suffix in block 3 after designating your type of aircraft. These codes change from time to time with updated avionics and show ATC what kind of navigation and transponder equipment is in your airplane. AIM 5-1-7 (see table on page 32) contains the current listing of aircraft equipment suffixes.
With the onset of GPS and other area navigation equipment allowing direct, off-airways flight, the variety of equipment capability is almost mind-boggling. What you enter in block 3 is important.
If you plan a "direct" flight, point-to-point, follow the rules and enter the correct equipment. For example, if "/G" (or "slash Golf," meaning that your airplane is equipped with an IFR-approved GPS and a Mode C transponder) or "/I" (you have loran or VOR/DME and a Mode C transponder) are not entered for these kinds of flights, the air traffic control computer will reject your flight plan because that route can't be flown with less capable equipment. Direct routing requests also are approved only in a radar environment, so forget about filing direct, off-airways when radar is not available, or in areas of poor radar coverage.
What happens when something happens?
So, what happens when you don't show up where and when you're supposed to?
If you are "overdue"-meaning more than 30 minutes past your estimated time of arrival (ETA)-a search for you is initiated via telephone. FBO or airport employees are asked to check the ramp for your airplane. If you still can't be found, ATC goes to the originating FSS and checks out your flight plan. That's why it is important to keep your route updated in flight and make your planned times-update them as well, if necessary. After the paperwork and ramp checks, search and rescue-usually in the form of the Air Force's Civil Air Patrol-officially gets into the act, and airplanes start looking for you.
Here's an important point: Missing pilots who have filed flight plans are located an average of four hours sooner than those who have no flight plan on file. Those four hours could be the difference between life and death. A recent report indicates that 100 percent of those considered "missing" but who had filed a flight plan were found. That's something to think about.
Here are a few suggestions from the experts at the Denver Automated Flight Service Station:
- File shorter VFR flight plans and update them in flight, particularly if your route and/or ETA changes. Use the Remarks column for details. File where you actually plan to go.
- Allow a reasonable "pad" in your filed times for VFR deviations, especially ground stops. When the total time expires, they start looking for you.
- Don't forget to open your flight plan or you won't be covered. Also, know in advance whom you'll contact and how you'll close your flight plan. Cell phones won't always work, especially in remote areas. If you're uncertain, ask the briefer when you file your flight plan how you should close it upon the flight's conclusion.
- Get an update on notams and TFRs at every stop. If you file direct on an IFR flight plan, have waypoints or latitudes/longitudes ready for routes that cross ARTCC boundaries. Your flight plan will be kicked out of the computer if your filed aircraft equipment suffix is not compatible with what you want to do.
- File fixes that are actually on the airways that you file in your IFR flight plan. Pilot error causes flight plans to be rejected when the filed points are not on the routes that are filed. Also, be prepared to tell ATC what your alternate airport is and how you want to get there. That info is not passed on in the initial filing.
- Whether filing VFR or IFR, don't be surprised if your DUAT flight plan is never entered into the ATC system. There is no interface between DUAT and flight service stations on IFR flight plans, and only an hour before scheduled takeoff for VFR flight plans. The cause of missed DUAT flight plans (i.e. never reaching the system) is generally pilot error on entry. Make sure you fully file your flight plan. You might think that the flight service specialists are looking at your flight plan when you're trying to make a flight plan change prior to departure-they aren't. Ask.
- When making flight plan changes while airborne, tell the specialists where your original flight plan was filed. This is especially important if you have filed several flight plans for consecutive legs on a cross-country.
When you file, give the elements to Flight Service in the exact order of the flight plan form, or have the specialist ask for what he/she wants. That way, all the info gets in the proper format for the computer. Keep some flight plan forms in your flight bag for reference; the form is also printed on many kneeboards, lap boards, and other cockpit aids.
That's all there is to it. Plan the flight. File the plan-then activate it and fly it.
Wally Miller is president of an aviation training, consulting, and marketing firm in Monument, Colorado. He is a Gold Seal CFI who has been instructing for more than 30 years and flying for more than 40.
Want to know more?
The following resources offer additional information on topics discussed in this article:
- Read tips on surviving a forced landing from the November 2002 AOPA Flight Training.
- Download flight plan forms from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
- Review VFR flight plan filing procedures as explained in AOPA ePilot Flight Training Edition.
Links to these resources are available on AOPA Online.