Why you should file a VFR flight plan
We all know that filing a flight plan provides good insurance at no cost. There are also a few things about flight plans that are not so well known. Here is a description of just how that insurance policy works, as well as an explanation of the different ways that flight service stations and air traffic control are involved in visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plans.
First, filing a VFR flight plan does not put you any higher in the pecking order of the National Airspace System. It has no direct ATC function under normal circumstances. In a manner of speaking, however, your rank could go up, should the chips go down, because they'll have somewhere to start looking if you have to make an off-airport landing. That is the sole reason to file a VFR flight plan: It's the best way to ensure that if you don't get where you're going, someone will come looking for you.
The best deal of all is to be instrument-rated and file an IFR flight plan. Those are entered into the air traffic control system, are correlated with your radar target, and -- if you land at any towered airport -- are closed automatically. (An IFR flight plan can also be cancelled by the pilot at any time, in visual meteorological conditions outside Class A airspace.) If an aircraft on an instrument flight makes an unscheduled landing, the average interval from last known position to time of rescue is about a half-day. With a VFR flight plan, it becomes a day and a half, but with no flight plan, almost two days.
If you're not instrument rated, you can still benefit from being "in the system" by getting in the habit of requesting VFR traffic advisories (aka radar flight following or flight following). With flight following, if you go down without a "Mayday," they'll have a much better idea of where to start looking. And you don't even have to have a VFR flight plan on file to ask for it. Most of the time, it is available for the asking. But remember, flight following is provided on a workload-permitting basis, and if controllers are too busy, they will decline to provide the service -- which could leave you without a backup.
Incidentally, the FAA's flight service station (FSS) system offers an additional option for pilots flying through or over hazardous areas. It is known as the Hazardous Area Reporting Service. It covers only a very few large bodies of water, mountains, and wetland areas: places such as Long Island Sound, Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, the Chesapeake Bay, Hampton Roads, the Great Dismal Swamp, and the Everglades. Pilots contact a FSS by phone before departure, or by radio when airborne, and provide their identification and route of flight. Pilots are expected to check in every 10 minutes. If contact is lost for more than 15 minutes, search and rescue operations are initiated immediately. (How's that for service?)
But filing a VFR flight plan (or DVFR, if your route will transit an air defense identification zone) doesn't come totally without a price: It is your responsibility to close the flight plan once you've arrived at your destination. This is true for IFR flight plans as well, if you land anywhere that has no ATC services (to expeditiously free up the local airspace for the next person).
In the system
Let's take a flight from Winchester, Virginia, over to Princeton, New Jersey. Dudley is a VFR-only pilot. He's got his route planned. Knowing he'll go through the more northerly parts of Class B airspace around the nation's capital (but not into its air defense identification zone), as well as traversing Philadelphia's Class B, he plans to request flight following so that he can be in constant radar and radio contact. He calls flight service at 1800/WX-BRIEF and after a standard briefing from the Leesburg Automated Flight Service Station specialist (or Elkins, West Virginia, or Altoona, Pennsylvania) he submits his flight plan with a 1430Z departure, estimating 90 minutes en route, and he even remembers to give his brother-in-law's phone number for field 17 (destination contact) on the flight plan form.
The computer at (let's say) Leesburg puts the flight plan on a proposal list. If Dudley forgets to open it by 1630Z, it gets deleted (though it is retrievable from a history file). Dudley knows, however, that his flight plan is useless unless activated with his actual time of departure, which he does after he's climbed out and cleaned up -- remember, it's aviate, navigate, then communicate -- just before he radios Potomac Approach. Let's assume he took off right on schedule. The computer at Leesburg adds the proposed en-route time to Dudley's actual departure time and transmits his 1600Z ETA to the computer at the Millville, New Jersey, AFSS, which serves Princeton.
Did you close your flight plan?
This is a dull tale so far, because Dudley arrives, safe and sound -- but he forgets to cancel his flight plan. (By the way, even if his destination was nearby Trenton, where there is a control tower, the controllers would have no knowledge of his VFR flight plan -- although you can ask an ATC facility to relay to flight service a request to close your VFR flight plan.)
What happens now? Well, at ETA plus 30 minutes, 1630Z, when the FSS computer scans the inbound list, it sends a flashing "I" to a flight service station controller's computer screen. (In the FAA's Eastern Region, this actually happens at ETA plus 25 minutes.) If Dudley had remembered to call in his cancellation, the computer would simply drop the message about his flight from the "inbound list," and that would be the end of it. But at this point, the Millville AFSS controller starts calling around to locate the aircraft, starting with arrival towers (none in this case), then the FBO(s) at his destination, to see if there is any record or recollection of his arrival. They may ask for a ramp search. If this doesn't turn up anything, a QALQ message (a holdover from the Q-code days of teletype communications) goes back to the Leesburg AFSS, meaning "check the departure point and other likely places." Now they're rooting around both ends of the route, and may call the destination contact.
ETA plus one hour
Within a half-hour of becoming overdue or at ETA plus one hour, the search is widened by sending an INREQ (information request) to flight service facilities along the route (which is why the route of flight is specified on the flight plan). If Dudley had been on an IFR flight plan, the INREQ would have gone out at ETA plus 30 minutes.
The FSS will also try in-flight "blind broadcasts," as well as calling towers, air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs), and DUAT vendors. Each flight service station starts scouring its area, calling airports and approach controls. (If no flight plan is filed, there is no designated time before this process begins.) At night, or when airports are unattended, their managers may be rousted out of bed -- or the local police called out -- to check the ramp and peek into hangars. This is one reason why it's particularly inconvenient and unpropitious to forget to close your VFR flight plan after a nighttime arrival.
ETA plus two hours
An hour later, at ETA plus two hours (or sooner if all previous inquiries came up negative, when the aircraft's known on-board fuel would be exhausted, or if there is serious concern regarding the safety of the aircraft or occupants), the inquiry is further widened by transmission of an ALNOT (alert notice). The ALNOT brings in more FSSs and triggers additional broadcast announcements on transcribed weather broadcasts (TWEBs) and other outlets, such as requesting aircraft along the route to monitor 121.5 MHz for an ELT signal. More important, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), located at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, is notified, and now it assumes oversight. (Other facilities would have this role if Dudley's aircraft was missing in Alaska or Hawaii.)
The AFRCC contacts relatives, friends, and business associates of the pilot or passengers, and determines the pilot's intentions, flying capabilities, emergency equipment that may be on board, and other information that might help if a search becomes necessary. They may start calling out police, military, or Civil Air Patrol units at this time. Also, 10 minutes after the ALNOT, the RCC at Langley is called to assure receipt.
One very useful and crucial capability that all ARTCCs have is the capability to recall recorded radar data. The National Track Analysis Program can identify and track targets which are at a sufficient altitude to be tracked by radar whether or not they are being "controlled" by the ARTCC. (There is also a tracon counterpart known as CDR data.) These have proven to be very helpful during an aircraft search by providing the route of flight and last radar position of an aircraft being sought.
ETA plus three hours
If the ALNOT doesn't turn up anything, or at ETA plus three hours (one hour past ALNOT issuance), whichever comes first, then an actual search mission is launched. Langley Air Force Base is contacted, again. The search wouldn't start until daylight, unless there is a functioning emergency locator transmitter (ELT) signal for a ground rescue party to use. If the weather permits, air rescue is dispatched to the distress location. Even with an ELT, terrain and weather may hinder response time. By the way, the average time required to find a downed aircraft with a functioning ELT is about seven hours; without an ELT, this becomes more than 40 hours.
Most of the time, the aircraft is located safe and sound somewhere during this process. Often, the pilot just forgot to cancel his flight plan and didn't realize how much effort would be expended on his behalf. What happens to the pilot? Nothing! (However, FAR parts 91.153(b) and 91.169(d) do include the statement "when a flight plan has been activated, the pilot-in-command, upon canceling or completing the flight under the flight plan, shall notify an FAA Flight Service Station or ATC facility.") If there were fines or certificate actions, pilots would not use the service; so flight service continues to call, even in the wee hours, to make sure that if you don't show up, someone comes looking.
These procedures are not entirely dependent on flight plans; any report that an aircraft is missing or overdue will trigger the same communications and physical search process. If there really were an accident, it would all be worth it. But forgetfulness can also result in the expenditure of a great deal of time, effort, money, and worry. Here are a few simple things to remember to help keep our airspace working as efficiently as possible:
- File a flight plan for all cross-country flights.
- Remember to close your flight plan, and do so no later than 30 minutes after arrival.
- Ensure that your ELT is operational.
- File only to the point of first intended landing. File separate flight plans for any subsequent leg(s).
- If your ETE changes by 30 minutes or more, report a new ETA to the nearest FSS.
- If you land at a location other than the intended destination, report that to Flight Service.
And if you choose not to file, make sure someone you trust knows where you are going, when you are expected to arrive there, and whom to call if you don't show up!
Jeff Pardo is an aviation writer in Maryland with a commercial pilot certificate for airplanes, and instrument, helicopter, and glider ratings. He has logged about 1,250 hours since 1989. An Angel Flight mission pilot, Pardo has also flown for the Civil Air Patrol.