How to Write and Use Flight Plans
By Bill Stack
Real-world pilots write and use flight plans, so for the most realistic flight simming, we flight simmers ought to use them, too. But official definitions of flight plans leave some flight simmers confused about their purpose and our needs to use them.
What Is A Flight Plan?The Aeronautical Information Manual defines a flight plan as: “specified information relating to the intended [path] of an aircraft that is filed orally or in writing with a flight service station or air traffic control facility.” Herein lies a problem. Air traffic controllers are not the only people who need our flight plans. We need them, too. With this official definition covering only half the story, some flight simmers ignore their own needs for these important flight-management tools.
When Are Flight Plans Required?Aviation regulations require the filing of flight plans in two circumstances: (1) all instrument flights and (2) visual flights in coastal and domestic air defense zones. Although pilots are not required to file flight plans for most of their VFR flights, they may do so for any VFR flight. For nonscheduled flights cruising above 23,000 feet, flight plans must be filed at least four hours in advance.
Why Are Flight Plans Required?Flight plans are required because they help ATC know where aircraft are going and what kind of aircraft they are, and to track their progress along the way. They also help authorities with finding overdue or missing aircraft.
When Are Flight Plans Recommended?Regulations recommend flight plans for all flights, even though they require flight plans for only certain flights. Not requiring flight plans or simply recommending flight plans does not mean that regulations prohibit pilots from writing and using them. ATC gladly accepts flight plans for any cross-country flight — IFR or VFR.
Why Are Flight Plans Recommended?ATC recommends using flight plans when not explicitly required, because flight plans help pilots manage safe and efficient flight.
How Are Flight Plans Filed?Flight plans are filed with the flight service station or air traffic control tower at the airport where the flights originate. They can be filed in person or by telephone. For nonscheduled flights cruising at or above 23,000 feet, flight plans must be filed at least four hours in advance. In the absence of these facilities for flight simming, we can simulate the filing of flight plans ourselves. We can simply make a file folder or notebook and file our plans there. Later, we can reuse or modify those flight plans if we choose to fly the same route again.
Why Should Flight Simmers Use Flight Plans?We flight simmers should use flight plans to make our cross-country flights as realistic and efficient as we can. The information we include in our flight plans is laid out for us during our flights. Information about landmarks, navigation aids, frequencies, headings, distances and durations are right there for quick and easy reference. Flying from one place to another without having this information nearby is sloppy flying, and simming without it is not simulating cross-country flight realistically.
When Should We Flight Simmers Use Flight Plans?For the most realism, we flight simmers should write and use a flight plan every time we simulate instrument flight. Simulating instrument flights without adhering to this important instrument flight rule is not realistic flight simming. Additionally, we can make our simulated VFR cross-country flights more realistic by making and using flight plans for them, too.
Which Are Better: Paper or Computerized Flight Plans?Paper flight plans are traditional, having been used by commercial and general-aviation pilots for decades. Their compactness makes them easy to write, file, carry on board, retrieve and use during and after our flights. Computerized flight plans take about the same amount of time to create, and the programs can determine the courses and altitudes for us and show us our progress enroute. The computerized files take less physical space for storage, but the computer itself takes some space. Flight simmers usually use the same computer for simulation and making flight plans, so this disadvantage usually doesn't apply. In one way, paper forms are more realistic for flight simming, because using them doesn’t require switching to another program during which your flightsim will pause with no enroute progress taking place.
Where Can We Get Paper Flight Plan Forms?Official flight plan forms — the types that real-world pilots use — are available from quality pilot shops such as Sporty’s Pilot Shop in the United States and TransAir Pilot Shop in England. They are also available from the fixed base operators or flight service stations at your local airports. TopSkills sells flight plans modified from official forms for flight simulation only.
Where Can We Get Computerized Flight Planning Software?Several useful programs are available free of charge from the download section of FlightSim.Com. More advanced programs are available from quality flightsim retailers.
How Do We Write Flight Plans?Writing flight plans is easy. Simply provide the information requested in the numbered blocks on the paper form or on computer input screens. Computerized flight plans usually require the same information as the paper form, so we will use the paper form as our model.
SOURCE: Aeronautical Information Manual 2000
Notice that the entire top line of this sample flight plan form is for use by aviation authorities, not by the pilot.
1. The first numbered area asks for the flight type: VFR, IFR,
or DVFR (defense visual flight rules). Simply checking off the
appropriate box is all you need to do.
2. The aircraft identification number is required in block 2. Some flightsim panels display aircraft IDs, and some don’t. If you don’t know your number, leave this block blank.
3. Write the aircraft type in block 3, such as Cessna 172, Bonanza, Learjet and so forth.
4. The true airspeed expected for your flight goes in block 4.
5. The identifier code for your departure airport is required in block 5. The block is large enough for writing most airport names and the ATIS and tower frequencies on the copy you will take with you.
6. Block 6 asks for proposed and actual departure time. The Z in parentheses means that the time should be indicated in Zulu Time, also known as Greenwich Mean Time or Universal Coordinated Time.
7. Block 7 calls for your desired cruising altitude. This altitude can change during your flight, depending on weather, traffic or other circumstances.
8. Block 8, which is the largest block on the form, is where the flight route is laid out. Enter landmarks you will use for visual flight and radio navigation aids you will use for visual or instrument flights. Also include headings, distances and durations to these landmarks or navaids. You will more than likely need to study an aviation chart to determine these landmarks, navaids, headings and distances. If you had a long flight with numerous landmarks or navaids, you’ll have to squeeze them into this block.
9. Block 9 is where we enter the official designator code for our destination airport. Like block 5, we can enter the airport name and tower frequencies on the copies we take with us.
10. The estimated duration of your flight, from take off to landing, is entered in block 10. To estimate this duration, simply divide the distance from origin to destination (or alternate) by the desired true airspeed you entered in block 4, plus 30 minutes for VFR flights and 45 minutes for IFR flights. Adding about 15 minutes for airport traffic patterns and instrument approaches will help you estimate your take-off to landing duration.
11. Block 11 calls for remarks relevant to air traffic control. AIM/FAR specifically states that personal remarks are not allowed in this block.
12. In block 12, enter the amount of fuel you will carry expressed in hours and minutes. To determine this data, divide the gallons carried by the fuel flow rate for the aircraft you will fly.
13. An alternate airport must be specified in block 13 for all IFR flights. Your minimum fuel load for all IFR flights must reflect this alternate airport plus 45 minutes of flight time. You may specify an alternate airport for VFR flights, if you like.
14. Your name, address, telephone number and aircraft home base go in block 14. This block is not large enough for all of it, so do the best you can:
15. The number of people on board, including you and your crew, should be entered in block 15.
16. The color of your aircraft should be entered in block 16. State the major color first and other colors second, because most people think of colors that way. For example, if your aircraft is predominantly white with red bands, write “white with red.”
17. Block 17 is for entering the telephone number of someone ATC could contact at your destination area, in case of trouble. This information is optional.
18. Miscellaneous Notes. On your copy, you can enter miscellaneous notes to yourself in the blank margins or on the back if it has blank areas. Do not enter such notes on the copy you submit to ATC.
How Do We Use Flight Plans?Using flight plans during our flights is the easy part that makes all the previous steps worthwhile. First, jot down the time of your take off. Then fly to the first landmark or navaid indicated on your plan. Use the heading determined during your planning process to get to the landmark or to a navaid you cannot receive yet. When you receive the navaid, change heading if necessary to fly to it. When you reach the first landmark or navaid, change heading toward the second landmark or navaid as shown on your flight plan. Continue this procedure as your flight progresses. Track your progress to each landmark and/or navaid by checking the time against your estimate and by triangulating navaids. Correct course as necessary. When you get near the destination airport, contact its tower on the frequencies you entered in block 9 (or 13), then join the airport’s traffic pattern or instrument approach procedure. After your flight, file your flight plan in a file folder or notebook for future use. If you used a computer program to make your flight plan, save the plan with a unique file name.
Using the flight plan is deceptively easy. It can lead us to
believe that writing them is not worth the effort. But flying
without one is a hassle. All the planning steps you would have done
to make the flight plan would have to be done during your flight,
while you’re trying to fly the airplane, maintain your heading and
altitude, and so forth. There’s no question that writing and using
flight plans is the better approach to flying and a realistic way
of flight simming.