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Flight Planning

A flight may be defined as using an airplane to go from “A” to “B”. “A” and “B” also may be the same geographic point.

Of course, during a flight planning there’re a lot of topics that should be taken into account such as regulations, flight techniques, weather, validations, licences, etc and must be known by the pilot in command. In this paper, we’re going through flight planning topics.

Flight planning is not normally valued as it should be… until you need it. This is why this guide presents to you a basic set of topics you should review at the time you plan your flight and how it may affect to your flight. This guide is not intended to review the theory about air navigation calculation.

First of all, we need to know from where to where we fly and which would be the route for that. That may sound ridiculous, but actually this is the main axis of your flight feasibility. For example: You may find a closed airport or runway in the NOTAMS or adverse weather, so you need some kind of replanning.

Sometimes there’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of a serious flight planning. However, you need to understand that the airplane you’re operating does not determine if you are a professional pilot or not. Actually, there are a huge quantity of benefits in a good flight planning that may be the difference between an enjoyable flight and a serious problem.

On the other hand, you should keep in mind that the information that you handle must be the right one. What does it mean? Well, you should review and have reliable available only the information you need. Sometimes information excess may confuse you or simply you spend valuable time reading something you actually donot need.

So, let’s take a look to what we need and why we need it. Finally, we will try to explain how to use it.

  • Departure Airport
  • Arrival Airport
  • Alternate Airport: This is a very important topic. I need an adequate airport to land if I cannot land at my destination airport. Of course, this alternate airport needs to meet basic requirements. Some requirements are but not limited to: The airport should be open and at an adequate distance for my calculated remaining fuel at destination. Also forecasted weather should be at or above landing minimums for the intended approach.
  • Airports in general: Check takeoff and landing distances available. This is the only way you may be sure you can operate there. Rarely light aircrafts are field limited, but to make these calculations is a very advisable habit to improve your situational awareness. Additionally, is good to be familiar with two classifications you frequently may find in aircraft flight manuals:
    • Adequate Airport: An adequate airport is an airport, which the operator consider to be adequate, having regard to the performance requirements applicable at the expected landing weight. In particular, it should be anticipated that at the expected time of use: The airport will be available, and equipped with the necessary ancillary services, such as ATS, lighting, communications, weather reporting, navaids and emergency services; and at least one approach aid will be available for an instrument approach.
    • Suitable Airport: A suitable airport is an adequate airport with weather reports, forecasts or combination thereof, indicating that the weather conditions will be at or above minima, and field condition reports indicate that a safe landing can be accomplished during the period of intended operation.
  • Enroute Alternate Airports: When something goes wrong, the most critical factors are the time you spend going out the initial shock and to deciding what to do. In this way, you must keep in mind the famous “what if…” Normally the most common emergencies to think about are engine failures or depressurizations. But sometimes other possible emergencies may show up like medical emergencies, major system failures, smoke or fire. Once again, to have a plan to deal with these situations is the most effective way for success.
    Another concept to be familiar with is the “Area of operation”. Basically, it’s defined as the time and distance that an operator is authorized to fly with one engine inoperative. For single engine aircrafts, this is known as “best gliding distance”. In this way, to be familiar with these concepts applied to your aircraft allows you to efficiently “divide” your route in order to reach an airport or any other place to land safely in case of emergency.
  • Terrain factors: Always be familiar with the terrain below you. Identifying the MEA, MORA, MOCA, GRID MORA, etc, and where is the critical terrain respecting your track allows you to increase your situational awareness and to plan where to go initially in case of emergency. Even when terrain is not a factor, you may mention it as a way to be sure you’re considering it.
  • Weather: This is a key point, and to be honest, we can write a book about that. But it’s not the goal of this guide. At first we need to analyze departure airport, destination, alternate airport, enroute alternates and the route. In order to accomplish that, you will need to be familiar with METAR and TAF decodings. Additionally, you may consider the weather conditions at the time of the returning legs if it will be scheduled for the same day. Satellite images and significant weather charts are valuable tools to analyze how the weather is moving, its behavior, to detect possible turbulence or volcanic ash areas, frontal systems, etc.
  • Winds Aloft: In order to select an altitude or flight level, you need to be familiar with wind conditions aloft. This will allow you to calculate enroute time, fuel consumption and remaining fuel at destination. In this way you will be able to select the most optimum altitude/flight level for your operation. However, at the time you will generate your flight plan, using each single wind component may result tricky. To avoid that, you may take average wind components along the route with negligible error factors.
  • Enroute Navaids: Just be sure if the navaids you’re considering for you flight plan are working. If not, you may need an alternate navigation system.
  • Approach Aids If for any reason (weather, proficiency, etc) you to expect an instrument approach at destination, you need to be sure that the navigation aids are operative. Additionally, you will need readily available the proper approach charts onboard.
  • Airport Facilities: It means availability of fuel, ATS services, etc.
  • NOTAMS: Review and prepare those NOTAMS affecting your flight. Mainly look for NOTAMS affecting airports, runways, taxiways, displaced thresholds, navaids, ATS services, timetables, etc. Doing so, you’ll prevent surprises at the time of arrival.
  • Timetables: Sometimes forward and returning legs are accomplished in the same day. Just be sure you can do it taking into account the prevailing flight conditions for that day.
  • Aircraft equipment requirements: Check the working state of altimeters, directional gyro, horizon, speed indicator, VOR and ILS receptor, transponder, VHF, etc. By checking all of this before takeoff, you’ll prevent possible tricky inflight replannings.
  • Weight and Balance: All Aircraft flight manuals include a load sheet and all necessary performance tables for any operation. You must be familiar with them. In this way you’ll be able to calculate if your aircraft is inside the operation envelope or not. Additionally, by comparing the takeoff and landing available distances for the intended operation airports you’ll know if you’re inside the operation limits for the day given conditions. Finally, your weight is the key factor in determining your altitude capability with an engine inoperative for multi-engine aircraft or gliding distance for single engine aircraft. Please, do not underestimate this information. There’s a huge quantity of incidents and accidents which root factor was an inaccurate and/or the absence of weight and balance calculations. On the other hand, you may have a precalculated loadsheet if you always fly the same plane. In this way, since the empty weight will be always the same and you’ll only need to adjust by passengers, fuel and cargo weights in order to determine the CG and gross weight.
  • Fuel: Sometimes is easier to full your tanks. Morover you’ll feel more confident. Nevertheless it won’t be always possible since you’ll notice a lot of penalties in your flight such as limited flight altitudes, higher than normal consumptions due to higher angles of attack, etc. On the other hand, you must have onboard a minimum fuel quantity by law. Additional to this minimum required you may need to add some extra fuel due to expected conditions, so the analysis won’t be the same… never!
  • The minimum required fuel for any operation will be:
    • Trip Fuel: It’s the fuel required to fly from A to B including takeoff, cruise, descent and approach. To obtain this, you’ll need to be familiar with Fuel/Time/Distance to climb, fuel/time/distance to descent and Cruise Fuel Flow tables (The last one normally is with pitch and power settings)
    • Alternate Fuel: Fuel required to make a missed approach at the destination and then climb, cruise, descent and approach at the alternate airport. You’ll use the same tables mentioned in the previous item.
    • Reserva Final: It represents 45 mins flying at 1500 ft AGL in smooth air for national flights. For international flights will be 30 mins
    • Taxi Fuel: Required fuel for taxi. Sometimes it seems negligible, but think about those aerodromes where instruction flights density is high (just as example). Probably you’ll have a significant delay before takeoff. Consider single engine taxi for multiengine aircraft.
    • Contingency fuel: In this ítem you’ll consider any other penalty you can identify such as deviations to avoid weather, possible delays at departure or arrival, performance aircraft penalties, etc.
    • APU: If your aircraft is equipped with an APU, consider this consumption for the time you anticipate to use it.

Once we have collected the information, we proceed to write it down into a worksheet: the flight plan. This worksheet should be practical for the pilot –otherwise will be useless- and should contain the necessary information aboard.

Within the plan, we will depict several data. For example:

  • First off, a brief description of the flight: Departure airport, destination, flight time, alternate airport, actual time of departure (ATD), estimated time of arrival (ETA), etc.
  • Two blank boxes: One of them to copy your ATC clearance. The other one to copy the ATIS.
  • A chart with the depiction of fuel on board. It may be useful to write it in terms of quantity (lts/gal/weight) and time. Also include the fuel remaining you estimate at the time of arrival and the minimum diversion fuel.
  • At the end of the plan, consider to include two blank boxes to copy the destination ATIS and the ALTN ATIS.
  • Also at the end of the plan you may find useful to include a brief description of the planed route, flight level and required fuel to divert to your alternate airport.

As a guide you may include the next data for each single waypoint of your plan:

  • Waypoint/Reference/Navaid (with frequency) identification. It’s strongly advisable to plan legs no longer than 30 mins.
  • MORA/MOCA/MEA for the sector you’re flying. This information may be in the same box the waypoint identification is.
  • Curse/Heading/Radial
  • ETE: Estimated time enroute to this point (minutes)
  • ETA: Estimated time of arrival at this point. You’ll sum your flight plan once airborne to get the estimations.
  • ATA: Actual time of arrival at this point. To complete everytime you check a waypoint –or abeam-
  • Estimated Wind/TAS/GS: With this information you’ll be able to check and reestimate your plan. Basically your target will be the fuel onboard and remaining fuel at destination. This information is a key factor to consider a flight level/altitude change.
  • FOB: Estimated Fuel Onboard. You need to calcule how much fuel you estimate to have onboard at each single waypoint and compare it with the actual fuel onboard once you check the waypoint. In this way, you may identify leaks, deviations, errors, etc, earlier.

A good and effective briefing is always adviced for basic flight phases: Takeoff, landing and cruise (this will be the contingency plan in case of an inflight emergency).

Actually a briefing should be accomplished even if you’re flying a single pilot plane. The mental review of what do you plan to do during you flight is an excellent practice that will increase your situational awareness.

Some topics to review will be, but are not limited to:

  • Departure weather
  • Aircraft maintenance status
  • Taxi Plan
  • For takeoff:
    • Consider that it’s not necessary that an aircraft takeoff with a computed V1 to plan a rejected takeoff. But you must to have a plan if you need to reject.
    • Wich would be the plan in case of an inflight emergency after takeoff. You may plan an air turn back or divert to an alternate takeoff field.
    • SID
  • For landing:
    • Terminal Area
    • STAR
    • Approach plate and missed approach procedure. Even Though you're flying a visual approach, keep in mind that the ATC will expect you to join a visual traffic pattern in case of missed approach.
    • Engine Failure/Emergency during final approach

The briefing must be useful and contain only relevant information. Do not include standard operating procedures. The topics depicted above are only a guide. It’s strongly recommended to conduct a briefing always. Even if you’re flying at your base airport. Remember that there’re not identical flights. Never. Anything can change always: Traffic, weather, aircraft, etc.

  • Have readily available the required charts for each phase of flight. Save what you don’t need. For example:
    • NOTAMS should be reviewed during preflight. On the ground! During takeoff are not useful. Maybe you see them are before landing.
    • Charts: Place your charts in a logical order, so you move from the top of the pile to the bottom as your flight progress. For example, for departure you may order as follows: Gate Positions, Airport, SID, Terminal Area. During descent would be exactly the opposite. During the cruise flight you’ll need the route charts (high/low route charts). Prepare them so you fold the chart in a way you’ll see the sector you will be flying first. You may use a post it or similar to indicate this position. If you have an EFB, of course everything gets easier.
    • Weather: It’s useful to have the proper TAFs attached with your flight plan.
  • Follow your flight plan and monitor any deviation. Inform to the ATC as necessary.
  • Look for updated meteorological conditions for destination and alternate fields if you expect marginal conditions. Do not wait until descent or be near you minimum diversion fuel to be informed about weather conditions. During some seasons weather conditions change very rapidly, and you may need to decide accordingly.
  • Review at intervals between 30 mins to 1 hr your contingency plan for inflight emergencies for the sector you’re flying over.

To wrap up this quick guide, we should keep in mind that flight planning process may be routinary, but it is not. Information always change. As information and conditions change, every flight will be different. In short, flight planning process may be described as follows:

  • Information gathering
  • Clasify and analyze the information
  • Generate the flight plan
  • Generate and verify the weight and balance loadsheet
  • Follow and verify the flight plan

Regarding flight plan following, we may take some lessons learned from one flight to the other. By doing so, you’ll be able to improve all your estimations, flight techniques and the information gathering process.

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