Flight Plan Fumbles
I've never been much of a believer in filing VFR flight plans and, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, I'm still not. I think they often cause more trouble than they are designed to prevent and end up wasting everyone's time and energy. And yet…I still teach students to use them because as a flight instructor, that's considered the best practice. As the student gains experience, he or she can then decide if there's value in VFR flight plan filing. Or not. I try not to apply my own risk template to an inexperienced student trying to figure out his own.
From the more-trouble-than-it's-worth file comes this: I sent my student off on a short little cross country—29 miles. He walked me through his planning, I walked him through the flight plan filing, which we did through DTC DUATs, with the instruction to open prior to takeoff via cellphone. What could possibly go wrong?
Ninety minutes later I found out. A Lockheed specialist phoned to report the aircraft overdue and inquired if I knew anything. No, I did not, although I could report I was rapidly developing a clinically exceptional case of heartburn. I assumed Jordan had merely forgotten to close the flight plan at the destination airport, although I didn't believe that because I explained the put-the-watch-on-the-opposite wrist technique of remembering it. But I dashed off to the airport to see if I could sort this out, only to find the Cub safely parked in front of the hangar. Large sigh of relief.
As I suspected, Jordan had closed the flight plan via phone, but the specialist told him it had never been opened. I knew that was wrong, because the first specialist told me the aircraft was recorded off at 1714. The second specialist informed Jordan that he would make a note of the call, "just in case." Well, just in case happened, but evidently the note never got passed because the SAR mechanism was on its way to being tripped.
On the plus side, the fiasco failed safe, at least; sort of a false positive. They would have been looking for an airplane safely in its hangar rather than failing to search for an overdue airplane because the flight plan got dropped. On the other hand, they scared the crap out of me and I don't scare that easily.
I think what probably happened is confusion over the N-number. Our old Cub has an NC suffix, not a single N. I had to explain this to the specialist because he had never heard of the old Commerce Department C designation. Say this for the FAA, its corporate memory would probably include such background knowledge, although in a subsequent call to Lockheed, a supervisor told me he had never encountered the NC designation, either. I find this rather baffling, frankly. (My colleague, Jeff Van West, points out that the easiest way to address this is to just fudge the number and drop the C.)
This is not the first time this has happened to me in 40 years of flying and instructing, but the last time it occurred was when FSS was still operated by the FAA. The flight plan just got lost and was never activated. We've all experienced the dropped IFR flight plan; it happens. In fairness, the vast majority of filed flight plans perk through the system without a hiccup. But at best, VFR flight plans are a flawed concept.
What to do about this? Self help is my response, for which we have the technology. If you're really an Aunt Jane about this sort of stuff—okay, you're just prudent—set up a cellphone or text message check-in with a reliable friend or relative. Or buy something like a Spot or Spider tracker. Doing it yourself will always be more reliable than relying on a large organization to detect and fill every little gap or potential stumble. Besides offering greater peace of mind, it will also avoid the embarrassing hassle of forgetting to close a flight plan.
I've done that, too.