Destination Direct Flight Planning Software

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Planning a cross-country flight has been revolutionized by the PC and remarkable software packages from companies like Delta Technology, MentorPlus, and RMS. Here's an in-depth look at PC flight planning package I've been using for the past couple of years — it's called "Destination Direct" from Delta Technology. Includes moving map and logbook capabilities.

NOTE: This review was written in 1996, and while it may be helpful in planning your purchases, links to purchase or download the demo no longer work.  We recommend visiting Destination Direct at their current home on the web, www.FlightPlan.com.  — 5/24/2005


Destination DirectI remember my first major cross country flight as if it were yesterday. It was a trip from my Philadelphia home base to Boca Raton, Florida, to visit my in-laws who had recently moved to the sunny south. The ink was still wet on my private pilot certificate, and the distance involved was a bit over 900 nautical miles. This was serious business.

I recall spending weeks with charts spread out on the floor, struggling with the fact that charts printed on both sides can't be laid out to see the whole trip at once. I used up a small ball of string plotting straight line courses, squinted at a protractor to determine headings, and drew ragged lines on the charts themselves so I would remember where I left off when I started the process again the next day.

When departure day arrived at last, I visited the Philadelphia FSS in person for a complete weather briefing. I scribbled down columns of winds aloft figures, used my trusty E6B to laboriously work out all the leg ETEs, and took off as fully prepared as I could be.

That was many years and many thousands of gallons of avgas ago. Today, having now made that very same Philly-to-Boca trip more than 50 times, I scarcely need to do any flight planning or even open a chart enroute. I pretty much just check the weather, file, and go. When I level off at cruising altitude, black boxes on the panel tell me how I'm doing and when I'll arrive, assuring my passengers that I must know what I am doing.

But when I travel to a less-familiar destination, flight planning is a necessity. The difference is that with today's computerized flight planning and on-line weather access, the process takes me minutes instead of the hours or days that it used to take. And my flight planning is a lot more complete than it used to be, too.

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A couple of years ago when I was at Oshkosh, I purchased a copy of Delta Technology's "Destination Direct" PC software package, and have been using successive versions of that software ever since. I can't imagine ever going back to the old way.

Destination Direct combines computerized flight planning, automated on-line weather briefing, and a massive database of airport and FBO information to provide a comprehensive tool for planning a cross-country flight. At installation, you customize the program with your aircraft data, pilot data, and flight planning preferences.

The software then automates every phase of planning a flight: choosing a route; calculating leg distances, radials, times, and fuel burns; obtaining an on-line weather briefing from DUATS; calculating weight-and-balance; printing out a trip log and FAA flight plan form, and even providing airport data, runway diagrams, and FBO data at your destination. You can even ask the software to analyze the cost of making the trip (if you really want to know). For commercial operators, it handles pilot scheduling...right down to telling him when to set his alarm so he'll get up in time to make the flight.

I find Destination Direct simple and intuitive to use. It has just about every flight planning feature you could want (and then some), but you do not have to utilize all of its capabilities each time you plan a trip. In fact I often use it to just get a quick preliminary idea of routing and distance long before I get really serious about planning a flight. I have the software installed both on my home PC and on my notebook computer, so I can use it even when I'm on the road.

Getting started

Installation is straightforward and very easy. The program requires Windows, and works just fine with Windows 95. It is distributed on about nine diskettes, and includes a complete Jeppesen database of navaids, airports, FBOs, and other airport facilities such as hotels and car rental agencies. Delta offers updates to the database either on a regular subscription basis or whenever you decide you need one. The updates also come on multiple diskettes, although I wouldn't be surprised if a CDROM option becomes available soon.

Delta Technology recommends a 486DX or higher with at least 8 megabytes of RAM, Windows 3.1, Windows 95 or Windows NT 4, plus a mouse, modem, and graphics-capable printer. Minimum installation of the IFR version requires 14 megabytes of hard disk space, and full installation of all bells and whistles will take up to 33 megabytes of hard disk.

Customizing the the program properly takes some time and effort. You'll need to look up and enter a sizeable amount of aircraft performance data (airspeeds and fuel burns at various altitudes and power settings) plus weight-and-balance data (fuel tank capacities, passenger seat locations, and so forth) for every aircraft you fly regularly. Pre-stored data is already there for 21 of the most popular GA airplanes, and you can fine-tune the supplied data to your particular aircraft. But unfortunately I had to roll my own for the Aerostar 601P that I fly.

Just to give you an idea, here's an outline of the data items you need to enter to customize the software:

  1. Aircraft data

    • Fuel quantity, tankage, and type (avgas, mogas, or jet fuel)

    • Performance

    • Weight-and-balance

    • Center-of-gravity envelope

    • Costs

    • Compass deviation

    • Units of measure (metric/english, statute/nautical)

    • Preferences on how you fly the airplane (altitude, %power, etc.)

  2. Pilot data

    • Name

    • Address

    • Qualifications (medical class and date)

    • Weight

    • Manifest (passengers/freight)

    • Costs (Biennial, training)

    • Personal schedule (how much time you need to get ready)

    • Communication (DUAT access)

  3. Navigation default preferences

    • Type of flying (IFR, VFR)

    • Method of navigation (Airway, Direct VOR, RNAV)

    • Limits (how far off great-circle routing for airway)

    • Overwater and restricted area limits

    • User defined airports (I added some Bahamian ones)

    • User defined waypoints

  4. Other preferences

    • Standard winds aloft (for preliminary flight planning w/o DUATS)

    • Display formats (Lat/Lon, etc.)

    • Modem setup

The good news is that you only need to enter all this stuff once, and it's simply a matter of filling in a series of Windows-type forms that are pretty much self-explanatory. From then on, flight planning becomes a breeze.

Keep in mind that the program will only be as accurate as the data you enter, so be sure to use the most accurate real-world numbers on performance and fuel burn that you can. Given good performance numbers and the winds aloft information obtained from DUAT, I have found that the flight time estimates produced by Destination Direct are usually astonishingly accurate. It's not unusual to complete a long cross-country within a minute or two of ETA. This can be very reassuring on a fuel-critical mission.

Setting up annual and hourly costs will allow the program to compute an true hourly cost based on the number of hours per year you plan to fly. I entered my average annual inspection costs, 50-hour oil change costs, insurance, hangar, estimated maintenance and reserves for propellers and engines. In the pilot section I entered the cost of recurrent flight training, medical exam and charts. After you tell Destination Direct how many trips and how many total hours you fly per year, it will report the cost for any trip planned. This is one feature I'm not sure I want to use, particularly if my wife is around. But it certainly would be useful for charter or commercial operators.

Planning a flight

(NOTE: You can click on any of the miniature screen images in this article to see an actual-size version of the screen.)

Destination Direct always starts with a "preliminary plan" page that allows you to control the program.

You enter your departure and destination points, and the program immediately gives you the great-circle route numbers for a direct flight. If the flight is too long to make non-stop with comfortable reserves, the software will suggest one or more intermediate stops at this point. It's really rather clever about picking such stops, and takes into account your range, minimum runway length requirement, and fuel preference (av/mo/jet) that you specified for the aircraft during setup.

If you need help picking a destination airport, can't recall an airport identifier, or want to evalute a different fuel stop than what the software came up with, you just click on the "spectacles" icon. The program then lets you search its database to find information on airports and FBOs, determine which airports are close to a particular city, or even to add a user-defined airport not in the current database. Slick!

Once the departure, destination, and intermediate stopping points points are chosen, Destination Direct will come up with an automatic route for your flight based on flight rules you select (IFR or VFR) and altitude you wish to fly. I find it quite fascinating to watch the progress of the program as it searches for airways, avoids special-use airspace, routes you around bodies of water (if you so specified), and searches for applicable SIDS and STARS (it asks you which you plan to use. When this process is finished, the program returns you to the preliminary plan page, but new numbers have been added to the original estimates based on the automatically-selected routing. Now the direct great-circle route is compared with the route actually planned, and you see how much of a penalty there is for flying on the airways. (It's usually less than you might suppose, though not always.)

The menu bar at the top of the screen contains the "View" button which will allow several different ways to examine the flight planned. Perhaps the most useful of these is the "Map" option, which displays a detailed full-color map of your flight with bold line depicting your route. The software lets you "de-clutter" the map by checking or un-checking what features you want to have displayed: navaids, intersections, airports, special-use airspace, state boundaries, and so forth.

The route line on the map can be "rubber banded" — moved around with the mouse — by positioning the cursor on the route line, holding down the left mouse button, and "dragging" the line to another location. If the location is a navaid, fix, or airport, that location will be automatically added to the flight plan. Waypoints can be deleted from the route simply by clicking the right mouse button on that point.

All route revisions you make in this fashion are immediately reflected in the map, the navigation log, and the flight plan—all of which are available from the "View" menu. The entire process of route selection and modification is very intuitive, interactive, and rather enjoyable.

Back on the preliminary plan page, you can now click on various buttons to check the weather, calculate your weight-and-balance, see the costs for the trip (ugh!), or show the schedule for the pilot including his wake-up call time. Of these options, checking weather is the most frequently used.

Destination Direct will automatically call the DUATS provider of your choice and download all pertinent weather information for your trip. A screen allows you to customize exactly what data you'd like to see and what you'd rather omit. You can select plain-language reports if you like. Weather information is downloaded from DUATS at speeds much faster than you can possibly read, but fortunately the program saves all this information on disk so you can examine it off-line at your leisure. With a few mouse clicks, the forecast winds aloft can be extracted and the flight plan automatically recomputed to take them into account. When you're satisfied with the flight plan, you can ask Destination Direct to dial-up DUATS again to file your FAA flight plan electronically.

The last step in the process is usually to print out the hardcopy reports that you'll want to take along in the cockpit. Reports produced by Destination Direct include the navigation log (in your choice of clipboard or kneeboard size), route map, FAA flight plan, weather briefing, airport diagrams, and airport information (frequencies, FBOs, hotels, car rentals, and so forth). If your PC has a laser or ink-jet printer, the printouts come out particularly nice-looking and easy-to-read.

New Moving Map Module

Delta Technology's latest offering is a version of Destination Direct with an integrated moving map capability. For pilots who carry a color notebook computer when they travel and have an on-board GPS, Destination Direct can now offer both pre-flight planning and and in-flight situational awareness in a single integrated software package.

The DD moving map software offers three map display modes: north-up, course-up, and a unique third mode called "Intellicourse" in which the software automatically decides whether to display north-up or course-up and what map range to use, depending on your current phase of flight.

The moving map software displays your actual ground track and saves a log to disk for replay and review at a later time. This can be handy for training, for search-and-rescue or survey flights, or in the event of an FAA action. Some other handy moving map features include one-step present-position-direct route amendments and emergency airport search.

New Logbook Module

Delta Tech has also added an optional "PilotLogbook" module to DD. While not as fancy as specialized logbook programs like FlightLevel LogBook PLUS, it's more than adequate for most pilots and aircraft owners, and nicely integrated into the flight planning software. And because it's simple, its a lot quicker to learn.

Logbook screen

The DD Pilot Logbook allows you to log your flying hours almost any way you want. There's a total of 40 columns in the logbook, with 35 of them customizable to your needs. Because the log is integrated with the flight planning system, you can pull information from the Flight Plan for any logbook field. Logbook filtersSo you can enter your planned flight in the logbook with just a click of the button. Then, after the flight, you can go back and adjust the entry for real time and conditions. Or print out the last logbook page, and fill it out by hand as you go, then enter the information into the computer later. Whatever works for you.

The modules lets you set up filters to track your currency requirements. You can ask the program to look for field entries within a specific time and warn you when time is running short on fullfilling those requirements. A message will display when you start the program. Or, while in the currency area, just hightlight the item you wish to check on, then click the Check button. You can establish filters for the on-screen display and hardcopy printouts as well. For instance, if you only want to see your entries for flights taken in a Cessna 182 within the last six monts, just set up the filter and it's done.

Keeping the logbook software simple and to the point was Delta Tech's goal. This is not an "all things to all pilots" logbook program. On the other hand, it is flexible enough to handle most requirements and is very easy to learn. Logbook sortThere's also an import feature that allows you to import information from other popular logbook programs...so the switch to DD pilot logbook should be relatively painless!

Dollars and Cents

Delta Technology offers four versions of Destination Direct, plus several optional add-ons:

  • Destination Direct Pro (IFR) costs $295.00 and comes with a Jeppesen database that covers all of North and Central America (including Canada, U.S., Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean) including extended services (FBOs, Hotels and Car Rental). It also includes multiple pilot capabilities, a scheduling function, and on-line interfaces for AccuWeather and Fillup Flyer Fuel Finder (paid services).

  • Destination Direct Pro (VFR) costs $199.00 and has the same geographic coverage and features, but omits airways and other IFR-specific data. (You can upgrade to the IFR version at any time by paying the $80.00 difference.)

  • Destination Direct Personal (IFR) costs $229.00 and differs from the Pro version in that it supports only a single pilot, excludes the scheduling feature and AccuWeather and Fillup Flyer Fuel Finder interfaces, and has a database limited to the lower-48 states. The extended services database (FBOs, Hotels and Car Rental) is a $59 extra-cost option with this version.

  • Destination Direct Personal (VFR) costs $149 and has the same geographic coverage and features, but omits airways and other IFR-specific data. (You can upgrade to the IFR version at any time by paying the $50.00 difference.)

  • The Moving Map module may be added to any DD version for $120 additional.

  • The Personal Logbook module may be added to any DD version for $49 additional.

Current registered owners of the IFR or VFR versions of Destination Direct may add Moving Map capability for $120, and may add Personal Logbook capability for $49.

You can purchase a variety of database update subscriptions (Delta gets a newly-revised Jeppesen database every 28 days) or simply order updates whenever you think you need one. Here's the pricing on updates:

  • Personal VFR, single update...$65.00 + $5.00 S&H.

  • Personal VFR, three 112-day updates...$125.00+ $9.00 S&H.

  • Pro VFR, single update...$75.00 + $5.00 S&H.

  • Pro VFR, three 112-day updates...$135.00+ $9.00 S&H.

  • Personal IFR, single update...$85.00 + $5.00 S&H.

  • Personal IFR, three 112-day updates...$150.00+ $9.00 S&H.

  • Personal IFR, six 56-day updates...$225.00+ $18.00 S&H.

  • Pro IFR, single update...$99.00 + $5.00 S&H.

  • Pro IFR, three 112-day updates...$165.00+ $9.00 S&H.

  • Pro IFR, six 56-day updates...$270.00+ $18.00 S&H.

  • Pro IFR, thirteen 28-day updates...$585.00+ $39.00 S&H.

One or two updates a year is plenty for folks who fly mostly VFR. (That's how often our WACs and sectionals are updated.) IFR pilots should consider a 112-day update subscription. (That's about how often IFR enroute charts are revised.) A commercial operator who flies IFR every day might conceivably justify the 56-day update subscription, but I frankly can't imagine anyone needing a 28-day subscription...even Jepp's own IFR enroute charts aren't updated that often.

The update prices reflect the fact that Jeppesen is very proud of its NavData®, but are actually remarkably low when you consider the cost a single NavData® update for a Garmin GPSMAP-195 handheld: $130.00. What's more, every Destination Direct update comes with the latest revision of the software at no additional cost, so it's easy to keep your software current.

Destination Direct vs. FliteStar

Destination Direct's primary competition is FliteStar from MentorPlus (recently acquired by Jeppesen), a package that is heavily advertised and better known. FliteStar costs about the same as DD, and its capabilities are very similar to those of Destination Direct. FliteStar is available in both Windows and Macintosh versions (DD is strictly Windows-only).

However, FliteStar appears to fall short of Destination Direct in a couple of areas that I consider important. The FliteStar database lacks data on FBOs, hotels, car rentals, etc., unless you spring for the optional AOPA Aviation USA option for an extra $79.95 per year. In addition, FliteStar doesn't do automatic routing around special-use airspace, overwater areas, or high terrain the way Destination Direct does.

There are two other low-end competitors: FlightSoft from RMS and The Aviator's Utilities (TAU) from Excel. Both are cheaper than either FliteStar or Destination Direct, and both are much less capable programs. For aviators who want to experiment with PC-based flight planning on a tight budget, TAU is now bargain-priced at $99.00 with (non-Jeppesen) database updates at $45.00. But it's a DOS-based (non-Windows) program and has the fewest features and the most primitive map display of any of the packages mentioned.

After looking at all of them, my opinion is that Destination Direct is the best of the bunch, with a few more features and a bit less expensive than FliteStar, and lightyears ahead of the others. Unless you use a Macintosh, in which case FliteStar is pretty much the only game in town.

Final Impressions

I find that Destination Direct does a first-rate job of planning my cross-country flights, IFR or VFR. It selects a route, displays it graphically and allows me to revise it, obtains a weather briefing, and prints out a nice trip log. It takes forecast winds aloft into account and calculates all the necessary information I need (and more) before I pull the chocks, start the engines, and launch. You have a right to expect all these things from a flight planning package that costs a couple of hundred bucks, and Destination Direct does them well.

If I had to criticize any aspect of the program, it would be the automatic routing function. Sometimes it seems to me that the automatic routing processing takes a longer time than it should. The folks at Delta tell me that this is because the software does three-dimensional analysis of the route to make sure it provides adequate terrain clearance and conforms to your other constraints such as avoiding overwater legs. All this cleverness is apparently pretty processor-intensive. Maybe Santa will bring me a Pentium Pro 200 this Christmas!

And sometimes, the automatically-selected route isn't exactly what I had in mind. Occasionally, it has me flying past my destination to the next VOR and then doubling back to get to the airport, probably because of some weird STAR or somesuch. No automatic routing algorithm is perfect, and sometimes I'll have to manually "tweak" the route to get what I really want. The "rubber band" feature is invaluable here, and makes it easy to fine-tune the route.

If you fly the same route often, you can save your "tweaked" route on disk for next time. Then any time you want to fly that route in the future, simply retrieve it, and have Destination Direct call DUATS to get your briefing and file your flight plan.

I love the FBO and airport database, and find it both very complete and very useful. You can find a hotel or a restaurant at your destination or other airport using the "look up" functions strategically placed throughout Destination Direct. With a little more refinement, I'd probably be willing to throw out my printed airport directories altogether.

Storing the weather briefing on disk allows you to go back and look up a terminal forecast you didn't pay much attention to until the enroute weather turned sour, or the headwinds turned out to be worse than expected. Having all the weather at your fingertips for the entire flight is a valuable feature. I often carry my Toshiba laptop on-board so I can double-check such details enroute. I only wish its screen was easier to read in the bright cockpit environment. Of course, you can print out the weather briefing and carry it in hardcopy if you prefer.

As I mentioned at the outset, I started using Destination Direct about two years ago, first using a Beta version I bought at Oshkosh, so I have watched the program evolve from its somewhat uncertain beginnings to the mature and refined program that it is today. I always look at first-time Oshkosh vendors and wonder if they will be back next year. Delta has proven itself to have staying power.

Destination Direct Located in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Delta Technology has been around for 13 years, close to an eternity in the software business. During the time I've owned Destination Direct, I've experienced good support, a succession of software improvements, and readily available Jeppesen NavData® database updates.

Like many software firms, Delta Technology is net-savvy: you can ask questions or obtain support via e-mail. Your e-notes will usually be answered by Delta's technical support manager Gary Hawkins, who I've found to be extremely helpful and responsive. If you'd rather talk than type, you can call Delta toll-free at 1-800-515-6900.

Delta promises even more features and a continued upgrading of the Destination Direct product. Personally, I'd vote for a CD-ROM version of the program that contained even more FBO and airport data.

While writing this, I just happened to look out the window and wondered: "How long would it take for Helen and me to fly to New Orleans for the weekend?" It's nice to know that the answer is just a few mouse clicks away.

Delta Technology debuts "Destination Direct BASIC" priced at just $79new4.gif (116 bytes)

Delta Technology has now introduced a new low-end version — Destination Direct BASIC — designed specifically for the new or recreational pilot. BASIC is great for the weekend renter-pilot, or the VFR pilot who seldom travels more that 200-300 miles from home. Delta kept the price of BASIC down — way down — by saying goodbye to expensive Jeppesen NavData and taking out features that a VFR pilot just doesn't need.

DD BASIC is limited to VFR single-pilot use, and includes FAA navigation data for the lower 48 states. Like other DD versions, BASIC calculates W&B, performs automatic routing, interfaces with DUATS to get weather and file flight plans, prints out complete reports to take along on the flight, and is Y2K-compliant. But its best feature is its low introductory price of $79, with low-cost data updates that cost just $35 each or $65 for three updates per year.

What features do you lose with DD BASIC that are included with higher-priced versions? Here's what you don't get:

  • Schedule function

  • Costing function.

  • Automatic optimization for best winds, etc.

  • Preferred Routes

  • Pilot reminders

  • Interface with Fill-up Flyer Fuel Finder

  • Uploading flight plans to a GPS receiver

  • Ability to add the logbook or moving map modules

If you can live without these features, Destination Direct BASIC may be just the ticket, and its low price is irresistable. You can now order it online.


NOTE: This review was written in 1996, and while it may be helpful in planning your purchases, links to purchase or download the demo no longer work.  We recommend visiting Destination Direct at their current home on the web, www.FlightPlan.com.  — 5/24/2005

Destination DirectDownload a free demo version!

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