Skip Flight Planning

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This article originally appeared in IFR magazine, Mar. 2006.

Flying the System

In spite of the avalanche of stern e-mail that's sure to come, let me start with my core position: Flight planning is dead. I can hear it already, "Boy, didn't they teach you that you should 'plan your flight, and fly your plan?' " They sure did. But there is flight planning and then there is flight planning -- minutia versus common sense.

Getting There

Once upon a time I finished a meeting in Orange County, Calif., (KSNA) mid-afternoon and needed to get to the East Coast. How much planning was necessary? Well, first, I can't make it non-stop -- 1,000 miles is my limit. Leg one was to go to Tucson. I could make it there by evening and get dinner and a comfy bed from a cousin. Next stop would be Atlanta, Ga., (and the same deal with room and board), and finally to White Plains, N.Y. So KSNA-KTUS it was. A check of the ADDS weather picture showed nothing major on the surface or 500-millibar chart. It didn't look convective anywhere and there were no hints of fog that evening. Winds were modestly on the tail. There was some moisture aloft, but not enough for icing. PIREPS said nothing about icing anyway, and nothing about turbulence. The METARs and TAFs looked OK. There was nothing scary in the NOTAMs. What about the distance? It's about 2000 miles across the country, so a quarter of the way is 500 and KSNA-KTUS looks a little shorter. Say 400? I cruise at 200 knots anytime above 14,000, so I'd file for 15,000 and assume two hours plus a little for climb and then some for descent vectoring. My guess was 2:15 en route. With 106 gallons on board, fuel was not an issue. Then there was the route. It looked like KSNA to the VICKO intersection, then direct, kept me clear of all the MOAs and restricted areas. I needed an outbound fix, so I chose the Paradise VOR (PDZ). I needed a fix somewhere near KTUS, too, so I used TORTS. The made my route KSNA, direct PDZ, direct VICKO, direct TORTS, direct KTUS. "Hello, Flight Service? Mooney M20T/G, 200 knots, out of SNA 20 minutes from now, one five thousand feet. Any NOTAMs we missed? Recent PIREPs? Thanks very much."

Five waypoints. No waiting. File simple plans and negotiate later. The route roughly follows some airways. That's not required for this system to work, but it often works out that way anyway.

The actual clearance was even better: The Anaheim departure, VICKO, and the Dingo Five arrival. It went into the Garmin 530 like goose droppings through a tin horn: Enter KSNA, enter KTUS, press Procedure, select the Anaheim departure, press Enter, press Procedure, select the Dingo Five arrival, press Enter, go back between the DP and the STAR, dial in VICKO and I was done. Approach gave me four turns, and then direct PDZ. Direct VICKO came shortly thereafter. After VICKO, I got the direct WASON, which is the IAF for the ILS Rwy 11L. Easier than this, it doesn't get. The winds were close to forecast and the time en route was 2:06. Much later, at home in Connecticut, the computer said the distance was only 377.3 miles, not the 400 miles that I assumed. That's maybe a six percent error? Give me a break. The trip from Tucson to KPDK in Atlanta, Ga., went just the same, with a stop for fuel in Dallas, Texas. The clearance was just as nice: KTUS, the TUCSON SIX to COCHISE (CIE), direct ABILENE and the GLEN ROSE arrival to KDAL. Shortly after departure it was direct CIE. The STAR into Dallas was full of fixes, but then that's what the GNS 530 is for. Actual time was 14 minutes less than my mental estimate and there was still 30 gallons in the tanks on shutdown. KDAL-KPDK was filed using the Quitman VOR (UIM) east of Dallas and the Rocket VOR (RQZ) near Atlanta. The clearance came back as the DALLAS EIGHT departure to Quitman, direct Rocket, the BUNNI arrival to KADEE, and then direct KPDK. Do you see a pattern here? So is flight planning dead? Yes and no. It's not dead for weather. This trip was easy but others weren't. I spend lots of time scoping out the weather. But assuming the weather is flyable, it comes down to distance, the winds, how much fuel is left at landing, and the route.

Three Kinds of Airspace

Don't get hung up on the perfect transition from en route to approach. Pick a fix near the destination, in the direction of your arrival and from a STAR if possible. ATC will work out the rest.

For purposes of route planning, there are three kinds of airspace in the country. In the first kind, there's no point planning the route because you're going to fly what they give you. You might as well file "Radar vector direct to destination." Want to fly from White Plains, N.Y., (KHPN) to Boston, Mass., (KBOS)? It'll be CMK V3 WOONS every time. Going to Montpelier, Vt., (KMPV) instead? Expect CMK SOARS JUDDS WHATE. This holds between Boston and Washington, from Atlanta down to Florida, and certainly between the Bay Area and the greater Los Angeles basin. It might be that way around other major hubs, too. My flight from KTUS to KDAL to KPDK exemplifies the second kind of area. There's no point in route planning here, either, because all you need is a GPS and four fixes: a departure airport, outbound fix, inbound fix, and destination airport. You generally get what you filed, or something so close there's no point agonizing over the route. Keep it simple. The third kind of area is where you get anything you want. Wish to fly from Sioux Falls, S.D., (KFSD) to Rapid City, S.D., (KRAP)? Would you like direct? Would you like radar vectors direct? How about lat/long waypoints or airport to airport? Be ATC's guest. I say, file a departure airport, outbound fix, inbound fix, and destination airport. In the tough areas, you won't get that route anyway, but at least the planning was simple. In the second kind of area, you'll probably get it, so you're money ahead. In the third kind, you'll get it for sure, so why agonize? Simple in execution usually requires real effort behind the scenes. Four-fix flight planning is no different. Get razor sharp with weather. Watch the Weather Channel. Have a satellite link in your airplane if you can and get a cellphone that pulls down METARs and TAFs if you can't. Check and recheck the weather ahead, and not just NEXRAD. Use weather-briefing computers at FBOs and the ADDS Web site in detail. In addition to the surface chart, get experience with the 500-mb chart forecasts. Find out where the moisture is -- water is your enemy. Don't trust winds aloft. If you have air data, record the actual winds and temps at 3000, 6000, 9000, and 12,000 feet. Compare them with the winds aloft forecast. If they don't match, the forecast ain't gonna be right, either. While weather certainly influences my thinking, I still file the simple route and depart knowing that I'll to have to negotiate. Suppose you're heading north and there is a northeast-southwest squall line parked over your route? Once you're talking to Center, ask for a westbound deviation until you're behind the line and then turn northeast for the rest of the trip. You can use the same trick in the wintertime to avoid icing conditions east of an approaching cold front or warm front or to get on top. Tops are lower behind fronts. In other words, divorce in your mind the route that you file and the track that your shadow will trace over the ground. Don't frustrate yourself using route planning for weather avoidance. Negotiate avoidance with the ATC based on what you saw on the ground and what you learn in the air.

Estimating the distances from a flight-planning chart is close enough.

Get a U.S. planning chart for the whole country to better eyeball things (e.g., Atlanta to Dallas is about 650 miles). If you're not good at math -- 600 miles at 200 knots is three hours, plus the climb, descent, and vectors makes it 3:20 -- then check if your cell phone has a calculator. Picking outbound and inbound fixes for your departure and destination respectively takes a little practice, but it's not rocket science. On low-altitude charts, all fixes look alike, so look for STARs. Flying into Indianapolis, Ind., (KIND) from the south? The DECEE THREE arrival kicks in over the Louisville VOR (IIU). There's your fix. With no STAR available, use the winds to guess at the approach in use. Pick a fix outside the IAF in the direction from which you'll arrive. Don't pick the IAF. Center computers usually don't have them. As a last resort, just pick a fix within 30 miles or so of the airport and be ready to renegotiate once airborne. You can manage much of this route planning concept with a portable GPS, too. Fish out the desired fixes, preferably a VOR, ask for "heading 260 until receiving Rosewood," and you're on your way. Altitude is a factor, and 13,000 feet or higher is required to make this concept work consistently. If those altitudes aren't an option, you can still file the direct routes and probably get them in many parts of the country. It often depends on airspace traffic. At midnight, you'll have an easy time, but at rush hour over Cincinnati, you can forget it. This method of route planning requires tankering around extra fuel. That fuel makes detours feasible -- like getting behind a cold front or around convection. I routinely land with 30 gallons in the Mooney, which is three hours if I throttle back. Extra fuel is how you relax and accept some uncertainty.

A Tolerance for Uncertainty

You'll need that tolerance for uncertainty. The plan is: file, depart, and negotiate. Some day, pull out your chart, plot the great circle route between two airports and then plot a more circuitous route that's six percent longer. You'll be surprised how dramatically longer the 106-percent route appears -- even though it doesn't take much longer to fly. Successful negotiation requires being knowledgeable and asking politely. No one likes amateurs and troublemakers. If one controller can't give you everything -- or is buried in traffic -- settle for half a glass and ask for more from the next one. Rare is the occasion when I'm refused. Get your briefing, file your four fixes, see what ATC gives you, and negotiate the rest. That's the ticket for flying IFR in the U.S. today. Honestly, it's the most delightful -- and fastest -- way to do business.
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