Flight Plan Fumbles

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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.

Comments (50)

Like you, I teach my students how to create and file a flight plan, and how to open one in the air. I do this only in case the examiner asks a question about it, but the particular examiner I send my students to never does. Only the chief CFI at the school seems to care if a student knows this information. I have also experienced the problems you state with opening and closing by phone.

Here's how I look at it. You're doing a 50 nm cross country and you have to put down for some reason along the way. Your arrival time hits and a half hour later they start "looking for you" by first calling the contact info on the plan, then the airport you're supposed to be at, then the departure point, then ATC along the way. Then they call CAP, who must find a pilot and an observer that didn't have a glass or wine with dinner. These people need to pre-flight a plane and launch. This process can obviously take a couple of hours. Meanwhile, you're sitting on the ground trying to stay warm and alive. I'm not knocking CAP or their mission. It's just the way bureaucracy works.

Contrast that with VFR flight following. You're in radar contact most if not all of the time. You're already talking to someone that knows exactly where you are and the city or town you'll be in when you get down. For the most part, they know the numbers of the local authorities that can be dispatched to your aid. It's a much safer way to send your charges on their way.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | December 29, 2010 8:28 AM    Report this comment

From my reading of the FARs, the "C" is not part of the registration number, only the "registration marks." If your aircraft has NC1234 painted on the side, you can (and probably should) call it N1234 on flight plans and when talking to ATC. There will never be another NR1234, NL1234 or NX1234 while you have NC1234 registered.

Posted by: Grumpy Gus | December 29, 2010 9:27 AM    Report this comment

I think you're right about the registry. I just looked at the FAA database and it appears without the C. Yet the FSS specialist told me he couldn't find it. Makes me wonder if they got the main numerals transposed in the first place. It was right on the flight plan.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 29, 2010 10:41 AM    Report this comment

"Imperfect" is about the most benign descriptive term one could use to describe the VFR flight plan system. Combine that with the unpredictability (I'm being as charitable as I can be) of Lockheed's processing, and the results can be pretty random...

I would only say this: I do think that, as an introduction to the airspace system, and to create a "conceptual infrastructure", insisting that a student use this system for solo cross-contries is both legitimate and prudent. It sure works better when combined with flight following - that's the way I was taught to use it. But truth be told, I hate the VFR flight plan system and if I'm flying very far away from home I file IFR, even in good weather. I think alot of pilots miss the distiction of filing to deal with IMC versus filing simply to "get into the system". In good weather you can get away with direct routing most of the time, unless traffic is really an issue...in which case there's yet another good reason to be something other than an itinerant, random VFR element and instead be part of the system

Posted by: ANTHONY NASR | December 29, 2010 11:15 AM    Report this comment

Dial the clock back 60 years...in the Cub, we have a radio good for local airport communication, but no transponder. This is the limitation I am finding in training in this airplane. The real world is flight following with radar advisories. We miss out on that. In exchange, we learn and teach better stick and rudder skills.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 29, 2010 11:44 AM    Report this comment

While I agree that VFR flight plans can be a little repetitive, I think there are cases where it can still be beneficial.
I flew across the Cascade Mountains solo for the first time, back in May, from KRNT to KELN and back. I am a Seattle-based "flatlander", so I thought this would be a really fun trip. It was a spur of the moment flight, brought on by clear skies and uncharacteristically calm winds over the passes. As such, I did not file a flight plan, but I did get flight following from both Seattle Approach and Center. I flew at 7500 over I-90, which was more than enough altitude to safely cross Snoqualmie Pass VFR. However, I discovered that this was well below the minimum altitude for radar and communication coverage with SEA. I was told to try to contact them when east of the pass. Believe me, flying over the mountains, while very beautiful that day, felt a touch ominous without any means of contact with ATC (I should note that I was flying a C-172). It occurred to me, that no one would know where I was, should there be any problems, as I had not filed a flight plan. On the return leg, I climbed to 8500, and was able to maintain communications, but they still could not maintain radar contact, until after I had returned to the west side of the mountains.
This was a learning experience for me. I had counted on ATC for advisories and help, and was quite chastened, when I realized I could not count on that help.

The VFR flight plan still has *some* uses :)

Posted by: BRANDON FREEMAN | December 29, 2010 2:49 PM    Report this comment

The usefullness of VFR flight plans in populated areas is limited, and often just a hassle. However, most of my flying is done in the mountain west. I wouldn't dream of a cross country flight in this part of the country without a flight plan, with or without flight following. There are large areas of the west where radar coverage is simply not available. Even if one had to make a forced landing "only" 10 or 15 miles from the nearest road, having someone come to look for you could easily make the difference between life and death.
In my 20000+ hours of flying (so far!), I've found that sometimes "stuff" really does happen. It's good to have a backup.

Posted by: Dale Olsen | December 29, 2010 3:57 PM    Report this comment

Great story Paul, and you have a point about doing away with the service, but I think they should stop making pennies if we're out to save money. ;-)

I do a fair amount of VFR flying and never file, but I think it's a good thing to have the option should the situation demand it.

This was simply an error in the Lockeed bureaucracy, or probably today "software".

You don't see many airplanes with the old NC on them--maybe just on the calendars.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | December 29, 2010 4:51 PM    Report this comment

I've also found the VFR flight plans to be a real hassle, unless I'm going somewhere VFR and no one else knows where I'm going. My preference in this order is: 406 PLB (goes on every flight), IFR, then VFR flight following, then VFR flight plan.
The Canadians aren't all that crazy in requiring a flight plan or giving the pertinent details of a flight to a responsible party.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | December 31, 2010 8:31 AM    Report this comment

Completely agree with Paul regarding VFR flight plans. I always get flight following instead.

If only we could somehow get the news media to stop ominously proclaiming "No flight plan was filed..." whenever something bad happens to a GA pilot.

Posted by: Tracy Reed | January 3, 2011 3:28 AM    Report this comment

VFR flight plans are not the only ones that seem to trouble Lockheed since their takeover of FSS functions. Not long after the transition, I was operating regular 135 flights into a non-tower airport in Mississippi. We were not allowed to cancel while airborne, so it was left to a postflight phone call to Lockheed.

After two occasions of being informed by the FBO that the FAA / Sheriff's office had been out to check that my King Air was on the ramp, I adopted the policy of making my phone call in front of the FBO mgr .... just for my own protection. It still fell through the cracks on occasion. MEI approach control finally requested that I phone them in addition in order to "save us all a lot of trouble".

One of the primary problems seem to be that of territoriality. Despite the fact that Lockheed advertised a number that was not geographically oriented .... and gave one the voice menu option of replying "any" to the question "what state", I routinely received the response, "where ??? .... I'm in Arizona and never heard of that" when telling the phone guy I was on the ground in Philadelphia, MS and canceling my flight plan.This was usually followed by, "I'll try to get word to Memphis". Obviously, this did not reassure me .... and I learned to always call MEI as a back up.

The ideal solution would be a "cancel this flight plan" box added to such sites as FltPlan.com .... just as it is for "file this flight plan". Lockheed replied that this was technically impossible. ???

Posted by: Kim Welch | January 3, 2011 8:13 AM    Report this comment

It is my understanding that, unlike IFR flight plans, VFR flight plans do NOT get passed on to controllers. They only come out of the drawer if you don't close them. Is that correct?

Posted by: MARC SANTACROCE | January 3, 2011 9:05 AM    Report this comment

This is typical of the performance of the welfare queens of Lockheed Martin.

I don't even trust them for weather or, unfortunately, NOTAMS any more (true line from an IFR brief: "Uh, I missed one. It says something is out but I dunno what it is. It is [painfully spelling] 'I, then a dash, then the airport identifier.' Is this something you use?" Turns out the localizer was out at the destination field, and the brain-dead LockMart functionary didn't have a clue whether an IFR flight ought to know that.

I do still call to "check the box" for regulatory compliance. Because when the government and their overpaid, underskilled contractors fail, that gets a shrug, but when YOU misplace a jot or tittle, they hammer you. So you learn to check the box and go elsewhere to get the real weather the government's contractor won't provide. This is the same kind of double-speak you see in failing states like East Germany before the wall came down.

If FAA were a business, LockMart would have been fired long ago. Instead, it's a government operation: no standards, no oversight, no responsibility, no consequences, unlimited money.

Posted by: KEVIN O'BRIEN | January 3, 2011 9:18 AM    Report this comment

I typically file IFR for longer trips regardless of whether it may be VMC--just like the comfort of having more eyes looking and the immediacy of contact if something untoward happens, as well as not having to dodge around Class Bs, etc. For shorter VFR trips, or if I don't want to file IFR for some reason, I'll use flight following, same reasoning. When that's not practical for some reason, I'll monitor the ATC frequency for the area, so that at the least, I can make an immediate contact if necessary.

Over the last 38 years, I've forgotten to close VFR flight plans a few times, which is less of a problem now with cell phones, if that's the number in the flight plan--much better for me to get the call than for them to start the SAR process.

I don't want to get into LM bashing--they've improved a lot, from my personal observation. Their automated phone system sucks, but the individuals I've dealt with have been pretty professional and knowledgeable--many are former FAA FSS specialists. Unfortunately the phone system often directs me to just about anywhere in the country except where I am, no matter what I say to the "voice" on the phone.


Posted by: Cary Alburn | January 3, 2011 9:52 AM    Report this comment

Two years ago I made a multi-stop flight from Montréal, Canada to Florida. A number of times when calling to close my VFR flight plans I was told they was never opened. Most were opened in the air right after take-off. After that, I just used flight following for the rest of the trip.

Posted by: Neil Angus | January 3, 2011 10:00 AM    Report this comment

First: I have to strongly disagree that VFR flight plans are useless. Having seen several searches for VFR aircraft that had no flight plan I have observed first hand the huge waste of resources that occurs when no one has the slightest clue where the pilot went. In some cases I've seen individuals who told girl friends or others that they were going to XXX when they in fact just bumbling around or going to YYY (in the opposite direction of XXX). Not only is it bad practice to fail to file a flight plan for a VFR flight, it is irresponsible because if the worst happens it imposes unnecessary risks on pilots and aircrews who must conduct the search...

The second point (FSS dropped the ball) is old news. Ever since FSS was privatized I've seen a significant deterioration in the quality of service. Briefers don't have any personal knowledge of the areas they are supposedly certified to brief. VFR Flight plans I've filed with briefers in the past year continue to be dropped, and as has been the case since inception of the highfly flawed plan to privatization of FSS four or five years ago. I guess if there is good news, it's that I don't hear of many IFR flight plans being dropped these days... a problem I encountered more than once during the first year of L-M's contract. So you might say there is some progress... Now it would be nice to have knowledgeable, competent briefers on the L-M FSS staff... and zero tolerance for lost flight plans.

Posted by: John Townsley | January 3, 2011 10:07 AM    Report this comment

From a CAP perspective, let me tell you guys not to worry about us being called out to look for a plane that's not really missing. For most of us, we'd much rather find the plane safely in its hangar than the alternative. I've never been on a mission with an actual loss yet and I'm thankful for that. Finding a plane safe in it's hangar is EXCELLENT training for us anyway because it's often just as hard or harder to find the plane when it's not missing than when it is. As long as you don't intentionally or negligently cause us to come looking for you, you won't get billed for the costs anyway, so please don't let that keep you from filing VFR flight plans or using VFR flight following because they give us somewhere to start from, and that's huge if you really do go missing in finding you quickly and getting you the help you might need.

Posted by: Chris Trott | January 3, 2011 10:35 AM    Report this comment

Sorry to post twice in a row, but also let me say that not filing a flight plan makes our work much harder because we have to get specialists and even more flight crews involved to figure out where to start from. If you've filed a flight plan or used flight following, then we know where to start from. Otherwise, we're guessing - which means you're dying.

Posted by: Chris Trott | January 3, 2011 10:38 AM    Report this comment

"...Dial the clock back 60 years...in the Cub, we have a radio good for local airport communication, but no transponder. This is the limitation I am finding in training in this airplane. The real world is flight following with radar advisories. We miss out on that. In exchange, we learn and teach better stick and rudder skills...."

I don't understand what prevents you from doing both ?? Be part of the current system and teach/learn stick and rudder skills.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | January 3, 2011 12:06 PM    Report this comment

VFR Flight Plans are not the only failures in the system...my IFR flight plan also failed to work as advertised. I once launched from AUS to run the plane home for a fast oil-change while awaiting pax, and the wx was low, so I launced IFR. But upon initial climb it became evident that the wx report was erroneous and plenty of viz existed to continue VFR to my private strip, so I told approach "I'm in VFR conditions and will remain VFR...there's no need for an IFR clearance after-all." Approach gave me the "go-ahead" and a "continue VFR - frequency change approved" response.
I flew home (15 min flight), changed the airplane oil, took a shower, fresh clothes and returned to AUS under VFR to pick up the pax I'd dropped earlier.
As I entered the FBO I became aware of the curious looks from uniformed CAP personel who were flight-planning their C-182, and the FBO advised me that "The tower is on the phone for you."
TRACON queried me about the departure 4 hours earlier and asked me if I'd ever cancelled IFR. (cont'd next post)

Posted by: George Horn | January 3, 2011 12:06 PM    Report this comment

After I recounted the flight, they agreed with me, admitting they'd listened to the "tapes" ...but could not avoid a SAR-alert because the magic phrase "Cancell IFR" was never spoken...only a plain English agreement that I was VFR and would remain so was recorded between ATC and myself.
A friend has a phrase for that kind of mentality: "Toggle-Switch-Parrots".
Anyway... it ain't just Lockheed Martin...but ya gotta wonder how skimming money off the top of a higher-cost, but downsized amateur operation to create "corporate profits" makes the system more "efficient" than the previous EXCELLENT FSS system I now miss. Sorry to lose all those top-notch FSS Specialists.

Posted by: George Horn | January 3, 2011 12:07 PM    Report this comment

After I recounted the flight, they agreed with me, admitting they'd listened to the "tapes" ...but could not avoid a SAR-alert because the magic phrase "Cancell IFR" was never spoken...only a plain English agreement that I was VFR and would remain so was recorded between ATC and myself.
A friend has a phrase for that kind of mentality: "Toggle-Switch-Parrots".
Anyway... it ain't just Lockheed Martin...but ya gotta wonder how skimming money off the top of a higher-cost, but downsized amateur operation to create "corporate profits" makes the system more "efficient" than the previous EXCELLENT FSS system I now miss. Sorry to lose all those top-notch FSS Specialists.

Posted by: George Horn | January 3, 2011 12:08 PM    Report this comment

I quit filing VFR plans for the same reason, but back around 1990. They were not closing them then, either. During training, I learned to ask for the briefer's identifier, so I could say who I talked to, but I'd say that 3 of the 6 I filed and closed were not closed by the FAA. So I quit filing.

Posted by: TOM LUBBEN | January 3, 2011 12:43 PM    Report this comment

I don't understand what prevents you from doing both ?? Be part of the current system and teach/learn stick and rudder skills.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 3, 2011 1:31 PM    Report this comment

Very good article, Paul.
I DO hope that users of the system will continue to chime in with the good...the bad...and the ugly. This topic NEEDS to be discussed...and CORRECTED.

Posted by: Dave Khanoyan | January 3, 2011 2:02 PM    Report this comment

I rarely file VFR flight plans in the US, mostly due to the hassle factor and lack of integration with ATC. However, I will file one when traveling a route over sparsely populated areas with poor radar coverage. On one such flight, from Casper, WY to Salt Lake City, I discovered that the "phone-tree" search is sometimes less efficient than it should be. After arriving at Salt Lake City International, I got sidetracked dealing with the FBO about parking, transportation, etc and forgot to close the flight plan. Pretty soon my cell phone rang, it was FSS calling to chew me out, followed closely by my wife calling to chew me out - FSS had called her first. Having just landed at the primary field in a Class B, lots of people knew where I was, so it seemed to me that calling TRACON or the tower first might have cleared things up pretty quickly and saved us all (especially me) some grief...

Posted by: Frank Weissig | January 3, 2011 3:07 PM    Report this comment

I file IFR instead of VFR mostly because I have a bad memory. On an IFR flight plan they remind me to cancel. It is too bad we can not have the option of opening and closing VFR flight plans with ATC. When I fly out of a class D at VGT into Class B for 30 miles I forget to open the stupid VFR flight plan. When I get to where I am going I forget to close it. I have finally started sending myself a text or voicemail just to be sure.

Posted by: LYLE BROOKSBY | January 3, 2011 4:02 PM    Report this comment

I used to be an AFSS specialist when it was competently and efficiently run by the FAA (relative to Lockheed). We had a pilot who insisted that he did not need to file VFR flight plans with a "damn government bureaucracy wasting tax payer dollars". One day he and his airplane disappeared. Friends and family did not know how to begin a search. He was found several days later in a remote area of the Grand Mesa in western Colorado. He was half dead from exposure and literally covered from head to toe with mosquitoes. Or he could have filed a flight plan and been rescued within hours.

Posted by: Kevin Wright | January 3, 2011 6:32 PM    Report this comment

As a FSS briefer, I can assure that I know what an "NC" registration means. Then again, I've been an aviation nerd long before I worked in Flight Service. I also know the difference between a VariEze and a RV-6, although too many people file them as HXB's. Now what should I tell the people doing a ramp check to look for in that instance? An Experimental with a cruise speed between 100-200kts? Not too helpful for SAR purposes.

Without digging into the contact history for this particular flight, I can't offer any solutions for preventing the problem in the future. I sincerely recommend voicing all concerns, lost flight plans, and poor service to Lockheed Martin management using their feedback form at www.AFSS.com

All complaints are investigated by Quality Assurance, and you WILL receive feedback from our managers. We, as a team (you and me), cannot expect change without effectively voicing our concerns to the right people.

I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I can tell you that I love my job, and I love working with pilots, airport operators, and FAA controllers. I'm a private pilot, and a long-time aviation enthusiast. I'm here for you guys and gals. Remember, if it wasn't for you being up there, there would be no job for me down here.

These opinions are my own, and may or may not reflect those of my employer.

Posted by: Wayne Bressler | January 3, 2011 6:34 PM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli, please feel free to contact me at any time if you have questions about the ins and outs of Flight Service.

-Wayne Bressler
(I assume you can glean my email address from my user information)

Posted by: Wayne Bressler | January 3, 2011 6:53 PM    Report this comment

I always file because in the best scenario S&R process can take time even if everything go’s right and time is a precious commodity. For those that impose on friends and family to start the S&R do they know who to call???
Now Paul B that would make a good article “who do they call” and that is going to be harder than you think.

Posted by: Steve Gris | January 3, 2011 11:59 PM    Report this comment

Flight following is definitely the way to go...except when approach is in the weeds (ironically in less busy centers) and tells VFRs to stay clear or is otherwise "unable advisories"; Then, the first assumption crumps or as in the case of the over-the-mountain/desert flyers when a VFR flight plan is a bunch better than nothing!!

Posted by: David Friedman | January 4, 2011 5:15 AM    Report this comment

No one likes VFR flight planning until they or a relative fails to show. The system is not 100% perfect, but it does work most of the time. I would rather have someone who knows how and where to seach looking for me sooner than later. We should remember that flight following can be terminated by the controller, and for those of us who must fly at the lower altitudes, and often in mountainous areas, flight following is not always available. Counting on friends and relatives is, at best, unreliable.

Posted by: Unknown | January 4, 2011 12:28 PM    Report this comment

Could controller please post what is actually shown on the flight strip for a VFR and an IFR flight plan? My understanding is that neither show the filed alternate. Is that correct?

Posted by: MARC SANTACROCE | January 4, 2011 1:08 PM    Report this comment

@Marc Santacroce: Google JO7110.65T...see Chapter 2, Section 3 (Flight Progress Strips) for examples of IFR strips. For examples of VFR Flight Progress Strips...check contents of your "circular file", because that's where most of 'em end up in reality.

Posted by: Dave Khanoyan | January 4, 2011 1:41 PM    Report this comment

To Dave K.,


Posted by: MARC SANTACROCE | January 4, 2011 1:55 PM    Report this comment

Operating out of the DC Metro area (KJYO), we're forced to file SFRA Plans for all flights. I find it easier to file IFR for almost every trip, even if its just a short cross-country. In the past 3 years, I've only had one significant ground delay waiting to get into the System. As opposed to Flight Following, once you are IFR, there's no "unavailable" response from ATC.

Posted by: DAVID DINARDO | January 5, 2011 7:19 AM    Report this comment

Living in Michigan, I fly in Canada a lot and Canada requires a flight plan for all flights - VFR and IFR (the exception being when the destination is within 25 miles of the departing airport). When flying VFR you have an option to use a Flight Itinerary instead of a VFR Flight Plan filed with FSS.

Using a Flight Itinerary allows you to leave a copy of your flight plan with a "responsible" person who will then call SAR when you are overdue. This is especially helpful when you are planning on making multiple stops while on your way to your destination. You still need to fill out a flight plan (and it needs to be in ICAO format) so that the responsible person can provide it to SAR if it becomes necessary, but you don't have to worry about opening and closing your flight plan with FSS.

While we don't have an "official" solution like that here in the States, there's no reason why we can't use the same process of filling out a flight plan and leaving it with a responsible person. This would work for student pilots going on cross country flights as well.

Posted by: Philip Seizinger | January 5, 2011 9:42 AM    Report this comment

Philip S is there a phone number on that form that the responcible person would call?? In the US FSS on aircraft over due in their system and does preliminary checks then forwards the SAR request to Air Force "AFRCC" who then most likely directs to CAP at Maxwell AFB who would direct to the appropriate wing “state”.

I'm not sure how friend or loved one could initiate the SAR process.

Posted by: Steve Gris | January 5, 2011 9:02 PM    Report this comment

I agree that VFR flight plans aren't perfect and depending on them is a bit iffy. I haven,t filed one since shortly after Lockheed Martin took over.Since most my flying is in the mountain west it's not always possible to open or close a flight plan so it's best to have a backup.I recommend the following:
(1)Use your transponder continously.Turn it on on startup and leave it on till shutdown.Don't worry about Radar clutter on the ground- they've got clippers that prevent that. In all of the air searches I,ve been on the NTAP(National Track Analysis Program) has been our most reliable tool.Every time that little light on your transponder flashes you've made a position report of sorts and you've made a mark on a record at ARTCC.Happens about every 8-9 seconds.Even though you can,t talk to anybody it's remarkable how often radar can pick you up.It can cut the search area dramatically.
(2)Make position reports.Call FSS with a position report every 20 minutes or so and before you let down for landing and call again on climb out as soon as you can reach them.Yes it leaves a blank spot but it's better than nothing.
(3) Carry a High Altitude Jepp Chart.Ask your IFR friends for their old ones if you don't have a sub.It's got the frequeny those guys above 180 are listening to.If you can see him and your radio works you can talk to him.It's line of sight and probably not much over 7 miles.
(3) Carry survival gear.
Ron R.

Posted by: Ron Robinson | January 5, 2011 10:17 PM    Report this comment

Ron R. What great advice. Never thought of using those above FL180 as a resource. And your comments on the xpndr track is right on, as are your "position reports." Thanks so much

Posted by: MARC SANTACROCE | January 6, 2011 2:40 AM    Report this comment

As a retired FSS Specialist, let me offer some perspective. I know how the system works and it's not the best. I fly often myself and never file VFR flight plans, however I flight follow with ATC often. Most people don't know that ATC usually does treat flight following like a formal flight plan for SAR purposes. They loose radar contact and communication - they need to find you. Things can still fall through the cracks however - even on an IFR flight plan. The advantage to the IFR fp and ATC flight following is that it is an active system. Your on a frequency and can report the problem on your way down and your position is a known. One other disadvantage to flight following is that it is provided on a workload permitting basis. But I flew round trip from Green Bay to South California and got turned down only once.
The VFR flight plan system is a relic of the past. The are handled exclusively by FSS personnel. Hours would go by before anyone actually goes looking for you if you crash or go down in hostile surroundings. It's really not worth the hassle of dealing with.
All that said, I do believe there is a need for the VFR FP system for aircraft not equipped with transponders or radios who venture out on longer flights. It's better than nothing. Fly safe my aviation breather-en!

Posted by: William Gyzen | January 6, 2011 11:44 AM    Report this comment

As a Canadian pilot, I am used to our system up here, you file VFR flight plans
( or a flight itinerary with a responsible person) when flight is further than 25Nm.
Your VFR flight plan is opened at the time you designate as "off time" at uncontrolled airports and opened when airborne at controlled airports.
Nav Canada will start calling the number you have given (cell) within a short time if they have not heard from you ( I had it within 20 mins of my designated time for destination)
I also fly as part of CASARA (our equivalent to CAP) and would say to all pilots, for the little bit extra work it takes, it is well worth it when it comes to being found. Now I currently don't fly in the US, so your system sounds like it needs a bit of work. and remember ELTs tend to fail about 6 out every 10 times, spot is good but only if you are able to push the help button.

My 2 Canadian pennies worth( which is currently is equal to the US- yeah !!)

Posted by: TIM HOWARD | January 6, 2011 2:07 PM    Report this comment

The last time I filed a VFR flight plan, when I called to close it, I was informed that the plan had already been closed, but the person on the phone couldn't tell me by who. Since then I just get flight following.

Posted by: dale long | January 7, 2011 9:35 AM    Report this comment

Steve Gris you would call FSS station and inform them that you have an overdue aircraft. They'll then ask for the information in the flight plan and they will initiate SAR.

Posted by: Philip Seizinger | January 7, 2011 4:43 PM    Report this comment

Phillip S. thanks for the response, I’m not sure if were able to do that here with flight service some
of us pilots would enough data to flight service about a friends over do flight. Some of my friends
know where their going land when they land.

Posted by: Steve Gris | January 9, 2011 9:07 PM    Report this comment

Final comments;
Using VFR flight plans service can be easy but you need to know where your going although they can be modified in the air. Flight plans can be opened on the ground by cell phone prior to take off if you don’t want be off local advisories frequency in the air. There are a lot of things that youas the pilot can do to make the system work for you without it being a burden just tell them what you want.
I file VFR always whether for business, pleasure or S&R the last taught me the importance.
Because finding a down aircraft where you have some idea is tough imagine your odds with no data, it’s 360 degrees search distance outward based on max fuel and winds.

Posted by: Steve Gris | January 9, 2011 9:57 PM    Report this comment

I've been flying for 45 years and routinely use VFR flight plans when flying over sparsely populated areas. In this time, with 1000s of flight plans files, FSS has "lost" my activated flight plan twice; once in 1974 and again recently with LM FSS. "Loss of Flight Plan Protection" is the real issue. And, in both cases the cause was identified and resolved.

Certainly as competent flight instructors we should expose our students to ALL the services available from ATC—including VFR flight plans.

My biggest concern is the misunderstand about "VFR Flight Following." (Anyone remember the time when the FAA actually had a "Type" of flight plan VFR Flight Following: FVFR.) The service colloquially referred to as "VFR Flight Following" is Radar Traffic Advisories—check the AIM. It is NOT a Search and Rescue or Flight Notification service.

If you want to use the service use it; if not don't. But let me tell you, nothing is more resource intensive than getting a call from concerned relatives about a flight departing from "somewhere" (there not really sure) and they think is now overdue with no flight plan or other services on record.

Terry Lankford
OAK FSS Retired

Posted by: Terry Lankford | January 10, 2011 11:47 AM    Report this comment

I've been flying since 1966 and have filed many vfr flt plans. Never had any "lost" before recently when filed with AOPA's Flight Planner(they have yet to return my call to say why). When I filed, it gave me an "accepted" notation. When I asked to cancel at my destination, the briefer could not find it in the system! Oh, well. Was the switch from highly experienced FAA employee's to a private company a good idea? Maybe in the next 30 years.

Posted by: G STEGALL | January 10, 2011 12:24 PM    Report this comment

How does the push for ADS-B by 2020 play in to filing VFR flight plans and requesting Flight Following? Are you pilots going to rely on onboard technology like TIS-B rather than relying on the controller having enough time to provide advisories?

Posted by: Dan Wesely | January 10, 2011 12:48 PM    Report this comment

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