Say Again? #28:
ATC 203 -- IFR Flight Plan

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Everybody who flies a flight IFR has to file a flight plan. Even if it's just a pop-up clearance with ATC, there's gonna be a flight plan somewhere. But pilots (and others) are still not following the rules, and safety is being compromised. AVweb's Don Brown continues his 200-series of online IFR courses with this discussion of what should and shouldn't be in an IFR flight plan.

Say Again?

I've put it off long enough. We're going to have to delve into this subject sooner or later. It might as well be now.

Class, please pull out your copy of the Aeronautical Information Manual: Official Guide to Basic Flight Information and ATC Procedures. Open your book to Chapter 5: Air Traffic Procedures and turn to 5-1-7: Flight Plan -- IFR Flights. Let's start at the very beginning.

5-1-7. Flight Plan- IFR Flights

a. General

1. Prior to departure from within, or prior to entering controlled airspace, a pilot must submit a complete flight plan and receive an air traffic clearance, if weather conditions are below VFR minimums. Instrument flight plans may be submitted to the nearest FSS or ATCT either in person or by telephone (or by radio if no other means are available). Pilots should file IFR flight plans at least 30 minutes prior to estimated time of departure to preclude possible delay in receiving a departure clearance from ATC.

Well that's rather dull isn't it? I do wonder how many people submit a flight plan -- in person -- to a tower these days. Oh well. Please ponder the meaning of "Instrument Flight," and the meaning of "Plan," and we'll move along.

Keeping it Simple

b. Airways and Jet Routes Depiction on Flight Plan

1. It is vitally important that the route of flight be accurately and completely described in the flight plan. To simplify definition of the proposed route, and to facilitate ATC, pilots are requested to file via airways or jet routes established for use at the altitude or flight level planned.

Now this is more like it. "Pilots are requested to file via airways." Why, you might ask? Because "It is vitally important that the route be accurately and completely described," and filing the airways keeps it simple. Asking pilots to "facilitate" ATC instead of asking ATC to "facilitate" pilots seems somewhat backwards, doesn't it? If you've ever had to wait on ATC while they tried to straighten out the flight plan on the guy in front of you, it probably doesn't.

One more thing before we move along.

5. When filing IFR, it is to the pilot's advantage to file a preferred route.

That's because there's a 99% chance you're going to get it anyway, and no one wants to listen to you fumble around trying to copy the clearance while you're airborne.

Radio Fixes

c. Direct Flights

1. All or any portions of the route which will not be flown on the radials or courses of established airways or routes, such as direct route flights, must be defined by indicating the radio fixes over which the flight will pass. Fixes selected to define the route shall be those over which the position of the aircraft can be accurately determined. Such fixes automatically become compulsory reporting points for the flight, unless advised otherwise by ATC. Only those navigational aids established for use in a particular structure; i.e., in the low or high structures, may be used to define the en route phase of a direct flight within that altitude structure.

I know that I've been through this in other articles I've written but there are pilots still not doing it. They must think an airport is a radio fix.

Airport Fixation

If you were to file an airport-direct-airport flight plan (just like the hundreds I see every day), what "radio fix" has been indicated? That's right: none. Is this in compliance with the AIM?

For those of you nodding your head, pretend that you are now in my sector and this issue has finally driven me completely nuts. You want to file direct to the airport? So be it. You're going direct to the airport. You're not going direct to the outer marker or the Initial Approach Fix (IAF), there'll be no vectors to the final approach course and you'll circle the airport until we discuss whether or not you really want to go direct to the airport when it's IMC.

That's because we're talking about IFR clearances. I don't know of a single Instrument Approach Procedure that begins at the airport. Why? Because airports aren't radio fixes. But every approach I do know of has a transition from an airway and/or a radio fix as an Initial Approach Fix. Let's move on.

Omni, Omni, VOR

2. The azimuth feature of VORs and the azimuth and distance (DME) features of VORTAC and TACAN aids are assigned certain frequency-protected areas of airspace that are intended for application to established airway and route use, and to provide guidance for planning flights outside of established airways or routes.

Now this is interesting: "... to provide guidance for planning flights outside of established airways or routes." Apparently you can get off the airways, go direct somewhere and still use the VORs to "provide guidance for planning flights ..."

3. An operational service volume has been established for each class in which adequate signal coverage and frequency protection can be assured. To facilitate use of VOR, VORTAC, or TACAN aids, consistent with their operational service volume limits, pilot use of such aids for defining a direct route of flight in controlled airspace should not exceed the following:

(c) Operation off established airways below 18,000 feet MSL - Use aids not more than 80 NM apart. These aids are depicted on enroute low altitude charts.

I've chosen to include only (c) because that is where most of you operate. Let's see if I can add up what we've got so far. You actually can go direct places but you have to describe "radio fixes" over which you will pass using VORs that are no more than 80 miles apart. That doesn't seem too tough? But wait, there's even more.

4. Increasing use of self-contained airborne navigational systems which do not rely on the VOR/VORTAC/TACAN system has resulted in pilot requests for direct routes which exceed NAVAID service volume limits. These direct route requests will be approved only in a radar environment, with approval based on pilot responsibility for navigation on the authorized direct route. Radar flight following will be provided by ATC for ATC purposes.

You may even "request" a direct route that exceeds NAVAID limitations. The request might even be approved in a radar environment.

We AIM to Please

d. Area Navigation (RNAV)

1. Random RNAV routes can only be approved in a radar environment. Factors that will be considered by ATC in approving random RNAV routes include the capability to provide radar monitoring and compatibility with traffic volume and flow. ATC will radar monitor each flight, however, navigation on the random RNAV route is the responsibility of the pilot.

Now things are going to get a little more interesting. Random routes. The Holy Grail of ATC if you believe all the Free Flight rhetoric you hear these days. Let's see what we've got.

"Random RNAV routes can only be approved in a radar environment." Not too big a deal unless the radar is out. "Factors that will be considered by ATC ... include ... compatibility with traffic volume and flow." That might be a little problematic. But let's not dwell on it just yet because I want you to pay close attention to the following. I want you to be sure to read this (straight out of the AIM) for yourself, so I'm going to take it apart, piece by piece.

So Please, AIM

Chapter 5. Air Traffic Procedures

Section 1. Preflight

Paragraph 7. Flight Plan- IFR Flights

d. Area Navigation (RNAV)

2. Pilots of aircraft equipped with approved area navigation equipment may file for RNAV routes throughout the National Airspace System and may be filed for in accordance with the following procedures.

Pilots with "approved area navigation equipment." Adding "VFR GPS" in the remarks section does not qualify you for this section of the AIM. But the most important part is this: "... may be filed for in accordance with the following procedures."

(a) File airport-to-airport flight plans.

Please note that this does not say airport direct airport.

(b) File the appropriate RNAV capability certification suffix in the flight plan.

(Again, /U, /A, /T, etc., does not qualify.)

(c) Plan the random route portion of the flight plan to begin and end over appropriate arrival and departure transition fixes or appropriate navigation aids for the altitude stratum within which the flight will be conducted. The use of normal preferred departure and arrival routes (DP/STAR), where established, is recommended.

I want you to focus in on one word: "portion." A random route is only for a "portion" of your flight plan. That's because you are to plan your flight to "begin and end over appropriate arrival and departure transition fixes or appropriate navigation aids." Notice that unlike the "use of normal preferred departure and arrival routes (DP/STAR)," this isn't just "recommended" -- it's part of the "procedures."

(d) File route structure transitions to and from the random route portion of the flight.

I can't give you a simple explanation of "route structure transitions." I'd love to just say "airways" and be done with it. It's a little more complicated than that. If you want to learn more, look in the FAA 7110.65, 4-4-2. ROUTE STRUCTURE TRANSITIONS.

(e) Define the random route by waypoints. File route description waypoints by using degree-distance fixes based on navigational aids which are appropriate for the altitude stratum.

You are supposed to use "degree-distance fixes based on navigational aids." Example: CLT314042. Make sure they are based on navigational aids for the altitude stratum you're flying in.

(f) File a minimum of one route description waypoint for each ARTCC through whose area the random route will be flown. These waypoints must be located within 200 NM of the preceding center's boundary.

Here we are again. You probably recognize this from other articles I've written. When I first read it, I thought it was for computer processing. It is, but it's for controllers too. Even if many controllers don't realize it. I learned what I believe is an important lesson from this. Just because I know of one reason for a rule doesn't mean it is the only reason for the rule.

(g) File an additional route description waypoint for each turnpoint in the route.

This seems pretty simple from my perspective. Controllers need to know if you're going to make a turn.

(h) Plan additional route description waypoints as required to ensure accurate navigation via the filed route of flight. Navigation is the pilot's responsibility unless ATC assistance is requested.

Again, I don't think an explanation is required. If you do, it's probably because you're a pilot, which gives you a very different perspective. That's part of what rules are about: providing a framework where people with different perspectives can accomplish a common goal.

(i) Plan the route of flight so as to avoid prohibited and restricted airspace by 3 NM unless permission has been obtained to operate in that airspace and the appropriate ATC facilities are advised.

I don't think I need to explain that one either. I can't help but wonder if it's actually happening, though.

To Boldly Go ...

I want to quote the next part of this section of the AIM and we'll be done with this quote-a-thon. I am going to add a little emphasis though.

3. Pilots of aircraft equipped with latitude/longitude coordinate navigation capability, independent of VOR/TACAN references, may file for random RNAV routes at and above FL 390 within the conterminous U.S. using the following procedures. (Emphasis mine.)

If you don't file for FL390 or above you have no business putting Lat/Longs in your flight plan for a flight in the Lower 48 of the good old U.S. of A.

That ought to turn some heads. Let me turn some more: Neither does DUATS, the FSS or anybody else have any business doing it.

Yes folks, it's time for another rant about this nonsense. Do you see anything about Lat/Longs in any other section of the AIM 5-1-7? Nope. Yet I see dozens of flight plans with Lat/Longs in them everyday. I'm sure there are dozens of excuses -- and you can come up with some of them -- but here's the real reason:

The flight plan wasn't filed in accordance with the AIM.

If you don't file in accordance with the AIM, whoever puts your flight plan in the National Airspace System computers has to find a way to "make it work." You, yourself, may not be including a Lat/Long in your flight plan. But if you don't file in accordance with the AIM -- if you don't include any waypoints, if you don't file at least one fix per Center, if you don't follow the system -- your flight plan will not be accepted by the computer. In order to get the computer to accept it -- to "make it work" -- the FSS specialist or DUATS is going to put a Lat/Long in it.

Safety First, Mr. Brown

Does it sound like I'm in a bit of a snit? Well, yes, I am. Want to know why? Because I'm mad at myself.

You see, last week I sat down at my favorite sector and before I could get settled in, Hickory Tower called for a release on an aircraft with the following route of flight.


I look at the route of flight and I don't recognize ABL much less 5B2. And I said to myself, "Don't be a pain in the butt about it, Brown. Let the guy go and the computer will tell you where he's going. Don't make him wait while you look up the identifiers." Yep. That's what I said to myself. And I've been kicking myself ever since.

"Runway heading, five thousand, released."

Before he gets off, Charlotte Approach calls up with a manual handoff on another aircraft. The flight plan data on this second one is toast. I mean it's really messed up and now I've got to fix it because I said "radar contact" like the dummy (i.e., nice guy) that I am. While I'm trying to fix this new problem, the first guy leaps off HKY.

I ask the computer for a ROUTE display on the guy off HKY and the computer says he wants to go southbound. Just great. Right through the middle of CLT Approach's arrival gate, and they're in the middle of an inbound push. I'll have to vector him around. During the process, while I'm trying to fix the other flight plan, the pilot off HKY has finally had enough of going the wrong way and volunteers that his on-course heading is 054 degrees.

Huh? The computer says south. The pilot says northeast. To make a long story short: After sinking out of sight, driving this jet around in circles for about 60 miles below 10,000 and messing up the inbound push to CLT ... I get this guy on course and I get relieved. I never did get the other flight plan fixed. I just "passed the trash" onto the next controller.

Want to know what went wrong? So did my supervisor. It starts with, "The pilot didn't file his flight plan in accordance with the AIM," and ends with "I screwed up." By the way, would you like to know where ABL is? It's at 0447N/07446W, right where the computer said it was. It would probably be more helpful to know it's an NDB at Ambalema, Columbia, South America. It also helps to know that 5B2 is Saratoga Springs, N.Y. I should have known that before I let the airplane take off. But I didn't. I put that "expeditious" thing in front of the "orderly and safe part," and I paid for it. So did every other pilot in the sector at the time.

Changes in Latitude

Let's look at what went wrong with the flight plan. To refresh your memory:


Did the pilot file "via airways or jet routes"? Nope. He must be using that newfangled RNAV stuff. He also didn't file his flight plan "to begin and end over appropriate arrival and departure transition fixes or appropriate navigation aids for the altitude stratum within which the flight will be conducted." I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he tried to file over an appropriate arrival fix. That's because I think he meant to file ALB (Albany, N.Y.) instead of ABL (Ambalema, Columbia.) It didn't do much good at preventing an error without the "appropriate ... departure transition fixes ... or navigation aids." Did he "file a minimum of one route description waypoint for each ARTCC through whose area the random route will be flown"? Let's see. Atlanta Center, Washington Center and New York Center. Nope, I don't see that either. Trust me. I could continue to flog the horse for several more pages. But I'll move on.

Because, if the truth be known, this pilot (and most others) can file whatever they want. The AIM isn't regulatory. Before your buddy who likes to cut corners starts jumping up and down with joy, you might want to remind him it's up to a controller to "approve" it. Or not.

What really piqued my curiosity about this incident is the Lat/Long. I have no earthly idea how a Lat/Long for South America got in a flight plan on an airplane headed for New York. It doesn't sound like something a rational human being would do. That's the reason I suspect a computer. I'll restrain myself from any comments about computer programmers and rationality.

What computer has the Lat/Longs for Ambalema, Columbia, handy? When I called up the FSS after this incident and asked them to look up ABL I was told it didn't exist. That pretty much rules out the FSS from having put in the flight plan. That only leaves DUATS. But I'm told by some people who use DUATS that its computer doesn't know South America. There are a couple of other things that tend to rule out DUATS also.

So what happened? It's a mystery to me. I bet it isn't to someone reading this article though. Drop me an e-mail and explain it to me.

Changes in Attitude

Just in case there are those reading this who think this whole article was written to highlight the evils of Lat/Longs in flight plans, you need to reassess your conclusion. It's about filing a flight plan the way the system was designed to file a flight plan. There actually are legitimate reasons to have Lat/Longs in a flight plan. Those reasons are spelled out in the AIM, the 7110.65 and a couple of other FAA publications. I bet I've seen at least two (maybe three) legitimate cases of flight plans with Lat/Longs in them -- and used correctly -- during the last five years.

The point isn't Lat/Longs. The point is filing flight plans that will process through the system properly. I could have as easily written about an incident the next day where another business jet filed off of Hickory, N.C., to an obscure airport in Arkansas. Via Maryland. The results were the same even though Lat/Longs weren't the problem. This guy also had to stay below 10,000 while the controller tried to fix the flight plan. The event had a terribly negative impact on the sector and the users in that sector.

Just in case anyone has another misconception about my intent, I'm not talking about computer flight data processing. The system spelled out in the AIM was designed so everyone and everything can process the flight plan: the computer, the controller, the pilot, the dispatcher, the FSS specialist, the flight data system specialist and probably a dozen other entities I don't know about. Radar, no radar, computer, no computer -- it's designed to work in all cases.

A Tip From the Pros

It might be worth mentioning that we don't have these problems with airline flight plans. The airlines have trained dispatchers who are licensed by the FAA. They file the appropriate departure/arrival transitions. They file the preferred routes. And for the most part -- believe it or not -- they file via the airways and jet routes. You never see a Lat/Long in their flight plans except for the ones going overseas.

This phenomenon is almost exclusively a general aviation problem. The military does have some problems filing correctly, but they also have flight plans that are so complicated they'd bring tears to your eyes. They are also very responsive when we bring a problem to their attention.

How Was I to Know?

Which brings me to my final point. Has anyone ever told you that you filed improperly? When you filed from Podunk, Ga., direct to Sleepyville, Kan., did anyone ever say you were doing it wrong?

Nothing would seem simpler than filing GSO (Greensboro, N.C.) direct FTY (Fulton County, Ga.) at 8,000. But no one ever said this was simple. Otherwise you wouldn't have to train to get an IFR ticket. You can file GSO direct FTY. But you aren't going to get it. What you will get is:


Why? Because it works with "traffic volume and flow" and it's simple. "To simplify definition of the proposed route, and to facilitate ATC, pilots are requested to file via airways or jet routes ..."

If you don't believe me pull out a map and take a look. Try to plan a route from GSO that will dodge CLT, comply with all the procedures in this section of the AIM and wind up in the arrival gate at Atlanta Approach. Or file the airways. See which you think is simpler.

Have a safe flight.

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC