VFR Flight Plans

I’ll start off by saying I rarely file a VFR flight plan (and I’ll explain why), but every pilot needs to know how to file, open, and close a VFR flight plan. There are times when they are valuable and our club requires that all student pilots flying solo cross country flights file and  open a flight plan.

Filing

You can file a flight plan a number of ways:

  • Call 1-800-WX-BRIEF and file with a briefer. It’s often easiest to call and ask to file and brief for the flight at one time, since the information you provide is almost exactly the same.
  • Through DUAT(S)
  • Through numerous other web sites and applications (AOPA Flight Planner, FltPlan, etc)
The information that you need to provide is outlined by this flight plan form

Opening

Opening a flight plan “activates” the flight plan you have already filed, To open a flight plan, you need to be able to say the time you departed. At a towered, airport, you can usually ask the tower controller to open your flight plan, just as you are departing. Otherwise, you will need to contact a Flight Service Station to open your flight plan. Flight service stations can be reached in the air either on 122.2 or through a remote communications frequency noted on a chart {this is a topic for another article}. If you are over an hour late on departing, compared to the time noted on your flight plan, your flight plan may be deleted from the FAA’s system. If you are delayed, you can call and amend the flight plan departure time.

Closing

If you land at a towered airport, you can usually ask the ground controller to close your flight plan. If not landing at a towered airport, you can call 1-800-WX-BRIEF to close your flight plan after landing. Don’t wait too long after landing though, as it increases the likelihood that someone will call, trying to determine if you have gone missing. If you are flying with flight following and landing at a non-towered airport, it is also possible to ask Center/Approach to close your flight plan, just prior to switching to the CTAF. While this means you haven’t yet safely landed, it is an option.

Options on a round trip flight

On a round trip flight, where you are not stopping for long at another airport, you can either

  • File a single flight plan, with departure and arrival airports the same, but with the airport where you will be landing as part of the route OR
  • Two separate flight plans

What are VFR Flight Plans good for and why don’t I use them very often?

VFR flight plans are designed to help ensure someone will start looking for you if you have an open flight plan that you don’t close. If flying in areas without reliable radar and ATC communications coverage, this is an extra safety net, should you have problems en route. Approximately 30 minutes after your expected arrival time (taking your reported departure time as given when you opened the flight plan, and adding the time en route from your flight plan), the FAA system will generate an alert. The first step is usually a call to the contact number you provide (for example, your own cell phone) to see if you just forgot to close the flight plan (a very common occurrence). If that isn’t successful, they will usually call the destination airport to see if the airplane tail number can be found there. If that doesn’t find you, search and rescue operations will begin to look for you along your reported route of flight, assuming that you have had some issue that has forced you to land short of your intended destination.

With a VFR flight plan, they may, or may not, have good information about your last known position, so searching for you can be a bit of a needle in a haystack proposition. In cases where there is radio and radar coverage, I much prefer flight following; if I were to suddenly stop communications or drop off radar, they will know a last position that will help with search and rescue operations. I also recommend a gadget like a SPOT tracker or a Personal Locator Beacon when flying in remote areas. It should be noted that Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) are meant to help locate you in the event of a crash landing, but historically don’t have a great success rate.

There are some cases where flight plans are required. For instance, during a presidential TFR, you are sometimes allowed to fly in the outer ring of the TFR if departing form, or arriving to, an airport there (but not training flights). In most of those cases, you must file and open a flight plan and be assigned a transponder squawk code.

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