Filing Your Flight Plan (How to Plan a Flight)

Filing Your Flight Plan (How to Plan a Flight)

Above all, I want you to be safe when you are flying. One way we can all achieve this is by filing a flight plan. A flight plan isn’t just a description of your route. It is a notification to air traffic control that they need to keep an eye on you. And that’s a good thing. Today I’ll talk you through filing a flight plan, what it should contain and what you need to do to activate and cancel it.

Flight plan form

How Does a Flight Plan Work?

Have you ever been on a trip somewhere remote and told somebody what time you expect to be back?

In essence, this is exactly what a flight plan is.

A flight plan is a notification submitted to an aviation authority that gives lots of relevant information about your flight.

It enables air traffic control and other aviation regulatory agencies to know your whereabouts, where you have departed from, where you are going and what time you should be arriving at your destination.

Why is this important?

Well, if you fail to turn up at the allotted time, they will start looking for you.

This is a good thing. You may have got lost or been trapped by bad weather. Either way, the sooner somebody knows you may have a problem, the quicker you can get help.

A flight plan ensures that you receive search and rescue protection in the simplest terms (and without wanting to alarm you).

Here’s how a flight plan works in easy to understand stages taken from the FAA Aeronautical Information Manual:-

Stage 1 – You Fill in The Flight Plan

This stage takes place on the ground before you go anywhere near the airplane. Before filing your flight plan, you will need to know a few key pieces of information.

Because a flight plan is based on the route you are about to fly, you will have to plan your cross-country route.

If you haven’t done this, you’ll have no idea how long your flight will take, and therefore can’t tell anyone where you are going and what time you will arrive!

Once you have the relevant details, you fill in a flight plan form. This isn’t just limited to filling in paper! Often you can fax, email, or even submit your flight plan over the radio (not recommended at busy airports)

Stage 2 – You File the Flight Plan

This step is crucial.

You need to send it to the nearest flight service station (abbreviated as FSS). In most cases, this will be the control tower of your field. But in uncontrolled airports, this will be the nearest air traffic service unit.

And a word to the wise.

Once filed, your flight plan will be held by the nearest FSS for one hour. If it hasn’t been activated by this time, it will drop out of the system, and you’ll need to file another. So, make filing the flight plan the last thing you do before heading out to your aircraft.

Your flight plan will be sent to all of the flight service stations along your route.

Stage 3 – You Activate the Flight Plan

The flight plan isn’t doing its job until it is activated. Activating the flight plan means you notify the nearest station that you are airborne and proceeding on your route.

You can do this in several ways. You can request that the tower send a signal to the nearest FSS to tell them you are on your way at certain airfields.

You are better off radioing the FSS yourself to activate your flight plan at busy or uncontrolled airfields.

Stage 4 – You Keep ATC Informed of Your Progress

This isn’t strictly necessary, but it is good airmanship, especially if you fly long distances.

By keeping the nearest FSS informed, it will be easy to pinpoint your position if you require search and rescue services.

Stage 5 – You Land and then Cancel your Flight Plan

Provided all goes well, and you put real effort into your flight planning, you’ll arrive safe and sound at your destination.

Now here is a crucial stage.

You must remember to cancel your flight plan. This can be requested over the radio to ATC, or you can call the nearest FSS using the telephone when you land.

If you fail to do this, there is a good chance that they will actually scramble a search and rescue aircraft to look for you.

So, make sure you cancel your flight plan!

What 6 Things are Included in a Flight Plan?

A flight plan contains lots of very useful information and pretty much covers every detail of your flight. Here is a quick rundown of the 6 key pieces of information contained within a flight plan: -

1)      Your Aircraft Details

This is vitally important for several reasons. Primarily it tells anybody who is out looking for you what to search for. It also allows ATC to locate your whereabouts if you have landed somewhere and haven’t had a chance to cancel your flight plan.

It will include your aircraft registration, color, and details of any special equipment on board (such as life vests, flares, or transponders)

2)      Your Point of Departure and Destination

This is also important information. The FSS will know when to expect you and can make an educated guess when you should arrive. There will be a notification sent to both your start and end FSS unit that your flight will take place and that they can expect you.

3)      Your Proposed Routing

To tell every ATC unit that you are on the way, people need to know where you are going. The route information allows them to work out where you should be and at what time.

4)      Timings

Speaking of time. Several key pieces appear on the flight plan.

First, the duration of the flight itself. If you set off at 12:00pm and your flight takes two hours, people expect you around 14:00pm.

There is something else timewise that appears on a flight plan. The maximum amount of time you can fly for. Also known as duration. If your duration is given as two hours and you don’t turn up two hours after takeoff, ATC knows that something is amiss.

5)      Your Personal Contact Details

The FSS will want to know who is flying and where to find them. They will contact you as a last port of call if you don’t close your flight plan.

This isn’t to give you a ticking off, but to check that you are OK.

6)      How Many People are Onboard

Some see this as slightly macabre, but this information is provided, so the search and rescue team knows how many people to look for if you go missing.

Interestingly, they will not stop searching until everyone is accounted for.

Can You Fly a Plane Without a Flight Plan?

Flight plans are not a requirement for VFR pilots. They are mandatory for IFR (instrument flight rules) pilots.

However, smart VFR pilots file a flight plan with the FAA on cross-country trips, especially when required to do so by your instructor or the designated pilot examiner (DPE).

When flying cross country, it is a really sensible thing to do.

How Do I Make a Flight Plan?

Filling in a flight plan is actually a piece of cake for a couple of reasons.

First, because you’ll already have the information to hand.

Second, because I’m about to show you how to do it.

See this quick guide below for guidance on filling in the boxes of an FAA flight plan. It is based on this form provided by the FAA:- [CONSIDER ADDING IMAGE HERE]

Flight Plan Blocks and How to Fill Them in

Block 1 – Type of Flight

There are three boxes to tick. If you are planning to navigate visually, you should tick ‘VFR’.

Block 2 – Aircraft Registration

This is the ‘tail number’ of your aircraft. Most US aircraft have a registration starting with “N.”

Block 3 – Special Equipment

Here you will give details of any equipment on board. This tends to be survival-related equipment, so things like a life raft, life jacket, first aid kit, flares, and handheld radio can all be mentioned here.

Block 4 – Your True Airspeed

This is the speed at which you expect to fly at given on the gauge in your aircraft. Note, it is not your groundspeed.

Block 5 – Departure Point

This will be the field at which you take off. Normally this is written as the ICAO three-letter code. If we were taking off from New York, we’d write ‘JFK’ in this box. If you don’t know the three-letter code, write the name, and ATC will work it out.

Block 6 – Departure Time

This is the time you intend to take off and will be updated with the actual time you take off.

Oh, and another tip. This is not local time. Aviators all work in something called UTC, which is the time at the Greenwich Meridian (also known as “Zulu time” and “GMT”)

Block 7 – Cruising Altitude

This is the attitude that you expect to fly at. Note, this is for information only. If conditions dictate that you need to fly higher or lower when airborne, you may do so.

Block 8 – Your Intended Route

This is a key piece of information. Using the details you provide, the nearest FSS will determine to who your flight plan needs to be forwarded to.


Aside from this, it also gives them a really good idea of where to start looking for you if you fail to arrive.

Be sure to fill this section in as accurately as possible. You can use visual reporting points, bearings from radio navigation aids, and even the names of towns you expect to fly over.

Block 9 – Destination

In this box, you simply write the three-letter code of where you intend to land. As with the departure field, if you don’t know the code, use the airport name.

Block 10 – Expected Flight Time

The expected flight time must be filled in using hours and minutes. You’ll know this information from your flight planning and chart plotting.

Block 11 – Other Notes

This is a really relevant section as it allows you to elaborate on any peculiarities of your flight. Examples of these things could be: -

Student first solo nav-ex”

“Planned stop at JAX on route”

“Callsign of aircraft is JEDI-ONE.”

Or any other official observation that isn’t covered by the scope of the rest of the document.

Block 12 – Your Aircraft Endurance

This is another super important box. It is vital to note that this isn’t the theoretical endurance of your aircraft. But a measure of how long you can fly based on the actual fuel you have on board. Write this time in hours and minutes, and be conservative.

Block 13 – Alternate Airports

If you have planned your cross country flight properly, you’ll have a few spare bolt-holes in your back pocket should the weather change, or you have a problem. Write these airport codes here.

Block 14 – Your Personal Details

This will be your main residence and registered address

Block 15 – Souls on Board

In this box, you must count yourself as well as your passengers. It doesn’t matter their age or capacity. If they are sitting with you in the aircraft, they must be counted.

Block 16 – Aircraft Color

This allows the FSS a better chance of identifying your aircraft. If you forget to close your flight plan, then there might be a chance that someone will have seen it land and help you out.

Block 17 – Your Telephone Number

The final piece of information needed is your phone number. I’d recommend you put a mobile number. It is no good the FSS trying to reach you at home when you have flown off to land in Timbuktu!

Filing a VFR flight plan, while not mandatory, is excellent airmanship. It keeps you safe and allows air traffic units to keep a close watch on your whereabouts. While it is doubtful the unthinkable will happen, it never pays to be too cautious when flying. As the saying goes… “There are old pilots, there are bold pilots… But there are no old bold pilots!”

In Summary...

Flight plans are not a requirement for VFR pilots. They are for IFR (instrument flight rules) pilots. However, smart VFR pilots file a flight plan with the FAA on cross-country trips, especially when required to do so by your instructor or the designated pilot examiner (DPE).

Actually, filing a flight plan is a piece of cake because you've already developed your own comprehensive flight plan. All you need to do is tell the FAA about it. How? You can telephone it in or file it online. However, be aware that filing a flight plan doesn't mean a thing unless you activate it. So just before or after you take off on your cross-country solo you must contact an FSS to "open" your flight plan. And, of course, don't forget to "close" your flight plan once you reach your destination. If you must, you also can modify or even cancel your flight plan by radio or phone.