Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Flight planning made more efficient

Suppose we plan a flight from Montgomery Field, San Diego (MYF), to Corona (AJO) in a Piper Archer II, using conventional tools and sources. Meaning paper sheets, pencil, the airplane manual, paper charts, and a phone. I'll also write how the flight planning would be most efficient by using electronic sources later.

Whether we actually fly or not, the flight planning works to keep us refreshed and to have the basic information ready for future flights with the same airplane on the same route.

As we gather all the things, we first take and extend the IFR low en-route chart, we take the terminal procedures charts and A/FD out, cut a notebook sheet, get an IFR navigation log sheet, the airplane manual, the flight computer, a pencil and eraser, and get a phone.
The route should always be planned as if there were no radar services (meaning no vectors to a navaid on departure, no vectors on the approach, etc.), as if it was a flight in IMC (meaning planning with an alternate), and with zero wind (the corrections will be done when getting the standard weather briefing). This way we're always prepared and ready to go to the alternate in case the weather deteriorates and we can't land at the destination airport, or what to do if we have a radio failure. The alternate should be selected based on the weather conditions, facilities and services it can provide in case we definitely need to go somewhere.

First, check whether there are prefered or tower en-route routes in the A/FD. If there are none, check the departure navaid and the approach navaid in the terminal procedures charts. We then join those navaids with airways and note all the navaids and fixes where the course changes on the notebook sheet. In our case, there's a TEC route for both flights: SANN19 and ONTN12. The departure navaid for Montgomery is Mission Bay VOR and for Corona is Paradise VOR. We also select our altitude based on the MEAs and the airplane's performance. Now note the distances between all the points. What about the approach procedure distances and times? I normally check if that airport has an ILS and base my calculations on that approach. In the case of Corona, there's only one approach. The VOR-A approach. I check the time needed for the procedure turn and FAF-to-MAP to account that time for the fuel burn. It's also good to note the missed approach point, and the distance and altitude to it to know the fuel burn in case we need to go missed. Plus that, note the airways, fixes and altitude the alternate airport.

We then check the climb, cruise and descent performance of the airplane and write the information like TAS, time, fuel, and distance for the climb, power, TAS and fuel burn for the cruise, speed, time and fuel burn for the descent. The descent can be divided in two parts: TOD to IAF and IAF to MAP.
We fill out the TAS, time and fuel burn for every fix of the plan. 

We do the same for the return trip, or for the next leg of the day.

With that information we can fill out the navigation log with everything except the fuel, groundspeed and time. That information will be filled out when getting the winds aloft in the standard briefing just before the flight.
What do I do with the flight plan sheet? I put it in the left bag of the VFR kneeboard.

We check the weight and balance for the Archer that we're going to fly. It is very important to have the basic empty weight and moment for the airplane we're going to fly with. If we don't have it, we can do it before the flight.

Now we can proceed with the standard weather briefing while sitting at a table. So we call the weather briefer and copy the synopsis, AIRMETs, departure, en-route and destination weather reports and forecasts, winds aloft, and NOTAMs on the back side of the navigation log. It is also very important to know where the areas with VMC are in case we have an electrical failure or a navigation equipment failure. After hanging up we complete the navigation log for the first leg. If there was no TEC route, we would call the briefer again to file an IFR flight plan.

Doing everything with conventional tools and sources takes more time, but if you're an old-school kind of person, that's the most efficient way to do it. It also allows you to experience how the flight planning and navigation was done before the internet and iPads, and you know how to do everything in case none of them are available.

So lets see how the flight planning and preparation can be done using DUATS in a computer and printer, DUATS in a computer or iPad and a navlog, and using an iPad with ForeFlight and a navlog. These options are the most efficient ways to plan and prepare a flight under half an hour. It's the way to go in case you suddenly decide or need to go somewhere.
If you're wondering why I included a navlog in every option is because it's always good to have something in paper in case the iPad fails and in case there's no printer available to print the weather briefing and navigation log from DUATS. Always have backups.

So in the first option, DUATS in a computer and printer, we log in and enter all the information needed to get a standard weather briefing. We can now print the entire briefing and get a navigation log using DUATS' 'plan a flight' option. The good thing about DUATS' flight planner is that you can create an airplane profile with its performance and DUATS will use that information plus the winds aloft to create an accurate navlog. The format is not very nice, but it's usefull. It's good to print everything in two pages per sheet. That way we can put our DUATS navlog on our kneeboard and save paper.

In the second option, DUATS in a computer or iPad and a navlog, we log in on DUATS, get a standard briefing, copy the weather reports and forecast information, AIRMETs and NOTAMs on the back of the paper navlog and then copy the information provided in the DUATS flight planner on the paper navlog. I've never done it, but I think this is the best way to fill out a navlog and copy the weather information on a paper format efficiently.

The third option, using an iPad with ForeFlight and a navlog, is also a very efficient and interactive way of planning and preparing the flight, and we don't need to log into the DUATS website. We don't need an internet connection to plot a flight, but we won't be able to get a weather briefing, nor get a navlog with everything corrected for wind. We must also create a profile for the Archer for a navlog. The cool thing about ForeFlight is you can see the entire route in the IFR low en-route chart and switch to the VFR sectional or terminal chart with two finger taps. The terminal procedures charts for all the airports along our route are available and nicely displayed with a few finger taps as well.
We can get a DUATS briefing, in case we have an internet connection, enter the DUATS username and password in ForeFlight, after we set our route up, and we can also see weather charts in the Imagery section.
As I explained earlier, we copy ForeFlight's navlog information and the weather briefing information on a paper navlog.

I find DUATS' flight planner more accurate, although it's not as nice and interactive as ForeFlight. It's the best option for people who don't use the iPad in flight or don't have a ForeFlight suscription, like me.

In case we can't get a weather briefing online because it's midnight and no FBOs are open, it's always smart to get the weather briefing by phone. Especially if it's an IFR flight in IMC. So we must take our time, call the briefer and copy the information on the back side of the navlog.

A flight is 80% planning and preparation, and 20% flying. I hope the flight planning and preparation methods presented here help make everything more efficient without compromising safety.

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