Flight Plans Who Needs Them ?


Who Needs Them?

by H. Dean Chamberlain

Recently a pilot I know was admonished for not closing his VFR flight plan. According to the pilot, he regretted the incident, but he was very unhappy about the manner and tone the Flight Service Station (FSS) people used to "counsel" him. As he said, "I made a mistake. I should have closed it. End of story. But the FSS wouldn’t let it end. The tower asked me to call the FSS, and there was a message left at the fixed-based operator for me to call the FSS. I called and talked to a woman at the FSS. She told me I hadn’t closed my flight plan and to not let that happen again." 

Then he said he went flying again for another hour. "When I returned, there was a second message for me to call the FSS. The second time I called, a man talked at me for 30 minutes because he thought the lady had not handled it well enough. I felt fear, anxiety, and anger. I felt the system had failed me. I didn’t appreciate how the second FSS person talked at me about the incident. I don’t think I needed to be talked at again for another 30 minutes."


Are we talking about a new student pilot on his first cross-country flight? No, the pilot was a very experienced airline transport rated pilot. So, experienced, in fact, he might have forgotten to close his VFR flight plan because he was accostumed to flying IFR where the airport control tower or controlling facility closes the IFR flight plan when the aircraft lands.

It is important to remember pilots have to open and close VFR flight plans. End of sermon.

Recently a television program discussed the concerns of aging baby boomers worrying about forgetting things. One person I work with calls such events "a senior moment." Since anyone can have a senior moment, based upon the flight plan story and the television story, this seems like a good time to discuss how other pilots have said they avoid such moments and remember to close their VFR flight plans.

For example, according to several magazine articles over the years that I have read, some pilots said they put their wrist watch on their "other" wrist so that after a flight when they are checking the time and can’t "find" their watch, they will stop and hopefully remember why they put it on the "wrong" arm. (Now if they will only remember it has something to do with closing a flight plan.)

Other ideas include wearing a rubber band around a wrist as a reminder. (Pilots just have to remember to remove the rubber band before their hand falls off from lack of circulation.) Just remember to use a size of rubber band guaranteed not to cause your hand to fall off before the end of the flight. Now if someone would just make a one-, two-, or three-hour rubber band.

Other people have said they leave notes in their cars, on their clothes, in their pockets, or attached to their car keys. One article said one pilot used spring loaded wooden clothes pins to attach his notes. Another idea is to put a note on your car’s rear view mirror.

(It is too bad we can’t talk the FAA’s Aviation Safety Program into making a safety-reminder tag somewhat like the handicapped parking permits that fit around a car’s rearview mirror or an inexpensive sun shade with a reminder printed on it for pilots to close their flight plans. )

Airports also try to help pilots remember to close flight plans by installing signs near taxiways, hangars, and airport highway exits as reminders. Many fixed-based operators also have signs and posters reminding pilots to close their flight plans.


So why all of this emphasis on pilots closing their flight plans? The reason is if a pilot files a VFR flight plan, opens it (remember a VFR flight plan must be opened by the pilot with the appropriate air traffic facility), and fails to close it, air traffic control starts to look for the aircraft 30 minutes after the estimated time of arrival filed in the flight plan. At first, air traffic control (ATC) uses the telephone to try and locate the aircraft. The question is whether or not the aircraft landed safely and the pilot failed to properly close the flight plan or did the aircraft crash en route. The first step is a check at the destination airport. Did the aircraft arrive safely? Is it sitting on the ramp or in a hangar at the destination airport? If not, the pilot is contacted using the information listed on the flight plan. If the pilot is not located, the telephone check is widened to cover airports from the originating airport to those along the intended route. Finally, ATC sends out a message informing the aviation community about the "missing" aircraft. The final step is notifying search and rescue that help is needed.


Of course if there is an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) going off along the missing aircraft’s ground track, ATC has additional reason to suspect the aircraft has crashed. One hour and 30 minutes after the aircraft is overdue, a decision is made to notify search and rescue forces that there is a "missing" aircraft. At this point, other people become at risk as they initiate search efforts. Whether they are driving down the highway and are involved in an accident or they are involved in a search-related aircraft incident or accident, search and rescue personnel have been injured themselves responding to a missing aircraft search.

So what does all this have to do with FAA Aviation News and safety? Several things. First, as a safety magazine, we don’t want to ever see anyone have an accident. But we all know accidents happen. We especially don’t want to see rescue personnel injured while searching for a "missing" aircraft that is safely tied down on a ramp or stored in a hangar somewhere. We think all pilots feel the same way. Not only do pilots not want to be involved in a crash, we think they don’t want to cause other people to become injured while searching for a "missing" pilot who simply had a senior moment and forgot to close a VFR flight plan.

No! The answer is not for every VFR pilot to never again file a VFR flight plan. This defeats the purpose and benefits a flight plan provides VFR pilots. Remember, IFR pilots must file an IFR flight plan with ATC for IFR flight in controlled airspace. Filing a VFR flight plan is a voluntary act, but one that can help save your life in the event of an en route accident.


FAA’s concern is that not every VFR pilot who should file a flight plan, does in fact file one. Are we saying every VFR pilot should file a VFR flight plan? No, we are not. Not every pilot needs to file a flight plan. Obviously a pilot staying in the pattern to do touch and goes at an airport with an operating control tower doesn’t need to file a flight plan. Then, since the only purpose of a VFR flight plan is to alert search and rescue in case an aircraft fails to complete its flight, there are many routine flights where local flight procedures may in fact be better than filing a VFR flight plan. For example, a student pilot going out to a designated training area for a one hour flight is "missed" much faster by a flight school than say a pilot filing a one hour cross-country. Like we said, FAA normally waits at least 30 minutes past the estimated time of arrival for the pilot to check in just in case the pilot’s flight planning was off or a headwind was stronger than expected, etc. The student is missed at the end of that first hour. Note this example only works if there is a full-time staff tracking students or another student is waiting for the aircraft for the next flight. If the student is the last flight of the day, and the flight gets "lost" in the FBO’s staff’s rush to get home, the student’s risk goes up. The student may or may not be missed until the next day.

It is also important that the student fly the route expected to the designated training area. The two most important elements in any missing aircraft search is a fast alert and an accurate last known position. Of course, in the event of an injury accident the best place to crash would be in front of a hospital emergency room. Preferably one that allows its staff to help people outside its doors. But that is another story.


A flight plan becomes an important safety benefit for any pilot on a flight where there is no one expecting that flight. There have been many examples of accidents where no one missed the pilot for days. In one case, the pilot took off early in the morning before day break. No one was meeting the pilot at the end of the flight. The pilot crashed within a mile or so off the end of the departure runway in a heavily wooded area. No one missed the pilot for several days. Then since no one knew the proposed route of flight and no ELT was transmitting, a broad area search had to be made which required more time and resources. Finally, days after the flight’s departure, the aircraft was found. How could this delay been prevented? A properly filed VFR flight plan would have alerted ATC within minutes if not hours of the missing aircraft. A filed route of flight would have enabled searchers to concentrate their efforts along the proposed route of flight rather than having to do a time consuming broad area search. The results would have been a much faster search and rescue effort.


First, file and activate a VFR flight plan whenever you are at risk of not being missed. Remember, the FAA is less likely to have a "senior" moment than a spouse going golfing or a friend working in the hangar next to yours. The second important factor is to fly the route filed in your flight plan. This helps searchers trace your path. If you change your route, you should notify the nearest FSS or air traffic control facility. If your arrival time changes, you should notify the nearest FSS or air traffic control facility. Throughout your flight, you should give accurate and timely position reports. Position reports narrow the specific area search and rescue forces have to search trying to find you. If you are going to land en route during your flight, you might want to file separate flight plans to your first destination and final destination rather than just one flight plan with a long en route time. The reason is the FAA waits until after your filed estimated time of arrival to start its preliminary search efforts. The problem is if you crash within the first 30 minutes of a four hour flight, you won’t be missed until after four hours and 30 minutes. But if you had filed to your first airport of landing, you would be missed sooner and search efforts would start sooner. Finally, it is important to remember to open and close the flight plan for each leg of the flight.


Because it is now winter, flight plans and the safety edge they give pilots become even more important. Because winter means fewer hours of daylight, more pilots will be flying at night. All of which means there are more accidents at night. Emergency night-time landings are more risky than their day counterparts. Like the old joke, when you lose your only engine at night and decide to turn on your landing light while descending through 1,000 feet AGL, if you don’t like what you see, turn off your light. All joking aside, any night landing has a higher level of risk than one made during the daytime. Now, add some ice and blowing snow to the equation and you start adding to the risk of having a night-time accident. This may be especially true at the smaller general aviation airports in the country’s snow-belt where they may lack all of the snow removal equipment larger airports may have.

Then, in the event of any winter accident, but, especially at night, cold becomes a survival factor. As we remind everyone each year, hypothermia is one of winter’s deadliest killers. Because of the increase in survival risk factors during the winter, it becomes even more important for pilots to take advantage of the safety and survival benefits of filing a flight plan. Equally important is for all pilots to close their VFR flight plans because the increased flight risks also apply to the safety of those who might have to come rescue you from your warm, comfortable motel or home after you failed to close your VFR flight plan.

A final thought. Just remember in your desire to quickly secure your aircraft and get home to your warm house after a long cold flight, you need to take that extra moment to close your flight plan. Let’s all strive to avoid having a "senior moment" while aviating. Everyone will be glad you did.
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