Flight plans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Documents used to track the progress of aircraft in flight.

Flight Plan Information and Procedures

A flight plan contains information such as the aircraft’s type, color, speed, special navigational equipment, and amount of fuel carried on board. It also contains information on the intended route of the flight, the expected cruising altitude, the destination airport and any potential alternate airports, the number of passengers aboard, and contact information for the pilot. It is important for the pilot to keep the various flight service stations informed about the progress of a flight should there be any unexpected delay during the flight. Flight service stations will begin to attempt to locate an aircraft if its flight plan is not expressly closed by the pilot within thirty minutes after the original expected time of arrival listed on the plan. It is precisely for this reason that many pilots are encouraged to file flight plans, as a source of insurance, especially if no one other than the pilot is aware of the pilot’s intentions for a particular flight. Should something unexpected happen during the flight that forces it down away from the intended airport, the aircraft’s whereabouts will be sought within a relatively short span of time. In the event of such an occurrence, the specialist in charge of the flight plan will begin attempting to locate the aircraft by telephone after the flight is thirty minutes overdue. Calls are initially made to the intended destination airport, to airports surrounding the intended destination, and even to the airport of departure in an attempt to locate the aircraft on the ground. Most such searches end with these telephone calls, because most often pilots merely forget to close their plans upon arrival at their destination. If such attempts are unsuccessful, however, more elaborate search procedures, involving local law enforcement, the Civil Air Patrol, and ultimately the United States Armed Services, are initiated.

There are three main types of flight plans: visual flight rules (VFR) flight plans, instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plans, and defense VFR (DVFR) flight plans.

Visual Flight Plans

VFR flight plans are most typically used by pilots of small, privately owned and operated aircraft, who operate aircraft by using outside visual references to the earth’s surface. VFR flight plans are managed by a network of federal flight service stations across the United States. There is approximately one flight service station per state in the United States. These stations are primarily responsible for the gathering and dissemination of weather and other critical flight information to pilots for use in planning and flying a particular flight. The pilot places a VFR flight plan on file with a flight service station, either over the telephone or with an Internet-capable computer, shortly before departing on a flight. Most often, pilots place flight plans on file for cross-country flights to another destination, generally 50 nautical miles or more away. This flight plan is generally filled out in paper form and relayed over the telephone to a flight service specialist, who then copies the relevant data and keeps it on file for activation by the pilot. The specialist then enters the flight plan into an appropriate computer for dissemination to other flight service facilities as necessary.

Instrument Flight Plans

The second type of flight plan used in the United States is the instrument flight plan for pilots engaging in flight under IFR. These flight plans are reserved for civil aircraft using more complex forms of navigation than are used in small aircraft. All scheduled airlines and most other large aircraft operate under instrument flight rules. Although the routing and alternate airport requirements vary slightly on IFR flight plans, they are otherwise identical to VFR flight plans. IFR flight plans may be filed by the pilot, as are VFR flight plans, or they may be filed by a company dispatcher in the case of scheduled airline operations. Whereas VFR flight plans are optional at the discretion of the pilot, IFR flight plans are a requirement for flight under instrument flight rules, because they are used by air traffic controllers for the scheduling and coordination of air traffic. IFR flight plans are closed automatically by an air traffic controller upon the aircraft’s landing at an airport, as long as that airport has an operating control tower. Otherwise, the pilot is responsible for closing the IFR flight plan, as with the VFR plan. Search-and-rescue procedures are the same for an IFR flight as for a VFR flight. However, an overdue aircraft operating under IFR will be missed sooner than an overdue aircraft operating under VFR, because IFR aircraft are either under radar surveillance or are required to make periodic position reports to air traffic control.

Defense VFR Flight Plans

The third type of flight plan is known as a DVFR flight plan. This type of a plan is filed when a VFR flight is entering the United States from another country or U.S. territory and will be penetrating the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). This is an area located just off shore that the U.S. Department of Defense uses for positively identifying all aircraft entering the United States. This type of flight plan is required of all VFR pilots entering the United States. It is otherwise the same as the previous two types of flight plans mentioned, except that a pilot must list the exact point of intended entry into the United States.

  • Federal Aviation Administration. “Air Traffic Procedures.” In Aeronautical Information Manual. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001. An annually updated aeronautical manual for pilots, containing information on how to operate in the air traffic environment.
  • Jeppesen Sanderson. “Communication and Flight Information.” In Private Pilot Manual, Englewood Colo.: Jeppesen Sanderson, 1998. A good introductory explanation of the flight information services available to pilots, with illustrations and accompanying videos that help the novice pilot gain a greater understanding of flight planning concepts.
  • Welch, John F., ed. “Air Traffic Control.” In Van Sickle’s Modern Airmanship. 6th ed. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: TAB Books, 1990. A more advanced look at air traffic procedures, designed for the advanced student in aeronautical studies.

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