A number of incredibly powerful and ingenious tools exist to make the pilot’s job of planning the flight easier than ever. Our personal computers or, increasingly, handheld devices, iPhones and the like hold the key to easy preflight information gathering and flight-plan filing.
As always, the goal behind planning a successful IFR flight is to minimize the risks while flying as efficient a routing as possible in terms of groundspeed and, in some cases, passenger comfort. Computerized flight-planning utilities make this job easier and faster, and they do it better in most cases than we can.
Electronic Preflight Planning
Just about every imaginable kind of preflight-planning tool is available online or through a dedicated computer-based program that accesses the Internet. Some of these programs qualify as FAA-approved electronic flight bags (EFBs) so you can use them on the airplane.
Many of them allow you to file your flight plan with the FAA, usually through a link to your DUATS or DTC DUAT account. Many check RAIM availability for you, a new requirement; some help with weight and balance; and others assist you in filing your international flight plan through eAPIS.
The costs of these programs and online services range from free to hundreds of dollars a year, and some of the best free sites are very good. More and more, paid flight planning is becoming a tool for operators of business and corporate aircraft who need the international weather and flight-planning capability.
I’ll discuss some of the most popular flight-planning programs and Web applications, but this is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Furthermore, my not mentioning a feature doesn’t mean that particular product doesn’t have it. Likewise, my mentioning a feature on one program doesn’t mean that another program lacks it. These utilities are packed with features, and just about every provider listed here has multiple products at multiple price points. If anything here sounds interesting, please check it out in further detail.
Getting the Job Done
When it comes to getting the best graphical weather information, official FAA-approved briefing sites CSC DUATS (duats.com) and DTC DUAT (duat.com) provide relatively little advanced graphical weather data. CSC DUATS, in particular, is a stylistic throwback to the days of dial-up access and bulletin boards, but its functionality is solid and it works reliably and fast. I’ve used it for years and love it. DTC DUAT is slightly more sophisticated-looking, and it has some convenient features, such as a flight planner that compiles a printable set of documents, including text weather, selected weather graphics and a detailed nav log.
A lot of pilots use these services, in part because they’re so fast. When I’m planning a flight, I can get a quick look at the weather, including forecasts and current conditions; I can plan using my own route or by asking the computer to route it for me using my airplane’s profile; and I can file right there. For most of my IFR flights, I can do it all, including planning my return flight, in about 20 minutes’ time.
That said, there are times when I want to use more full-featured planning sites, and there are several free and pay sites and programs available.
Some Online Resources
One great site is NOAA’s National Weather Service Aviation Weather Center Aviation Digital Data Service (aviationweather.gov), which has a wide variety of cool weather tools, including current icing advisories, pilot reports of icing, minimum freezing levels and even supercooled large droplet (SLD) forecasts, graphical metars and TAFs, to name only a few.
I also regularly use fltplan.com, which allows you to plan and file flight plans using your FAA-registered information. You can see your flight plan’s route on a background of a computerized chart, satellite photo imagery or a sectional chart. There are multiple flight-planning options, a number of great weather tools and the ability to file flight plans more than 24 hours in advance, something DUATS won’t let you do. While the setup and busy look of fltplan.com might be a bit intimidating at first, it’s worth the time to get familiar with it. Moreover, the site uses historic winds to help you plan flights that are farther out than the winds aloft forecast. Many sites, including DUAT, just factor in calm winds for planned flights that go beyond the forecast’s horizon.
A new flight-planning website I love is flightaware.com, a site that you might already know for its easy-to-use flight-tracking features. Its new flight-planning utilities are even better, giving pilots a wealth of tools, including RAIM predictions, charting and a nav log that automatically figures in holds and the trip to your alternate when determining your flight time. It even includes a bunch of detailed, premade airplane profiles (including one for my PlaneSmart SR22 Turbo). You can file FAA flight plans through flightaware .com but not yet for flights more than 24 hours in advance, though that’s a planned capability.