It starts with weather. A pilot knows where he wants to go VFR and the first step is to see if the weather will allow a flight along the route that, at this point, is just in his mind.
The most direct route is the first one considered. The next thing is the weather synopsis, or, the weather map. One word here. The TV weather maps paint with a broad brush and usually try to cover the weather for a whole day. The aviation weather prog charts, as shown on aviationweather.noaa.gov/progs/, are for specific times, out 48 hours. Why is it important to look at these? If there is a front or a low-pressure area affecting the route, a pilot needs to know about that. If you are flying toward a front or low, odds are the weather will get worse as you fly along.
The area forecasts give general information about the weather and the airmets will offer prognostications about IFR and mountain obscuration, turbulence, and icing. They are, respectively, named Sierra, Tango and Zulu. More severe conditions are covered in sigmets and convective sigmets for thunderstorms.
Most of us, though, use the terminal forecasts as the main tool in looking ahead for expected weather. These do have to be taken with a grain of salt because they cover only the weather around the airport. Only the area forecast covers the whole area and should be studied for every flight.
The available weather information has to be merged with the proposed route to get the real picture. If rough terrain is a factor, the height of the terrain has to be considered in relation to the forecast ceilings. The mountain obscuration airmet addresses this, but most pilots have learned that the broader forecasts, such as the area and the airmets, often paint with a broad brush.
The metars, the surface observations, also have to be considered and compared with the forecasts. Is the actual weather better, the same or worse than forecast? These reports of actual weather are worth a lot when planning a VFR flight.
For IFR in flat terrain the minimum en route altitude gives 1,000 feet of clearance, while in mountainous terrain it is 2,000 feet. Those are good planning altitudes for VFR as well. For example, if you want to head out across the eastern mountains, just look at the higher terrain within five miles of a proposed route and add 2,000 to that for a minimum acceptable ceiling.
Some will say that is too restrictive, but the whole deal about planning a VFR flight is to plan one where you can both fly visually and maintain a reasonable altitude above the highest obstacles along the way. That gives some margin because everyone knows that while the weather can be better than forecast, it can also be worse than forecast.
Often, for a VFR flight of some length, an alternate route might be a better weather deal. There are flights where some miles out of the way will keep the airplane over lower terrain, or farther away from a low-pressure area, or away from an area where thunderstorms are forecast, or along a route where there are more airports to use if the weather is worse than forecast. Certainly the most direct route is not always the best route.
The Nexrad picture of precipitation is as important to the VFR pilot as it is to the IFR pilot. While reasonable VFR conditions can exist in rain, odds are they won’t last long. Lower clouds tend to form in rain areas, and the rain itself obscures visibility and makes it more difficult to see and avoid those lower clouds. If there is a widespread area of rain, chances of making it through there VFR are none too good.
The bit of strategy you want to leave the weather briefing with is a number: “If I can’t fly that route at such and such an altitude (the number) in good VFR conditions, then it is time to land and regroup.”
That weather briefing is available from a number of sources, but a pilot planning a VFR flight is well-advised to talk to a briefer at a Flight Service Station. That is not because of better weather information, but because of possible areas of temporary flight restriction along the way. The TFR information is available in other places, but every pilot setting out on a VFR cross-country should play the old cover-your-ass game by asking an FSS briefer specifically about TFRs along the way. The FSS folks can make sense of the gibberish describing a TFR, and this is just something pilots flying VFR should do.
The next step before setting off on a VFR flight is to make a navigational plan. The basics of this plan are the same for a clock, compass and map flight, or a VOR navigational flight, or one with a GPS, which everyone should be using by now. Backstops are the cornerstone of any VFR navigational plan. Just using the oft-violated airspace around Camp David as an example, virtually all the hundreds of pilots who have strayed into that neverland didn’t have an adequate plan to avoid the area. With a plan, you miss it; without a good plan you might be in violation. Backstops, in the form of surface features, VOR radials or GPS waypoints can be used to steer clear. For example, staying east of Highway 15 or north of the 270 radial of the Hagerstown VOR, or using airway intersections in a GPS flight plan, can keep a flight clear of Camp David airspace when the area is not expanded because a VIP is there. If the Flight Service Specialist says the area is larger, use backstops that put extra miles between your airplane and the area.
Because this is an election year, TFRs will be in abundance because of campaigning.
Backstops are also useful in dealing with other regulated airspace. If you are headed for, or flying by, an airport covered by Class B or C airspace, identify points over which you will fly to avoid the airspace, or have a location where you will call and establish contact before entering the airspace.
That is all part of the plan.
Fuel is part of the plan, too. The best deal is to always land with an hour’s worth of fuel in the tanks. In preflight planning the winds aloft forecasts are used to estimate the groundspeed, which is in turn used to estimate how long the flight will take. The best number to develop in planning is the required groundspeed to make it there with the desired fuel reserve. With that number developed, keeping tabs is a lot easier later on. One other thing: do peer into the tanks to make sure the planned amount of fuel is indeed on board.
Many pilots use only the “direct to” function of a GPS. That’s too bad, because the flight plan function can enable precise navigation that avoids TFRs and other regulated airspace and also keeps the airplane away from inhospitable terrain. The GPS units have all the airway intersections and airports in them, and there are enough of these to enable a precise flight plan that keeps the airplane in good air, unfettered by politicians, airliners or rocks. There are times when you can fly long direct legs, but the only way this can be known in advance is by making that plan.
Finally, if you have passengers, while you are planning become familiar with points of interest along the way so you can point them out. I fly to and from Ohio a lot and in doing so pass over Point Pleasant, West Virginia, at the confluence of the Kanawha and Ohio rivers. I always show it to passengers and tell them that my seven times great-grandfather was killed there, in the Battle of Point Pleasant, before the American Revolution. Just after passing Point Pleasant, I fly over Gallipolis, Ohio. I always ask people how they might pronounce that. I didn’t know. Then one day a passenger pronounced it Gallo-police. I asked him if he was sure that was correct, to which he replied, “I was born there.”