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You’ve Filed Your Flight Plan, Now What?

By James Williams
Reprinted with permission from FAA Safety Briefing

You’ve dutifully downloaded your weather briefing from DUATS, called a Flight Service briefer with a few questions, and filed a flight plan. Now what?

Weather concerns are not limited to the weather itself: They also involve the aircraft and the pilot. But, as mentioned, there are other things that affect your decision making.

Environment

Personal minimums should change depending on the environment. If it’s your home airport, you are more likely to have less restrictive minimums because it is familiar—you know where the rocks are. Wind is a key weather factor, but that really depends on how much of a crosswind is present. A good question is this: What runways are available? In the case of a takeoff, you are limited to the runway (or runways) at the departure airport. But, you may have nearby alternatives at your destination. A 15-knot quartering tailwind on one runway could be a headwind on another.

Another question should be what approaches are available. This means both at your departure point and destination, again considering alternates for the destination. If you have multiple instrument landing systems (ILS), you might be more comfortable with less-restrictive minimums than if there were just a lone non-directional beacon (NDB) approach within 50 miles of your destination or departure.

Equipment

There is another important factor—technology. GPS has not made it to every aircraft yet. If you don’t have GPS, you don’t have as many options. Moreover, if you don’t have a WAAS- (wide area augmentation system) capable GPS receiver, you don’t have access to all the new WAAS approaches. Another consideration arises from the recent loss of an Intelsat WAAS satellite, one of only two. What if WAAS isn’t available? Satellite losses are uncommon, but not impossible. With an extremely limited supply of satellites and the long replacement lead time, services could be compromised. WAAS is more sensitive to this issue, but even basic GPS has only a limited number of spares in orbit. You can’t control these factors, but you should be aware of them.

The Bottom Line

This is hardly a comprehensive list of the decision making factors to consider; rather, it is more of a starting point. The idea is to weigh these and previously mentioned factors and balance the risks, wherever possible eliminating or mitigating as much risk as you can. Can you switch destination airports for one with more approaches or better weather? Can you find a route that has more possible diversion airports along the way than the first one your planning software produced?

Take a good look at your flight and ask: Is there anything I can do to make it safer?

James Williams is the FAA Safety Briefing’s assistant editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.