There comes a time in every pilot’s career where they have to leave the nest and venture away from the safety of the traffic pattern.
Before you can go flying on your cross-country flight, you need to know how to file a VFR flight plan.
Let’s start with the basics first because it’s important you understand the function of a VFR flight plan.
What is a VFR flight plan?
The VFR flight plan serves one purpose: it helps rescue workers find your aircraft if you crash.
That’s the only reason? Yup. It’s a tracking tool for search and rescue.
Keep that in mind when you fill out your form and open your VFR flight plan.
This is what the FAA form looks like for a VFR (and IFR) flight plan:
Do you have to file a VFR Flight to fly cross country?
Nope, it’s a free country.
Unlike, IFR flight plans, VFR flight plans are never required, they’re just highly recommended.
But! remember VFR flight plans help the Sheriff find you if you crash in the middle of nowhere. If you never file and open a VFR flight plan, no one will ever find you.
Before you go flying off into the sunset without a flight plan, think about the repercussions of your decision.
I will add one caveat: if you fly out of a Class C or B airport or near these airports, I do recommend you file a VFR flight plan.
The bigger airports want you to call clearance delivery to get a squawk prior to taxi as if you are an IFR aircraft.
How to file a VFR flight plan
There are several ways to file depending on your comfort level with technology and your budget.
Here are four ways to file a VFR flight plan in no particular order:
- This is the old school method. As long as you have a phone you can file a flight plan. They will give you NOTAMs, weather and take your flight plan all at once.
- Always have a flight plan form in front of you. The briefer will expect you to rattle off the required information on the form starting at #1. It’s painful if you don’t have it in front of you.
- You can print off the fight plan form by clicking here: FAA Flight Plan. Keep it in your flight bag or on your phone.
- I personally don’t use this method anymore. I can file and get all the weather and NOTAMs much fast through Foreflight. Plus, I am a visual person. I need to see the weather graphics, so a phone call doesn’t help me.
Use 1800wxbrief online
- If you don’t want to call, and you have a computer handy, you can file through the 1800wxbrief website.
- You will need to set up an account first, but it only takes a minute.
- This is my personal favorite method, but it will cost you either $75 or $150 a year depending on your subscription. You also need an iPad or iPhone. I can’t say enough about this program. It’s incredible. I bought an iPad just so I could use this program.
- Foreflight saves your aircraft info making filing even faster the next time.
- Foreflight will email you a complete weather brief after filing.
- You can also now hit a button and it will open your flight plan for you. No more calling the FSS in the air to open your flight plan.
- This is by far the most popular free flight planning software.
- I use it every day at my job because we don’t have Foreflight on our work iPads yet. A lot of corporate operators use this program.
- You will need to set up an account and set up an aircraft profile first. Make sure the aircraft information is accurate or the fuel burn and time won’t be accurate.
That’s it. Pretty easy.
- You don’t need money for this method, but you do need an email address, login, and a computer. Skyvector.com is an excellent free flight planning tool. It’s similar to Fltplan.com, but it has a much nicer design and interface. Either one will work. Stick with one so you get good at it.
There are other ways of filing, but these four are the best.
I don’t mess with CSC DUATs. I know some people do, but I just stay away from it.
The website looks like it is straight out of the 90’s.
How do you fill out a VFR flight plan?
I recommend you keep the template for a VFR flight plan on your kneeboard or digitally on your iPad. It’s helpful to reference when (if) you call the FSS.
Click here for the link to the PDF version of the FAA form 7233-1 VFR Flight Plan.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the flight plan.
1. Flight Rule:
- VFR, IFR or DVFR. These are pretty self-explanatory. If you aren’t instrument rated you can only file VFR.
- If you don’t know what DVFR is then you shouldn’t be filing it.
2. Aircraft ID:
- Use the full five digits of the aircraft.
3. Aircraft Type/Special Equipment: Reference Table 5-1-4 in the AIM.
Below is a list of the codes for the type of equipment you may have on board. By far the most common is the “Slant Golf.” Which means your aircraft has GPS capability.
Star with the aircraft identifier then add a slant and then the special equipment code.
For example, the EC145 helicopter is EC45/G. The King Air 350 is BE30/G.
The aircraft identifier is NOT intuitive so do a little Google research to figure out your aircraft’s identifier and special equipment.
- Note: If you don’t know what your aircraft type and identifier then ask! Don’t guess!
4. True Airspeed
- Use software to compute. It is NOT your indicated airspeed. Check out the article I wrote on True Aipseed if you need a quick refresher.
5. Departure airport ICAO identifier
- For example KSLE. Each country has its own identifier. Check out this Wikipedia article for a list of all the ICAO country identifiers.
- Alaska has a “P” identifier, by the way. Don’t use “K” as that’s only for the contiguous United States.
6. Proposed Departure time
- This must be in ZULU time. I recommend you get a watch that gives you Zulu time or download a Zulu time app on your phone.
7. Cruise Altitude
- For VFR use thousands plus 500 feet (i.e. 6500’…..even numbers going west and odd going east)
- The West Coast states use even going North and odd going South. (ie. From Seattle to LAX use 17,500′ and coming back north you would use 16,500′)
8. Route of flight
- Do not be lazy and file direct. The only purpose of a flight plan is for search and rescue. Don’t go overboard with the waypoints. Be realistic, but provide value to your rescuers.
- Note: Think twice about deviating from your fight plan. Once you go off course you may never be found.
9. Destination airport
- This is self-explanatory
10. Time en-route
- Use current wind calculations at cruise altitude to get an accurate time. Foreflight and Skyvector will do this for you.
- Add a little bit of padding to account for longer taxi/run-up times, but not so much that you die because it took too long for search and rescue to find you.
- I have never used this section. If you do, do not assume it will get passed to the next controller.
12. Fuel on board
- You must have appropriate fuel reserves for your type of flight regime.
- During the day you must have 30 minutes extra from your total flight time in Block 10. At night, 45 minutes.
13. Alternate airport
- You shouldn’t need to enter anything here for a VFR flight. This block may be mandatory for some IFR flights.
14. Pilot’s Name and contact
- Give them your cell phone! If you forget to cancel your flight plan you want them to call you immediately not your Grandma’s landline in another state.
15. Number on Board
- People…..not animals
16. Color of the aircraft
- Use the predominant color
Remember, flight plans only work if you open your flight plan in the air with the closest Flight Service Station.
Also, opening a flight plan is NOT the same as getting flight following with Air Traffic Control. They are two separate things.
Flight following offers the highest level of protection and safety. I highly recommend it.
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