Flight Planning


  • Flight planning is the process in which a pilot prepares for an upcoming flight
  • It is a descriptive process therefore involving more than one type of navigation
  • If no wind information is available, plan using statistical winds, make them headwinds to be conservative in your fuel planning
  • Course: is pre-flight
  • Track: is flown
  • Charts are all "true" as in true north and must be compensated to find magnetic north
  • Include the following:
    • Diverts (direction and channels/frequencies)
  • Checkpoints:
    • Check points should be set approximately 10 NM apart
    • Your first checkpoint should be Top of Climb (TOC) and the last should be Top of Descent (TOD)

Flight Planning:

  • The purpose of flight planning is to become familiar with information pertaining to an intended flight
  • The work put in is also necessary to accurately complete FAA Form 7233-1, better known as a flight plan, if one is required
  • Initial Planning Considerations:

    • According to FAR 91.103, pilots in command are required to familiarize themselves with information pertaining to the flight
    • The "how" is a product of flight planning but the "who, what, when, and where" provides a useful starting point
    • These required actions can be remembered using the acronym "WX-KRAFTN"

Types of Navigation:

  • Navigation can be accomplished in several ways
  • Two examples include pilotage and dead reckoning which, although different, are not mutually exclusive
  • Pilotage:

    • Navigation with visual landmarks
  • Dead Reckoning:

    • Navigation by planning
    • Position: A geographic point defined by coordinates
    • Direction: An angular distance from a reference
      • Course: the aircrafts intended path
      • Heading: the direction the aircraft is pointed
        • Drift Angle: difference between the course and heading
      • Track: the aircrafts actual flight path over the ground (ground track marker)
        • When track = course you are flying exactly where you intend
    • Time: Can be expressed in two ways, as the time of day or elapsed time
    • Speed: The magnitude of the velocity of an aircraft

Determining Route/Choosing Checkpoints:

  • Determining a Route:

    • Generally the most direct route is preferred but several considerations may require some deviation
    • Route Considerations:
      • Airspace to be crossed
      • Terrain to be crossed
      • Availability of checkpoints
  • Choosing Checkpoints and/or Landmarks:

    • Checkpoints allow you to follow the progress of your flight against your planning calculations
    • Landmarks can be checkpoints but may also inform a pilot where they are in relation to checkpoints
    • Considerations for selection of either are:
      • Are they unique enough to be identified?
      • Are they large enough to be found?
      • Are they small enough to be considered a "point?"
    • Checkpoints should be appropriately 10 NM apart
    • They may be points off the route which you can identify when abeam
    • Use of tools such as satellite maps (Google, Bing, etc.) allow for you to preview checkpoints
    • Types of Landmarks:

      • Hydrography (water features)
        Hydrography (water features)
        Positive Landmarks:
        • Can be positively identified and plotted as a point on a chart (i.e., mountains, large bodies of water, etc.)
        • You need not pass directly over a positive landmark for it to be useful to you
        • Be cautious of man-made landmarks as they may have changed, moved, or no longer exist
        • Hydrography (water features): [Figure 1]
          • Water features are depicted using two tones of blue, and are considered either "Open Water" or "Inland Water"
          • "Open Water," a lighter blue tone, shows the shoreline limitations of all coastal water features at the average (mean) high water levels for oceans and seas
          • Light blue also represents the connecting waters like bays, gulfs, sounds, fjords, and large estuaries
          • Exceptionally large lakes like the Great Lakes, Great Salt Lake, and Lake Okeechobee, etc., are considered Open Water features
          • The Open Water tone extends inland as far as necessary to adjoin the darker blue "Inland Water" tones
          • All other bodies of water are marked as "Inland Water" in the darker blue tone
      • Linear Landmarks:
        • Can be positively identified but not specifically plotted because they extend for some distance
        • Features such as roads, railroads, coastlines, power lines and rivers may make good timing checkpoints if they are perpendicular to the course line and have other specific environmental particulars that identify your position
        • Rivers and power lines must be easy to find, either isolated or large so they are unmistakable with confirming landmarks so they can be confirmed
        • Railroads and major highways are almost always depicted on aeronautical charts
        Power Line Linear Landmark
        Power lines as linear landmarks
        Power Line Linear Landmark
        Power lines as linear landmarks
        Bridges and Viaducts
        Bridges and Viaducts
        Bridges and Viaducts
        Bridges and Viaducts
        Overpasses and Underpasses
        Overpasses and Underpasses
        Overpasses and Underpasses
        Overpasses and Underpasses
        Power Line Linear Landmark
        Power lines as linear landmarks
        Power Line Linear Landmark
        Power lines as linear landmarks
      • Uncertain Landmarks:
        • Features that a pilot suspects he can correlate with the chart, but they may not be fully reliable
        • Landmarks such as oil wells, and windmills may be repetitious
        • Objects may look much alike

Determining Headings/Courses:

  • Once a route has been chosen, you need to calculate headings/courses to be flown
  • The two terms, often used interchangeably, in fact mean different things:
    • Headings are the directions which the aircraft faces (where it is pointed)
    • Courses are the direction which the aircraft is actually traveling (impacted by winds)
  • Heading/courses can be expressed as either true or magnetic
    • True North:

      • True north is the direction along the earth's surface towards the geographic North Pole
      • It is the northerly point furthest from the equator (90°N)
      • True headings can therefore be measured on most aeronautical maps, including sectionals, by reference to true north
    • Measuring True Course:

      1. Draw a straight line between two points (airports, checkpoints, etc.) on a sectional chart
      2. Next find the lines of longitude on a map
      3. Grab your plotter and place the reference hole over the intersection of the line of longitude
      4. Rotate the plotter so that it is parallel to the line you drew
      5. Where the line of longitude intersects the compass rose on the plotter, determine your true course
        • If there is more than one number, chose the number most appropriate for your direction of flight
    • Calculating True Heading:

      • First, determine your wind correction angle:
        • Find your winds aloft through an official weather source
        • Plot the winds on your E6B Flight Computer:
          • Place the wind direction under the "True Index" arrow
          • Using a reference line on the E6B scale, measure up and plot the velocity
        • Rotate the compass rose until your True Course is under the True Index pointer
        • Move the entire compass until the plot is over your True Airspeed
        • Note which side of the True Index the plot falls, and by how much based on the scale provided
          • This is your wind correction angle
          • If it is located on the left of the line, it must be subtracted from the True Course
          • If it is located on the right of the line, it must be added to the True Course
      • Finally, apply the formula:
        • True Heading = True Course (-left/+right) WCA
    • Magnetic North:

      • Magnetic north is the direction along the earth's surface which points toward the magnetic north pole
      • Magnetic compasses point to this location and therefore it is magnetic headings that are flown
      • The magnetic north pole is a shifting point which is not coincident with the "top" of the earth as defined by latitude and longitude
    • Calculating Magnetic Course:

      • Magnetic heading will usually require a correction based on the variation or:
        • The angular difference between true north and magnetic north from any given position on the earth's surface (represented by isogonic lines)
        • Isogonic lines are points of equal variation, represented in degrees east or west
      • Deviations is usually pulled off a sectional chart however, other sources such as NOAA can provide this information
      • The memory aide "east is least (minus), west is best (plus)" is often used to remember how to apply east and west variations
      • Magnetic Course (MC) = True Course (TC) - East Variation
      • Magnetic Course (MC) = True Course (TC) + West Variation
    • Calculating Magnetic Heading:

      • All aircraft will have a deviation factor that must be applied
      • Deviation is read off the compass card in the aircraft, and must be added or subtracted to the magnetic course as appropriate

Determining Winds:

  • Determining winds at altitude help guide your true heading
  • Since winds aloft are expressed in "true," you will calculate the wind correction angle off true course

Determining Altitude:

  • Altitude will depend on several factors including:
    • Winds aloft
    • Aircraft performance
  • Information to aircraft performance at various altitudes can be found in Chapter 5 of the Pilot Information Manual

Determining Deviation:

  • Deviation is found on a placard with your magnetic compass

Determining Variation:

  • Variation is necessary for converting true headings to magnetic
  • Magnetic variation depends on your location on the earth, as labeled by isogonic lines

Determining Compass Heading:

  • Compass heading is determined by applying the deviation correction to the magnetic heading
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Flight Log Side 1
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Flight Log Side 1 (click to enlarge)
U.S. Declination Map
U.S. Declination Map
U.S. Declination Map
U.S. Declination Map
VFR Cruising Altitudes and Flight Levels
VFR Cruising Altitudes and Flight Levels
VFR Cruising Altitudes and Flight Levels
VFR Cruising Altitudes and Flight Levels

Top of Climb:

  • Given:
    • Departure Airport: 900 ft
    • Cruise Altitude: 5,500 ft
  • From Sea Level to 5,500' we calculate 9 minutes, 2.0 Gal, 13 NM
  • Assuming 1,000' for the departure altitude we calculate: 1 minute, 0.4 Gal, 2 NM
  • Subtract the difference: (9-1)=8 Min, (2.0-0.4)=1.6 Gal, (13-2)=11 NM
  • Pay attention to the notes at the bottom of the chart, especially to add 1.1 Gal for taxi and takeoff
  • To add wind

Time, Distance, and Speed Calculations:

  • Utilizing a simple formula (Distance = Time x Ground Speed may be utilized
  • Therefore, if you have any two, you can calculate the other
  • Time Calculations:

    • If you need to travel 10 NM, and you have a ground speed of 100 knots, how long will it take?
      • 10 NM = Time (hours) x 100
      • 10/100 = Time
      • Time = 0.1
      • Multiply 0.1 by 60 (minutes in an hour) and you'll get 6, for 6 minutes to travel that distance at that ground speed
  • Distance Calculations:

    • Distance is rate time time
    • You will travel 10% of speed in 6 minutes
    • If you are traveling at 100 knots ground speed for 6 minutes, how far will you travel?
      • Distance = 0.1 (see above) x 100
      • Distance = 10 NM
    • Using an E6B:
      • Point to ground speed with the arrow
      • Find time and read above
      • For times under 3 minutes, the small arrow may need to be utilized
 ORANGE Section 
  • Fill out the departure and arrival airport information including frequencies, traffic altitudes, and heights above ground
  • Fill in information concerning flight service or any item you will want to reference in regards to that airport
  • If you want, draw an airport diagram in the box but still carry a larger printed diagram for easier use and more detail

 YELLOW Section 
  • Determine a MSL cruise altitude based on weather and direction of flight
  • Reference above diagram
  • Calculate pressure altitude for your airport (important for performance calculations)
  • Determine the temperature (important for performance calculations)
  • Calculate density altitude (important for performance calculations)
  • Determine a horsepower setting and the accompanying RPM settings, KTAS and Gallons per Hour

 GREEN Section 
  • Write in the aircraft type
  • Used to plot any changes to a heading for the entire route to estimate times, distances and fuel used
  • True Course (TC): found on sectional using plotter
  • True Wind: found on winds aloft forecasts
  • True Heading (TH): calculated with flight computer (back of flight calculator)
  • Variation (Var): simply the difference between true north and magnetic north, found on sectional for your route

  • Magnetic Versus True North
    Variation, Magnetic Versus True North
  • Deviation (Dev): found on the compass card in your aircraft
  • Magnetic Heading (MH): TH corrected for variation
  • Course Heading (CH): MH corrected for deviation
  • Ground Speed (EST GS): found under the grommet when calculating wind correction angle
  • Distance (DST): calculated with POH and Plotter on the sectional
  • Estimated Time En-route (ETE): calculated with flight computer (arrow on GS, time read under distance)
  • Fuel Management:
    • Fuel Planning calculated with flight computer (arrow on GPH, read under time)
  • SETTO: Startup, Taxi and Takeoff lost fuel, usually 1.4 Gal
  • Total: Add everything up, this is a rough estimate for the flight, you will only use this section for planning on the ground

 BLUE Section 
  • Write aircraft tail number
  • List all checkpoints and associated distances
  • Write in any frequencies or IDs for route navigation
  • CH can be copied from the preflight log
  • Distance is measured off the sectional
  • GS (first or second line only): copy from preflight log
  • ETE: calculate same as preflight log
  • Fuel: calculate same as preflight log
  • In flight you will be filling in the other boxes as the flight progresses

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Flight Log Side 2
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Flight Log Side 2 (click to enlarge)
AIM, Pre-Flight Pilot Checklist
AIM, Pre-Flight Pilot Checklist
AIM, Pre-Flight Pilot Checklist
AIM, Pre-Flight Pilot Checklist
 ORANGE Section 
  • Weight and balance as calculated normally

 YELLOW Section 
  • Fill out any weather information or notes you may have
  • Check NOTAMs for the route of flight

 GREEN Section 
  • Fill out the flight plan for flight service
  • All information is from the front of the navigation log
  • Filed before flight with the FSS so they can keep a track of you. If you do not close the flight plan 30 minutes after the proposed arrival time, SAR (search and rescue) procedures begin

 BLUE Section 
  • Fill out airspeeds, runway lengths, and altitudes

 RED Section 
  • VFR Cross-Country Checklist
  • Make sure all items are complete

Planning Tools:

Inflight Guide:

  • After you've completed your flight log, consider the creation of an inflight guide to keep on your kneeboard during flight
  • This inflight guide is not indented to create an extra step in flight planning but instead to make your life easier when you're flying
  • Contents might include:
    • Print outs of the local airport information from the Chart Supplement U.S.
    • NOTAMS
    • etc.


  • Planning is based on what we believe will occur
    • It may be incorrect and calculations/adjustments may need to be made in flight, but having a point from which to depart leads to educated decisions
    • The military calls this mission cross-check
  • When dead reckoning, you've done the math to determine timing, and so if you arrive at a checkpoint according to timing and direction but you don't see it, turn to your next heading and orient yourself
  • Navigation should always be done from the chart to the landmarks
    • This means look at your chart first and then at the ground for your landmark
    • If done the other way around you could find yourself staring at your map looking for a landmark that may not be charted
  • Remember that documents may not reflect reality and when it comes to services available at an airport, they may not be available due to supplies or even destructive weather
    • It is advised that you call FBOs ahead of departures to ensure required services are available
  • Don't forget about what you want to do after you reach your destination
    • Chose an Fixed-Based Operator (FBO) ahead of landing and give them a call before you depart to ensure the desired services will be available and where you must go to receive them (i.e., fuel farms may not be at the FBO ramp)
  • Don't forget to check SAFOs
  • Remember mountain flying considerations
  • A member of the AOPA? Try their flight planner
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