How I plan flights

Written by Mark Smith on Monday 13 January 2020 19 minute read

Planning a flight

At the time of writing we are early January and flying days are few and far between thanks to the Northern Irish weather playing it’s usual tricks of mad winds, low stupid cloud and rain. And so my thoughts are turning to when it gets sunnier and where I’d like to take off to this year, which got me thinking I’d like a checklist to scan through when planning flights.

So here we are, my checklist of things I do when planning a flight in my Jabiru Microlight, hopefully others find this useful, please share the article if you find it useful and think others might as well. If you think I’ve missed anything, let me know in the comments! As I fly a microlight, we a re VFR only so don’t have any additional prep for IFR flights etc, so I won’t be touching on that here.

I’ve split the article out to time periods such as a week before the flight, day of the flight etc to make reading and navigation a bit easier.

Some, but not all of these considerations are carried out when planning a local sortie, it will be vastly stripped down, so any that I do for a local flight will have (L) beside their title.

More than a week before

First things first is deciding where you are going and roughly when. A few things I consider are:

Bank Holidays

Bank holidays can be a great window to get some flying done, especially if you get them off!

Annual Leave

Another great flying opportunity is if you have a few days already booked off without many plans. I usually book all my holidays in January for the year and leave some so I can take a few days here and there for flying trips.

When suits others

If you’re planning a formation flight with a few others, agree on a rough date when everyone is off work for starters. This will help focus your weather forecasts for go/no go windows.

Long range weather forecasts

While very rough, especially in the UK where the weather is so unpredictable, a long range (2-3 week) forecast may help you see any potential windows of opportunity for a flight coming up.

Order equipment

If you have a destination planned already, for example, I’m planning on going back to Oban the next decent day I can find, make sure you have:

  1. Read the destination airfields websites/plates for info on high visibility jackets and any other equipment you may need for your visit and if you don’t have it, order it now
  2. Crossing water? Get a life jacket bought - one suitable for aviation, no self inflating life jackets here, pull cord only this is the life jacket I use. If you have room, a small life raft or a flotation suit may be a better idea.
  3. Survival equipment may be needed if you’re flying over hostile terrain for extended periods, make sure you have first aid kits, water, food etc in case the worse happens. If you already have a survival kit, open it up and make sure batteries work, food isn’t out of date etc. Trent Palmer did an interesting video showing his survival bag which I’ve embedded below:

4. Maps…we’re in the UK where everything moves a snail pace when it comes to progress, so, if you don’t have a map/s of the area, get these ordered as well

A week before

So now the countdown begins and we’re getting closer to an actual flight, lets take a look at somethings I’m looking to do in the run up with a week or so to go.

Decide where you are going (L)

If you haven’t already decided where you are going, now is the time to definitely get that sorted, especially if it’s a longer cross country as PPR etc will need to be filed and if you haven’t already you may need maps etc ordered (cutting it fine though!).

Decide when you are going (L)

For me there are three things that decide this

  1. Family commitments
  2. Work
  3. Weather

If the three of these align just right, then I have my trip day sorted! Others may have different considerations, or the same ones but in a different order.

Weather weather weather (L)

That blasted weather is the bane of my life, so a week before a potential flight I’m checking various sources to see if I can pick out a date that may suit based on the forecasts. The providers I use are:

All of the above websites have apps available so get them installed and if you have an Android phone, enable their widgets so you can torment yourself by checking the weather every time you open your phone.

Windy

A quick dive into Windy. Unlike the others which give a static view of surface conditions, Windy shows an interface map with wind patterns, pressure, temperature and cloud. It has an extra trick up its sleeve though, you can set the altitude to view the winds aloft, perfect for viewing the winds aloft a few days in advance. You can also set a cloud base view, so you can visualize the potential visibility along your route. This tool is highly recommended! Thanks to Gavin Curtis for the tips on winds aloft and cloudbase ٩(^‿^)۶

Anyone else coming? (L)

If there are a few of you going, setup a group chat on Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger or something else so you can all keep in contact and arrange a date, who will be leading the formation, rough plans and meeting times.

If you don’t have anyone to go with then ask around your airfield or some of the Facebook groups for Microlights, like Microlight Pilots or, if you’re based in Northern Ireland, the Pilots of Northern Ireland group. You’ll likely find friendly folk who will happily join you or give you some advice on your proposed destination airfield!

Work to book off

Number 2 of my commitments above is Work, if the best day appears to be a week day, I’ll need to get that booked off ASAP. You may need to do the same so get this in as soon as you can as some places are funny about last minute leave.

When flying locally I’ll generally only need a half day at the most, so I tend to work up my hours so I have an excess then use them for an afternoon flying. I’m lucky I can do that.

Child care

If stars don’t quite align with the family now might be the time to start harassing grand parents, aunts, uncles, baby sitters to look after your little one/s while you’re off doing important flying “work”. Though, if you can, it’s even better if you can include them in our amazing hobby and bring them along with you. The image below is my eldest and I arriving into a local fly-in event, great stuff!

Equipment ordered

Ideally you’ll have read my first section above titled “More than a week before” where I mention ordering any equipment you may need. If you haven’t already ordered maps, life jackets, high visibility vets etc now is the time to do it.

Flight sim prep

If like me you have a flight sim, try out your planned route on the sim to get familiar with some of the airspace, lay of the land and if you use live ATC, brushing up on your radio chatter! You can also connect your phone/tablet nav software to the sim to practice as closely as possible to your real flight, in fact, in a recent magazine, they mention people flying with tablet software and not knowing how to use it properly, well, this is the perfect way to get to know it in a safe environment.

At the moment I use X-Plane 11 as my flight simulator of choice, but I’m watching the new Microsoft Flight Sim very closely…

Expect the date to change

Yep, weather will see to it that the majority of your trips will be changed, so try to be flexible and don’t let it annoy you, there will be better days!

2 days before

Now we’re starting to get down to the crunch and the real go/no go questions will need to be asked, esp if it’s a long trip, but for me this is where it starts getting exciting!

Weather checks (L)

You’ll be checking all your weather sources (I listed mine in the previous section) for your departure and destination points, and everywhere in between for adverse weather, cloud, fog, high winds, rain etc. As microlights are VFR only, any visibility or rain issues mean I can’t fly. For a local flight though I will fly when there are showers I can avoid, but I’d never take the risk when flying over unfamiliar territory, so, any sign of rain in the forecasts will be a no go for me.

Check in with flying partners

If flying with others make sure they are all up to date with plans. Myself and most others I fly with use SkyDemon, so we’ll be creating routes and sharing them among ourselves so we are all following the same plan come the day.

Radio frequencies

If you can do in advance, add any new radio frequencies required for the flight to your aircraft radio (if it supports pre-programming). This saves having to remember how to work your radio on the day of the flight and going behind schedule. You want time to be on your side, so any aircraft prep you can do in advance will pay off on the day.

Aircraft look around

If you are able to visit your aircraft a few days in advance and it hasn’t been flown for a while, as well as adding radio frequencies, have a look around the aircraft and see if anything may need addressed (flat tyre/s, new fluid leaks etc). It’s best to find out about these before arriving looking forward to your flight and being disappointed, or even worse, flying anyway.

The day before

Weather (L)

Always keep up to date with the weather, now are the day before, reports will be far more accurate so you’ll be able to confidently make the go/no go call based on the forcasts. Use all resources available to you to get an accurate picture - I mentioned some earlier. At this stage the MetOffice will be issuing aviation reports for the following day, so login to the MetOffice pilot area, open the Spot Winds report and have a look at what the weather is doing. You’ll need to decipher the reports into plain English but they are very detailed.

The MetOffice also have a YouTube channel with videos released throughout the day, this is also a handy resource.

I also dip into WeatherWeb.net as it compiles various sources in one place, it also has a paid option for more detailed reports if you’re that way inclined.

PPR

Is the UK we have this funny notion that airports/airfields require you to give them a ring before you visit, or, fill in an online form and pass some flight details. Lots of countries don’t do this and find it a bit strange but there we go! Anyway, give your destination airfield/s a shout a get booked in. This is a great time to ask questions about facilities like fuel, parking and food and they will pass on information such as noise abatement zones, things to look out for on approach and any issues at the airfield such as soggy grass runways.

This is handy to do, especially if you don’t have a navigation app with the plates ready for download. Get the airport plates printed out and have them ready on your knee board. You’ll be able to study the taxiways and parking charts so you aren’t totally unprepared when you arrive and the tower asks you to vacate left onto Charlie then taxi west parking via Mike, Bravo and Alpha hold at Hotel - I believe progressive taxi is a thing if you get lost (haven’t used this myself) where they can direct you if you’re totally lost!

There was a resource that was easy to use to get plates, but it appears to have been replaced by a dreadful system from NATS, it can be found here, to get the charts, click the AD2 Aerodromes section and thne locate your airport. The charts will then be listed.

If you are using a tablet app, you may be able to download all charts onto your device for airports, to do this to ensure they are available offline when you’re flying.

Fuel

Get your fuel into your Jerry Cans the day before if you have them so you can just rock up to the airfield, fuel up and go, no garages to visit and waste valuable pre-flight check time!

GAR

The GAR is a form required to be completed submitted up to 12 hours before time of departure when entering or leaving UK airspace, this includes entering & leaving Northern Ireland, even if remaining in the UK (can’t trust us lot obviously). It’s meant to be for anti terrorism or something, no-one really knows if anyone checks them, but we all must complete them regardless.

Don’t pay to submit a GAR, the UK government released a free service that is very easy to use, either use it (at time of writing it actually seems to be unavailable) or, if your navigation software supports it, submit via that. In my opinion the 2nd option is better as it will pre-populate everything for you, but not everyone has an app available for this.

The night before

Getting exciting now, assuming weather etc is playing ball you’re trip is coming to fruition and an adventure isn’t too far away!

But, before you just go and jump in the plane in the morning, consider these points as well!

Weather (L)

Yep, check this yet again, assuming you are off work etc, the only thing holding you back now is the weather.

Paper Map

If like you me, you use navigation software, it’s tempting to just assume it will work on the day and therefor you don’t need to do any of that old fashioned map stuff. Well, that’s not the case of course and if you’re away on a cross country you want, no, need a backup plan. So the night before, plot your route, do your plogs (I use this pad to record my plogs) and get rough timing etc. You’ll hopefully not need it, but at least with this prep you’ll know your route better and if the worst happens, you can just pull out your map and carry on, sorted!

As well as your paper map, now is the time to get your final route/s entered into your navigation app and saved. Prep now means you aren’t stressing and rushing on the day with the potential to miss something else. You’ll also get a plog you can print out which is really handy.

This is also a good time to check for any updates to the app or charts and get them updated with the latest data.

NOTAMS (L)

You’ll also want to check NOTAMs both for your departure and arrival airports as well as en-route. There are a few services available, I use the NOTAM feature in SkyDemon, I have embedded a video tutorial below for reference:

There are also websites available if you don’t have access to SkyDemon etc, one such example is notaminfo, you can view a map of all NOTAMs across the UK, or if you create a free account, can enter a route and view NOTAMs that could affect you.

Flight-plan

If crossing an international boundary, like UK to Ireland you need to submit a flight-plan. Get this done the night before, again, so it’s one less thing to worry about on the day of the flight. The CAA have a guide to Flight Planning CAP 694 available for download, give it a read if you are unsure if you need to file a flight plan or how to do it, it also has loads of info on flight planning in general.

I personally use the SkyDemon flight plan feature which, as it has my flight route, is able to auto generate the flight plan and submit for me. If you don’t have this option, there is a service available from NATS called Flight planning online which you can also use to submit flight plans from your computer. I dread to think about the usability of this though so you’re on your own here as I’ve never used it!

Charge your devices! (L)

Make sure all your devices are well charged over night, this includes phones, tablets and cameras you may be bringing along. Also ensure you bring chargers and if you plane has a charging port, some charging leads to keep you topped up while flying.

Pack your bags!

Finally, get your flight bag packed. Some of things you may want to bring are:

  • Passport
  • Pilots licence
  • Medical
  • Headset
  • Maps
  • Plogs
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • Log Book
  • Hangar/aircraft keys
  • Spare batteries/chargers
  • Planning equipment like rulers, pens, compasses in case you decide to add another route/last minute changes to your paper map

Also bring your survival kit if you have one as well as a life jacket and high visibility vest if required for your flight.

The flight day

Always give yourself plenty of time, if meeting with others make sure you all know what time you are due to depart at so you can all arrive in ample time and you aren’t waiting for folk.

Checking out the plane (L)

Checking out your plane always takes longer than expected. If you have a passenger, get them to make tea or something to give you peace to look over the plane, otherwise they’ll be asking distracting questions. If there is anything you aren’t happy with, don’t be tempted to fly anyway just because you have a passenger or are flying with others, don’t take risks.

Radio Frequencies

If you haven’t yet, get any new frequencies added to your radio (if it has a memory) so you can just call them up as needed when flying.

Bags & kit

Get the bags and survival kit if you have one into the plane, would be rubbish to realise you took off without them! Also, get your life-jacket on 😁.

Weather check (L)

Have a final weather check and give your destination airfield a call to double check conditions.

You can also use online live rain radar services like the MetOffice Rainfall Radar service to check on any rain showers prior to departure. As a microlight pilot I’ll most likely not fly a cross country if there are a lot of showers, the odd one I can avoid I probably would, it really depends on conditions.

NOTAM (L)

Have a final NOTAM check before you depart, just in case anything has been added from the day before. You don’t want to bust a Red Arrows display if you can avoid it 😬

Flight Brief

If you are heading off with other pilots, have a flight brief before you all depart, make sure you are all following the same route, advise if anyone needs fuel stops (different aircraft mean different durations), understand who is the leader of the formation (if flying one), what positions you will be in and what you will do if you loose contact.

It could also be useful to share next of kin details with each other, just in case.

Passenger brief

Finally, give your passenger a thorough briefing on any sterile cockpit rules you may have (landing & takeoff) and how they operate the seat belt and doors so they can egress quickly if they need to.

Explain that planes can glide, so if the big spinney thing stops, it’s not the end. You can also ask them to keep an eye out for other aircraft and I usually ask them to keep an eye on engine gauges as well, gives them something to do!

You may have additional things you like to talk them through, the important thing is they can get in and out quickly.

The flight (L)

Now you’re hopefully in the plane and ready to go, the important thing is to enjoy your flight, have a blast, keep your wits about you and keep up a good scan outside to see and avoid other aircraft (CAA have a detailed leaflet on visual scanning available). If you have an ADSB receiver even better, get it connected to your navigation software so you can see other aircraft on your moving map!

I usually always take at least a basic service en-route so people know where I am and know my intentions. Another simple thing I do is always have the next radio frequency I expect to use queued up on the radio, this means it’s a quick flip when it comes time to change and I also have the frequency in front of me so can just read it back to the controller.

I also have a custom timer setup on SkyDemon that alerts me every 10 minutes to do a FREDAH check, this is an en-route check that covers:

F - Fuel level, pump off

R - Radio frequencies & volumes correct

E - Engine temps and pressures

D - Direction correct & position noted

A - Altimeter QNH correct

H - Height above ground sufficient

Post flight (L)

Hopefully your flight went well and there were no unexpected events!

A few things to round off your flight are:

  • Filling in your logbooks
  • Filling in the aircraft log books
  • Having a beer or 3 🍻

There is a useful service if you use navigation software that logs your GPS track called CloudAhoy, it lets you upload your GPS data and review different stages of your flight, it will also score you based on descent profiles, speeds etc. Very handy and there does seem to be a free option which I have used.

Wrap up

This is a fairly exhaustive list of things I do when planning flights, hopefully there are some useful tit bits in here, even for experienced pilots (hopefully I’m not teaching you how to suck eggs!). I found that when it came to planning flights I am doing the same things over and over but occasionally forget bits, so even if no-one else finds it useful, I will be able to refer to it! Of course, anything I may have missed or you think could be a useful additional, add to the comments below, I’m always open to suggestions.

I’m not sponsored by anyone, so all services and tools I mention, I genuinely use, and think are useful to have to our planning tool kit. I don’t get nay money (I wish) to mention them!

We’re in the depths of winter storms at the minute but hopefully you are all thinking ahead to better times and getting some adventures planned for later in the year, at which point you can come back here to remember how to plan your flights 😁

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