In this article, we’ll dive into how to properly plan an IFR flight.
Do you remember when you learned to fly cross countries in your Private Pilot training? It was one of the last things you did, and in hindsight, that probably makes sense. After all, a cross country is a culmination of all of the small skills you learned throughout your training.
You had to take off, depart an airport, apply good piloting and communication skills, learn some new navigation techniques, and then approach and land at a new airport.
To learn all of those things in one go would’ve been too much. Instrument flight planning is the same way, but so many complex bits and pieces make up instrument flying that it can sometimes be harder to see the forest through the trees.
And IFR planning has a lot of trees. So here’s a quick primer on those trees to better help you see that forest—with a view from 5,000 feet (but not 5,500 feet.)
How is Planning an IFR Flight Different From a VFR Cross-Country?
If you’re taking your first steps into the instrument world, it’s helpful to know what will be different and what will be the same. VFR and IFR cross countries often look pretty similar in the air, but the planning phase is quite a bit different.
Of course, the most significant difference is that an instrument flight is conducted under a clearance. Air Traffic Control (ATC) will provide instructions that you must follow and you’ll be in constant contact with them. No matter how much homework you’ve done, every once in a while, things change. So your clearance changes. And in those situations, you have to be flexible and do what you’re asked.
Being under the control of ATC is the heart of what makes instrument flights different. As an instrument pilot, you have the power to fly through clouds and the peace of mind that comes by being separated from other traffic. You don’t have to worry about airspace transitions or many of the rules that fill your time as a VFR pilot.
But what you do have to do is be ready. You need to research the route and have a bunch of information saved just in case you need it. In other words, there is a lot of homework to do before you get in the plane. Here are just a few of the most important questions you’ll want to know the answers to in advance.
- All about the weather—Where is the nearest VFR weather at an airport? Are there any IFR conditions along the route? If so, how “low” is it—and will it affect your approaches at that airport?
- Alternate plans if you can’t complete your flight
- Nearest ILS approaches (lowest minimums—best alternates)
- Nearest VFR weather forecast (in case of instrument failures)
- NOTAMS and any equipment outages that affect your route
- Published procedures and NAVAIDs along your route that you might be assigned
Resources and References for IFR Planning
Before you can prepare for an IFR flight, you’ve got to collect all the data. It’s vital to have current charts for your flight. IFR charts and approach plates are only valid for 28 days after publication—so you need to buy a new set frequently.
It’s also essential to have a complete set. For example, you may plan your trip to take you to particular airports and particular alternates, so you print out current copies of those approaches you think you’ll use. This is a good practice since having those handy will enable you to study them and make notes.
But what if you have an equipment failure or an emergency onboard? What if you wind up needing to divert somewhere else because the weather was much lower than forecast? There are a thousand “what-if” scenarios you could ask—and they all require you to have a copy of every chart you might need onboard the aircraft.
Here’s a minimum list of references you should have for your planning and flight.
- Chart Supplements (formerly called the A/FD)—Includes IFR preferred routes
- Terminal Procedures Publication (TPP)—Includes airport diagrams, takeoff minimums and Obstacle Departure Procedures (ODPs), Standard Instrument Departure Procedures (DPs), Standard Terminal Arrival Procedures (STARs), Instrument Approach Procedures (IAPs or just “approaches”), and non-standard Alternate Minimums
- IFR Low-altitude En Route Chart (usually called the “low-en route”)
The Importance of Familiarizing Yourself Before You Go
You’ll often hear pilots grumble when they get a full-route clearance that’s completely different than their planned route. Most of the time, the reason is that they failed to check some basic factors. Unfortunately, more than a few pilots make up random routes and then act surprised when ATC gives them the standard ones.
There really shouldn’t be many surprises. After a few flights, you’ll start to see the ways ATC organizes traffic in and out of your area. Occasionally, you aren’t aware of a route, but after being assigned that route two or three times, you will know to file it next time and be ready.
It shouldn’t be a big deal even if you get a long, full-route clearance. If you have studied the charts, NAVAIDs, STARs, and approaches along the way, an unexpected routing shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
If it turns stressful and you see an increase in your workload in the cockpit, ask yourself why. What did you miss in the preflight planning that could have made it go better? Sometimes, it’s a simple lesson learned about standard routes in your area. Other times, you’ll learn a better way to prep and prepare for your flights in the future.
Using Apps Like ForeFlight for IFR Planning
A full-featured Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) app like ForeFlight can make quite a difference in IFR flight planning. The apps contain all the documents you need to collect in one tidy package. The planning tools also give you access to the low-en route charts and preferred routes.
Once you start creating a flight plan, you can use your airplane settings to calculate performance, times, and fuel burn. And, of course, you can file and get clearances right from the app.
All of these are great tools and radically simplify the process. But, as a student, you’ll need to learn how to do all the steps the old-fashioned way—on paper—as well. Remember, always ask yourself what happens when the technology fails at a bad time—like on your checkride!
Steps to Planning IFR Cross-Countries
1. Do Your Homework on the Route
This step starts well before the day of the trip. If you are in training, you’ll start right after your instructor tells you where to plan—maybe a day or two. In real life, you might start this step a week before you decide to make the trip on your own—the moment you decide you want to fly somewhere.
Basically, you need to take out your charts and Terminal Procedures and start piecing together what a flight from here to there looks like. You don’t need to write anything down or do any calculations—you just want to know what’s going on.
Imagine your flight–from parked at the ramp to arriving at your destination. Start answering questions and figure out your most likely path—and any alternative ways you could do it. Find published lines on charts to make as much of it happen as you can. Avoid making your own “direct” routes.
- Are there any takeoff minimums or ODPs (Obstacle Departure Procedures) for your departure airport?
- Look at the Chart Supplements book and see if any preferred IFR routes are listed.
- Look at the departure area on a low-en route chart. Where is the first VOR or major waypoint that gets you going where you need to go?
- Now, look at the Terminal Procedures. Are there any DPs published for your airport or nearby airports that get you to that first VOR or waypoint? If there are DPs, but they go in a different direction, could you use that instead?
- On the low-en route chart, figure out what airways get you where you’re going. Look at all minimum altitudes along the route. Will you be able to use those airways (considering your aircraft’s performance)?
- Go back to the Terminal Procedures and look for STARs into your destination airport. If it’s near a bigger airport, look at those STARs. Can you use any of them?
- Finally, look at the approaches to your destination. Which one will you most likely use? Consider various wind directions.
- Think about alternates along the way. Where’s the nearest airport with an ILS? What if the weather is low on the day of your flight? Are there any places that might have better weather? What sorts of approaches do those airports have? If you’re traveling on your own, is there another destination that can meet your needs if you can’t use your first choice (think about car rental availability, passenger drop-off/pick-up, etc.) Be sure to check the airports you want to use as alternates for non-standard minimums, published in the Terminal Procedures book.
2. Get a Standard Briefing for Your Route
You’ve looked over the charts and the route several times, and now it’s time to start making the trip happen. If the trip is tomorrow, get an Outlook Briefing and a full Standard Briefing tomorrow. If it’s happening today, get a Standard Briefing. Never depart without getting a same-day Standard Briefing.
There are many things you need to know from your weather briefing, and not all of them have to do with the weather.
But weather is pretty crucial on IFR flights. Coming from your Private Pilot training, you might think that an instrument rating will give you unlimited options. But in many cases, when the weather is bad, it is simply unsafe for general aviation flying. If there’s a solid line of thunderstorms approaching, icing, or severe turbulence—you can’t go, even if you’re IFR.
What about clouds? The instrument rating allows you to pop in and out of clouds as long as you operate under a clearance in controlled airspace. But it’s not limitless. What if your destination is a VFR-only airport with no approaches? Would you depart with low ceilings forecast only to get there to find no way to land legally? Airports with non-precision approaches only allow you to descend to around 600 feet AGL—not much help in very low weather.
You must approach getting your weather information much like you approached a VFR weather briefing—by knowing your limits and understanding that some days you might have to say “no go.” With an instrument rating, though, you have a little more flexibility in the clouds and low visibility departments.
Finally, you also need to know about any NOTAMs. NOTAMs about GPS outages, inoperable approaches or VORs, or airport lights out of service is of much more interest now. Will any of the outages affect which NAVAIDs you can use along the way or which approaches you can fly when you get there?
3. Finalize Your Route and Fill Out Your Flight Planning Sheet
With a Standard Briefing and a lot of knowledge about the route under your belt, you can put the two together and make a final plan.
You’ll want a blank flight planning sheet. Your instructor can provide one, or there are many blank forms commercially available. You can use a VFR planning form if you wish, but you will likely leave a lot of blank spaces.
Like VFR flight planning, your goal is to pick out points along your route and calculate the distance, course, time, and fuel used for each leg. Take into account top of climb (TOC) and top of descent (TOD) planning.
The skills are the same as VFR planning–only some of the steps are done for you. In most cases, when flying on the airways or published routes, you can use the courses as your magnetic course and the distances provided. If flying a non-published route, you might have to measure on the chart with a plotter. You’ll still need to solve for ground speed and headings using the E6B wind calculator.
Don’t forget to plan the leg on to your alternate airport.
4. File Your Flight Plan
Now, just like in VFR planning, you put together the pertinent data from your flight planning form and file your IFR flight plan. Just as with VFR, you can file online or call the briefer.
Remember, your flight plan will get sent to Air Traffic Control (ATC), and from this, they will make your clearance. If you’ve done your homework right and everything is going according to plan, they will clear you “as filed.”
The route on your flight plan must be made up of IFR fixes. You do not have to file or request DPs and STARs, but there’s no reason not to. Remember to file an alternate if legally required to, but again, it’s a good idea to put one down regardless.
5. Get and Fly Your Clearance
Once your flight plan goes into the system, you can head to the plane and get ready for departure.
At a towered airport, you will pick up your clearance from Clearance Delivery or Ground Control before requesting permission to taxi. At uncontrolled airports, you can make a phone call to the local TRACON (approach controller) or ARTCC (center) to get the clearance before you depart. If conditions allow for a VFR departure, you can depart and maintain VFR until you’re able to get in touch with the TRACON or ARTCC in the air and get your clearance.
Once you have your clearance, check to see how it jives with your plan. For example, were you “cleared as filed,” or did you get a completely new routing? Even if you got a new route, you should be familiar with the procedures and facilities it uses. If not, take a moment before taxiing to familiarize yourself with what you have to do.
If you’re flying an aircraft with a moving-map GPS display, you can use this time to plug the cleared route into your plane’s FMS route planner. Set it up in advance so that you don’t have to add waypoints during flight. Make especially sure that your Departure Procedure is input correctly.
Once in the air, fly the clearance you’ve received. Hopefully, your flight planning sheet helps out. If it needs some updates, find a little time during a quiet leg at altitude to modify it as you see fit. Generally, though, so long as your initial planning was sound and nothing dramatically changed, you should be good for your entire trip.
IFR Flight Planning Made Easy
And there you have it—five easy steps to planning a big IFR flight. Once you’ve done it a few times and gotten familiar with all of the publications involved, you’ll probably find it less intimidating than you found those first VFR cross countries.
For more details about flying an IFR flight and planning it out, check out Chapter 10: IFR Flight in the Instrument Flying Handbook by the FAA. You can download the latest PDF copy here.