Preparing for a flight is something every pilot does in his or her own particular way. We’re taught the basics in PPL ground school and demonstrate a prescribed method for the checkride, but it takes hours (and years even) of experience beyond the basic training for each pilot to enhance and refine their own methods.
With the many technologies available today, we no longer have to rely on measuring angles and distances on paper charts to plot routes. And with several useful tools available online and for free in most cases, we can plan routes and check weather faster and with better big-picture understanding than ever. My personal favourite is still the ForeFlight iPad app, which I find excellent for both flight planning and in-flight situational awareness. They now also have an online version of their tool that is very handy for planning routes from a computer and having it automatically synced to the app. For those without a ForeFlight subscription, SkyVector is an excellent free alternative that has complete coverage in the US and some basic maps for Canada. It will now even produce a nav log that you can print out and fill in along the flight. For visualizing both forecast and real-time weather, my current favourite tool is Windyty, which also has good Android and Apple apps. Of course, the standard Nav Canada weather website should be the primary source of weather information in Canada.
In terms of planning the actual route, I (as a VFR pilot) like to stick to the recommended VFR routes or highways if possible. It makes navigation simple and if the weather deteriorates rapidly there is a clear path to follow that stands out easily on the charts. Since most of the flying I do in British Columbia involves mountains, following the highway usually also provides the highest altitude over terrain for a given mountain route. That being said, I prefer to stay in controlled airspace when possible in busy areas, such as most of the Vancouver area. By getting into Vancouver Terminal airspace early, I can get radar services to assist with separation in the densely populated training areas.
Picking an altitude depends a lot on the terrain of the route, but I also consider the forecast winds and ceilings, as well as the distance of the flight. In general, for a flight of two or more hours with similar winds at various altitudes, I prefer to go to about 8000' so I can run the engine at wide open throttle for the lowest fuel burn (lowest BSFC) and higher true airspeeds. This also provides good visibility over distance, a healthy glide distance if the need arises and good VHF radio range.
My flight planning process typically goes as follows:
- Choose destination and target departure time.
- Research destination and enroute airports, airspace and terrain.
- Plan route, alternate(s), altitudes and fuel stops.
- Put together frequency plan.
- Consider contingency plans (what do I do if the engine fails here, what do I do if the ceiling drops here, etc.).
- Book plane, arrange fueling and check weight and balance.
On the night before the flight, assuming an early morning departure, I recheck all the weather (TAFs, GFAs, Environment Canada’s forecast at airports along the way, etc.) and see if my original cruising altitude is still optimal or if it should be adjusted for more favourable winds.
The morning of the flight, again assuming an early morning departure, I recheck the weather as well as any airport or highway webcams I can along the route. This can be useful to put actual imagery with the scene you’ve constructed out of the current METAR or other weather report. I then drive to the airport and begin prepping the plane by pulling it out of the hangar, ordering fuel, doing the walk around, etc.. At this point, I’ll get a weather briefing, file a flight plan (or flight itinerary) and be on my way!