As your logbook starts to fill up and you gain experience as a pilot, you’ll soon develop a personal routine for how you plan a flight and check the weather. The foundation for this begins with the all-encompassing FAR 91.103, which states that you must become familiar with all available information concerning the flight.
This regulation lists out just a few requirements, mentioning you have to always check the length of available runways and perform takeoff/landing distance calculations. For flights not in the vicinity of the airport, you must also look at weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements and alternate airport options. This should all be common sense, and it gives you lots of flexibility as the pilot on how to source the data.
On the weather briefing front, you’ll find it helpful to use the Lockheed Martin Flight Service (LMFS) weather briefing utility. You can access this free service directly at 1800wxbrief.com, or use the same LMFS weather briefing functionality in compatible iPad apps, like ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot. The big benefit here, especially when starting out as a student pilot, is that the standard weather briefing is presented in a structured format and helps ensure you don’t miss an essential report or forecast.
The alternative to the Flight Service weather briefing is to do a self weather briefing, relying on data from websites like aviationweather.gov and reports/forecasts integrated right into your favorite iPad app. This method is just as “legal” as using the LMFS briefing tool, but may be more convenient depending on your preflight routine.
When it comes to flight planning, most pilots use the same iPad app to research runways, airport info, airspace, and all other important information needed to plan the flight. The real benefit here is that all the data is nicely organized in one location and can be kept up to date with the tap of a button.
There are some pitfalls to be aware of though when using an iPad for both weather and flight planning. This is in part because we’re currently in a state of transition, where the iPad apps are taking data, charts and books intended for print media and displaying them digitally on the screen. For example Sectionals and TACs are displayed right in the Maps section of the app, but you have to go to the Documents section in ForeFlight to view VFR Flyway charts and Class B graphics. In paper form the VFR Flyway charts are printed right on the back of the TAC charts.
Eventually this will evolve into a system where FAA and Aeronav provide the source of the data directly to app developers, allowing them to better organize and display this information. For now though you have to have a good working knowledge of the resources available, and where to hunt them down in the app when planning a flight to a new airport.
With this in mind, here are some tips to consider when planning your next flight on the iPad, including how to avoid a few potential traps, enhance your weather briefing and how to get the most out the new app technology.
1) Don’t overlook the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD)
Yes, I know it is now called the “Chart Supplement”, but that change is so new that most still refer to it as the A/FD. Prior to the iPad you’d find this little green book in every pilot’s flight bag, and it contains just about everything you need to know about an airport.
Today most student pilots will probably never put their hands on the “little green book”, instead relying on an iPad app (which is a good thing) for airport information. The problem is that while most of the mainstream aviation apps include the A/FD in the Airports section of the app, it’s often lost in the mix because of all the other airport data shown on these screens. It’s very easy to pull up the airport page, see the high-level info like runway numbers, frequencies and airport elevation, and move on.
It’s critical though you check out the A/FD before every flight to a new airport, as this is one of the only places you’ll find key details like the preferred calm wind runway, displaced threshold distance, runway slope, PAPI/VASI approach angle (it’s not always 3°), Approach/Center frequencies for flight following, notes on features unique to that airport and environment and noise abatement procedures.
The A/FD book also contains several hundred pages of supplemental information, which is typically located in a separate section of the app. In ForeFlight you’ll find this in the Documents tab–tap the Catalog button at the top right, and select the FAA option from the list to view each region.
2.) Contextual NOTAMs
While the A/FDs ended up being a victim of the paper to digital transition (though hopefully it’s just for the short term), we’re starting to gain new benefits from apps displaying other information in more meaningful terms. A good example of this is NOTAMs.
When getting a computer weather briefing prior to the iPad, NOTAMs were presented in a long list and were tough to decipher out of context, making it common for them to be overlooked. Today’s apps are presenting key NOTAMs in places you’re less likely to miss them, and some show directly on the maps in relation to your flight plan route.
ForeFlight for example displays airport NOTAMs directly on the airport diagram in a red box at the top, making them difficult to miss. Most apps also offer a TFR overlay option on the main map screen, to help you visualize flight restrictions relative to your flight path. ForeFlight and Garmin go a step further and depict stadium TFRs for large sporting events right on the map–useful too if you want to see when your favorite MLB team will be back in town for a home game.
Here’s another example of a compromise that had to be made moving the VFR paper charts to iPad. The Terminal Area Chart (TAC) contains a more detailed view of the areas surrounding the major Class B airports. Printed on the back is a VFR Flyway chart to help VFR pilots choose a route that avoids both the airspace and major controlled traffic flows.
While most apps will automatically switch over to show the TAC when zooming in to the airspace surrounding Class B airports, it’s not really practical to show the Flyway chart here too. Instead you’ll have to again head over to the Documents section of ForeFlight to download both the Flyway chart and Class B enhancement graphics and reference them there.
Active times, altitudes and ATC frequencies for Special Use Airspace (MOAs, Restricted Areas, etc.) are printed around the edges and bottom of the paper sectional charts. These are removed on the Sectional overlay in most apps to provide a seamless map view for the entire country. To view this extra information in ForeFlight, tap the Settings button at the top of the Maps page (gear-shaped button), select Map Touch Action, and enable “Bring chart to front with legends”. Now tap one of the sectionals on the moving map and you’ll see this supplement info presented around the chart.
You can also view details for Special Use Airspace in ForeFlight by holding your finger down on the chart over an MOA, Restricted, Prohibited or Alert area, and select “All” from the bottom row of buttons. This will highlight the airspace and show altitudes, active times and ATC frequencies.
This next tip allows you to take advantage of some of the advanced weather imagery featured in today’s iPad apps to supplement your traditional weather briefing. While the standard weather briefing from Flight Service provides a comprehensive overview of the weather for your flight, there are some new products available from the National Weather Service that aren’t currently included in the briefing.
Head over to the Imagery section in ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot and you’ll find a wealth of helpful weather data source from the Aviation Weather Center. These will give you a little more insight into the development of thunderstorms for the day, intensity of turbulence at each altitude and detailed icing forecasts (for IFR pilots). You’ll also find precipitation forecast products that look out to a week ahead for long range planning.
Starting October 2016 you’ll need to start filing your VFR flight plans using the International (ICAO) flight plan format. This won’t change things too much for you if you’re already using an iPad app to file with Flight Service, but you will need to set up some additional information in the app about how your airplane is equipped (check out this article for information on how to do it: How to file ICAO flight plans on your iPad).
Once you have your aircraft profile set up, you then just need to select “ICAO” instead of “FAA/Domestic” for the flight plan type in the File/Brief section of the app, and everything else will be handled behind the scenes and work the same as it does now. Remember too you can also open and close VFR Flight Plans right from ForeFlight, eliminating the need to call Flight Service after you land.
6.) Research recent ATC cleared routing
Pilots working on their instrument rating can take advantage of some helpful information found in today’s iPad apps when planning a route between unfamiliar airports. In ForeFlight, after entering the Departure and Destination airports in the route editor, tap the Routes button at the right of the screen. In Garmin Pilot, tap the Routing button next to the Waypoint field in the Flight Plan section of the app.
I’ve found that using this system to choose a route saves a lot of hassle and confusion in the cockpit when it comes time to get your clearance, since there’s a pretty good chance you’ll actually get this route and be fully prepared for setting it up in your GPS and on your iPad.