We all know that filing a flight plan is good insurance, priceless in fact: it (still) doesn’t cost us anything. But there are a few things about flight plans that aren’t so well known. Let’s look at some of them…
YOUR PLACE IN THE WORLD
First, filing a VFR flight plan doesn’t put you any higher in the pecking order of the National Airspace System; it has no direct ATC function. But if your landing becomes “unplanned“, they’ll have somewhere to start looking. That’s the sole reason to file one: it’s the best way to insure that if you don’t get where you’re going, someone will come looking for you. (It’s not illegal to fly any significant distance without one, though perhaps it should be.) The best deal of all is to be instrument-rated and to file an IFR flight plan. Those are input to ATC, are correlated with your radar target, and if you land at any ATC facility, are closed automatically. (A pilot can also close an IFR flight plan at any time while in VMC and outside Class A airspace.)
FINDING THAT PLACE
Here are some numbers to indicate how long you might be sitting out in the woods or the weeds, if it happens to you.
- For IFR flights, the average time from Last Known Position to time of rescue is about half a day.
- With a VFR flight plan, it becomes a day and a half
- With no flight plan you’re looking at almost two days.
VFR Notes: If you’re not instrument rated, you can still benefit from being “in the system” by getting in the habit of requesting “flight following“. Sometimes they might just be too busy, but most of the time it is available for the asking. With flight following, if you go down without a “mayday“, they’ll have a much better idea where to start looking (and you don’t even have to have a VFR flight plan on file to ask for it).
But filing a VFR (or a DVFR) flight plan doesn’t come totally without a price — it is your responsibility to close the flight plan once you’ve gotten where you’re going! This is true for IFR flight plans as well, if you land anywhere that has no ATC services (to expeditiously free up the local airspace for the next person). This all goes double at night, and I’ll explain why.
HOW IT WORKS
Let’s take a flight from Winchester, VA, over to Princeton, NJ. My friend Dudley is a VFR-only pilot. He’s got his route planned, and knows he’ll go through both the Washington DC ADIZ and Philadelphia’s Class B, so he plans to request flight following (aka “VFR Traffic Advisory Service“) so that he can be in constant radar and radio contact. He calls up the Eastern Region Flight Service Station System on 1-800-WX-BRIEF and gets a standard briefing from the Leesburg, VA, FSS specialist (or Elkins WV, or Altoona PA). He then submits his flight plan with a 10:30 AM, EST (1530Z) departure. (In the warmer months, that’d be EDT and 1430Z, but just bear with me here.) He estimates an hour and a half en route, and even remembers to give his brother-in-law’s phone number for Field 17 (destination contact) on his flight plan. The computer at (let’s say) Leesburg puts the flight plan on a proposal list.
If Dudley forgets to open his flight plan by about 1730Z (two hours after his departure time), it gets erased (though it’s retrievable from a history file). Dudley knows however that his flight plan is useless unless activated with his actual time of departure, which he does after he’s climbed out and cleaned up-remember, it’s aviate, navigate, then communicate. He plans to make the call just before talking to Dulles Approach. Let’s say he took off right on schedule. The computer at Leesburg adds the proposed en route time to his actual departure time, and transmits his noontime (1700Z) ETA to the computer at the Millville NJ FSS, which covers Princeton.
WHEN BORING STORIES BECOME INTERESTING
This is a dull tale so far, because Dudley arrives, safe and sound … but … Dudley forgets to cancel his flight plan. (By the way, even if his destination was nearby Trenton, where there is a control tower, that doesn’t mean they’d have any knowledge of his VFR flight plan. Actually, they would not!) What happens now? Well, a half-hour later – ETA+30 minutes, 1730Z – when the FSS computer scans the inbound list, it sends a flashing “I” to the flight service station controller’s screen. (In the Eastern Region, this actually happens at +25 minutes.) If he’d remembered to call in his cancellation, the computer would simply drop the message about his flight from the “inbound list“, and that would be the end of it. But at this point, the Millville FSS controller starts calling around to locate the aircraft, starting with arrival towers (none in this case), then the FBO(s) at his destination, to see if there is any record or recollection of his arrival. They may ask for a ramp check. If this doesn’t turn anything up, a QALQ message (a holdover from the Q-code days of teletype communications) goes back to the Leesburg FSS, meaning, “check the departure point and other likely places.” Now they’re rooting around at both ends of the route.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
Within a half-hour of becoming overdue, (translation: ETA+1 hour – or for IFR flight plans, ETA+30 min), the search is widened by sending an “INREQ” (INformation REQuest) to FSS stations along his route (which is why the route of flight is specified on the flight plan). The FSS will also try in-flight “blind broadcasts” as well as calling towers, Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs), and DUAT vendors. Each station starts scouring its area, calling airports and approach controls.
Note: If no flight plan is filed, there is no designated time before this starts! At night, or when airports are unattended, their managers may be rousted out of bed, or the local police called out, to check the ramp and peek into hangars. (This is one reason why it’s particularly inconvenient and unpropitious to forget to close your VFR flight plan after a nighttime arrival!)
AS TIME GOES BY
An hour later, at ETA + 2 hours (or sooner if all previous inquiries came up negative, the aircraft’s known on-board fuel would be exhausted, or there is serious concern regarding the safety of the aircraft or occupants) the inquiry is further widened by transmission of an ALNOT (ALert NOTice). The ALNOT brings in more FSS’s and triggers additional broadcast announcements on TWEB’s (Transcribed Weather Broadcasts), TIBS (Telephone Information Briefing Service), and other outlets, such as requesting aircraft along the route to monitor 121.5 for an ELT signal. More importantly, the AFRCC (USAF Rescue Coordination Center, Air Combat Command, Air Operations Squadron, Langley Air Force Base, VA) is notified (in the lower 48), and they assume oversight. The AFRCC contacts relatives, friends, and business associates of the pilot or passengers, and determines the pilot’s intentions, flying capabilities, emergency equipment that may be onboard, and other information that might help if a search becomes necessary. They may start calling out police, military, or CAP (Civil Air Patrol) units at this time. Also, 10 minutes after the ALNOT, the RCC at Langley is called to assure receipt.
Tools: One very useful and crucial capability that all ARTCCs have is the capability to recall recorded radar data. The National Track Analysis Program (NTAP) can identify and track targets which are at a sufficient altitude to be tracked by radar whether or not they are being “controlled” by the ARTCC. (There is also a lower-level TRACON counterpart known as CDR data.) NTAPs requested by the AFRCC have proven to be very helpful during an aircraft search by providing the route of flight and last radar position of an aircraft for which a search is being conducted.
WHEN THEY COME LOOKING
If the ALNOT doesn’t turn up anything, or at ETA + 3 hours (one hour past ALNOT issuance), whichever comes first, then an actual search mission is launched. Langley AFB is contacted, again. The search wouldn’t start until daylight, unless there is a functioning ELT signal for a ground rescue party to use. If the weather permits, air rescue is dispatched to the distress location. Even with an ELT, terrain and weather may hinder response time.
The average time required finding a downed aircraft with a functioning ELT is about seven hours; without an ELT, this becomes over 40 hours.
The vast majority of the time, the aircraft is usually located safe and sound somewhere during this escalation process – usually, the pilot just forgot to cancel and didn’t realize how much effort would be expended on his behalf. What happens to the pilot? Nothing! (However, FAR Parts 91.153(b) and 91.169(d) do include the statement “when a flight plan has been activated, the pilot-in-command, upon canceling or completing the flight under the flight plan, shall notify an FAA Flight Service Station or ATC facility.” If there were fines or certificate actions associated with pilot miscues, pilots wouldn’t use the service; so Flight Service continues to call, even in the wee hours, to make sure that if you don’t show up, someone comes looking.
BOTTOM LINE: These procedures are not entirely dependent on flight plans — any report that an aircraft is missing or overdue will trigger the same communications and physical search process. If there really was an accident, it’s worth it. But forgetfulness can also result in a great deal of time, money, and worry spent. Here are a few simple things to remember to help keep our airspace working as efficiently as possible:
- File a flight plan on all cross-country flights.
- Remember to close your flight plan – and do so no later than 30 minutes after arrival.
- Ensure that your ELT is operational.
- File only to the point of first intended landing, and re-file for any subsequent leg.
- If your ETE changes by 30 minutes or more, report a new ETA to the nearest FSS.
- If you land at a location other than the intended destination, report that to Flight Service.
…And if you choose not to file, make sure someone knows where you’re going, when you’re expected, and whom to call if you don’t show.