When Should You
Begin Planning Your Flight?

That's the question I'm often asked: When should flight planning begin?

My answer is, “Well, it all depends.” Of course, that's a real helpful, straight, and direct answer for you! What I teach my students is “When you begin your flight planning is dependent on the type of flight you’re contemplating.” If it will be a cross-country flight, then I would urge that, when possible, your planning should begin about a week prior to your scheduled departure. If it is simply a local refresher flight, possibly to include a battery of takeoffs and landings, then I would argue that it’s sufficient to begin planning the night before, or even the day you head to the airport.

Let’s focus first on the “week’s worth of planning” that I am proposing before a cross-country flight. Those first 6 day’s “planning” primarily involves watching weather patterns developing across the route of flight, i.e. being aware of the big picture of frontal movements in order to help you 1.) understand the type of weather you’ll hear about during your briefing, and 2.) give you insight about why the weather you’ll encounter developed so you can anticipate how it may continue to change. Your choice of the actual route of flight will usually be reserved for within 6 hours before departure, once the weather has been studied – and based on a “go” decision.

As I said, in the case of the local refresher flying, I’m quite comfortable if I only concerned myself with seeking out the forecast the evening before my flight.

An integral part of the flight planning process is the physical format of the plan. With respect to the cross-country flight, every pilot’s preparations, beyond understanding the weather, should include obtaining and studying all sectional charts, and if flying IFR is an option for your flight, all of the low altitude enroute charts and the relevant instrument approach plates.

When you map out your routes, frequencies should be listed so they are easy to read in flight. A flight nav log should be prepared based on your chosen course. And naturally, you’ll comply with the FARs and consider alternates (Remember FAR §91.103: Preflight planning?).

Your fuel burn should be calculated after you get your final weather briefing prior to departure so that you’ll be using the most current winds aloft forecast. That ensures you’ll account for any negative aspects of headwinds as accurately as possible. Then, flight time should be determined and a decision made about the need for fuel stops.

So is that the extent of the planning? As far as I’m concerned, you’re not quite ready to go! I recommend pilots engage in one more planning activity on the day or night before any flying: It’s the mental planning – what I call the visualization of the flying itself. After studying the charts and the approach plates, I actually visualize the terrain I will be crossing, that is the geography of the surface that will be passing below me. I picture what any airports that I will be flying near or over may look like, a task made much easier now due to the abundance of satellite and aerial photographs available online. Finally, with respect to the flight itself, I visualize myself preflighting, talking to ground or tower control, taxiing, and finally the takeoff and landing. This helps me get my brain focused on the tasks I know will be necessary, and it helps build my confidence so that I will feel like I am ready to fly.

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Article by: Robert "Bob" Chase