Monday, October 11, 2010

Flight Planning Process

I just recently had someone who was about to get their biennial flight review (BFR) ask me how I typically go about planning a flight. Here's what I wrote which is pretty typical of the method and resources I use. Open to suggestions!

To loosely figure out where I want to go, airports, distance, route (VORs, airways, direct, etc), and airspace I should be aware of, I use RunwayFinder: (edit - 12/17/2010 - as of this edit RunwayFinder is shutdown due to a lawsuit from FlightPrep, SkyVector has paid the ransom and is still available)

Once I know the destination and alternates, I look at Airnav and AOPA's Airport Directory. I'll usually print out the kneeboard version of AOPAs directory listing for that airport:

Then, I’ll use or FlightAware to figure out typical routes used (if going IFR):

Finally, I’ll use AOPA’s flight planner to print a Navigation Log and to file my flight plan via DUAT:

For weather, I usually use the following in roughly this order

Big picture weather: (Video with the talking head is actually helpful to watch) (I love the individual "free-form" forecasts)

Route weather (TAFs, etc):

Official briefing weather:

Lastly, right before flight I’ll usually called 1800WXBRIEF for an abbreviated briefing where I will ask them for any TFRs that may exist along my route.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Into the FReeZe

View of National Harbor - Washington, D.C.

I recently had the need to travel to Washington DC for business, which provided a great opportunity to try out my double secret password to get into some of the most restrictive airspace in the United States, the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), AKA the Freeze. For the uninitiated, just to fly into the less restrictive Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) a pilot needs to take and pass an online course, and carry the subsequent certificate on his or her person as proof of passing. In addition, if you are arriving VFR, there is a special flight plan you need to file with ATC in addition to your VFR flight plan if you are going to file one. If you are IFR, you need to call a specific FSS which I talk about below.

In the case of wanting to land at the three general aviation airports that lie within the FRZ, known as the Maryland Three or DC3, a pilot must get a background check and be fingerprinted and interviewed by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). At the end of that "experience" the pilot then receives a unique pin code to be able to file special FRZ flight plans. I wrote about this escapade here, in case you are interested in the process of obtaining your own decoder ring. In addition, here is the official TSA link for the process, just scroll down to Maryland Three.

This being my first time flying into airspace known for sicing Blackhawks on you for any and all transgressions or mistakes, I was a bit nervous. In addition, I was unsure of how I should plan my flight as I was pretty certain, I would not be able to file direct to my destination which was Potomac Airfield, just south of the White House. As part of my information gathering, I posted a question of how to file to this airport on the AOPA message board, looked for previous flight plans on and, and finally called David Wartofsky, the big cheese himself and owner of Potomac Airfield (VKX).

Seven Springs ski resort, note the resort airport middle left of the photo, unfortunately now closed permanently

The guys on the AOPA message board were very helpful. The most helpful suggestion was to call Potomac Approach and run your proposed flight plan by them. I gave this a shot and it worked out pretty well. They certainly do not have much time to spend on the phone with you but they were friendly and verified that my idea of linking VORs down the west side of the of the SFRA and then getting vectored to VKX would work for them. I found the phone number here, but I would only recommend calling them if you really need to as they do seem pretty busy.

My call with Mr. Wartofsky was the most helpful, and entertaining, however. Essentially the call was chock full of great information, as well as the occasional joke and jab at the official powers that be that effectively shut down his airport after 9/11. David worked incredibly hard to get the DC3 "pilot vetting" procedure we now use to get our passcodes to fly into the FRZ. I've included my notes from this conversation at the bottom of this post.

at 7,000' Over Dulles International, taken on the return flight

After gathering my information, and making sure I had just about every chart and plate conceivable for the area, I called the special Flight Service Station number for filing FRZ flight plans, 866-225-7410. The verbiage on this from the College Park website emphasizes this clearly as: "You must file your FRZ flight plan with the Lockheed Martin Washington Hub (which currently comprises briefers in Raleigh, NC and Leesburg, VA.) Dial their direct number at 866-225-7410. Do NOT use the national 800-WX-BRIEF number, do NOT use DUATs, and do NOT try to file in the air, or you will NOT pass Go!".

I called the night before of my trip and the briefer I got calling this number was one of the most friendly and reassuring briefers I've ever talked to. He walked me through the process of filing the FRZ plan and also answered questions I had regarding the flying portion. One tip, you will receive your pin code through one of the Maryland Three airports. Make sure you tell the briefer which airport it is if it is different than the one you are going to. Since I had my pin through College Park, he was not able to find my pin immediately because he had assumed I had received it through Potomac. Once I told him, he found it not problem. Soon I had my plan in the system and I was ready to go from that standpoint.

I took off right about my filed time in the morning. The actual flying portion of this trip was pretty uneventful. I followed my route hitting my VORs as planned. Then over the Casanova VOR, ATC turned me east and started vectoring me. I was pretty clear that the controller wanted to get me due south of VKX and then turn me directly North so I would be in the FRZ for the shortest amount of time. Soon I crossed the magic line and about 2 miles south of VKX, as David said would happen, she told me to keep my squawk all the way to the ground and switch over to advisory. I used Potomac's SuperAWOS to get the field update and was soon on the ground. I called a taxi from the airport and was at my meeting in DC in no time.

The return flight was a similar route. ATC made sure I was not unduly vectored around which was nice. I was sent over Dulles and started to encounter some IMC at 7,000. I had filed for 8,000 but they wanted me at 7 so I bounced around in the clouds for a bit until he cleared me for higher. The rest of the flight was in beautiful weather, but the headwinds made for slow going back over the mountains. Soon I was in familiar territory and talking to Pittsburgh Approach. On the ground I celebrated another first! It was very easy to file my FRZ flight plan, and going IFR makes the whole process of getting into DC much simpler. The Maryland Three are great little airports and the access to our nation's capital is second to none. In addition, the vetting process is really not that bad, I encourage any pilot interested in going to DC to give it a shot. I'm looking forward to my next trip back!

Call notes with David Wartofsky
  • For operations in the DC FRZ pilots must call Flight Service at 866-225-7410 to file a DC FRZ flight plan.
  • Tell them you need an FRZ flight plan and will be IFR. Specify the time you will be expected to arrive at the SFRA. If coming in VFR, specify the gate.
  • The flight plan is then authenticate and passed on to controlling agencies 30 minutes before you arrive at the SFRA and will be active 2 hours after.
  • ATC will likely route you around Andrew or DCA.
  • Once inside the SFRA, before you enter the FRZ, check in with ATC by saying "N1235 proceeding inbound to VKX on a FRZ flight plan"
  • Once close to field say three things:
    • 1) "I have the field in sight"
    • 2) "will maintain squawk to the gound"
    • 3) "switching to unicom"
  • If you have to go missed, or just need to go around, switch back to controlling frequency.
  • Once on the ground, park at the second row near the fuel island