Closing a flight plan might not be the first thing on your mind when you’ve safely landed at whichever airport or aerodrome you’ve flown into, but if you don’t close your flight plan the consequences can be catastrophic.
If a flight plan isn’t closed properly, the first thing that any ATC (Air Traffic Control) assumes is that you’re either missing or that your aircraft has gone down or disappeared somewhere between your point of departure and your eventual destination.
And if an ATC thinks you’re missing? Their initial response involves hitting the panic button and summoning all of the relevant search and rescue agencies and groups to help to find you or, in their minds at least, what’s left of you and your aircraft.
If you’re beginning to worry that you don’t actually know what closing a flight plan means and don’t know how to do it, don’t be.
It simply means that you need to contact the local ATC to let them know that you’ve arrived safely at your destination so that they know you have and can then “close” your flight plan and record it as having been successfully completed.
ATC will automatically close any IFR flight plans as soon as they know that an aircraft has arrived, and it’s standard procedure for them to do so when a civilian airliner has confirmed that it has landed and taxied to the gate that has been assigned to it.
This means that for most pilots who have filed a flight plan, closing it is a formality that’s taken care of by ATC and something that they don’t even have to think or worry about.
How Long Do You Have To Close A VFR Flight Plan?
While it isn’t legally necessary to file a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight plan almost every flight instructor tries to stress the importance of doing so to their students, so that it becomes a force of habit when they qualify as private pilots.
Procedure dictates that any VFR flight plan that’s been activated (which means that a flight hasn’t cancelled said flight plan before taking off, so ATC has assumed that it is going ahead) must be closed within thirty minutes of the logged arrival time. If it isn’t, ATC goes into panic mode and all hell breaks loose, even if you’ve landed.
If the ATC at your arrival point doesn't know that you’re actually there, they’ll assume that you’re missing and will dispatch search and rescue to try and find you. This is why it’s important to close your flight plan when you do arrive.
If you don’t, LEIDOS (who are responsible for monitoring all VFR flight plans in all forty-eight of the lower states) alerts ATC to your flight plan twenty minutes after your arrival time, and thirty minutes after your arrival time, they’ll sound the alarm bells. So it’s up to you to make sure that your VFR flight plan is closed within thirty minutes of arrival.
How Long Is An IFR Flight Plan Good For?
While you can file an IFR flight plan up to one hundred and twenty days ahead of a scheduled departure (which was instituted for airlines and international and long-haul flights), most IFR flight plans are filed at most twenty-four hours before departure but can be filed any time up to the point that a flight is scheduled to occur.
Unless they’re cancelled in advance, which can be instituted by the pilot, the airline or the company that the flight is being made for, before the scheduled departure time, then an IFR flight plan stays in the system until two hours after the scheduled ETD (Estimated Time of Departure), and is regarded as being active and in place.
Because of the way the system works and has been designed to work to accommodate the volume of air traffic in the sky if you do need to cancel a flight plan, it’s important to do so promptly and as quickly and efficiently as humanly possible.
All air traffic with US airspace is constantly monitored, and all flight plans are recorded so that ATC and the FAA are always aware of who is travelling by air, and when they’re flying.
Who is Responsible for Closing a VFR Flight Plan?
Even though ATC can close a flight plan upon your arrival providing that you let them know that you’ve landed safely and provide them with your call sign and all the relevant information that they need to do so, the rules and regulations concerning who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that a flight plan is closed, whether that flight plan is IFR or VFR, all state the same thing.
It is a pilots responsibility to ensure that their VFR flight plan is closed and that local ATC is aware that the flight has landed safely within thirty minutes of them arriving at their destination.