When Must You File a Flight Plan?

Before getting to grips with the time scale involved in filing a flight plan and knowing when you should do it, it’s important to understand why you need to file one, it is important to understand what a flight plan is.

Flight plans are the documents that pilots, or the air dispatchers at the company or airline that they fly for, send to national and international Air Navigation Service Providers to let them know the route or flight path that a flight intends to follow. 

The information that a flight plan needs to incorporate, includes the departure point that an aircraft is going to leave from, the flight path or route that it, going to take, any stops the aircraft might need to make on its journey, the total estimated flight time and its final destination.

Additional information such as the type of aircraft, the number of passengers on board, and any alternate airports that the pilot might need to divert to should bad weather or mechanical failure become an issue while an airplane is in flight.

Flight plans can be submitted up to one hundred and twenty days before a flight is scheduled to take place, but if they are, they may need to be amended to take any meteorological developments into account.

Generally speaking though, if a flight is scheduled to follow any already established route, the flight plan can be submitted a couple of hours before, during final pre-flight checks, or even after the aircraft has taken off. When and where a flight plan is submitted to the relevant authorities, which in the USA is the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority), isn’t as important as making sure that a flight plan is actually filed.

Do Pilots Have To File A Flight Plan?

That depends entirely on what type of flight that the aircraft and pilots in question are going to make. Generally speaking, civilian aviation is categorized by two types of flights, VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and while it is recommended that flight plans are submitted for both, legally they only need to be submitted for the latter.

Visual Flight Rules (VFR) govern aircraft that fly in weather that’s clear enough for the pilots who are flying the airplane to be able to see for at least five miles and are dependent on the airplane being flown in visual meteorological conditions.

For a VFR flight, the pilot must be able to fly the airplane having a visual reference to the ground and must be able to easily avoid any obstacles and other aircraft. Providing those conditions can be, and are, met the pilot does not have to file a flight plan.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) are flights that are governed by the usage of the instruments on the airplanes flight deck and in which navigation is reliant on both electronic signals and the instruments and are used when visual navigation and reference can’t be.

All civilian airlines abide by IFR rules and the pilots who are employed by and fly for them have to file flight plans with the relevant authorities either before, or shortly after take-off.

Do Private Pilots Have To File A Flight Plan?

Private pilots, as long as they’re flying civilian aircraft that are not registered as belonging to any government or don’t fall under a military designation, are legally bound by the same rules that all civilian aviation is. If they are flying using VFR rules, then they don’t have to file a flight plan with the relevant authorities providing the weather conditions are safe for them to fly using visual reference only.

However, if the weather conditions meant that the airplane has to be flown using IFR conditions and a private pilot has to abide by those regulations, then legally they are required to file a flight plan.

Even if a private pilot is the only occupant of the aircraft while it’s being flown, whether or not they have to file a flight plan with the FAA if the meteorological conditions or other factors necessitate it. Civilian aviation law, and its requirements, are the same regardless of the status of a pilot.

How Do I Fill Out A Flight Plan?

All pilots are taught and must learn how to file a flight plan before they’re given a license to fly an airplane. Flight plans are structured so that a pilot cannot, and should not, submit an incomplete plan. Most flight plans are designed to be filled out by hand and use letter abbreviations to cover every aspect of the flight.

Before they can fill out a flight plan, a pilot must have a working knowledge of the aircraft that they are flying, as the type, make, model, and registration of the aircraft must be included in the details of the flight plan. Every flight plan includes a section where the pilot needs to indicate whether the flight is going to be governed by VFR or IFR regulations and must abide by them.

Any flight plan being submitted must also include the intended cruising speed of the flight, the number of passengers that the flight has on board, any specialist equipment or cargo that is being carried on the airplane as well as the estimated time of the flight, where it’s departing from and which airport it is going to arrive at.

The flight plan, once completed is then traditionally submitted by hand to the control tower of the airport that the flight is due to depart from. However, it is now possible for pilots to submit a flight plan online, and by doing so the flight plan is automatically (and digitally) delivered to the tower of the airport that the pilot and aircraft are departing from and the relevant aviation authorities who have controlling jurisdiction over the airspace that the flight will be passing through at every stage of its journey.

How Do I Get an IFR Flight Plan?

IFR flight plans can either be submitted online and providing a pilot has the required qualifications to do so, they can use a number of different software programs to submit the paperwork. If they are intending to submit a flight plan online, they’ll need to be registered with the aviation governing bodies and ensure that their license details are up to date in order to do so.

The paperwork that they need to submit, if they’re intending to do so by hand, to file a flight plan can either be obtained and will be provided by, the pilot’s employer (if they’re flying for a registered company) or from the tower of the airport (who it must be returned to when it's completed) that they are intending to fly from.

As IFR flight plans can be submitted up to one hundred and twenty days in advance of a flight being undertaken, the majority of airlines use this option to file their paperwork electronically.

How Do I Plan A VFR Flight?

Even though it isn’t legally necessary, it’s still recommended that pilots file a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) plan before departure. The easiest way to plan a VFR flight is with any number of different software or online resources (Rocket Route is one of the most widely used and popular) that make it easy for pilots to stay abreast of, and keep up to date with, any meteorological information that might impede their proposed VFR flight.

If they’re not intending to use any of the software or digital resources available, as well as planning their route and working out their cruising altitude and airspeed to determine how much fuel they’ll use, pilots, must undergo a weather briefing or be aware of any weather conditions that might hamper their ability to fly using VFR regulations instead of IFR.

Is A Flight Plan Required For VFR?

VFR, or Visual Flight Rules, do not legally require, under FAA guidelines, a pilot to file a flight plan before they embark on their proposed flight.

VFR flights are flown under very strict conditions in which a pilot must be aware of their aircraft’s position in relation to the ground at all times, and must have a minimum visual distance of five miles which provides the pilot with the necessary time to avoid any obstacles or other aircraft that they might encounter while flying. 

As such it is generally left up to the pilot’s judgment about whether or not they need to submit a flight plan.

Having said that, most pilots will file a flight plan at the same time as they are planning their VFR flight and route in order to make sure that they are fully compliant with FAA regulations in case anything goes wrong or any misfortune befalls them while they are following their chosen route.

What Are The Different Types Of Flight Plans?

There are five different types of flight plans, all of which govern every aspect of aviation. As well as the previously mentioned VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), the third (of the five) type of flight plan that governs civilian aviation is an International Flight Plan. While it falls under a similar category as an IFR flight plan, as it involves leaving and entering the airspace of different aviation authorities, it is more complicated and involved and is usually filed in advance of the flight being undertaken.

The remaining types of flight plans are both military and are usually only taught to pilots who are serving with the armed forces. The first is a Defense VFR (Visual Flight Rules) plan which is filed with the relevant military aviation authority and is filed in the same way that a civilian plan would be and the second, and last type of flight plan is a Composite Plan. This is a combination IFR and VFR plan and is usually used, and filed by, military pilots for long-range missions and flights.