I’ve always been fascinated by flight planning. The idea of planning everything in advance (or almost everything), computing a route on a paper chart (yes, I still use paper charts), plotting the course, measuring the distance between point A and point B and estimating the time of each leg was of great interest to me. Dead reckoning in its purest form. It’s time consuming, but it allows you to get involved in the flight well before the wheels are up. It also acquaints you with the airplane you’re going to use, its performance and specifications.
Before starting the training for my private pilot license, I spent a lot of time preparing for VFR navigation, just for the fun of it. After planning the flight, I would then fly the plan on Flight Simulator in a Skyhawk (I was and still am a FlightSim geek today), or even “chair fly” it. On holidays, when moving with my family to my grandparents’ house in the south of France, I used to spend the 10-hour trip in the back of the car flying the same route (which covers over a thousand kilometers), miming all the actions, the flows and procedures of my imaginary airplane. It involved reading the checklists, communicating with ATC (although I did it silently to avoid annoying my neighbors) and trying not to get lost. All this in real time. No cheating.
In fact, everything went smoothly on these mental flights, like most of the flights we conduct as pilots, although we have to be prepared for whatever could go wrong and always have a plan to deal with it. I didn’t go through things like scenario-based training, where I would have imagined the most catastrophic scenarios that could have happened. I was on time at each turning point, the actual groundspeed value perfectly matching the estimated one. You may say I was already a goal-oriented pilot, willing to accomplish the mission and pressing on to my destination. Even though these flights were of no interest regarding scenario-based training (a concept I didn’t know at that time), it was nevertheless a good way to train for all the mental math associated with cross-country flying. And a lot of fun, too.
After earning my private ticket though, and after some flight hours, I became a little more lazy on flight planning. I would opt for flights that didn’t need too much preparation, flights that I was pretty familiar with. I flew local trips with family and friends, without challenging myself that much. I even felt that the time spent planning flights was wasted, not something I ever imagined I would say back in the days when I found it to be real fun. It became more of a routine and I lost the pleasure of doing it.
Of course I continued to check the weather before launching, as well as NOTAMs and everything that needed to be checked beforehand, but not with the same interest that I had before. This may explain why I chose to cancel some flights that would have been feasable with better weather analysis and better thinking (deviation around the weather, delaying of the takeoff). I was just lazy. At least I wasn’t foolish and didn’t take any unnecessary risks. But after reading about flight planning and proficiency, I knew there was more.
As a young pilot, you have to err on the side of safety, especially because your confidence is building and you’re vulnerable. But in order to increase your confidence and experience, it’s a good thing to explore your limits, to see what you’re capable of doing, always with great safety margins. For example, having a plan to escape bad weather if you decide to launch in marginal VFR. However this plan must be prepared in advance, before you leave the ground.
My opinion is that challenging yourself is a good way to build your confidence and to stay proficient, which is one of the most important things to consider once you’re given the license to learn. It may be leaving the area you’re familiar with to explore long cross-country flights, learning to fly a high performance aircraft or a taildragger, or even taking an upset prevention and recovery training course to sharpen your flying skills and be able to get out of dangerous situations. Generally, exploring the limits of your comfort zone (without busting them) will make you a better pilot, a pilot who knows the risks associated with his activity. Again, you have to know your limits.
Another extension of your license to learn is an instrument rating. I’ve always thought this rating to be a tough one (I don’t think I’m the only one), but also an interesting one. There are so many things involved: staying sharp on instrument scanning, maintaining a constant situational awareness, playing in two systems at the same time (ATC and weather), being exposed to greater risks like icing and thunderstorms… And this is where good flight planning comes into play.
The philosophy is the same, whether you’re VFR or IFR, but I think even more important when IFR. The more you prepare for the flight, the easier it becomes. The goal is to anticipate whatever can be anticipated, so that you can stay two steps ahead of the airplane while in the air. Nowadays pilots are taught a concept called Threat and Error Management, which seems to work pretty well in the airline industry. The concept is to identify the different threats to a particular flight, threats that could result in pilot errors and an undesired aircraft state. An IFR flight exposes the pilot to a lot of threats, which he has to know. He must then be ready to handle them correctly.
I don’t have an instrument rating yet, but after reading some of Richard Collins’s books about the subject, I think I fell in love again with flight planning. The idea of studying the route which you might be given by ATC, the beauty of the airways depicted on Jepp charts, studying terrain and obstacles, analyzing weather systems that may affect your flight and thinking about the different scenarios and strategies to use so as to work efficiently in the system and to guarantee a safe flight outcome. All this really sounds as challenging as it is interesting. There are a lot of books and courses available on the internet, so discovering all the risks and rewards associated with IFR flying should not be a problem for someone who wants to challenge himself and obtain instrument privileges.
Becoming familiar with the way an IFR flight is planned is a good start. It highlights the fact that IFR flight planning is not for lazy pilots and has to be taken seriously. There’s just no routine and no room for any shortcuts, since you may face different types of weather depending on the season or the place where you fly. You may also navigate through different types of airspace, some far more busy than others. And above all, you fly in a more hostile environment than VFR, going in and out of clouds, with all the sensory illusions that may trap even the best pilot. That is serious business, and the more knowledge and prepararion you have, the better.
Getting interested in the IFR system, and how to plan a flight to makes it as efficient and as safe as possible, has surely helped me get out of my laziness and motivate myself to keep on learning new things. Now I really see the value of a good preflight planning and how it can be helpful for the flight to come. I can now improve the way I practice my imaginary flights, by setting up different scenarios and exercises to provide some thrills and prepare myself for the instrument rating. I cannot wait to do it for real!