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There’s no substitute for thorough planning - or so say consultants when preparing a business to launch. The same idea applies though to a corporate pilot preparing to launch on a business flight. But while the considerations can be thought of as constants – fuel- weather- route- weight- balance and more – the tools available have changed considerably thanks to the advances of modern digital technology- computers and the Internet. ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st January 2008
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has...
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Planning Ahead:
Pre-flight prep prevents potential problems

There’s no substitute for thorough planning - or so say consultants when preparing a business to launch. The same idea applies though to a corporate pilot preparing to launch on a business flight. But while the considerations can be thought of as constants – fuel- weather- route- weight- balance and more – the tools available have changed considerably thanks to the advances of modern digital technology- computers and the Internet.

Modern business aircraft provide flight crews with a degree of capabilities and information access unprecedented in the history of flight. Beyond the cockpit systems themselves- pilots increasingly embrace the Electronic Flight Bag- or EFB- as an alternative to the weighty collection of paper charts and plates traditionally transported in the pro pilot’s most ubiquitous accessory – the venerable chart bag.

To maintain his “look” of an aircraft commander- one professional pilot in my acquaintance still employs his chart bag- a road-worn piece of leather luggage adorned with the graphic record of a lifetime on flight decks: stickers – the adhesive pop-art mementoes of past jobs- past trips and memorable locales: the caricatured sticker for Boeing’s ubiquitous 737; another for the 757; a Lockheed L10-11; and an assortment of military aircraft along with those commemorating mission deployments.

The newest decorations are a nod to his latest career change – stickers for the new large-cabin business jet he commands since turning 60. “It’s like my graphic resume- a scrapbook of a life in aviation-” he said- proudly noting the Smiling Bear of the Yellow Piper Cub sticker just below the embossed letters of his name. “I don’t really need the bag anymore; I’ve got an EFB- but couldn’t really give it up.” Now- in place of those piles of paper from Jeppesen and NOS- this captain’s chart bag carries the changes of clothes he needs – right alongside his company-issued EFB.

In this job- he told me- pilots need access to all the same tools of the trade – en route charts- approach plates- facilities directories… all the usual flight-planning materials. No more does a dispatch department hand him his day pre-planned and plotted. Our corporate captain handles his own pre-flight preparation – flight planning- fueling- routing- alternates- everything.

The human act of planning and preparation remains the main aspect of piloting unaltered by aviation’s gravitation to digital offices. Tool types notwithstanding- noted the captain- “We still need to know and use all available tools to prepare for the safest- smoothest flight.”

Regrettably- a small percentage of aviators admit to occasionally facing a moment of reckoning – avoidable reckoning- they admit - had they planned better before departure and used the FMS-provided free time to stay ahead of changing conditions. “Kicking the tires and lighting the fires doesn’t even pass the Dim Bulb test-” said a flight instructor who focuses on jets for a professional training company.

Beyond departure- monitoring and using a wealth of available in-flight information makes it possible to stay more up to date and able to make a new decision.

Indeed- even some of those who adhere to a pre-flight planning routine concede that things still get occasionally interesting because of developments unknown to them at departure – but later available to learn through any number of channels. So we’ll take a look at elements of pre-flight planning for today’s flight environment – from fuel considerations to weather- airport facilities to TFRs.

We plan before we pilot
Aviation theoretically makes possible that best of all route plans – an arced “straight” line known as the Great Circle route- offering the shortest distance between two points. So how complicated can this be?

Navigation planning usually takes on more than the simple Point A to Point B idea implies- and navigating is but one of many elements in planning a flight. As any seasoned pilot knows- a host of other factors come into play- in route planning and outside. Distance- payload and fuel often work as a group. Balancing the aircraft’s load for the trip is also inextricably entangled with payload and fuel.

Weather enlightenment involves tracking the route and conditions upwind a distance equal to the time required for the flight at the time of the flight – looking ahead by a couple of days. And finally- airport options should be a point of interest. We’ll spend a few words on each element and some of the considerations surrounding those elements.

Fired up- ready to fly
Route planning indoctrination starts early in pilot training- changes to a more-fused form in instrument training- but isn’t a factor in training for advanced ratings such as Commercial or Air Transport. Nonetheless- route planning remains essential to maximize the potential for a glitch-free flight.

Modern tools make flight planning easier than ever – and marriage of state-of-the-art flight-planning software with computers and EFBs provide the savvy aviator with more and better tools than ever envisioned when Hipparchus first attempted to define map locations for the world via a grid of Latitude and Longitude. But in the view of some pilots and laymen- what more route planning is needed beyond firing up the trusty GPS navigator- designate the origin and destination and push the button for “Direct”? Then- give ATC your plan – loaded- locked and ready to launch.

Oh- that things should actually work that way all the time. In reality- a host of airspace factors may dictate something other than direct.

First- there is restricted airspace- much of it Military Operations Areas- or MOAs- mostly below 18-000 feet – but not all – with some areas reaching up to infinity. ATC may approve a route penetrating some of these MOAs- depending on whether it’s hot – or active – at the time of your passing; ATC may steer you around – and you may well want to steer around… live fire happens in some of these.

As for Restricted and Prohibited Areas- well- the former can be transited but not the latter – and if ATC doesn’t steer the pilot around- it’s the pilot who will take the bust.

More troubling are TFRs – Temporary Flight Restrictions. These have become bigger- more numerous- more frequent and- in many instances- more ridiculous. Nonetheless- the pilot generally must go around them or risk an armed aerial escort commanding your landing at some place convenient to those law enforcement officers who will meet the plane on the ground. There is a mechanism for penetrating an active TFR; we just don’t hear much about getting permission since TFRs typically also close the airports under its footprint.

Finally- there’s just getting from Point A to Class B or other positive control areas. “Direct” may apply to a portion of the trip- but seldom applies to an entire trip. O&D flying – “Origin and Destination” – is almost never direct when using Class B- or “Bravo” airports anchoring the nation’s busiest airspace blocks – those chunks of airspace that are Class Bravo – or the silo-shaped cylinders of Charlie and Delta airspace. Instead- we get to use the airspace equivalent of on ramps and off ramps- the “SID-” or Standard Instrument Departure- outbound and the “STAR-” or Standard Terminal Arrival Route- inbound.

These sometimes lengthy pipelines channel thousands of flights in and out of the nation’s most-crowded skies for safety- efficiency and flow management. So planning on using the designated SID or STAR will have to work.

Gas to go
According to the old saying of veteran aviators- a pilot’s worst nightmare is running out of airspeed- altitude and ideas all at the same time. Too many times each year- pilots face this situation because they run short of fuel – a mistake too often traceable to decisions made before departure.

Although business aviation lacks a reputation for extravagance- we aren’t hearing about frugality taken to the extent some airline pilots say of their employers. The pilots and FAA data point out a dramatic increase in the incidence of pilots declaring low fuel while inbound to a New York City area airport. Incidents increased by several hundred percent – as have actual declarations of a fuel emergency.

The claimed cause: airlines dispatching some aircraft carrying less fuel than circumstances warrant. Flying fuel costs money- in Jet A burned- climb performance and speed early in the leg. So some airline pilots on these routes are trying to work around this with fuel loads that match standard flight calculations plus enough to handle the lengthier delays of recent times. Their reasoning: when delays start to result in holds and route extensions- some flights find themselves uncomfortably low on fuel awaiting their turn to land.

Business aviation generally employs more performance-based fuel planning- with a standard fudge factor created to provide an ample margin for arrival problems at the destination airport.

This long-standing standard in business aviation goes by the moniker of “NBAA IFR Reserves”. Using this guide takes into account the standard elements of a flight – starting with basic elements of a flight- engine start- waiting for ground clearance to taxi- taxiing time- departure-clearance wait time and encompassing the actual departure- climb- en route- descent- landing- and taxi in.

Above and beyond this fuel calculation- the NBAA IFR standard adds time for a missed approach- a hold- a diversion 100 miles to another airport- plus another hold and another approach. While the added weight of the added fuel does impose a cost in fuel burned compared to that consumed at a lower fuel weight- it’s a relatively small cost for most business jets – and cheap insurance against unforeseen circumstances conspiring to let the engines go quiet.

Which reminds us of another old pilot’s line: What are the three most-useless items for a pilot? Runway behind him- air above him and fuel still in the truck.

The Balancing Act
With fuel decisions partly settled- we need to look at the mission payload requirements to conclude the issue. Can we carry what we need as well as the fuel needed? Maybe we’ll need to carry less fuel and build in a stop? Or carry the fuel and leave someone or something behind?

Actually- the calculation can be run from either direction; that is- a pilot can know that a set amount of weight must make the trip and calculate the maximum fuel the aircraft can carry with that load. Then you plan stops to match the fuel- using the standard-reserves model.

The mission may involve going a distance that means the pilot can carry full fuel; after all- the average business flight flies but an average of 350 to 500 miles – well within the capability of most corporate aircraft… even with a full load of people or baggage. Still- knowing that fuel works for the trip is important – as is hedging for winds- expected and unexpected.

And the pilot is also responsible for assuring that the aircraft can be fueled and loaded within the weight-and-balance limits of the airplane – both at the start of the trip and at the end.

Making the weight-and-balance numbers work may indeed involve flying with a reduced fuel load; it may involve specific loading considerations. For example- staying within the aircraft’s center-of-gravity envelope may require loading luggage in a forward compartment in the nose – often un-pressurized space. The CG envelope may enforce a certain seating pattern based on the passengers’ individual weights. That may mean telling a particularly weighty passenger where they must sit and stay.

And though it’s less an issue with most business jets than it is with some piston and turboprop aircraft- it’s equally important to know that any fuel-burn related CG change remains within the envelope for the arrival. No pilot wants to try landing any aircraft outside its CG range; the potential for a tragic outcome looms too large.

Weather: Now- Later & Then…
With a point of origin- a destination and a departure time in mind- the weather briefing stands as another indispensable aspect of smart flight planning. Thankfully- pilots today enjoy more options and more info from more sources than ever – much of it useable directly in flight-planning software.

Integrating images of en route weather- current and forecast- over the planned route produces a graphic picture of the conditions awaiting the aircraft and its occupants. And if seeing is believing- the combination of weather imagery on the route map lets the crew graphically see whether they need to re-draw the route for friendlier weather. That beats the close-encounters school of avoidance- and can reduce the scrambling that can accompany needing to make a new decision in-flight.

For example- weather may dictate flying a day earlier or later – particularly during the winter when airframe icing threatens- or during thunderstorm season when the wrong decision can be an electrifying experience.

Free and commercial services abound with current and forecast weather data; the FAA and National Weather Service both offer info- either through the Lockheed-Martin operated Flight Service Station network or through the internet at www.aviationweather.gov. Pilots filing their flight plans through the FSS network can get a live briefing from a human; pilots filing electronically through one of the FAA’s two contract DUATS services can call FSS (1-800-Wx-Brief) or use any of the public or private Internet services.

But the pilot must get a briefing- according to the Federal Air Regulations. And weather awareness responsibilities don’t end with the filing of a flight plan. When weather is particularly dynamic across a wide area ahead- weather planning can and should continue en route. At the least- the pilot of any aircraft can periodically contact FSS for an updated weather briefing. En Route and Terminal controllers can provide updated information – but it’s the pilot’s responsibility to ask- as much as it’s the controller’s responsibility to respond- and offer updates once aware of new circumstances.

Better than radio-traffic descriptions are any of the new datalink weather feeds and their pictures of storms- radar images- lightning strikes and text weather information. Virtually all of the newest aircraft employ a multifunction display capable of showing Doppler weather radar images for the entire U.S. that update every few minutes. But for aircraft lacking the needed installed equipment- these same images are available via a number of datalink-capable portable devices such as handheld GPS navigators or appropriately capable EFBs.

Those same EFBs often allow these live weather images to be used with flight-planning software they can also run. With the nation’s charts and plates digitally resident on these EFBs- they can be the ultimate all-in-one tool for today’s prepared pilot. And some portable GPS navigators are capable of receiving the same datalink weather images used by in-panel MFDs.

Of course- modern business turbine aircraft generally carry their own airborne weather radar for tactical decisions at close range. However the crew receives these weather updates- they should be considered a must- and on a regular basis- for flights across active weather systems – particularly at times of year when the weather is more dramatic. Avoiding a close encounter is the best way to avoid a flight memorable for its roller-coaster ride.

Airport Access
Smart pre-flight planning also takes into account the runway demands of the aircraft and- even more basically- the status of the destination airport. And thanks to some over-run accidents in commercial and business aviation- calculating runway needs is now an issue for an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC).

The FAA appointed this ARC in early December- 2007- to recommend possible regulations for calculating runway needs for all conditions – something not now covered in detail by the Federal Aviation Regulations.

The latest information on the destination airport is one of the elements of that full pre-flight briefing mentioned above. The report on the destination airport ideally includes information on any Notice To Airmen (NOTAMs) in effect- including changes in runway length- temporary closures- taxiway constraints or closures.

NOTAMs are important because the information allows the pilot to seek alternatives or gauge the safety of an alternate runway at that airport. The best alternate may be a different airport in the area – necessitating a change in arrival arrangements such as cars or meeting rooms.

Runway needs are critical- both on clear- dry- easy days and on those days when flying is anything but clear- dry and easy. Modern aircraft manuals include charts for runway requirements covering differences in weight- temperature and field elevation. The NTSB wants such numbers cushioned by 15% to allow for conditions that might denigrate braking effectiveness.

As it is- many corporate pilots already apply a fudge factor for wet- slushy- icy or snowy runways. No aviator wants the flight to end by running off the end of the runway.

The Aviator as Juggler
If preparing for an upcoming flight sounds like a lot to juggle or excessively complex- well- it can seem so. But pilots learn these needs in stages- building on the foundational basics taught in the private-pilot syllabus as they add ratings and- most importantly- flight experience.

While some of the process is institutionalized and easily adhered to- some of what goes into a well-planned flight is actually tribal knowledge learned less in the classroom than in the cockpit flying the aircraft.

The experienced aviator can go through the entire process inside of 15 or 20 minutes – excepting- of course- steps such as starting to watch weather a couple of days ahead – and be ready to order fuel- catering and load the luggage in another 20 minutes. Computerized tools have put the steps into a form that makes it easy to hit each mark in the process.

Regardless of how it’s done- however- the important thing is that it be done- thoroughly- informed as much by facts as by the pilot’s command experience.

After all- the nicest thing to hear for most pilots is the passengers’ answer to the quality-of-flight question: “The flight? Oh- it was uneventful.”

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