Digital VFR Flight Planning

When I started taking flying lessons in 2001, smart phones and iPads didn’t exist. Though the Internet was still a relatively new phenomenon, I learned to use it to log into DUATS to obtain my weather briefings. I would cut and paste the contents of the text-only briefing into a Word document, and then delete everything but the portions that I wanted to print out and carry with me for my flight, usually several pages of METARs and NOTAMs. I also carried around a collection of paper sectionals, an Airport/Facility Directory, and my olive green aviation headset in a bulky, multi-compartment, monogrammed Official Pilot Flight Bag. The bag doubled in weight when I started working on my instrument rating and had to lug around several regions’ worth of Instrument Approach Procedure (IAP) books.

Today, my load is much lighter. I fly with only my Bose headset and my handbag, which contains a small notebook, my iPad, and my iPhone. On longer trips I’ll also bring a 12V charging cable or a USB battery pack for the devices. We keep a paper sectional in each plane as a backup, but over the past several years of using my “electronic flight bag” exclusively I’ve never had a need to use any hard copy navigation products in flight.

I accomplish nearly all of my VFR and IFR flight planning using ForeFlight on my iPad, with my iPhone as a backup and quick reference. ForeFlight Mobile is an app that provides access to all of the information and tools I need in one central location. For a base subscription fee of $99.99 per year, VFR pilots using ForeFlight can replace paper charts and achieve enhanced functionality and situational awareness. Apple and Android users can also use Garmin Pilot, which offers similar features and functionality as ForeFlight.

ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot cost a little more than what you’ll pay to maintain a stash of current paper charts and supplements (about $50 a year, more if you buy IFR charts), but they are well worth it when you consider the added features, benefits and convenience these apps provide. There are several free alternatives (FltPlan Go, AOPA Go), but I find ForeFlight to be more full featured, easier to use and well worth the annual subscription cost.

Here’s how I plan and execute a VFR flight using ForeFlight on my iPad. I’ll also offer tips for those of you who are still using paper charts.

Step 1: Plot The Course

One of the greatest advantages of any electronic charting application is that it eliminates the “chart flipping and folding” problem you encounter when your departure airport is on one side of the sectional and your destination is on the other side. Also, if a portion of your route spans a chart Inset or a Terminal Area Chart, you can simply zoom in and out to see the detail rather than referencing a different chart.


Even if you’re not using an app like ForeFlight, you can solve this problem electronically. Visit and create a free account. In the upper left corner of your browser window, click the Flight Plan link and enter the information about your flight. You’ll see your route depicted on the screen as a magenta line. Find a distinct feature along the route that’s at least 10 miles from your departure point, then go to your paper chart and find that same feature. Draw a straight line from your departure point through that feature to the edge of the chart. Do the same thing on the other side of the chart, working backward from your destination. Your hand-drawn line should match the electronic route you see in your browser window.

In my example, I’ve drawn a course from KCRG to KFIN, which spans both sides of the Jacksonville Sectional. See how the magenta course line passes through the number “5” in the Class D vertical limit for Northeast Florida Regional Airport (KSGJ), just above my thumb in the picture above. I used that as my reference when drawing the course from KCRG to the bottom of the chart.

If you really want to go old school and test your course plotting skills, you can reverse engineer the displayed magnetic course to find the true course, simply by adding or subtracting the appropriate magnetic variation. After you’ve drawn the line on your paper chart, use a standard aviation chart plotter to determine the true course and see if it agrees with the course suggested by your electronic helper.

If you’re using ForeFlight and wondering where the Legend information is hidden (i.e. hours of operation and controlling facilities for MOAs, Restricted and Prohibited Areas), you can view it by clicking: More, Settings, Map Touch Action, “Bring chart to front with legends.” Turn the legends off by going back to Map Touch Action and select “Bring chart to front.”

Step 2: Get A Briefing

Getting a standard briefing from Flight Service is easy with ForeFlight. From the FPL (flight plan) view on the Maps page, click the “Send To” icon in the lower right corner (it looks like a square with an arrow pointing up). Then click File & Brief. This will take you to the File & Brief page with the information from your route pre-populated. All you have to do is click the Brief button in the lower right corner. The briefing information is displayed in a user friendly graphical format, and will be stored on your iPad so you can bring it with you as an in-flight reference without having to print out sheets of paper like I did back in the day.

If you’re not using ForeFlight or similar app, you can still obtain a really nice graphical weather briefing using the Lockheed Martin Flight Service website, You can opt to have the information emailed to you so that you can have it as a reference on your smart phone or other device in flight.

Step 3: Go Fly

ForeFlight allows you to enter performance data for your airplane and will calculate estimated time enroute and fuel burn based on your selected cruise altitude and forecast winds aloft. If you get your briefing using the Flight Service website, you can generate and print a navigation log including estimated winds aloft, heading, ground speed and fuel burn by clicking on the “NavLog” button on the bottom of the briefing form.

Navigation log generated from Flight Service briefing form.

Navigation log generated from Flight Service briefing form.

The real stand-out advantage of using ForeFlight or a similar app is what it can do for you during flight. The internal GPS on your iPad allows your position to be displayed on the chart and updated real-time as you fly. When paired with a portable ADS-B receiver like the Garmin GDL 39 3D or a Stratus 2S (current retail $899 each), you can also display NOTAMs, weather reports and forecasts, precipitation radar and dual-band ADS-B traffic. With the right equipment and subscription you can also display a backup attitude indicator (AHRS).

Toss The Plotter and E6B? Not So Fast…

The FAA still requires private pilots to know how to plan a VFR cross-country flight the old fashioned way using a flight computer and a paper chart, and honestly, this is not a bad thing. While the odds of all of your devices failing at the same time are pretty slim, if you’ve only got one (say, just your iPad but no other GPS or paper chart in the airplane) and it dies, you’re forced to rely on basic pilotage and time-distance calculation skills to get where you’re going. Besides, understanding how to read a compass and the effects of the wind on your course is essential for staying on course en route, and determining the active runway and crosswind component when landing at your destination.

Pilots need to use technology intelligently, with a healthy respect for the limitations of the devices we’ve come to rely on so heavily not only in the cockpit but in our daily lives on the ground. But let’s face it: satellite navigation is no longer a futuristic idea, it’s the basis of nearly all ground and air based transportation. So grab your smart phone and tablet and start learning how to make the most of them when you fly!

AHRS displayed on ForeFlight using Garmin GDL 39 3D portable ADS-B receiver.

AHRS, traffic and visibility displayed on ForeFlight using Garmin GDL 39 3D portable ADS-B receiver.

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