Flight planning, 2004 vs. 2014

5 min read

Sometimes we take for granted how fast technology moves, and how beneficial that progress is. That’s especially true for pilots, who’ve seen incredible advances in panel mount avionics, aviation apps and portable iPad accessories–often at lower prices than ever before. Consider this comparison…


You’re headed to visit your aging parents in Chicago, and what better way to do that than by flying your 1973 Cessna 172? The first step is to order the charts you need, so two weeks before your trip you pick the 18 different sectionals, IFR en route charts and approach plates needed for the route (only $109!). Once they arrive, you spend an evening updating your Jepp charts, then you look over the route and plan your flight.

sectional with plotter

The bad old days?

The night before you depart, you pull out your spiffy new Motorola RAZR phone and call Flight Service for an outlook briefing. Pen and paper in hand, you studiously copy the details and review the sectional chart in front of you. With some quick math on your trusty E6B, you calculate your expected ground speed and your time en route. Flight log filled out, you head to bed.

The next morning, there’s a lot to do so you wake up early. First you turn on the Weather Channel to get a feel for the overall weather picture, but that doesn’t quite give you the detail you’re looking for. You’ve heard about this company called Google that’s about to go public, so you walk into your home office, fire up your Dell desktop computer and open Internet Explorer. After visiting Google’s homepage, you eventually find a good website to display radar. There are some storms to miss, so it’s too bad your DSL connection isn’t working well–that looping radar takes forever to load.

Now it’s time to decide what route to file for this IFR trip. You dig out your green A/FD books and look at preferred routes, then consider the low altitude en route chart (why does your trip always cross three of them?!). Finally, you remember your pilot buddy telling you that he always gets VHP V399 BVT V97 CGT BEBEE. You’re writing this down in your notebook so you remember next time. But will that avoid the TFRs that are popping up with ever greater frequency? It’s hard to tell, so you plot a couple of alternate routes just in case.

Paperwork in order, it’s time to call to Flight Service for the latest weather to file the flight plan. After waiting on hold for awhile, the briefer gives you the weather and takes your flight plan. You’re ready to go to the airport.

Before starting the engine, you carefully arrange your charts in the order they’ll be used: taxi diagram, departure procedure, en route chart, approach plates and your handy Ac-u-kwik book for FBO information. When you call for clearance, you hear the dreaded “full route clearance; advise ready to copy.” Five minutes later you’ve copied the clearance, read it back and rearranged your nav log. Finally you can start taxiing.

After takeoff, you fire up your Garmin 296 portable GPS–the best $2000 you ever spent, but it sure would be great to get a radar image on it. For now, you’ll have to depend on your trusty Stormscope.


Ten years later, your parents have passed away but your daughter is in college; time to go to Chicago to visit her. The 1973 Cessna Skyhawk is the same, but just about everything else has changed.

ForeFlight pack feature

Getting charts for your flight is now ridiculously easy.

You haven’t carried paper charts in three years, so there’s nothing to order. The night before the flight, while sitting in bed, you casually open ForeFlight on your iPad Mini (man these things are pricey – $399!). You punch your departure and destination airports into the app and instantly see your time en route. Another page shows high resolution radar, satellite, forecast icing and more. Note to self: call the phone company about the internet connection; 2 seconds is a ridiculous amount of time to wait for looping radar to download.

A single tap on the Route Advisor shows the perfect route to file and a single tap on the Altitude Advisor shows the best altitude. Another few taps and your flight plan is filed. After three minutes, you close the iPad and go to sleep.

You sleep in because there’s really nothing to do in the morning. Just before walking out the door, you use the Pack feature to download all the charts for your flight and the fuel prices. You grab your iPad and Stratus ADS-B Receiver, then trip over your old chart case–why did you ever carry so much stuff?

As you drive to the airport, you ask Siri to show the latest radar image and it occurs to you that you haven’t used your mobile phone to make a phone call in weeks. Stepping out of the car at the airport, your iPad buzzes and ForeFlight shows the expected route from ATC. A single tap and it’s loaded into the active route. It’s no surprise when, after calling clearance delivery, you get exactly the route you expected. As you taxi to the runway, you watch your airplane move along the full screen taxiway diagram and wonder when you’ll be able to do an LPV approach for the taxi route to the runway.

After takeoff, you glance at the iPad and see that your Stratus is feeding the latest radar image and METARs to ForeFlight–best $0 subscription ever. The moving map, obstacles, terrain and traffic display aren’t bad either, but you do pay a $74.99 annual subscription (how much was that portable GPS?).

16 replies
  1. Joe Pilot
    Joe Pilot says:

    Of course, that iPad with the charts and approach plates on it is not technically usable for primary navigation. You can do flight planning with it – but you also technically need the paper charts as well as paper plates to back it up – try explaining a dead battery or overheated iPad to an FAA inspector.

    Is all that really on the $74.99 plan?

    Foreflight is great, as is ADS-B with Stratus – but its not really that simple. . .

  2. John Zimmerman
    John Zimmerman says:

    Fair point on the primary navigation, but that Garmin 296 couldn’t be used for that either.

    I disagree 100% on the paper backup part though. I haven’t carried one of those in years. Another tablet or an iPhone serves that purpose. It is that simple.

  3. CDAN
    CDAN says:

    No, it’s truly not that simple. What are you going to tell ATC when your iPad dies?! Request vectors to an approach you dont have plates for? Get real!! The fancy things are fun, but paper never dies.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I don’t get it. You carry a backup power source (cigarette charger or battery pack) and a backup device. Redundancy.

      Anything beyond that is like worrying about the approach plate flying out the window.

    • RAC
      RAC says:

      Yup. All about redundancy. No paper charts for me. I carry two iPads and an iPhone all with foreflight pro. Also carry a battery backup that will run the iPads. Ends up being comparable in price (or cheaper) to the chart and approach plate subscriptions I used to carry when you take into account all the other things you can do with the technology.

      Word of advice though – make SURE you use the pack feature before you go. Got stuck without the proper approach plates on my iPads once. Fortunately I had on my iphone (really hard to read) and ended up doing a visual approach. Won’t make that mistake again!

  4. John
    John says:

    Joe Pilot, you are incorrect about needing paper charts technically, legally or any other way for any part 91 operation.

  5. Scott
    Scott says:

    Sure paper backup (at least a relatively current chart) is a good idea beyond the charts loaded in the plane, the iPad, and the iPhone 5 (lots of redundancy there), but w/ regards to legality, is it “required”? Can anyone provide the FAR that states electronic charts are or are not acceptable for use as a primary chart? Not talking about the GPS/electronic nav/attitude/heading info but the chart itself.

  6. Logan
    Logan says:

    There are two issues here. Whether or not be iPad has “legal” charts, and whether or not it’s legal as a primary source of navigation.

    As far as the legality of the data it contains, I’ll assume everyone here operates part 91. For part 91, there is absolutely no requirement legally to carry charts. That being said, 91.103 says you have to be familiar with “all available information” pertaining to the flight. Good luck explaining to a fed how you’re in compliance with that rule without charts. Now, what’s definitely not covered there is what format the charts must be in. Digital or paper, it’s probably a good idea to have a backup. Personally, I carry an iPad mini for everyday use, and an iPad 2 in my flight bag that I keep charged and current. That way I have a backup. For anyone with an iPhone (newer than my iPhone 4), keeping backup charts on it is not a bad idea. I have been flying with ForeFlight for 3 years and have never, ever, ever had it leave me stranded.

    As far as whether it’s legal for navigation, on a VFR flight, do whatever you want. Don’t rely on it to the point where it replaces the need for situational awareness – these tools only increase our safety if we let them. As far as IFR navigation, you obviously can’t file as GPS equipped or file a route based on GPS unless you have a legal, panel-mounted, TSOd GPS on board. When you are in radar contact, however, and above the controller’s MVA, the controller can issue you RADAR vectors. In this case, inform you have a VFR GPS on board and request “heading xxx toward destination.” To the controller, it’s the same as a vector. As long as you make sure to give the same information to every controller you’re handed off to, you’ll have no issue with this method, and if for some reason the controller needs to put you back on your route, he/she will.

  7. mark
    mark says:

    “Ten years later, your parents have passed away ….”

    I’m i the only one that thought this was a strange sentence? Thanks Sporty’s for killing off my parents in your point….

  8. George
    George says:

    You said above “Stepping out of the car at the airport, your iPad buzzes and ForeFlight shows the expected route from ATC.” What is the buzz and who is it from? A text or email from ATC or ForeFlight? Please me more about how this expected route works. Thanks

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