Preflight Planning is a very involved process. There are two different procedures depending on whether you are a real life pilot or only a sim pilot. Not to say that a thorough preflight plan for a sim pilot is cake but there are two elements that sim will take care of for you. The first is weight and balance and the second is interpreting the weather. And also not to say that sim can't put you "in the soup" (no visibility) with extreme turbulence, it's just that you won't be using the sick sacks while you are in front of the computer (trust me, I've tried). But to dive into it, the elements of preflight planning that both the real world and sim pilots have to deal with for a thorough flight plan will be charting your path, IFR routes, navigational planners, and en route radio frequencies.
Now before I dive in, I want to give the disclaimer do not substitute this training for real life flight instruction. Ok, now I can dive in.
The first thing you need to consider is where you are going. That can be found on the "routes" page for your hub. I am from the KMDW hub so I will be using that for most of my examples. First look at the KMDW hub, and go to the routes page. The route that I will use will be Delivery 803, KMDW to KMLI (because I've flown into KMLI and they spoil pilots). Well, now that we know where we are going let's find out how to get there. To keep it all realistic, I know that we all are flying from busy airspace (Class B airspace for the R/W pilots out there) so that means that if we are going to be flying IFR (instrument flight rule) we will need to plan to fly where they are going to send us anyways. Now there is a lot of traffic flying into and out of class B airspace so the government decided to organize the flow of traffic. So to keep us pilots in a nice straight line and to add a couple of years to the air traffic controller's life expectancy, they implemented Departure Procedures (DP's for short, besides pilots like acronyms). Departure procedures are described in more detail at the SID's link in the MaxFrieght flight training area. I apologize for the possible confusion so let me set this straight DP's and SID's are the same thing, SID stands for Standard Instrument Departure.
So now to move on, I will assume that you are already familiar with SID's/DP's and I will also assume that you are familiar with STARS and approaches. For our route to KMLI we will choose the Moline VOR because that is the most direct route in addition to the fact that it is a fix for the Cicero Two departure. The next concern for our route planning is the approach. To make an instrument approach to this airport we first need to pick a favorable approach to fly. The first option will be what you thing they will be using for the wind conditions. The second option will be what is most convenient for you (also thinking about the type of approach, for example an ILS approach will get you closer to the runway and is more accurate than a VOR approach). Just for argument's sake, we'll say that the winds are calm and they will give us any approach that we ask for. In this scenario, let's pick the approach that gives us a straight in entry. In this condition, I'd say that the ILS 27 would be the best option because it is the most direct approach for our route of flight.
Now that we know where we need to fly for our DP and it just so happens to also take care of our enroute phase of flight. We now need to pick an initial approach fix. It also just so happens that the VOR that we are flying to has a feeder route to the intersection of our initial approach fix. The only problem that we have is that when we get to our initial approach fix we will be heading outbound. The proper way to remedy this problem is through a procedure turn. The published procedure turn is on the approach plate with two courses marked 045 and the inbound course marked 225.
We know what approach we need to get and we know what initial approach fix to file for so now we can set our route on the flight plan. You can pre-file a flight plan on VATSIM by going to https://cert.vatsim.net/fp/file.php. Let's do this in order so the first block is the type of flight that we are flying. I am showing you the instrument flight rules procedures for flight planning so click on IFR. Block 2 is going to be your callsign. This is a block that could end up kicking your butt if you aren't careful. By that I mean that you need to be sure that you put in the callsign that you are signing into VATSIM with. Otherwise when you call up to pick up your clearance, they won't have your flight plan on file and you will need to re-file with a different callsign or re-logon with the filed callsign.
Block 3 is your aircraft with the available equipment. First you can find your aircraft type designator on this website (http://www.icao.int/publications/DOC8643/Pages/default.aspx) and second, you can find your special equipment code on this website (http://www.aopa.org/members/files/topics/transpon.html). Next you need to figure your true airspeed. In real life, the pilot's operating handbook for the aircraft in question will have the figures for the true airspeed of the aircraft in varying flight and weather conditions. On sim, just use a reasonable airspeed for the aircraft that you are flying. For example, if you were flying the Cessna Skyhawk (a.k.a., Skychicken), file for 115 kts. If you are flying the 737, file for anything under 250 kts (because there really isn't any need to get above 10,000 ft. in a 737 when you are only going 100 nm). The most important thing is that if you are going to file for a speed, you need to fly that speed exactly. If you can't get up to that speed, notify ATC and if you would like to fly faster, also notify ATC. Think of ATC as your parents, you won't get what you want if you don't ask, but sometimes you won't get what you want even if you do ask.
Next will be the departure point, which in this case is KMDW. Departure time is the expected time of departure in Zulu time (GMT, UTC, it's all the same). If you don't know what the time is in UTC, go to yahoo and type in UTC and hit search. Take that time, guess-timate when you will be departing, and put that time into block 6. Next we need to find out what altitude you will be flying at. As a flight instructor, I have never flown anything over 10,000 ft since I have 230 of 300 hours in the Skychicken so I really don't know what happens to cruising altitudes above 18,000 ft. But for those that are flying below 18,000 ft., you will have to file for a cruising altitude over 3,000 ft above ground level (AGL) and at an even thousand for headings from 180 to 359. If you're magnetic heading is anywhere from 000 to 179, you will file and fly an odd thousand.
The next part gets kind of difficult. Now we need to fill block 8, which actually does have a format. Let's start out with our route then from there I'll show you another example and what we will do in that case. Our route of flight departs us from KMDW and heads us directly for the Moline VOR. That is depicted by the VOR identifier (MLI). So our first mark will be
Next we need to show our second point, which is our initial approach fix for the ILS 27 approach (OTTEN). So that will make this block look like this
Notice two things, first all we put down is the identifiers, and second all we have is a single space between each identifier. And that is how you fill block 8. But I'm not done, let's make this a little more complicated. Let's say that we are instead filing from KMDW to KCMI and we are going to fly on the low altitude airway down there. In that case we need to look at the departure procedure for Midway and we can see that one of the southern departure fixes is named NEWTT. That is on a low altitude airway (victor airway) that we can fly down to KCMI. So if we were going to fly that victor airway and use the VOR as an initial approach fix for an approach, the route of flight block will look like this
NEWTT V191 RBS V429 CMI
So now you ask, "What is the 'V191' all about?" And I'll say, "Well, that's a good question." See, instead of marking down all of the points that we will be flying over on the victor airway, we only mark down where we get onto the victor airway (NEWTT), the victor airway name (V191), and where we jump onto another victor airway (RBS). RBS is where we switched over to the V429 airway and then we are jumping off of that airway at our destination/initial approach fix (CMI).
Block 9 is obviously KMLI (going back
to the original plan). Block 10 is a hard one. This is where you
need to know how your aircraft performs. As a real world pilot,
that is easy because I have books with information for every different
plane that I fly with performance data that will tell me everything
from the speed of the aircraft in kts to how much fuel is being
burned per hour. Using that information I can make some complicated
calculations to find out how long the flight will be. As a sim
pilot, I will say that this is where you need to rely on the flight
planning utility inside of Microsoft Flight Simulator. Once you
pick your plane and you set your route of flight, you will be
able to click on the "nav log" button and there you
can see how much gas you will be burning on this flight, how fast
you will be going across the ground (groundspeed), and what you
need for block 10 the time enroute. For the sim pilot, this part
is a shortcut since you have now completed about 50% of your flight
planning right there. Now as a real world pilot I can't stress
enough the importance of learning good communication skills when
in the cockpit. It will make you a lot more comfortable when you
know what to say and what to expect to hear in addition to the
fact that this skill will improve your performance in the cockpit
or in front of the computer. Either way, I feel that life gets
easier when you can communicate your intentions instead of typing
them so you will benefit from a microphone.
Block 11 is set aside for special operations.
If you are doing training and would like multiple approaches for
practice, you can either list them here or just state, "multiple
approaches." You can also ask for a hold, decline using a
STAR or DP, decline over water flight, or if the situation or
ATC workload allows you can request emergency operations practice.
Block 12 is where you tell ATC how much fuel is in your plane.
Wouldn't you hate to only have 2 hours of fuel on board and ATC
holds you at a fix for about 3 hours? This block can also help
you stay out of a low fuel emergency. If you are conservative
in what you state here you are sure to have enough fuel to get
to your destination. Just don't be too conservative and not fuel
enough to get you to your destination with a 45 minute cruise
Block 13 is an optional block along with block 11. You don't have to file an alternate unless the weather is that bad at your destination. You are required to file an alternate if the weather at your destination is what's known at 1-2-3. For 1 hour before and after your estimated time of arrival, the ceiling is below 2,000 ft either overcast or broken, and the visibility is less then 3 statute miles. So lets say that this will be a half an hour flight and we departed at noon Zulu time. We are scheduled to make it to KMLI at 1230 Zulu but the weather is forecasted to be 1,500 overcast and 2 miles of visibility at 1300 Zulu. In this case we are required to file an alternate. If that weather was forecasted to happen at 1400 Zulu and the weather was clear before that, we would be in the clear and don't need to file an alternate. Block 14, 15, and 16 is obviously your personal information that you need for VATSIM.
Now that we have filed the flight plan, it is time to make our life a little less stressful when we are in the "air." We can do some more planning to find out what frequencies we are going to be needing when we getting close to the airport. Like for instance, you are talking with ATC and they are vectoring you all over the place. You have a second radio that you can use to get the ATIS but you first need to fumble to find the frequency. Wouldn't it have been nice if you could get all those frequencies that you will be using at a less stressful time, like during preflight planning? Well, that is definitely thinking ahead and very much suggested. You can see all the frequencies that you will be using at KMLI here http://www.airnav.com/airport/KMLI. If you scroll down to the Airport Communications heading, you will see all of the frequencies right there to reference before you need them. This way you can set the frequencies into the standby position in the radio stack at a calmer time during the flight before you need them. This way all you have to do when you need these frequencies is hit the button to send the frequency active.
Well, we made it. I have to admit this is one of the hardest lessons for a flight instructor to teach because there is so much that needs to get done in order to have a successful flight 100% of the time. But preflight planning is a science and in order to truly learn that science, you need to sit with a flight instructor and walk you through it.
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