In our experience theres a spectrum of flight-planning tactics among pilots. One side just wants a quick picture before they file and figure the rest in the air. The other explores every permutation, and then prints a small tome of data so no situation catches them unprepared. We polled pilots all along that spectrum, and dug into the free flight planning tools for the web and desktop. A few rose to the top.
In our experience theres a spectrum of flight-planning tactics among pilots. One side just wants a quick picture before they file and figure the rest in the air. The other explores every permutation, and then prints a small tome of data so no situation catches them unprepared.
We polled pilots all along that spectrum, and dug into the free flight planning tools for the web and desktop. A few rose to the top.
Fltplan.com a Favorite
The first iterations of Fltplan.com had a clunky, Web 0.5 interface, but it was fast, flight plan filing was reliable and it sported a couple of unique features, such as seeing recently-assigned ATC routing between the airports. It quickly became a favorite of corporate flight departments and freight dogs.
The user interface has improved (somewhat). While it still caters somewhat to the corporate flight world, we think Fltplan.com is the best all-in-one website to create and file a flight plan and grab FAA-legal weather. To really use the website, youll need to create a (free) login name, and appropriate aircraft and pilot profiles. This is a quick process where you can select from a long list of existing aircraft profiles or customize your own.
With that done, you can either create a quick airport-to-airport plan or enter something with custom routing. Seeing recent ATC routes is a great plus, but if youre traveling far youll likely see jet routes rather than Victor airways. Once youve built a quick plan, you can see headwind/tailwind factors and times at different altitudes. That data also appears in a nav log if you print one, so you can refigure times well if your planned altitude doesnt work out in the real world.
Additional slick features include tight integration with departure and approach charts, a Takeoff and Landing Data (TOLD) card, a system to fax the destination FBO directly and a well-organized weather page. Flight plans can also be saved in a format for upload into your G1000 or GNS 430. The site will also do flight tracking and offers some fee-based services such as eAPIS filings.
There are a couple of rough spots you need to work through, the first one being you must click the button to view your Nav log to complete the construction of a flight plan. Also, TFRs dont appear on a chart for obvious reference, which is more an issue for VFR pilots. If you use Fltplan.com, you might want to subscribe to their newsletter to get all the features explained to you over time. There are also tutorials on the website.
We think Fltplan.com, the Java Tools on ADDS (see below) and datalink weather in the cockpit is enough flight planning for about 90 percent of the flights most U.S. pilots will make. And some might argue that even that might be overkill.
Power of Freeflight
We first saw the Voyager flight planning software at AOPA Expo in 2003. We were impressed with its features, but slightly put off by its unique look and style. Voyager has developed a devoted following over the years, and we decided to give the free version, FreeFlight, another look.
What we saw made us amazed it was actually free. FreeFlight makes extensive use of step-by-step wizards-which we usually find annoying and immediately skip-but it does them so well, they are actually helpful. The program is organized around mission: Are you going somewhere and need to plan, or do you just need the picture for a local area? The auto-routing system wont take into account ATCs preferences (unless you stopped at Fltplan.com and manually added that data), but it will look at how wind affects different routes.
The most unusual feature is that you can see graphically where the aircraft would be along the route over time, and what the weather is predicted to be at that time. FreeFlight builds this automatically from the downloaded TAFs and forecast. You can also experiment with altitudes to see what forecast winds will do to your time en route.
Map views let you layer weather, chart data and your route in nearly any combination you want. Other nice touches include a time stamp on the NEXRAD data, a Zulu clock in the corner, a jump-to feature for the map, color-coded graphic METARs, and integrated weight and balance. Clicking on any waypoint brings up detailed information including weather, an airport diagram and fuel prices from Airnav.com. If you have an AOPA membership, you can see Airport Directory info. Full approach charts and many additional features can be added for a fee.
There are some catches with FreeFlight. Like all flight planners, the NEXRAD they download can be an hour or more out of date, but you can make it appear on the chart next to current METARs if you want. The software also makes extensive calls to the internet on startup and during use. If thats a problem, you can quickly switch to offline mode or launch it in quickfly mode, which starts it offline.
The program also is processor and graphics intensive. Voyager fully supports the older version of their software for older machines.
DUATS and Golden Eagle
Dont laugh. A couple of DUATS products actually earn an honorable mention in our review.
For quick access to some handy charts, such as graphical TFRs and forecast NEXRAD, DTCs website works well. (Its at www.duat.com, not www.duats.com. Note the “s” in the second URL.) Were not a fan of the forced manual login-you cant have your browser save the login info-but after that its easy to navigate. The weather briefing is still the miles of text, but you can customize what to show and in FAA code or plain language on a product-by-product basis. Saved routes and other options make for easy use.
DTC DUATS has some powerful weather tools like forecast NEXRAD-where will it be pouring in an hour or two. There are also some descent overlay tools for METARs, TAFs and other weather products at a glance. Its not quite is powerful as the ADDS Java tools, but it offers a few views ADDS does not. The DTC website generates piles of new browser windows, but its fast and gets the job done. Airport information and plates are a recent plus.
While the CSC DUATS website is not worth your time, in our opinion, the Golden Eagle software that replaces CSCs old Cirrus software is a good runner-up to FreeFlight. Its not as powerful for planning or as easy to use, but it runs well on older machines and offers a full range of data, including charts and weather. Its basically a more powerful version of the FlightPrep online planner and is available from FlightPrep.
Youll also want on your short list of free resources the weather Java tools at Aviation Digital Data Service (ADDS), and both Runwayfinder.com and Skyvector.com for a quick look at your route on charts. Weve also found Navmonster.com and Wunderground.com useful in flight planning. Airnav.com is still a great resource for fuel prices and FBO reviews. Many sites we mentioned have good mobile versions, too.
Well look at some of the for-fee solutions-including AOPAs flight planner-in a future issue. Until then, enjoy what the internet giveth for free.