Computer Flight Planners

Prices are up, but so is capability. Destination Direct is the most flexible; Flitesoft and FliteStar excel in overall features.

When last we surveyed computer flight planners three years ago-an eon in the software business- Destination Direct was the clear winner. But none of the major programs could be relied upon to provide hands off, reliable full route planning for IFR.

Things have since changed radically. Today, there is no overall winner in our view, which means selecting a planner boils down to slogging through the details, which weve tried to do for you in this report, space limitations notwithstanding.

For PC users, The Big Three-Destination Direct, FliteStar and Flitesoft-have basic features in common and the wide disparity in features which existed three years ago has closed significantly. As always, sticker price varies with whatever promotion is extant, so shop around a bit before committing.

Macintosh owners are out of luck. Jeppesen has quit issuing Mac versions of FliteStar and has recently elected to stop updating the programs already out there.

Common Ground
In all three programs, the map, work sheet and flight log are interconnected, with a change in one automatically being displayed in the other two. One nice feature of all three is that they can print out the lat/long for any waypoint, which is useful for updating the loran or GPS.

The Big Three commercial products now accommodate either included or add-on logbook modules. If you don’t have an electronic logbook already, this could be a nice fillip. Just remember that this might not be quite as convenient as you might assume without thinking it through.

While the programs generally allow a preliminary entry based on the planned results, you’ll still have to restart it to get to the logbook and make the actual entries after the trip. With the exception of Jepps version (priced separately), these logbooks arent stand alone.

If you change your mind down the road about which vendor best serves your purposes, you’ll have to either keep the old program on the drive to maintain this capability, convert or re-enter the data into a new logbook. You might very we’ll be better off in the long run buying a separate product. (See Computer Logbooks, February 1999)

Destination Direct
Delta Technologys Destination Direct was our top pick in 1996. Since then, it has become a full 32-bit program and added features which could prove useful, depending on your habits.

We checked out v. 4.0.020 Professional for this report. Instead of a printed manual, DD includes the current manual (58 pages) on each disk in .pdf format. The available aircraft database is the most Spartan of the three, offering 27 aircraft ranging from a Cessna 152 to Citation V. If yours isn’t on the list, however, you can program your own.

The program initializes with a Preliminary Plan view into which you enter departure and destination and then give it an idea of how you want to go, from VFR direct to full-bore airway. Previously, Destination Direct was a stand out as the most flexible of the automatic planners and has largely held its ground in that regard, offering the ability to select substantially more pre-planning defaults or preferences than Flitesoft.

In addition to loading DPs, STARs and preferred routes, DD lets you specify either a hard altitude or optimization for winds, how far off a direct course to let airways take you, whether you want to mix airway and VOR-to-VOR routing, how far out over the water youre willing to go and the like.

Once youve given the program its initial instructions, you can display a map of the results, or just start with a departure and point and click your way along. DD doesnt do as we’ll as the other two in its map display, however. For example, labels for airways are more or less fixed and can obscure intersections unless you unselect the Victors to get at them.

In addition, you cant grab the solid course line with the mouse and pull it out of the way to confirm that youre on an airway, as you can in Flitesoft and FliteStar.

Destination Directs ability to recommend a particular DP or STAR works we’ll and is an excellent way to get a quick read on the proposed route without dragging out the charts. If you manually rubber band to the procedure points, the program interpolates the correct procedure designation and inserts it into the flight plan.

Destination Direct will plan potty/gas breaks for you, based on either flight time per leg or the number of legs you want to fly, as long as you don’t use a preferred route. Unlike Flitesoft, fuel cost isn’t a reviewable factor, but within the available parameters the program performs this function easily and well.

Multiple Computers
If you frequently plan a flight at one computer but need to review it at another, Destination Direct doesnt require reinvention of the wheel. Simply e-mail the flight plan for pick up at the second computer and it will update automatically the aircraft and pilot data at the same time.

A unique feature in DD that may appeal to some is the scheduling function. Tell the program where you have to be and when and it will spit out a complete schedule (based on prior input) right down to when to set the alarm.

Destination Direct handles altitude issues competently. It wont let you plan for the wrong altitude for the direction of flight, either VFR or IFR, for example. While this program doesnt display the terrain in a separate window, it does use the charted minimum en route values for any off airway routing. If the program cant complete the route within the parameters youve specified, itll ask if you want to continue outside the initial instructions.

Neither DD nor Flitesoft do we’ll with the automatic IFR planning function for relatively short hops. In one example, DD started out better than Flitesoft in that with always stay on airways selected, it picked up the VOR 20 miles from departure along the route and started us along the correct airway. But it flung us directly from the first intersection beyond that VOR off airway 60 miles straight to a destination with no navaid. Ooops.

Okay, so maybe short flights arent a good test. How about Hartsfield to JFK? When we cranked that into the automatic planner, Destination Direct sent us east out of Hartsfield, instead of up an arrival corridor, as did Flitesoft. Because of what the vendor says was a third-party database problem, however, selection of preferred routes put us on kerosene airways, even though low altitude was selected. Other long flights ticked off well.

Logs and Maps
The printable navigation log is we’ll organized, imminently legible and easily customized, with whatever specific components of the text weather report you want and the FAA form on the flip side if you like. Unlike Flitesoft, one click can break up or combine the leg outputs, which we found very useful.

Unfortunately, Destination Direct charges extra for some components that Flightsoft incorporates. Flight plan uploads are or will be available soon for the Apollo 920, 360 and Precedus, Magellans Skystar, Lowrance and certain Rockwell FMSs. Garmin and Bendix/King are in the pipeline. However, the add-on module to accomplish this is an additional $120. The logbook is also a separate $49. Its included in the Pro version, but if you want the FBO, hotel and rental car database for the Personal or Basic, thats an extra $59.

Destination Direct lost customers in recent years because of problems with the modem function. According to the developers, the techies at Microsoft said theyd just have to live with it. DD thinks theyve worked around the issue and if you had problems with your comm function in the past, give them a call to acquire the patch.

One significant feature missing from Destination Direct which is available in the other two is the ability to display DUAT weather output graphically on the route map. But the developers say theyre working on that.

In addition to the Basic version discussed above, Delta Technologies has a Personal and Pro package, each in VFR and IFR versions. Destination Direct Personal is a single-pilot and lower 48 only set-up, which doesnt have the full IFR capabilities.

The Pro package has always been slanted heavily toward the business traveler and the current version maintains that emphasis, including a large database of hotel, rental car and similar information. It also hooks to Fillup Flyer and includes the entire North American database.

Cost is mid-range for this product. Personal : VFR $149, IFR $229. Pro: VFR $199, IFR $295. Updates run from $65 to $99, single issue, depending on version. Three per year is $125 to $165 and up from there, depending on frequency. Technical support is available toll free during normal business hours, central time, or via e-mail and their Web site.

RMS Flitesoft has made the most obvious and dramatic progress since last we looked. The Personal version is VFR only; Professional has North American aviation data and IFR components. Commercial does Part 135 reports and turbine performance.

We tried Flitesoft Professional version 1.95, which has improved remarkably from the earliest Windows iteration, both as to functionality and user friendliness. Its a full 32-bit program now, but the CD retains a 16-bit version for the 3.1 diehards.

The initial screen defaults to a segmented display with a worksheet on the left where you can enter the proposed route fully or just the departure and destination and let the program plan it for you. The central display is the map, with the various display element options selectable by button strip on the right.

Map display is elegant and appealing, as Flitesoft simply refuses to clutter up the works. Any label which would impinge on other info is suppressed but available for boxed display with a point of the mouse. The initial planning screen automatically displays a window along the bottom showing the en route terrain as well. Any or all of these screens can be toggled on and off with the tool bar along the top, which can also be customized.

As before, one of RMS principal features is Flitesofts ability to translate AIRMETs, SIGMETs, radar reports and METARs into a visual display right on the map showing your route of flight. The program will even show where METARs are available along the route and let you right click to display them without going back to the text report.

Topography can be selected for display, with many user controlled variables available, right down to power lines. Point and click route planning is simple and deleting or adding waypoints on the worksheet works well, although the program tends to assume that youre landing if you rubber band to a facility where the airport and VOR share a common identifier.

RMS program historically has been much less of a resource hog than other programs and it still is, consuming just 30MB of disk space as compared to nearly 100MB for the full-bore Jepp FliteStar and more 80MB for Destination Directs complete version.

Flitesoft comes with only one aircraft preloaded, a Cessna 172; the CD has data on more than 150 other types. You can also create your own, if you drive something really exotic. In our view, this is a better option than automatically pre-loading a gajillion different types you’ll never need with the attendant memory consumption.

Nice Nav
The nav log is quite comprehensive and can be printed kneeboard size. You can customize the fields displayed to your hearts content, from stone simple to all you ever wanted to know about a waypoint. Nevertheless, the printout is not as intuitive and visually appealing as the other two entrants.

Altitude remains something Flitesoft emphasizes and the program defaults are quite high. For example, on one relatively short on-airway hop, the program wanted 9000 feet in our Cyber 172, pushing to 10,000 feet at the mid-point.

You can change this by maximizing the worksheet and inserting a lower en route altitude. No matter how low you try to force it, when you run AutoCheck, the program will automatically push you up to the MEA plus the correct value for the direction of flight.

Future versions are slated to provide weather overlay on the profile terrain view. One quibble with the altitude function is that the nav log shows either on the ground or at cruise with no en route altitude differentials, even at a waypoint very close to the departure or destination. As a result, its no help with vertical navigation planning, but top of climb and descent points are slated to be added soon.

You can right click on the airport on either the map or worksheet and then select SIDs (now DPs) or STARs from the drop down menu. A complete list of all available procedures is displayed on the right with a little map that shows your direct route of flight and the plotted path for the one highlighted, which is quite helpful.

The Pro, Commercial and Worldwide versions also include the ability to retrieve instrument approaches from the CD for review and printing. Right click on an airport, select Check, and the basic info appears together with buttons that provide available approaches, FBO info and so on. Two executables on the CD-ROM also permit you to wire Flitesoft files from one computer to another.

We cant leave miscellaneous toys without a passing note of the Fix It! button on the weight and balance page. Over gross? Out of envelope? Hit that button and the program will remove fuel until the aircraft is within weight and balance. That fuel load will then be retained as the starting value for the flight.

With respect to the automatic planning function, there may be a bug associated with the use of STARs in Flitesoft. With Use STARs selected our hypothetical ATL-JFK flight, it found no intermediate waypoints. When we un-selected STARs, an acceptable if slightly circuitous route popped up. Automatic route logic on other IFR flights tended to be a bit strange on occasion, too.

Unlike Destination Direct and FliteStar, there’s no easy method for breaking up a long flight automatically by either distance or time. Where Flitesoft shines in the stopover planning function is the incorporated bargain fuel locator.

Instead of dialing up (and paying) for a commercial service, select Bargain Fuel and Route and the program will recommend a stop and figure the deviation cost for you. Want real food instead of an RC and a Moon Pie (southern legs only)? Check the FBO info for other airports in the area and you’ll likely find what you want.

Flitesoft for Windows Professional is $198 (Commercial: $398). Updates of the Pro and Personal versions are $80 apiece, $130 for three-year, $235 x 6 and $445 monthly. Customer support is free to any registered user for the price of the line charge (no 900 number). Theyre readily accessible by e-mail, as well.

Last time we tried FliteStar, it was still a Mentor product and was quirky, to say the least. Version 8.0 released in August is a full 32-bit ground up rerag of the prior product. Unfortunately, the initial version had lots of bugs.

Nevertheless, many users report that the new features and flexibility of FliteStar are inducing them to hang in, waiting for the fixes. The latest bug spray release is available for download and what Jepp called a media set addressing these issues to supposed to be provided to current customers. Jeppesen provided us the beta version of 8.03 just prior to going to press and its apparent that The Orkin Man has been busy.

Because of both the maps and the size of the program, FliteStar needs at least 32 MB of system RAM, a 166 MHz processor and 1 MB of 2D video RAM. If youve got a low-end machine, it wont run well.

It looks like Jepp tried the competition as several features which used to be unique to the others are now incorporated into FliteStar. Jepps profile window looks very much like a prettier version of Flitesofts terrain awareness component but with additional elements displayed, including SUA, MEAs and wind component arrows.

FliteStar has also emulated Flitesofts ability to overlay AIRMETs and SIGMETs on the route chart. At the same time, the selectable pre-flight parameters are now more comprehensive than Destination Directs.

The CD loads over 100 aircraft so do your disk a favor and delete the ones you’ll never use. To cover the bases on FBO, hotel and similar info, FliteStar simply includes the existing electronic JeppGuide at no additional cost.

If you subscribe to JeppView, the electronic approach plate service, FliteStar is fully compatible. The folks at Jepp have cured one of the major nits we picked last time and the program now hooks to DUAT via both DTC and GTE.

Some Display
When youve got the domestic market on maps and charts cornered, you ought to be able to generate a spectacular route display, which FliteStar definitely does. The vector map is scalable almost to the molecular and the displays are truly gorgeous.

FliteStar is unique in its ability to display multiple routes simultaneously, which could be a major plus for some users. Like Flitesoft, labels are inhibited from overlapping while the information remains available for selection and display.

Jepp is justifiably proud of the Flight Planning Wizard and its underlying code. Bugs to one side, the routing function is consistently the most accurate and comprehensive of the three. We heard complaints about the Wizard, primarily as compared to the prior iteration. But not having seen the prior version, we cant comment. We can say that if you read the directions thoroughly or consult the help screens, you can get by.

Understand well: This is not a plug-and-play, lets-punch-an-obvious-button-and-get-on-with-it program. On the other hand, we really didnt see anything that wasnt a predictable trade off among comprehensiveness, flexibility and ease of use.

Remember those short or otherwise potentially strange IFR routes that choked Destination Direct and Flitesoft? FlightStar digested em without a hiccup and produced absolutely spot on routing with no hand holding required.

We suspect you can get even the latest iteration to do peculiar things but the 8.03 beta FliteStar consistently beat the other two in fast, accurate automatic route planning during our trials. The program also does a good job of locating stopover or refueling points by selected parameters. Just be aware that they don’t include fuel prices as a consideration and you cant sort by restaurant.

One significant gripe we have with FliteStar is that nothing below the high-dollar commercial version supports more than a single pilot. Multiple pilot households will need to flip a coin to determine the single allowable designated driver and no planning or filing on behalf of a friend or aircraft partner is supported. Jepp has promised to adjust this to allow three pilots in future versions.

We try not to buy the .0 version of any software, from which wed expect a certain number of shake down termites. What isn’t a function of start-up pangs, however, is the problem some have reported getting the 56-day updates on time. Note we’ll that the new version wont incorporate or otherwise convert flight plans created under prior editions, so if youre planning to upgrade to 8.x, print out what you’ll want to preserve first. Neither does it appear that will it uninstall the old version automatically or even offer the option at install, which wastes hard drive space until you catch on and manually uninstall.

FliteStar comes in VFR, IFR and Corporate versions. Corporate includes the ability to program multiple pilots and permits flight plan upload to full Honeywell, Universal FMS and Bendix/King, Garmin, UPS/IIMorrow, Trimble, Lowrance Eagle and Magellan GPS units.

Jepps new entry certainly is an impressive program, but you’ll need to spend considerable time learning all its features and tricks. And if you have little tolerance for teething pains, hold off before buying. Then again, theyve got a 30-day money back guarantee.

FliteStars IFR North America coverage is the most expensive of the three by a significant degree at $299. A one shot update is $99. Three per year is $149, six at $229, on up. Tech support policy has improved since 1996 and what used to cost up to two bucks a minute is now free via a toll-free number.

Historically, however, Jepp hasnt had a good reputation for the quality of its tech support in any computer program. They admitted as much in conversations with us and have indicated that internal changes have been made to address the issue.

All three programs get constant developer attention and our info could be a bit dated by the time you read this report. For now, FliteStar clearly has the most pure potential of any of the top programs and truly is an impressive product, assuming the bugs don’t lock you up.

Whether it will be worth up to 50 percent more initially (and eventually) than either of the other two depends on whats important to you. Upgrades don’t vary enough in price in our view for that to be an issue.

In software, like airplanes, different features appeal to different people. Is the ability to graph selected weather products your non plus ultra? Either FliteStar or Flitesoft are the two picks. If you spend most of your time in or over high terrain, again, stick with either FliteStar or Flitesoft. Which of the two is best for high fliers?

FliteStar has the edge in pretty maps and comprehensive, accurate IFR planning. Just wait a few more months until the exterminated versions arrive. If hardware resources cost are issues , Flitesofts your program.

On the other hand, if you don’t care about terrain and weather display but you want ease of use, automated stopover planning and easy-to-read nav logs, Destination Direct does the job at a lower price than FliteStar. In our opinion, DD is still the best mix of flexibility and ease of use overall, even if its not as pretty or feature rich.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Flight Planner Checklist.
Click here to view “Do You Really Need One?”
Click here to view the Flight Planner Addresses & Contacts.

-by Jane Garvey
Jane Garvey is not the FAA administrator. Shes a freelance writer and Cessna 182 owner. She lives near Raleigh.