by Jane Garvey
Weve been checking out software-based flight planning programs off and on for a decade now and the best commercial products have evolved into sophisticated and useful tools. Beyond just grabbing weather and filing your own laboriously created flight plan, the good ones offer substantial assistance in route and altitude planning, weather overlays and, frankly, more toys than the average pilot would utilize routinely.
On the down side, the program and update disks are expensive and in the brave new world of ubiquitous and ever changing TFRs, disk-only programs are simply unable to offer all available information. To their credit, each of the three major commercial flight planner companies have developed an online tie-in to bridge that gap, but what about planners that just skip the disks and updates completely? It sounded to us like a function whose time had come, so we checked it out.
All programs were evaluated on an 800 MHz Athlon PC with 512 of RAM. As with software-based flight planners, all of these take a bit of time to set up the preferences, default pilot and aircraft and the like. One very big deal applicable to all three is that TFRs and not-so-TFRs are displayed right on the route map, along with the ability to access the underlying text.
Real Time Flight Planner
If youre already a member of AOPA, it has an online flight planner available for free, so lets start there. Teaming up with Jeppesen, AOPAs Real Time Flight Planner is the only product in this group offering Jepps proprietary database and charts.
First the caveat: Real Time Flight Planner covers only North America and the Caribbean. Also, some AOPA materials say Macintosh users can access it via the pricey Virtual PC for Mac but the download page itself says its for Windows only, so Apple-polishers shouldnt bet the farm.
Unlike the other two products, you only download the client program through AOPAs Web site. Thereafter, the user launches the planner, which then downloads the latest navaid and TFR information. In other words, the browser doesnt have to be open. On the other hand, the client program must be loaded on any PC you want to use for access. Youre limited to two aircraft profiles and five stored flight plans.
This is not a lets take a sec and play with the route program. Each time you start it, the program authenticates the login and synchronizes the entire database, which is less a gripe than an observation. Broadband users in particular will likely find Real Time Flight Planner slow in relation to what theyre accustomed to seeing. Most of the times we launched RTFP, it was upwards of 40 seconds from first click to a ready screen.
Route planning starts with menu entry of departure and destination identifiers, altitude, type of flight and other parameters. Then the program connects to Jeppesen and plans the route for you. In general, the automated route planning was good as far as mechanical airway selection went, but youll have to enter your own waypoints manually for SIDs and STARs and youre on your own for fuel and rest stop planning. Dont expect it to hold your hand about altitudes either. RTFP is perfectly happy to plan and file a flight above the MAA and below the MEA and no profile route view is available.
You can rubberband the planned route, but patience is the watchword here. It looks like the program has to re-digest the whole package for each change. We could have rubberbanded an entire route across four states with any of the software planners in the time it took RTFP to delete one extraneous waypoint.
Resizing or scrolling up one notch into territory it hadnt seen generally took 15 seconds. The same can hold true for switching back to the map view from another function tab such as weather. Similarly, we couldnt find any way to change a flight parameter such as altitude without starting the whole planning process (and interminable map redrawing) all over.
Right-clicking on an airport, navaid and particular airspace brings up basic information about same. A link is also provided to AOPAs online airport directory and instrument approach procedures. The flight log generated is full-size, with no kneeboard option. Flight plans are filed via DynCorp DUATS, which is also the source for weather text and graphics. When the server is working properly, you can overlay weather radar, satellite graphics and TFRs on the route of flight but we had some trouble getting that to work.
You might have better luck, but our observation is that RTFP has the potential to be a decent basic flight planner but we would like to see the speed improve and have a more reliable means of overlaying the weather. On the other hand, the price is unbeatable. In the month to six weeks it took for this to hit your mailbox, some of the gremlins may have been hunted down and exterminated and for your particular connection and hardware set up, Real Time Flight Planner just might turn out to be the cats pajamas.
FlightPreps two lower subscription tiers are North America only. You have to step up the to Professional and Corporate versions to get worldwide coverage. We tried out FlightPrep Premium, which is the individual IFR and VFR level, and, frankly, we were impressed. Either IFR or VFR charts can be selected as the route background, depending on subscription level. You can even load independent split maps. NACO approach plates, STARs and SIDs can also be viewed. Charts, plates, weather, navlogs and the like are selected and printed as PDFs through the TripKit function.
The automatic planning function works well, consistently generating accurate and sensible IFR routes. The Route Wizard auto planner also allows you to select the SID or STAR (if any) that you need from a dropdown list. Rubberband interactive routing is available–except on Macs–or through manual waypoint insertion/deletion fields. Stopovers can be calculated automatically by distance, time or fuel remaining. Specify the desired limitation and FlightPrep will compile a dropdown list of reasonable candidates from which to select.
Select Profile view and FlightPrep will display your selected en route altitude and the relevant terrain. It will let you impose an inappropriate altitude, but the MEAs are displayed in a profile view right under the route map, if selected. Youre on your own for the maximum airway altitude.
There are hundreds of aircraft profiles available for use, mostly posted by users, so make sure you verify the information before using. Someone who cant even spell the model name correctly on a public use posting might not have been overly assiduous about the data entered either.
TripKit generates PDFs of the flight plan, flight log, official charts, plates and weather. You select via menu what types or categories of data you want to print. Weather maps and approach plates are printed two to a page. The more data you select, of course, the longer the program will take to compile and print. One feature we liked was the ability to access the METARs and TAFs (raw or decoded) for the airports along our planned route from the map view or the home page, without a separate trip through DUATS.
Our gripes about the program function were minor. In our view, the declutter of the waypoint labels could use some work and wed like to be able to select a kneeboard size printout of the navlog. FlightPrep says theyre working on both.
One thing that bothers us about FlightPrep is the heavy one time front end fee, at least for one-year subscriptions. While we understand the rationale that new users are a bigger pain in the tushie, it seems to us unduly parsimonious to charge someone assuming theyre going to need help with the program you just charged them to use and then make phone support a toll call to boot. In fairness, e-mail support is available and theres a feedback link on the home page.
Price shopping FlightPrep side-by-side is all but impossible because of the significant incentives for multiple year sign-up and AOPA members. For instance, the VFR version, FlightPrep Basic, is $156 for one year ($49.95 setup plus $105.95 subscription), but two years are $211.90 (no set-up fee), which annualizes to $106. AOPA members save an additional $20 a year, so a year of FlightPrep Basic could cost from $86 to $156, depending on how you sign up.
The disparity is even more extreme for the IFR version. One year with regular setup is $279.90, but two years for AOPA members is exactly the same price (which strikes us as a bit of a no-brainer) at an annualized cost of just under $12 a month. Carping aside, FlightPrep appears to be a solid, stable and fully-functioned online flight planner. The home page has a very nice video tutorial for how to use the online planner, available in streaming video online (or by CD for subscribers).
AeroPlanner has complete data and chart coverage for the U. S. Elsewhere, DAFIF airports and navaids are available. Like FlightPrep, Aeroplanner lets you select what kind of chart on which to display your route. Overall, Aeroplanner appeared to take a bit longer than FlightPrep to accomplish functions, but it was still blazing compared to AOPAs offering. Aeroplanners flight planner map size is fixed while FlightPrep will resize to the available space.
Aeroplanner automatically warns you about flight restrictions or SUA in text boxes under the map, while you have to click inside the map to get to the relevant info in both RTFP and FlightPrep. As with FlightPrep, you can click a button right next to the map to get the current radar overlay.
The automated route planner performed well. As with FlightPrep, available SIDs and STARs can be selected and inserted from a dropdown list. Aeroplanner appears to be unique in charting automatically all stadium and nuclear TFRs and it will warn you in text below the map whether your route impinges on one, which could be a very large deal for recreational VFR flights in particular.
Another unique feature is the ability to select a fuel price overlay on your route. While Aeroplanner wont automatically plan your stopover like FlightPrep will, the ability to eyeball reported fuel prices along the route and then make a manual selection more than balances that feature, in our view. Just remember that youll have to generate two different flight plans after youve made your selection.
Click Aeroplanners weather plot button and youll get a weather depiction map with the route, radar overlay (if selected) and area forecast, TAF, AIRMET and SIGMET and winds aloft text boxes displayed below. One feature we liked a lot was Aeroplanners ability to display in a new window the profile view with relevant weather superimposed along with elevation information (but without MEAs).
The PDF TripTick which is generated and can be printed is a soup-to-nuts and almost infinitely customizable flight package including, if selected, maps, flight log, approach plates, SIDs, STARs, airport summaries and anything else your little aviation heart could desire.
A nice feature is the fact that the TripTick you generate remains on the server for 7 days and can be updated any time during that period. Just understand that with either FlightPrep or Aeroplanner, rendering the plethora of printable information could be prohibitively slow on anything short of a broadband connection.
Help is available for Aeroplanner by e-mail or through a moderated forum inside the Web site. Theres a free membership available but, predictably enough, the really swift toys including auto-routing assistance arent available there. To get the best deal on FlightPrep, youve got to lock in for two years. But Aeroplanner has monthly subscriptions to the good stuff, so you can check it out for yourself before committing long term. At $4.95 to $12.95 a month, depending on which level you want, its cheap insurance against buyers remorse.
On an annual basis, Basic, the bare bones VFR iteration is a paltry $49.95 a year. Premium is the level which offers IFR airway planning, enroute NOTAMS, GPS exporting and upload, radar overlay and the like for $119.45 a year
We tried these programs both with broadband (satellite) and dial-up (56k). As would be anticipated, things proceeded with the latter much more slllloooowwwly and it may well be that if youre stuck with dial-up all the time or will be doing lots of flight planning away from broadband, you may want to stick with the software-based programs that can do the planning quickly and then logon for a fast weather download or file.
If youll be doing most of your flight planning from a high-speed connection (or dial-up doesnt make you crazy), the online planners deserve a hard look. All three programs did a reasonable job with automatic IFR route assistance along airways but nobody was totally hands off.
Free is always good and that gives AOPA extra points. On the downside, the client program has to be loaded on any computer you want to use, the server was twitchy and functions were slow and sparse in comparison. FlightPrep and Aeroplanner will cost real dollars but they can be used on any machine that can reach the Web, operate more briskly and have much more flexibility and functionality.
On overall cost and subscription flexibility, Aeroplanner gets the monetary nod. As to function, we really dont have a strong preference. Both do the essentials very well and have lots of whistles and bells.
Is the ability to see significant weather combined with terrain on a profile view your non plus ultra? If so, Aeroplanners for you. Want lots of available aircraft profiles to avoid reinventing multiple wheels. Then FlightPreps the pip. Best of all, you dont have to take our word for it either way. Sign up for the free trial of FlightPrep and buy a month of Aeroplanner so you can make up your own mind.
Software programs are probably still faster overall for planning, even with a broadband connection and there are times, of course, when you cant get to the Internet. But with the online planners products, youve got the potential for one stop shopping for TFRs, charts and planning.
Not to mention the fact that you arent lugging around all that data on the hard drive in between uses and reinstalling new disks every whipstitch (or planning from out of date information). If these products continue to mature, we wouldnt be surprised to see lots of disks winding up as Christmas ornaments over the next few years.
-Jane Garvey is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. She lives near Raleigh, North Carolina and owns a Cessna 182. For offline planners, see the November, 1999 Aviation Consumer.