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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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By John Lorenz

One of the questions on the knowledge test for instrument and commercial pilots obliquely tests how much you know about the important yet largely invisible difference between IFR and VFR flight plans. The question goes something like this: If you are flying on a composite VFR/IFR flight plan where the first part of the flight is to be VFR, what do you do when you get to the IFR pick-up fix? The answer is that you must contact Flight Service and cancel the VFR plan, and then contact Center and pick up the IFR plan. This seems redundant and silly until one understands that even though they are both filed with Flight Service and even though both use the same form, IFR and VFR flight plans are in fact two entirely different animals.

Once a VFR flight plan gets activated, it stays in an administrative holding pattern with Flight Service until we cancel it, but no one is checking during the flight to see whether we’re flying the airspeed, altitude, or route we filed. Rather, the plan’s primary purpose is to trigger the search and rescue process if it isn’t cancelled by the pilot: Flight Service must assume that we have had an accident if we don’t cancel a flight plan soon after it times out. If a few phone calls don’t turn up a forgetful pilot on the ramp, an earnest search gets underway and now we’re talking time and dollars so pilots get barked at if, in their rush to the bathroom, they forget to cancel.

For an IFR flight, some of the information on the flight plan form gets sent to Air Traffic Control. ATC doesn’t care about your phone number or what color your plane is, but needs to know your intended altitude, route, and airspeed. Flight Service doesn’t open the plan or monitor the flight: rather, contact with ATC constitutes opening an IFR flight plan and constant contact keeps the flight plan active. ATC considers the plan closed when the tower sees you land, which is why you have to actually call ATC to close an IFR plan after landing at a non-towered airport. If ATC looses contact they implement a search, and Flight Service gives the rescue people the other particulars from the flight plan such as airplane color and number on board.

I was headed from Albuquerque to Midland not too long ago when I wound up with two, simultaneously active flight plans, illustrating the IFR-VFR difference. I had filed VFR for the entire route because the weather was forecast to be good and because there’s a lot of nothing between here and Midland; it’s comfortable to know that somebody with resources cares about the outcome of your flight. Seventy miles short of Hobbs, I picked up their ATIS and heard the unexpected and unsettling report that they had an indefinite ceiling and 1/16th of a mile of visibility. The “1/16th” was emphasized on the human-voice recording, probably to make sure that New Mexico pilots, who rarely get to see fog and get giddy over the prospect, fully understood. I was still in VFR conditions but was beginning to see the un-forecast clouds ahead.

The path of least initial resistance would have been to forge ahead and see what the in-flight conditions were, but as you get closer to weather your options get fewer and the pressure builds to make a decision, right or wrong. Better to form a plan and lay the groundwork for it early. Landing in Roswell to assess the weather by phone from the FBO* was one option, but Flight Service would have only had the same ATIS report, so there was little to be gained from that other than a radar image and, possibly, time to let the weather improve. But with an IFR plane and ticket, the system offered other options. I radioed Flight Service to get an in-flight weather update and then air-filed an IFR flight plan in case I needed it, to be picked up another 40 miles along the route.

I didn’t cancel the VFR flight plan because I wasn’t yet sure that I’d need to exchange it for the IFR plan. When I got near Hobbs, however, the weather was indeed IMC. Since ATC expected me, they provided a quick clearance and now I was on an IFR flight plan. My VFR flight plan was still active. I could have called Flight Service again and cancelled it, but there was no need for the distraction since the plan was not due to expire until the time I expected to land in Midland anyway. I let it run and closed it after landing.

This was not the exact procedure that the FAA knowledge-test question above would have suggested, but it achieved the same end. The FAA question is designed to point out that just picking up the IFR clearance on a composite IFR/VFR flight plan does not close the VFR portion of the plan, which, because it’s not really related to the IFR plan despite appearances, has to be closed separately with Flight Service. It’s a non-intuitive system but it works if we understand it.

*The term FBO or “Fixed Base Operator” doesn’t mean much these days, but it has a logical origin. It’s relict from the day when it was used to distinguish a local business from the barnstorming “Operators” who offered flight services while traveling around the country and who therefore did not have a “Fixed Base.” Neat, eh?

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