Flight Planning

A quick review of my Part 135 Flight Planning Routine

My company, Flying M Air, is an FAA Part 135 operator. What that means is that I had to go through a lot of paperwork and testing with the FAA to be allowed to take paying passengers more than 25 miles from my starting point or to land with paying passengers on board.

As a Part 135 operator, I have the FAA looking over my shoulder to make sure I do everything “by the book.” The book, in this case, is my Statement of Compliance, a 50+ page document I wrote that explains how I’ll follow the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) that pertain to my Part 135 operations. The FAA reviewed this document in painstaking detail and it took about three months to fine-tune it to the FAA’s satisfaction. Of course, the FAA also conducts surprise and scheduled inspections of my aircraft and my base of operations (my hangar) to make sure everything is just right. And because I’m required to be on a drug testing program, I’ve been told that I can expect a visit from the FAA’s “drug-testing police” one day in the future.

For the record, I have no problem following FAA’s requirements for my operation. They’re not asking for anything unreasonable and everything they require is in the interest of safety for me, my passengers, and my aircraft.

Anyway, one of the requirements for Part 135 operations is flight planning. And, at this point, I have it down to a science.

I start by getting the names and approximate weights of the passengers I’ll be carrying, along with our destination, expected time on the ground, and any special route requests.

Today’s a good example. My two passengers want to fly from Wickenburg to Sedona and back. They want a scenic route both ways so they can see as much of the area as possible. At Sedona, they want to take a Jeep tour at least 2 hours long. I’ll have to line that up for them so the Jeep folks meet them at Sedona Airport when we arrive. With lunch and other activities on the ground, I expect to be there 4-5 hours. I expect to depart Wickenburg at 10 AM and depart Sedona by about 4 PM. My route will take them past some of the area’s mining areas, over Prescott, near Sycamore Canyon, and past Sedona’s red rocks before landing. On departure, we’ll swing past Jerome and follow the Bradshaws down to Lake Pleasant, where I can show them some Indian ruins and the house on Sheep Mountain. A final swing around Vulture Peak and over the ranch where they’re staying will get us back to Wickenburg. Total time enroute: about an hour each way.

With this information in mind, I fire up my Web browser and visit the Duats Web site. Duats is a free flight planning service for pilots. I log in and enter my flight plan for a weather briefing that includes current conditions at airports on or near my route (Prescott and Flagstaff) as well as NOTAMs. Today I learned that we’ll have typically clear Arizona weather with the possibility of some high cirrus clouds. It’s windy right now in Flagstaff, with gusts up to 34 knots, but the wind is expected to calm a little bit as the day wears on. Still, I can expect some very light turbulence as the winds pass over the mountains we have to cross or fly around: the Weavers, the Bradshaws, and Mingus Mountain.

Duats also has a flight planning feature and I use this next. It takes the information I’ve already entered to get the weather and uses it to calculate the route and enroute time for the flight. Since I can’t put as much detail into Duats as I need to, its flight plan is much simpler than my scenic route. It says it’ll take 45 minutes to get there and 40 minutes to return. I file both of those flight plans, each with their own times (10 am and 4 pm) with the FAA. They’ll sit in the FAA’s computers until I either activate them (one at a time, of course) or they expire.

Next, I whip out my Manifest form. This is an Excel spreadsheet I designed that automatically calculates weight and balance for my helicopter. I enter all the flight plan information, as well as my starting fuel load and the names and weights of my passengers in the seats I expect to put them. For weights, I add 20 lbs. I used to add 10 lbs, but the folks who book these flights don’t seem to have a clue about weights. It’s always better to overestimate than underestimate. And since it’s nearly impossible to load an R44 out of CG, it doesn’t matter if the two passengers sit somewhere other than the seats I expect to put them in. When my passengers are light — as these two are — I usually put them both on the same side of the helicopter so they have the same basic view. I then fly so that the most interesting views are on their side. But if they both want to sit in back, that’ll work, too. Or any combination they want.

The Manifest form is also designed to be used when I don’t have access to the Internet. It creates the same flight plan that I file with the FAA. So if I have to get the weather from a telephone briefer, I can file my flight plan over the phone at the same time rather than via the Internet.

If I have access to a printer, which I usually do during flight planning, I print out my manifest form for each leg of the trip, my flight plans for each leg of the trip, and my weight and balance for each leg of the trip. If I plan to start each leg of the trip with the same amount of fuel and take the same amount of time, I only print one weight and balance sheet. No sense wasting paper. But today I printed two sheets — I plan to fill up in Sedona since my passenger load is light and fuel is currently cheaper there than in Wickenburg.

I usually give a copy of my manifest — that’s the form with the passenger names and flight plan — to Mike. He’s my backup flight following. I call Mike when I depart and arrive each leg of the trip. If I don’t call in on time and he can’t get me on my cell phone, he takes the next steps with Flight Service.

Of course, I also open my filed flight plans with the local Flight Service Station (FSS). Although I prefer to do this on the ground before I start up, the FSS prefers that pilots do this on departure. My problem is that as a helicopter, I don’t always get enough altitude to access one of the radio frequencies the FSS uses. So I sometimes can’t activate a flight plan until I’m 10 minute into my flight. I close the flight plan by phone when I land, then call Mike to let him know I’ve arrived safely.

All the paperwork that’s generated for the flight is left on my desk in my hangar. After the flight is done, I file it. The FAA likes to look at these papers when they do their base inspection, even though I’m not required to save them.

And that’s about it. As you can see, the whole routine is designed to make sure I properly plan the flight and have at least one form of flight following to make sure a search is conducted promptly if I do not arrive at my destination. It sounds like a lot of work, but I can normally do it in less than 20 minutes with my computer and an Internet connection. To do it manually would take about twice the amount of time.

So I’m flying to Sedona today. I’d better bring a book; I have a feeling I’ll be spending a lot of time at the airport there.

3 thoughts on “Flight Planning

  1. We are interested in knowing more about the House on Sheep Mountain. We rode our Polaris Rangers up to the house from Wickenburg. We were just amazed at what was done there. Do you know who owned it and why they stopped building? We would appreciate knowing anything you could tell us.


  2. The house is on private property. The owner is still alive. The story I heard is that construction was halted due to a personal tragedy.

    Sadly, too many people have been riding up there on ATVs to vandalize the place. A friend of mine flew up there recently in his helicopter and said that there were a bunch of ATVs there when he arrived. A recent wave of vandalism — possibly from that group — had taken out every piece of glass that hadn’t already been destroyed. My friend said he’s going to advise the owner to permanently block off the road to prevent others from riding up and doing more damage.

    I’m extremely saddened by the whole affair. The building is in a magnificent location, remote and away from the rest of the world. Yet people with no consideration for other people’s property have found it necessary to destroy what they could. For what purpose?

    I no longer fly over the place with passengers. Like so many others who care, I’m trying to keep the existence and location of the place a secret in an attempt to protect it from further damage.

  3. We happened on the house quite by accident, we did not come across any gates or no tresspassing signs. I can assure you that not all people that off road are irresponsible. We did not cause any further damage and were saddened by what others had done. We were only interested in the property for its historical significance. It is certainly a beautiful project and unfortunate that it was not completed. We will not return to the property, nor will I lead others to it.

What do you think?