January 1, 2004
MACHTELD A. SMITH
In today's complex airspace environment it is critical to be aware of how your planned flight plots vis-à-vis current weather and airspace restrictions. In fact, the presidential campaign during this election year promises increased security measures and more restricted flight areas — just one more reason why you must know existing and planned airspace restrictions before you go on any flight, be it local, VFR, IFR, or for training purposes.
Imagine a gorgeous late summer afternoon, the kind that beckons an airplane hop to a $100 hamburger destination while promising a spectacular sunset along the way. But wait! First, get out the trusty E6B, aeronautical chart, plotter, pilot's operating handbook (POH), AOPA's Airport Directory, and navigation log. Then, call flight service to obtain a weather briefing and notices to airmen (notams). The weather outlook is fine and you patiently wait for the flight service briefer to decipher a stack of those pesky notams. Too bad the route you so meticulously plotted traverses a presidential temporary flight restriction (TFR) that is not depicted on the latest aeronautical chart in your hand. AOPA members have for some time expressed concern about being able to safely negotiate our current airspace and get the most critical flight information in a timely manner. Enter AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner (RTFP) developed in partnership with Jeppesen. The new exclusive and free AOPA member benefit released last fall during AOPA Expo in Philadelphia promises to revolutionize the way you flight plan. Flight restrictions, weather, and airport data change constantly. Now you can access this important information real-time through the RTFP interactive online tool that connects to Jeppesen's navigational databases and to AOPA's online directories. The program grabs real TFR data and notam information, and it overlays the most current radar and satellite depictions right on your route. RTFP keeps you out of trouble and liberates you to spend more time in the air and less on the ground. It provides instant feedback to help you make good decisions, period.
How difficult is it to use? Everything you need is assembled and generated while you plan. In fact, once your pilot and aircraft profiles are set up, route planning becomes a snap with an automatically generated navigation log and flight plan ready to electronically transmit to the FAA. Although a help file is accessible from within the application, you probably won't need it. The planner's beauty and utility are in its simplicity. We demonstrated the flight planner at Expo to thousands of AOPA members during the three-day convention. With nine computer terminals and an audience as much as three rows deep, it became a real challenge to run everyone through the tour at the same time and pace. Yet the ease of the program encouraged AOPA members to check out the planner for themselves. After exploring the RTFP, their response was unanimously positive: "Wow, you're kidding — this is great, and it is free to me as an AOPA member?" See for yourself what secrets this exciting flight tool holds.
Rubber-band your route. While planning a flight, simply drag and drop portions of your route around current airspace restrictions or weather.
Chart current TFR graphics and notams. Locate special-use airspace (SUA) and active TFRs, and record how these relate to your planned route.
Overlay real-time weather graphics. Select weather products and radar maps to overlay and provide a clear picture of your route with respect to the weather.
Customize aircraft and pilot profiles and store up to five routes. Access stored routes and profiles from any Internet-connected computer.
Tap into AOPA's Airport Directory online. Seamlessly access AOPA's Airport Directory's powerful database containing the latest information on airports, FBOs, airport services, and instrument approach charts; then print this information in kneeboard format.
Plan routes to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Get airport information for international airports that provide customs and immigration service.
Build a route while your flight plan and navigation log are created instantly. The results are ready to print in kneeboard format and to file online with DUATS.
To download the 1.8 MB application file from AOPA's Web site ( www.aopa.org/flight_planner/) have at your command a personal computer with a Windows-based operating system connected to the Internet. The program has been tested and works on a Mac G4 running Virtual PC for Mac. More details on this can be found on AOPA's Web site ( www.aopa.org/flight_planner/faq.html#macfaq). The RTFP installs itself. To fire it up just double-click the shortcut to connect to the flight planner Web site and log in to the AOPA RTFP with the same user ID and password you use for AOPA Online. If you have forgotten this information or if you are not an AOPA member yet, you can directly access AOPA's Web site through a link provided on the login screen. Of course, personal assistance from our knowledgeable help desk and membership services staff is as close as your telephone (800/872-2672).
The first time you use the flight planner it will take approximately two minutes to retrieve graphical information including the TFRs and geographic map. Subsequent start-ups will take less time. The default screen or en route chart that depicts North America and the latest TFRs across the United States can be zoomed in on to show further details and allow you to overlay or deselect airways, NDBs, and cities. Click on the chart and drag a box over the area that you'd like to see up close. Use the keyboard plus (+) and minus (-) keys to quickly zoom in or out on the chart and to display certain levels of close-up detail.
Electronic flight planners crave personal and aircraft details. The RTFP is no different. Stored on the Jeppesen servers together with up to five saved routes, you have access to "your" profiles and routes anytime you are connected to the Internet with a computer that has the RTFP application installed. Take full advantage of the RTFP's integrated DUATS functions after you set up your pilot profile and a DUATS user ID and password. Those with a U.S. pilot certificate may obtain a free access code from both providers. Contact DTC at 800/243-3828 ( www.duat.com/form/getaccess.frm) or CSC at 800/345-3828 ( www.duats.com/duats.cgi). Next, grab your aircraft's POH. You have the option to create, edit, and store basic aircraft profiles, including specific performance stats such as fuel burn and climb, cruise, and descent rates for up to two aircraft. The NavLog calculates fuel and estimated time en route (ETE) based on this information and integrates this knowledge with real-time weather, so be careful when you feed the RTFP data or your NavLog will be inaccurate.
Entering a route in the flight planner is easy. For example, to plan a flight from Frederick Municipal Airport (FDK) in Maryland to First Flight Airport (FFA) in North Carolina, enter the airport names or identifiers in the planning wizard and choose direct or airways. Your default aircraft and altitude are automatically inserted. The planner calculates the shortest distance between two points on either a direct or airways-based route and displays this on the en route chart. Right-click on the route to delete or show it, and to change route properties such as name, default winds, and cruising altitude. You can also manually modify your route by adding waypoints (including user-defined waypoints) using the drag-and-drop (rubber-band) feature. Lucky for you because the FDK-FFA flight plan plots an airway right through the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which incidentally nearly coincides with the Class B airspace over Baltimore-Washington International (BWI), Washington Dulles International (IAD), Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA), and Andrews Air Force Base (ADW). You can right-click on this airspace mass to get a detailed description of each airspace segment. A click on any one part reveals the actual notams in plain language and in FAA language if you need a challenge. To steer clear, rubber- band the route. Simply click on the route and drag and drop it on nearby intersections or waypoints. In this case, Martinsburg VOR and Linden VOR, located to the west of the ADIZ, are good choices. Within seconds you have circumnavigated this daunting airspace. The NavLog and Flight Plan have been instantly updated during this process.
Based on your planned route, you can obtain a weather briefing and select satellite and weather chart products, including radar summaries, significant weather prognosis, and severe weather outlook using integrated DUATS functions from either DUATS provider. Then overlay your route with current weather radar or satellite graphics to provide a clear picture of your route with respect to the weather. Use the keyboard arrow keys to scroll up, down, left, and right on the chart. The NavLog automatically recalculates your ETE and adjusts your heading based on current winds aloft information. You can scroll through the DUATS session and click on the graphics to get a good look at the images.
When you are satisfied with your route you can print the chart depicting your flight path and the kneeboard-formatted NavLog. Right-click on the airports on your route and tap directly into the AOPA's Airport Directory online database, which is updated every business day. Print the latest airport and FBO details in a handy kneeboard format to take along on your flight. Be sure to look at the date stamp on the printout so you know you have the most up-to-date revision with you. You can even access and print current instrument approach charts directly from the flight planner for each IFR airport along your route.
While dodging pop-up TFRs, don't forget basic route-planning safety. For example, the NavLog reveals the minimum en route altitude (MEA) and minimum off-route altitude (MORA) to help you safely navigate via airway and direct routing. In addition, all navigation frequencies along your route are automatically inserted in the NavLog. You can tailor personal waypoints and drop them onto the en route chart, a particularly handy tool when you want to depict an unlit tower or identify boundaries for your local practice area. You can select and name an icon to use as your waypoint and include coordinates, elevation, comments, and notes. Custom waypoints are saved with the program and will continue to display each time you open the flight-planning chart.
So what are the best things about AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner? It's yours, it's free, and it will revolutionize the way you plan your flights today.
Machteld A. Smith is the director of AOPA's Airport Directory. She is a multi-engine, instrument-rated private pilot with more than 700 hours.
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