Even if you’re an IFR pilot there are times you just feel like flying a trip as VFR. There are many ways to digitally plan such a flight — AOPA has a very nice online flight planner for members — but my preference is to do it the old school way: waypoints, courses and distances plotted out on a sectional. I feel that this method gets me more in touch with the details of the route than any of the online planners, and I’ve come to enjoy the map work.
But if you’re comfortably beyond your student-pilot days, the last thing you should be doing is using your E6B to figure wind correction angles and groundspeeds; it’s far too time consuming. If you really know you know how to do this, then there’s no point in wasting that time; let a computer do it. (And if you don’t feel that confidence, get some practice.)
Excel, well, excels at this kind of number crunching. My Excel-based VFR planner worksheet looks and acts a lot like the paper planners you’ve worked with, and prints beautifully on a regular sheet of paper. But unlike a paper planner, Excel takes care of all the math for you. You just supply the waypoint and distance information.
This planner is particularly elegant because once you fold it, it hides the nonessential information and presents you with only what you need at a glance to fly the route: altitude, compass heading, distance, timing information. Plus there’s a handy place to record departure and destination airport info, ATIS at both ends, and various important times. I’ve been using this planner for quite a while, putting improvements into it over many iterations. It’s become a truly handy little tool.
- Determine and plot your waypoints, courses and distances on a sectional like you normally would.
- Fill in the yellow-background cells of the spreadsheet. For this you’ll need your waypoint data, wind data from aviationweather.gov., and POH data such as “Cruise Performance” and “Time, Fuel and Distance to Climb”.
- White cells such as WCA (Wind Correction Angle) auto-populate for you. Note the MC column: it’s your Magnetic Course, useful for planning your altitude via the hemispheric rule.
- Fill in the Airport Info block for quick reference in flight. I also like to sketch the destination runway and traffic pattern in the blank area below that.
- Fold it twice so that the two big, bold vertical lines meet; I then like to tape the fold down. The Alt and CH columns meet and the interstitial columns are neatly tucked away. It’s now ready to be hole-punched for your binder or clipped to your kneeboard.
- Fill in the ATE (Actual Time Enroute) and other information en route.
Remember, garbage in, garbage out. The tool is only as useful and accurate as the data fed into it, not to mention the inevitable real-world variations that you’ll encounter. So keep in mind, predicted winds change, fuel consumption isn’t exact, and so on. Like any planning tool, its value only goes so far when compared with the real world.
I hope that you enjoy this tool. If you think of any ways I can improve it, please let me know.