Gathering Flight Planning Information

How do you get your weather and NOTAM information when you flight plan? You now have multiple options besides phoning the Flight Service Station (FSS) and getting the information the old fashion way from a briefer. One important thing to consider is if the source you use preserves a record that you actually receivedthe information, as does the FSS briefing.

There are a couple of reasons to get a good briefing on weather and NOTAMs besides common sense: the regulations require it, and your insurance company might disavow all knowledge of you if you bend an airplane and can’t prove you exercised due diligence in gathering all the relevant information for a flight.

The regulations (FAR 91-103, to be exact) require each pilot in command to “become familiar with all available information concerning that flight” in their pre-flight planning. Sounds like a government trap to find something to hang on you. Fortunately, there is the “reasonable person” standard that says all you have to do is be able to prove you took all reasonable steps to be familiar with the planned flight. That proof is only necessary if something goes wrong and the FAA or the NTSB investigates the aftermath of your flight. The results of such an investigation can lead to administrative action about your pilot’s certificate. If the event requires you to file an insurance claim for damages or injuries, your insurance company will want to verify that you followed all appropriate rules in the conduct of that flight before they will consider covering the loss as promised in your insurance policy.

So what are the FAA-approved sources of weather and NOTAMs? There are only three: the Flight Service Station, DUAT, and DUATS. In addition to being approved sources, they also keep FAA-recognized records of any information you request and receive from them in your flight planning process. You may have found these three sources to be less than user friendly and really like other online options. Some of the online options actually get the information you request from one of these three authorized sources, and if you have given your DUAT or DUATs logon information to these other providers when you request weather and NOTAM information, there is a record of that transaction by tail number and user ID. Four sources I know of provide this level of service: fltplan.com, ForeFlight, AOPA flight planner, and WingX. If you use other resources you need to check with them to make sure they get their data from an FAA-approved source and that they keep a record of the transaction. One really good weather source I like that doesn’t provide a record is NOAA’s Aviation Weather Center, even though they are the government agency that supplies weather to the other service providers.

Even when you get your weather and NOTAMs from a source that captures the transaction there is one trap still out there that can ruin your day, and that’s the fact that we operate in a dynamic world. Weather changes, forecasters don’t always get it right, and 5 minutes after you get your NOTAM and TFR brief someone can establish a new TFR along your route of flight for fire-fighting or a short notice VIP visit. What will you do? For weather you can use Flight Watch or monitor HIWAS broadcasts. If you’re IFR, ATC will keep you out of active TFRs, and you can get the same service VFR if you use flight following radar services. Some people are fortunate enough to be able to fly with satellite aviation services with weather and TFRs depicted on an MFD. Bottom line, you need to stay proactively engaged in gathering information about your trip as the flight progresses so a new development doesn’t catch you by surprise.

As an aircraft accident investigator I can tell you that hindsight is 20/20, so your flight planning needs to be thorough enough to stand up to analytical, after-the-fact scrutiny in case anything goes wrong. More importantly, good flight planning will make the decision to go or stay easier and the flight more enjoyable for you and your passengers by taking a lot of stress and uncertainty out of the process. Enjoy the ride.

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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