Click here to edit subtitle

IFR Flight Planning - How Its Done

IFR Flight Planning - How It's Done (the basics)

IFR flying involves many aspects - some complicated, some more or less straightforward.  The upside is that everything pretty much follows the same set of processes.  The downside is that most of the work is packed into the departure and approach (some of which can be complex and must be prepared for ahead of time) between which is a segment of straightforward and (especially if pre-programed into the GPS or FMC) usually auto pilot-flown enroute segment.

The information that follows is no where near a complete description or explanation of all the aspects of IFR flight planning.  And - this does NOT cover how you actually fly an aircraft by instruments.  This is a general overview with some resources and references provided for flight planning - the intent here is to get you started with enough information for you to be comfortable with the concepts of developing and flying IFR routes.  You should be able to expand your knowledge from here - on your own, with the help of others, by listening and watching - any way you like.

If you want information on how to fly instrument approaches check out the excellent work done by Charles Wood - Flight Simulator Navigation  In addition to detailed discussions of instrument aproaches (including ILS, Localizer, VOR and NDB approaches) he covers VFR and IFR chart reading and navigating by VOR and NDB.  Click on the buttons in the menu on the left side of the page - this will expand each section's menu into the subparts.

Implicit in IFR flight is that it is controlled flight - it is conducted in and out of controlled facilities and if above 18,000 feet (Class A airspace) or in IMC (Instrument Meteorolgical Conditions) during the enroute portion of the flight (where otherwise you might revert to 'VFR on top').  This means that ATC (air traffic control) is part of an IFR flight.  Some find this intimidating at first - but you should not be intimidated.  ATC is there to keep everyone safe and to a certain degree can take the burden of navigating to your enroute transition or to final approach off the pilot.  For some basics on ATC see our page Air Traffic Control Basics.

Note that the information that follows if for US-based civilian aviation.  Procedures for flying outside the US differ, as do certain rules for military, governmental and certain other specific types of aviation.

And one thing to keep in mind as you try to gulp down all this information - once you use instrument flight plans you will not only become very familiar with the routes that you fly (even if only occasionally) but you will become comfortable reading a new route.  Remember - everything follows the same set of processes and after a few flights your comfort level will have increased greatly.


Airways - the 'Piece in the Middle'


Note that the nomenclature, naming conventions and terminology is that used in North America and specifically relates to the US Federal Aviation Administration terminology.  While the principles are very similar, terminology and naming conventions differ for flying outside of the US.  This also applies to other sections that follow this 'Airways' section.


It may seem a bit odd to start here but in a sense this is the logical place to start since it is the backbone of the flight plan to which the other pieces are added - SIDS, en-route transitions, STARs, and ILS, RNAV, VOR or vectored to visual approaches.  The terms SIDs, STARS, etc. will be defined as we go.


Types of Airways:


RNAV - Area Navigation - This may be the most familiar 'routing' you know.  In this era of aviation this is often done using GPS - direct from one point to another and can include a connection  between the transition point of a SID to the transition point of a STAR.  Direct, one place to another, wherever you want it to be.


RNAV 'T' and 'Q' Routes - RNAV T (below 18,000 ft) and Q (from FL180 to FL450) are designated routes (possibly temporary) that can be flown by RNAV-equipped aircraft.  So, these are really not 'random' - so why use them?  Because they provide a balance between the completely arbitrary GPS-direct routing from any point 'A' to any point 'B' and the need to zig-zag (sometimes not, sometimes only a little bit) if flying Victor or Jet Airways (at least for fairly large segments as compared to Jet and Victor Airways use).  The advantage?  Since this is a defined route ATC does not need to watch you every step of the way (lowers the burden on them and may avoid heading and altitude changes for appropriate traffic spacing for you).  Also, the posted minimum altitudes assure that you are at a safe altitude and if you penetrate restricted airspace this will be clearly identified.


Victor Airways - Low altitude (up to but not including 18,000 feet) designated routes between navigation aids (VORs, NDBs) or defined points such as intersections and reporting points.  Because these are defined by conventional navigation aides the routes can be flown with conventional IFR navigation equipment (no GPS or FMC required).  Victor Airways are designated by the letter 'V' followed by one to three numbers (e.g., V256, V83) - when the numbers are even the airways go generally east and west.  Odd numbers are airways going generally north-south.  When two Victor airways meet they may form one common airway.  In this case the common section of the airway contains both numbers - for example:  Flying west to east - V4 and V50 meet at an intersection and form a single common Victor airway that continues east, designtated V4-50.  One-way routes (not usually seen) are designated by an arrow pointing in the allowed direction.


Jet Airways - High altitude airways between FL180 and FL450.  Designated by the letter 'J' followed by one to three numbers.  Other than the altitude range their nomenclature and routing stucture follows that as described for Victor airways, above.

Note that the FAA now intends to move to the NextGen National Airspace System based on RNAV everywhere and Required Navigational Performance (RNP) where beneficial.  See the Federal Register from August 21, 2012 - somewhat lengthy but take a look at the summary from the December 15, 2011 Federal Register near the beginning of the document and the final couple of paragraphs at the end.  Of course, this will not affect sim flying on any current software (particularly FSX, where no further updates are available) and makes RNAV (in our opinion, an often-used navigation option in sim flying) more of the standard, versus Jet and Victor Airways navigation based on VORs and NDBs.


Airway chart resources:  SkyVector.com   AirNav.com  - both sites have airways charts available and much more - including airport-specific information, approach plates, SID and STAR plates and airport diagrams (handy for knowing where to taxi once you are on the ground).


We have not covered the many and important terms, symbols and other important information that are included on an airways route chart.  We recommend you review the information from the FAA defining IFR Aeronautical Chart Symbols.

Reading IFR Charts:

Here we will cover only some very rudimentary points - much of which is covered in the FAA publication in the link immediately above.  Look at this section of an IFR chart showing high altitude airways:  Click Here

A bit hard to read when zoomed out this far but you can appreciate the several Jet Airways (the black lines) and Q Routes (the blue lines).  As explained above, Jet Airways (and their low altitude version, Victor Airways) use VORs and NDBs as the cornerstone of their definition.  Intersections can also be seen in the next section you will learn that these are also defined by physical navigation aides.  Near the center of the chart you see two VORs with some routes passing through them and farther to the right two more VORs with multiple routes intersecting them.

Note near the upper quarter of the page, slanting northward from left to right is a Q Route - an RNAV route that uses virtual waypoints to define it.  There are even three other routes that could be taken in addition to the main route at waypoint PARZZ - all from a virtual point.  

Now take a look at a zoomed-in view - here.  You can see in better detail the first two VORs referred to - with compass rose and frequency along with geographical coordinates and the airways passing through them.  Note that there is a Q Route (Q122) that also uses one of these VORs as one of its locator points.  Near the top left portion of this is the PARZZ waypoint and Q Routes discussed above.

Much of the other information is fairly self-explanatory.  At each transition point you see the direction with a small arrow - this is the magnetic heading of that segment of the airway in the direction that the arrow is pointing.  Some routes have Minimum Enroute Altitudes designated by 'MEA' followed by a number - for high altitude charts this is given if the MEA is greater than 18000 feet.  The MEA convention is different for low altitude charts so check the FAA publication referenced above.  MEA is also used on Terminal Procedures plates, discussed next.  Other information includes airport location and name (but nothing else in many cases) and restricted and prohibitied airspace or other pertinent airspace information.

Look at a chart from an area you are interested in (use the links to SkyVector or AirNav above) and the FAA publication on chart symbols and you will find that reading these charts is fairly intuitive.  Choosing which routes to use is also intuitive - generally the most direct way from point A to point B.  More on routes later.  Also take a look at some low altitude chart to see some of the differences in the information given for Victor Airways and T Routes.

Terminal Procedures:

Teminal Procedures consist of three types:

Standard Terminal Arrivals (STARs)

Instrument Approach Procedures (IAPs) - which includes ILS, localizer, VOR, DME and RNAV (RNP and GPS) arrival procedures, which can be used separately (e.g., vectors to the initial approach fix [IAF]) or in conjunction with a STAR.  IAPs will not be covered here.  We will try to identify some instructional videos and other resources and post them here.

Departure Proceedures (DPs) - which include Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs) and Obstacle Departure Procedures (ODPs), which can be flown without ATC clearance unless used in connection with SIDs, radar vectors or other ATC-managed flight).  This discussion will focus on SIDs.

Naming Convention:  Like Jet and Victor airways, navigation aids, intersections and reporting points follow their own format for identification - we'll take a moment to discuss this.

VORs are identified by three letters

NDBs are identified by one, two or three letters (so don't confuse the three-letter IDs with a VOR) and sometimes by a number followed by a letter

ILS approaches are identified by an 'I' followed by three letters (so, four letters in all with the first always being an 'I')

Intersections - the position of an intersection is usually defined by the intersection (hence the name) of two VOR radials.  In flight you may be allowed to identify certain ones by the DME distance along a specific radial from only one VOR if so equipped.  Most Intersections are identified by five letters, all capitalized.  (Some are two or three numbers followed by one, two or three letters - usually so that together they are five characters, but not always - and the number-prefix intersections are not very common).   When spoken, the convention is to make it sound like a single word.  Some are fairly obvious - ALAMO is pronounced just like it sounds.  Others might require a bit of 'local knowledge' but if you remember where you are then you can usually figure it out.  For example, there is a certain STAR that includes the intersection GUITR - which you might get right anyway but you might think 'gutter' or 'gweeter' (whatever that is) or something like that except since you would know this is on the GUITR4 arrival for KBNA (Nashville!) you realize this is the 'guitar' intersection.  And, it doesn't hurt to know that the intersection just before this one is FIDDL - fiddle.  Pull up a couple of approaches on SkyVector.com/Airports or AirNav.com/Airports and check out some the intersecton and waypoint names on the approaches in your area and see what "local flavor" is reflected in the names.  And maybe someone can explain why the ILS to KLEB Rwy18 would have the series of intersection HAMMM - BURGR - FRYYS.

Waypoints are like intersections - five letters, pronounced as if they were a word.  You will see waypoints on RNAV charts - the term waypoint coming into use specifically to identify an RNAV navigation point.  Although some waypoints are associated with physical structures (VORs, NDBs or intersections) they can be just 'virtual points' in the airspace, identified by longitude and latitude only.  Note that sometimes the term 'waypoint' is used in a more general sense - if you are taking a road trip or even a hike you might refer to some spot as a 'waypoint' and the same thing happens in aviation.  The FAA uses 'waypoint' specifically in association with RNAV and RNP navigation.  This includes their program for the development of VFR Waypoint Charting to expand RNAV fixes to VFR flight.

Like some intersections the pronunciation is obvious but with others you may not ever get right unless you know the local area or hear them - PILLA is not 'pill-ah' but is pronounced 'pee-ah'  (Spanish speakers will recognize the double 'L' and the correct pronunciation of the vowel 'I') but you might have gotten a hint at how this is pronounced if you knew these were on the RNAV STAR Lizzard One into Albuquerque - and, knowing it was the waypoint after SOPPA (pronounced 'soap-ah') might also have been a clue.  And, if you have never had a sopapilla then you must try one - but make it a real New Mexico sopapilla!  Others are poor imitations.

SIDs and STARs also have a naming convention - sort of.  Usually some contraction of the actual name (which is included on the plate), followed by a number and can be fairly obvious (e.g. BOWIE5 for the Bowie five departure from KSAT) but may be a bit more cryptic like the PIT9 (Pittsburgh nine) departure from KPIT - but usually makes sense.  The important thing about SID and STAR designations is not in the pronunciation but that it is the abbreviated designation, not the full name, that is used in the flight plan you file when using a SID or STAR - more on filing flight plans later.

SIDs - Standard Instrument Departures

The purpose of a SID is primarily twofold - Safety and to ease the burden on ATC by expediting clearance delivery and the transition from departure to the en-route phase of flight.  A fundamental requirement for flying a SID is that you have the published procedure in-hand.  You cannot fly a SID (or any other procedure) without knowing where to go, the altitude requirements you must abide by and other pertinent information contained in the narrative section.

Some SIDs consist of two separate parts - the diagram, showing the facility, waypoints and navigation aids that make up the procedure and the narrative portion which provides an explanation of the procedure.  Some SIDs combine the diagram and narrative parts into one page, and even those that have a separate narrative page usually have some narrative information on the diagram itself.

The SID itself contains two basic parts - the designated departure route and the transition point.  Usually the intial portion of the SID route is the same - everyone flies to one specific point, then the SID branches to different transition points.  You select the SID itself based on the runway used for departure and the general direction your flight plan takes you in.  You select your SID transition point to refine your desired direction.

Some SIDs can be quite simple - hold the runway heading, fly the altitude as published or as directed by ATC, await radar vectors to the transition point.  An example is the Pittsburgh Nine departure (PIT9) from KPIT.  As you can see from the DIAGRAM ( <--- click there) you simply hold the runway heading (as explained in the NARRATIVE) and make no turns until assigned by ATC or you have been vectored to the appropriate fix.  In this SID there is no true transition point, just a fix that you select from those designated on the departure plate (although in essence this is like a series of one-legged SID departure route-transition point spokes emanating from the 'hub', the airport).  In this example, if you were departing Rwy 10R and your route was to the south you might pick the BURGS intersection or the Clarksburg (CKB) VOR  If you wanted to shift a little east first before turning south you might pick the Johnstown (JST) VOR.  Technically this might be considered to be what is termed a Vector SID, where you are vectored to a designated fix in lieu of following a defined route to a transition point.  A modification of this theme is a SID that uses radar vectors to an initial departure fix (IDF) from which you to then fly the departure procedure route to your selected transition point - similar to the next example except the first segment of the SID is by vectors, not via a defined route.

The other basic type of SID is a pilot-navigated SID, where the pilot is responsible for following a defined course.  An example is the STREL1 departure from KSNA.  This is a SID used only by Rwy 19R (why this is should be evident from the specific track that is shown) where you depart Rwy 19R and maintain the runway heading until you are at a point that is on a line extending at 353 degrees (the reciprocal of 173 deg) from the TOING intersection where you would turn (without need for ATC instruction) to head on a bearing of 173 deg to the TOING intersection, then proceed along the designated route to PIGGN.  At PIGGN you can either continue directly east to the Thermal VOR (TRM) or southeast then east via JARDO to PILLO (pronounced 'pillow', not 'pee-oh' since you're in southern California, not New Mexico) to the Imperial VOR (IPL).  In this case the STREL1 SID has two transition points - TRM and IPL - but you only pick one - the best one for your en-route portion of the flight.

Keep in mind that at any given time ATC can instruct you to deviate from a SID (or STAR).  You should comply (be it a heading, altitude change or speed change or any other instruction).  If you cannot, you must advise ATC that you 'cannot comply'.  You will then work out whatever is necessary to do between the two of you.  Be cooperative - try to make both of you happy but remember - the safety and security of the aircraft is solely the pilot's responsibility.

STARs - Standard Terminal Arrival Routes

Like SIDs, STARs are used to help ensure safety and to reduce the workload on ATC.  STARs have a similar structure as do SIDs, only backwards.  When flying a SID you follow a single defined route then branch off to a transition point.  When flying a STAR you enter at a transition point (and there may be several to choose from) but all these eventually come together after which everyone flies the same route to the destination airport.  Some can be fairly simple - see the VEENA2 arrival into KMKE.  Only two transition points - the Janesville VOR to the west and the Joliet VOR to the south.  Both meet at the VEENA intersection and from there - as the plate says (and, no narrative page, it's all on the diagram page) you depart VEENA heading 050 degrees and wait for vectors to the approach.  Pretty basic and not unlike the way you might apporach KMKE but with the VEENA2 approach ATC knows where you should be and so do you - both horizontally and vertically.

Others are more complex - and compound the confusion by putting the approach for multiple runways on the same plate.  Take a look at the FLCON8 arrival into KATL.  Three transitions, ten runways that could be used, and all on one page (no narrative page)!  Some STARs further complicate things by serving more than one facility.  Take a look at the CURSO2 arrival (links in the next sentence) you might use into KMIA.  It requires three separate pages - the Transition Portion, with two transitions (one is an NDB - how last century is that!), the Arrival Routes portion and the Narrative.  Note on the Arrival Routes plate (and included in the Narrative section) there are nine airports that use this same STAR.  But, arrivals don't have to be complex to serve more than one facility.  Take another look at the fairly simple VEENA2 arrival and all the airports that this serves, shown on the right side of the plate.

Both SIDs and STARs use the same symbols (in fact, all charts use the same symbols that they have in common).  Important in understanding any chart is knowing what the symbols mean so familiarize yourself with the FAA's IFR Aeronautical Chart Symbols.  We will not cover every nuance of SID and STAR interpretation but will cover a few basics -

Reading SIDs and STARs:

As stated, this is very limited information on reading these procedures but we just want to cover out a few key points to help your understanding.  This is not all you should know.

Direction of flight - identified by the arrow heads on each segment of the procedure (and usually identifiable by the logical flow of the procedure).  The magnetic course is designated also (the number with the 'degree' symbol) but may not be included in each segment (each separate line-arrow head combination).  For segments (especially short ones) that continue in the same direction the magnetic heading may only be given at the first segment.

Distance - each segment's line with arrow (pointing in the direction of flight) has a number in parentheses below the direction line that gives the distance of that segment in nautical miles.  Each segment will have the distance (almost always rounded to a whole number) between identified points (intersections, VORs, etc) on the plate.  A different distance number - the one in the "D" (or maybe closer to a half-oval) shaped symbol with an arrow attached to it pointing to the next identified point in the cumulative distance from a specific reference point (usually a VOR since this is the DME distance).  Look again at the VEENA2 arrival plate, starting at the Joliet (JOT) transition.  The distance from JOT to LEEDN is 10 NM (the number in parentheses).  The distance from LEEDN to ROODY also happens to be 10 NM and - note the number in the "D" with the arrow pointing at ROODY - 20 NM - this is the total distance from JOT to ROODY (the distance that your DME tuned to JOT would read at RODDY).  The segment from ROODY to VEENA is 49 NM and the total from JOT to VEENA (in the "D") is 69 NM.  Knowing the total distance across several identified points helps with planning altitude changes and also with tracking your way along the course since you know how far from JOT you are.  And - on some occasions ATC may ask you to do something based on your DME distance.  Maybe the VEENA2 arrival is not very busy in front of you and ATC wants to start vectoring you earlier to provide clearance for traffic following you.  They may ask you to cross 'Cross RODDY then turn 045 degrees 50 DME from Joliet' - so even if you are flying by GPS it is always a good idea to tune to the applicable VOR frequencies for the DME information.

Intersection - Identified by a triangle - solid triangles are compulsory reporting points ONLY if ATC has NOT established radar contact or advises 'Radar contact lost'.  Some may also have a circle - this indicates that this is a 'fly-over' intersection.  The majority do not have circles and are termed 'fly-by' intersections.  Navigating a fly-over vs. a fly-by intersection is described below.

Waypoint - Identified by a sort of 'stylized star' (a bit like the Quasar TV symbol).  Note that some Waypoints are solid - these are compulsory reporting points, but only compulsory if not in radar contact - they follow the same rules for reporting as do Intersections that are designated by a solid triangle as described in the section on Intersections.  Some waypoint symbols are fully encircled (not talking about the little circle that makes up the center of the symbol but a circle around the 'tips' of the waypoint symbol).  These are "fly-over" waypoints.  These often identify specific fixes like the Final Approach Fix (FAF) or Missed Approach Fix (MAF).  Fly-over waypoints are a minority of all waypoints.  Most do not have a circle around them  - these are "fly-by" waypoints.

Navigating fly-by vs. fly-over intersections and waypoints:  

If you make a turn at a fly-by intersection or waypoint you would do so such that you would make a smooth transition from your current direction to intercept the continuation of the route in the new direction.  The distance before you start the turn depends on the equipment you are flying but a general rule is to stay within 1.5 NM of the fix.  So, you would start the turn before the fix which would cause you to arc before the fix (so you would fly by the fix but not over it) and roll out of your turn to smoothly intercept the next leg after the fix.   This may be thought of as the usual way you would make an en-route turn.

If you make a turn at a fly-over intersection or waypoint the turn does not start until you are over the fix.  Instead, as the name says, you fly over (actually just directly over, not over and past) the fix and begin your turn when you are directly over the fix.  This requires you to make a sharper turn after the fix than that required for a fly-by waypoint.  Click here for an illustration of a fly-by and fly-over waypoint.

But, in sim flying - if you're trying to be as realistic as possible - keep in mind that your GPS-coupled autopilot will likely deal with all waypoints and intersections as if they are fly-by points.  So, if you encounter a fly-over waypoint or intersection switch to heading hold (on the current heading), wait until you are directly over the fix, then turn your heading bug (or manually fly) to intercept the next leg of the course, then re-engage the GPS navigation.

Altitude - possibly the most confusing thing on SIDs, STARs and en-route Jet and Victor Airways charts because there are so many different 'versions' of altitude, all with their own specific meaning.  And - in some cases you will see that there may be more than one altitude specified unless (in normal flight) one 'trumps' the other.  Pull up the NUMMY1 arrival to KDCA.  This is all on one plate and there is a lot of information there.  The arrival starts from the left edge of the chart at BUCKO, with the next point DRRON (look out - they may be watching you!). 

There is a set of three numbers in this first segment - you recognize two (direction and distance between the two points) because they are in the format described earlier (degree symbol and parentheses, respectively).  The third number represents an altitude.  If you scan across to the right you will see a few other altitudes listed either just above or just below the segment line (their location gets moved around a bit when other things need to be displayed - in this case a couple of holding patterns) as the approach progresses and, as you might expect, all going downward.  These represent the ...

Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA) - The altitude which, if you remain above and stay on course you will be 1000 feet above any obstacle (2000 feet if in mountainous terrain).    Sometimes the Minimum Obstruction Clearance Altitude (MOCA) is also listed - a number with an asterisk  ' * ' - but if not (and there is usually not one) you should assume the 1000 ft (or 2000 ft) rule is in play.  Keep in mind that the MOCA is valid only within 22 NM of the nearest navaid and may not apply for the entire route segment or area that the MEA applies to.  And keep in mind that the MEA or MOCA lets you know how low you could go safely, but is not necessarily where you should be.

The MEA and other advisory altitudes are published on every STAR.  However, there are certain STARs that have required altitudes (and are more correctly referred to as Profile Descents).  STARs (vs. a Profile Descent) specify horizontal navigation requirements; ATC provides the vertical direction.  Take a look at that same part of the NUMMY1 approach - below the word BUCCO and the longitude latitude is a number that has a line both above it and below it - that looks something like this:  



Mandatory Altitude at Crossing - When you see a line both above and below an atitude (in this case, designated as a flight level) this means you MUST be at that altitude - do not confuse this with the MEA discussed above.  The MEA is considered the minimum safe altitude but does not necessarily mean that is the altitude you should be at.  If there is another altitude posted, either a manadatory altitude or maximim or minimum altitude (discussed next) then you must abide by this altitude.

Sometimes you will see two altitudes between the top and bottom line like at MORLL, DRUZZ and FORGT.  This indicates the range of allowable altitudes but you must be at least at the lower of the two and not exceed the upper of the two.  For example, DRUZZ (below it's geographic coordinates) shows two altitudes - 17000 ft just below the top line and 15000 feet above the bottom line and just below the 17000.  You can be anywhere between the two altitudes listed but you MUST be somewhere in that range.  Maybe think of it as a box where you can be anywhere inside the box but can't go above the top or below the bottom.

Maximum Altitude at Crossing - This is designated by an altitude with a line above it - as shown at HONNR.  This means that you must cross the HONNR intersection at or below FL280.  Think of the line above as a ceiling that you can't go above.  Theoretically you could be anywhere between this maximum altitude at crossing and the MEA - BUT - since you need to be between FL200 and 17000 feet at MORLL (the two altitudes between the lines above and below them) then it would not be practical to descend below 11000 ft (note that the MEA changed after the Kessel VOR to 11000 feet).

Minimum Altitude at Crossing - Intersection ALWYZ shows the altitude with a line under the number - 9000 .  You must be at or above 9000 feet.  Think of the line below as a floor that you can't go below.

Altitudes in the Narrative - You must read the narrative - additional information  about altitudes (and other things) that you should know will be there.

Altitude Planning Information - Look at the LEMIG1 approach to KSAT - note at the LEMIG intersection there is a rather obvious TURBOJET VERTICAL NAVIGATION PLANNING INFORMATION section to the left of the intersection that tells you to expect to cross LEMIG at 10,000 feet.  It is not unusual to see this on the diagram plate but keep in mind this kind of important information may also be in the narrative portion, either somewhere else on the diagram itself or on a separate narrative page.  The LEMIG1 approach is not a Profile Descent - you will need to follow the altitudes specified by ATC.  The vertical navigation planning information is just that - information.  Most of the time ATC will specify you cross at that altitude or close to it.  They will give you infomation and instructions ahead of time.  A typical example is "descend at pilot's descretion to cross [fix] at xx thousand feet" - but since you already saw the vertical navigation planning information you will already have anticipated that and have figured out when you should start you descent (as ATC will likely give you the 'descent at your descretion' instruction well in advance of when you will need or want to start your descent).

Speed - Mandatory, Maximum and Minimum speeds are designated the same way that altitudes are except the number is followed by a 'K' (for knots).  Those with a line both above and below are Mandatory Speeds, those with a line above are Maximum Speeds (so you should be at or below the designated speed) and those with a line underneath are Minimum Speeds (so you should be at or above the designated speed).  The speeds listed are the Indicated Air Speed (IAS).

See the TAMMY4 arrival into KMEM.  At the MEVEE transition (bottom of the plate, just right of center) there is a mandatory crossing speed of 290 knots (290K with a line both above and below the 290K).  Also note that you are to be at or above FL210 at MEVEE.  If you are landing to the north (also see the narrative related to the '36' runways)  there is a mandatory speed at ROCAB of 230K (and a mandatory altitude of 10000 ft) but if you are landing to the south (also see the narrative related to the '18' runways) you must cross MADDN at the mandatory speed of 250K.  As you continue on course for landing south you would cross TWIKL at the mandatory speed of 210K (and within the mandatory altitude range of 9000 to 11000 feet).

Re-visit of fly-over vs. fly-by:  Note that both ROCAB and SKEEZ (at the top of the plate) are fly-over waypoints.  These are designated as fly-over because they represent the initial approach fix (IAF) for landing to the north or to the south, respectively.  In the case of SKEEZ you might think "what else would I do, it's pretty much a straight line from TWIKL to SINBE to BOWEN to SKEEZ" and that is correct.  But, for ROCAB flying directly over the fix may be a bit tricky because you must roll out of your turn from the TAMMY intersection in time to fly-over - not by - ROCAB.  It is important to 'hit your mark' because these are the IAFs and ATC needs to know that you will be exactly where they need you to be to begin your approach.

Speeds, like everything else about SIDs and STARs is all about safety and efficiency.  Speeds keep you moving along so no one runs into the back of you but keeps you within a safe and appropriate speed range for maneuvering, approach and landing.

If your aircraft cannot meet the altitude, speed or other requirements of a SID or STAR you CANNOT FLY THE PROCEDURE.

Here are a couple of videos on understanding SIDs and STAR diagrams.  There are a couple of not-quite-correct things said by the narrator but overall these are pretty good and may help you learn a bit more about standard terminal procedures and reinforce what you already have learned - 

SIDs Tutorial

STARS Tutorial

Building a Flight Plan

Flight planning involves many things - the flight plan is just one part of it.  But those other aspects of flight planning - weather, winds aloft, fuel load requirements, weight and balance, making sure you have a large Starbucks coffee, not that crappy airline stuff - is not the point of this information.  Here we will cover only the flight plan build (and pretty much only the basics) part of flight planning.

IFR Jet Hops is assembling a library of flight plans for your use but it would be good to know how to do it yourself.  Even if you use a pre-made Jet Hops plan you may need to modify it - the most common reason would be that the ones that are available are not built for the specific SID or STAR needed for the departure or arrival airport.  Eventually we will have what we hope will be a fairly complete set of flight plans for our hub airports but in the interim if you would like a specific flight plan please ask.

Flight planning is difficult enough without having some tools to help.  There is some fairly good freeware available - a couple you may want to consider are:

Plan-G - Allows you to pick all the points but you have to do everything manually and many of the RNAV waypoints are not in the data set (because it gets its data from FSX only).  Also, some find it necessary to run Plan-G on a separate computer from the one they fly on becuase it affects the performance of their flight simulator.  None the less, it is a very good program.

Virtual Dispatch - OK this is free but the data base is from 2007.  You can update it for about $5 US - one update will probably serve you for some time.  This is a good tool to use in conjunction with Plan-G.  Virtual Dispatch includes SIDs and STARs but in some cases you have to do the runway-specific part separately.  So, you can do the basic flight plan in Virtual Dispatch and save it in your flight simulator format (e.g., as an FSX file).  You can then load this into Plan-G and modify the route or add the runway-specific fixes.  Or - you can let Virtual Dispatch do the runway-specific part too, load this into Plan-G and make this a Plan-G 'snippet' file and tack it onto the base part of the SID or STAR.  Still a bit of a pain but manually entering fixes (especially if they are not in FSX or whatever flight simulator you are using) is even more tedious.  You can DOWNLOAD IT HERE.

One payware flight planner to consider:

If you are serious about building flight plans you might want to consider FlightSim Commander.  You can build a route fast enough to do it 'on the fly' (yes - pun intended).  A complete flight plan, with runway-specific SID and STAR and high or low altitude airways (includes Victor, Jet, T and Q airways), can be built in a couple of minutes.  And, if for example winds change resulting in a new active runway you to change to a different approach you can delete the current fixes with one click, insert the new STAR with a couple of clicks more and you're set to have FlightSim Commander fly you to the new approach (yes, FSC couples to your simulator autopilot, although it does not work with aircraft that have a flight management computer).  If you have FlightSim Commander IFR Jet Hops can provide you with an FSC-compatible version of the flight plans in our library.

What tool you use is up to you.  The principles for building a flight plan are fairly straightforward.

You will need charts - two free resources are SkyVector.com and AirNav.com .  SkyVector may have a bit of an advantage over AirNav because you can see a thumbnail (albeit pretty small) of the SIDs and STARs and get an idea of the one to pick based on the direction you want to depart to and arrive from.

Departure and Arrival Airports:  Simple - just pick them.

SID - First, remember that all airports do not have SIDs (even if they have STARs).  Picking the right one may take some trial and error.  The SID you will want to use will depend on the direction to your destination and may be takeoff direction-specific or even runway-specific (remember the STREL1 departure from KSNA?).  Consider not only the initial part of the departure but also the available transition points.

STAR - Selection of a STAR is similar to that of a SID.  Not all airports have STARs, even those used by commercial carriers, but most larger facilities do.  Select a STAR that has one or more transition points near your inbound direct course (or the course between your SID transition and your destination airport).

En-Route Portion - From the transition of the SID to the transition of the STAR, you can choose to fly direct or select defined routes.  Select Jet or Q Airways for flight at or above 18,000 feet, Victor or T Airways if below 18,000 feet - you can combine these in any way as long as you abide by the altitude restrictions of the particular type of airway.  You can also insert 'direct' segements - portions of the route not on a defined airway but are flown directly between defined points by GPS, VOR or NDB.

Once you pick your SID, enroute segments and STAR you could fly the flight plan by selecting each segment in your VOR or GPS - essentially flying direct to each point, segment by segment.  Usually the route is programmed into a flight management system which handles the horizontal navigation portion of the flight.

The illustration at the left shows a high altitude route from Orlando (KMCO) to Memphis (KMEM) using the JAG4 via the Cecil VOR (VQQ) SID to J41 - J-85 - J14 to the Vulcan (VUZ) transition of the LUGHO1 STAR.  Although not very readable in this small diagram you can at least appreciate the number of fixes required to program this route into a flight management system shown in the table at the lower left portion of the picture.  There are 19 fixes (the list shows 20 - VUZ was inserted twice by the flight planning software which has no affect on the flight) plus the origin and destination airports.  A lot of input if you were doing this by hand.

This flight plan was actually built in FlightSim Commander, although it is illustrated here using Plan-G.  Having picked the SID and STAR it then took about 30 seconds to build and save this flight plan.  (FSCommander automatically inserts the high altitude Jet Airways if you click the selection button for them).

Filing a Flight Plan:

When filing a flight plan you do not file each individual fix.  Instead you file using this general format (although there can be variations) -

[Departure Airport] [SID.SID Transition] [SID to Airway change point*] [Airway 1] [Airway 1 to 2 change point] [Airway 2] [Airway 2 to 3 change point] [Airway 3] [Airway 3 to n change point] ... [Airway n] [Airway n to STAR change point] [STAR Transition.STAR] [Arrival Airport]

* The term 'change point' is used here so as not to confuse this with the term 'Transition' which up to now has been associated specifically as the end points or beginning points, respectively, with SIDs and STARS.  In realtity the proper term for these change points is also 'Transition'.

Note that the transition point for a SID is placed after the SID name (separated by a 'dot' [or period symbol]) but the transition point for a STAR is placed before the STAR name (also separated by a 'dot').  If you think about it, this naming convention is consistent with everything else in the flight plan - each piece follows the route of flight in the order each point is encountered.  You (obviously) start at the departure airport, you then ascend via the SID to a specified transition point of that SID, proceed through a series of airways to a specified transition point of the STAR where you descend via the STAR to the destination airport.

So, the flight plan illustrated above would be filed as:


and if spoken this might sound something like ...

Departing Orlando International, ascending via the Jaguar Four departure to the Cecil (VQQ) VOR, then to Jet 81 to the YULEE intersection to intercept Jet 45 to the Atlanta VOR to intercept Jet 14 to the Vulcan (VUZ) VOR, then descending via the Vulcan transition of the Lugho One arrival to Memphis International.

IFR Jet Hops Pre-Defined Flight Plans

IFR Jet Hops keeps a library of flight plans for your use.

You will need to have the IFR Jet Hops Flight Plan List in order to see the specifics of each flight plan - you cannot tell by the file name

You can download the current flight plan set for FSX HERE.  If you have FSCommander you can get the same plans in FSC Format HERE.  Remember that the flight plan set and the List can change so check to see if there are updates - it is not expected that any existing plans will change but we do expect to add more plans from time to time.

IFR Jet Hops Hubs:  KATL (Atlanta Intl), KBNA (Nashville Intl), KLGA (La Guardia Apt), KSAT (San Antonio Intl), KSFO (San Francisco Intl)

IFR Jet Hops Route Map
Over 45,000 NM