In November 2012, FAA adopted new requirements and procedures for using ICAO-format flight plans. Pilots planning IFR flights within the borders of the U.S. are now required to file ICAO-format flight plans if:
- The flight will enter international airspace (including Oceanic airspace controlled by FAA facilities). Even if your flight just crosses a border, such as flying through Canadian airspace on a trip that departs from and lands at a U.S. airport, you must file an ICAO flight plan.
- You expect routing or separation based on Performance Based Navigation, for example, RNAV-based routes, departures, and arrivals. (More about PBN and RNAV levels in PBN and RNP Confusion, below.)
- The flight will enter RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) airspace (i.e., above FL290).
- You expect services based on ADS-B.
A detailed explanation of the ICAO flight plan form is available here.
Other Reasons to File ICAO Flight Plans
Even if you aren’t required to file an ICAO flight plan, you may want to start using that format for IFR flight plans if you fly an airplane equipped with an IFR-approved GPS, especially if the box is WAAS-approved, or your aircraft is equipped with ADS-B in/out equipment, such as the Garmin GDL 88.
You can file an ICAO flight plan online through Lockheed-Martin Flight Services (the official FSS) and several free third-party services, including DUAT, DUATS, and FltPlan.com.
Many pilots are confused by elements of the ICAO flight plan format, especially the multiple aircraft equipment codes that you must include to inform ATC of the gizmos and capability that are installed in your aircraft.
The following guide should help you sort out those ICAO codes if you fly a typical light GA aircraft equipped with at least one WAAS-capable, GPS navigator that is approved to fly RNAV (GPS) approaches. Examples of such avionics include:
Here’s a look at the relevant parts of the ICAO flight plan form as shown on the Lockheed-Martin FSS website. I’ve filled in the information for my Beechcraft A36 Bonanza (ICAO identifier BE36), which is equipped with a GTN750, a Garmin GTX 327 transponder (not Mode S), and the GDL 88 ADS-B transmitter and receiver. This aircraft also has a Bendix/King DME receiver. The example is for an IFR trip from KBFI to KGEG in the Pacific Northwest. The route includes the ZOOMR1 STAR into KGEG.
The first few items are the same for all typical IFR general aviation flights:
- Flight Rule: IFR
- Flight Type: G (for general aviation)
- Number of Aircraft: 1 (i.e., not a formation flight)
- Wake Turbulence Category: L (for light)
- Aircraft Type: The official ICAO designator for the make and model of aircraft you fly (e.g., BE36, C172, C210, M20P, PA28A, etc.)
On the familiar FAA domestic flight plan form, equipment suffixes for typical GA pilots are simple, and if you’re flying a GPS-equipped airplane with a Mode C transponder, the basic /G is all you need.
But the ICAO form captures many more details about the equipment installed in your aircraft, and the fun typically begins with this item.
For a WAAS-equipped aircraft such as we’re discussing, you should enter the following codes in the Aircraft Equipment box:
As you can see in the illustration from the Lockheed-Martin FSS web form, these letters represent the following equipment:
- S: Standard communication and navigation receivers/transmitters (VOR, VHF communications radios, and ILS receiver). If you enter S in this box, you shouldn’t include the letters L (ILS), O (VOR), or V (VHF) here. S includes that equipment.
- B: LPV approach capability. If you have a WAAS GPS, but your installation isn’t approved for LPV procedures (see the user’s guide and AFM supplement), omit this letter.
- D: DME
- G: IFR-approved GPS (the preferred term is now GNSS, Global Navigation Satellite System)
- R: PBN approved. This letter means that your aircraft meets basic RNP standards. You must include this letter, and associated information in the Other Information box, to ensure that the computer will accept a routing that includes RNAV routes, SIDs, STARs, or charted ODPs. See PBN and RNP Confusion, below.
- Z: Indicates additional information to be added to the Other Information box, below.
- If you still have an ADF, include F.
- If you don’t have DME, omit the D.
PBN and RNP Confusion
The aviation world uses RNP (required navigation performance) for two related, but different purposes.
In general, RNP is an RNAV specification (e.g., RNAV 5, RNAV 2, and RNAV 1) that indicates that an aircraft is capable of maintaining a course (track) within designated limits 95 percent of the time. For example, RNAV 5 means the aircraft as equipped can reliably maintain a track with 5 nm; RNAV 2 limits are 2 nm, and so forth. If your aircraft is equipped with an IFR-approved GPS authorized to fly RNAV (GPS) approaches, it matches this sense of RNP and PBN.
The basic RNP (RNAV) specifications used in the U.S. (RNP 0.3, RNP 1.0, RNP 2.0, and RNP 1.0) are shown in the following illustration from the Instrument Flying Handbook (FAA H-8083-15B). For more information about RNP and RNAV specifications, see “Required Navigation Performance” on page 9-44 of the IFH.
Current WAAS-approved GPS receivers for typical GA aircraft, such as those listed earlier, meet the U.S. RNP specifications, as described in AC 90-100A: U.S Terminal and En Route Area Navigation (RNAV) Operations and its associated AC90-100 Compliance Table (a Microsoft Excel worksheet). To confirm your GPS receiver’s capabilities, check the user guides and the AFM supplements for the equipment installed in your aircraft.
The term RNP is also applied as a descriptor for airspace, routes, and procedures (including departures, arrivals, and IAPs). RNP can apply to a unique approach procedure or to a large region of airspace. In this sense, RNP means something similar to Category II and Category III instrument approaches. For example, an approach with RNP in the title (e.g., RNAV (RNP) Z RWY 16R) requires special equipment and detailed crew training/qualification. Such RNAV (RNP) approaches include the note AUTHORIZATION REQUIRED on the chart.
For more information about RNP approaches, see RNP Procedures and Typical Part 91 Pilots and Garmin Radius to Fix Leg Project Report here at my blog.
Surveillance Equipment (Transponder and ADS-B)
This box on the ICAO form tells ATC what type of transponder and related equipment are installed in your aircraft.
- For most GA pilots flying IFR, this box will include at least C, for a transponder with altitude-reporting capability.
- If you have a Mode S transponder, you should select the appropriate letter, E, H, I, L, P, S, or X, based on the information in the user guide and AFM supplement for your transponder.
- If you have ADS-B equipment installed (not a portable ADS-B receiver such as the Stratus or Dual XGPS170), include U1 or U2. The Garmin GDL 88 in my airplane both transmits and receives ADS-B signals, so I add U2 to this box.
The final box for designating your RNAV capabilities is Other Information. You must use prefixes, followed by letters, to include different categories of information.
As described above here and here, it’s important to add a /PBN group in this box to ensure that the ATC system understands the RNP/RNAV capabilities of your aircraft.
If you have a GPS approved for at least IFR en route and terminal operations, add the following letters:
- B2, which designates RNAV 5 capability based on GPS (GNSS)
- C2, which designates RNAV 2 capability based on GPS (GNSS)
- D2, which designates RNAV 1 capability based on GPS (GNSS)
You should also add a /NAV group in this box to indicate your RNAV capability. The letters D1E2A1 after /Nav indicate that you have RNAV 1 capability for departure, RNAV 2 capability for the en route segment, and RNAV 1 capability for arrival.
These groups and letters mean that you can fly RNAV routes (e.g., T-routes), RNAV SIDs and STARs, and charted ODPs (charted ODPs are often RNAV procedures, usually based on GPS).
For more information about charted ODPs, see:
Don’t worry about the options in the RNP Specifications part of this box. Unless you are authorized to fly RNAV (RNP) procedures (see above), these items don’t apply to you.
Here’s a quick review of what to put in the equipment-related boxes of the ICAO flight plan form if, like me, you fly an aircraft with one of the common IFR-approved, WAAS-capable GPS receivers:
- Aircraft Equipment: SBDGR.
- Surveillance Equipment: C (for a Mode C transponder).
(If you have ADS-B in/out capability, such as a Garmin GDL 88, add U2. If you have a Mode S transponder, include the appropriate letter for your model.)
- Other Information: PBN/B2C2D2 NAV/RNVD1E2A1