A Quick Way to Search for GPS NOTAMs

The FAA NOTAM search site (https://notams.aim.faa.gov/notamSearch) provides the quickest way to find GPS NOTAMs that alert you to disruptions in the satellite-based navigation system. If you’ve ever tried to find and sort through the text descriptions of these alerts, you’ll appreciate the lists and map views that show how GPS tests and other issues may affect your ability to navigate using GPS.

To learn more about using the FAA NOTAM search site, you can download the User Guide from the FAA website or from my Aviation Documents folder at OneDrive.

NOTAMs-UserGuide

To find GPS-related NOTAMs at the FAA website follow these steps:

After acknowledging the disclaimer, on the main page, select the Predefined Queries option and choose GPS.

FAANotams-PredefinedQuery
FAANOTAMS-selectGPS

Click the Search button, and you’ll see a list of GPS NOTAMs.

FAAGPSNOTAMs-List.jpg

You can also show the NOTAMs in a table.

FAAGPSNOTAMs-Table.jpg
Or in a table with an adjacent map.

FAAGPSNOTAMS-Map+List.jpg
You can filter the list to show only the NOTAMs effective in one or more air route traffic control centers.

FAAGPSNOTAMs-ARTCCListFilter

And you can zoom in on the map and click a NOTAM flag to see more information about that notice.

GAAGPSNOTAMs-MapWide

FAAGPSNOTAMS-MapZoomed.jpg

Use the +/- buttons in the upper-left corner of the map to zoom in and out. To print a NOTAM, click the print icon next to the text.

Sample Western U.S. Flight Routes

Many pilots are curious about routes to fly on longer trips around the western U.S. and to/from the West to destinations like Oshkosh (home of EAA AirVenture).

I’ve flown around the West and to Oshkosh many times over the years, in a variety of aircraft–usually normally aspirated piston singles. I’ve organized routes that I fly regularly into a Microsoft Excel workbook, which you can download from my public AviationDocuments folder at OneDrive, here. Look for the file named BruceAirPreferredRoutes.

BruceAirRoutes-01

Each entry includes a basic description and:

  • Links to information about the departure and destination airports (at SkyVector.com)
  • An overlay of the route on a VFR chart at SkyVector.com
  • Basic statistics (distance, etc.)

BruceAirRoutes-02

The AircraftData tab (at the bottom of the worksheet window) contains basic information about the aircraft (e.g., KTAS and fuel burn) that link to the information in the main Routes tab. Edit the information in the AircraftData tab to match the data for the aircraft that you fly, and it will automatically populate the appropriate fields in the Routes tab, saving you the effort of manually filling in speeds, etc. for each route.

Keep in mind that these routes are general guidelines that may help you start planning trips in these areas. You should adjust them for the performance of the aircraft you fly, fuel stops, places you want to visit, terrain, and so forth. Obviously, weather and other factors (such as your personal preferences for leg lengths) also come into play.

 

A New Way to Open and Close VFR Flight Plans

I recently ferried a C182 from Boulder City, NV to Boulder, CO (route at SkyVector here).

This a was VFR trip with the airplane’s new owner (who hadn’t flown in more than 30 years–talk about getting back into flying), and, based on previous experience flying the route, I knew that for much of the trip we’d be in poor radar/communications coverage at 9500 MSL. It was a good opportunity to try the new EasyActivate and EasyClose features available via Lockheed Martin Flight Services (video below).

Now, I know the arguments about the value of filing VFR flight plans, and like many pilots, I rarely file VFR flight plans. Contacting FSS to open a VFR flight plan, especially when departing busy airspace, can be cumbersome, and even with cell phones, calling FSS at the other end and navigating the prompts/menus to close a flight plan with a briefer can also be pain.

But on long trips like this one, across sparsely populated areas and in a new airplane, I like having backup for SAR. For that purpose, I filed a detailed route (see above) and stuck to it. (I did pick up flight following on the leg from KAEG–necessary to get through the ABQ Class C and to deal efficiently with the airspace around Denver.)

This new feature is handy. File your VFR flight plan directly with L-M (not DUAT or DUATS) and select the appropriate options. About 30 minutes before your ETD, you’ll get an email or text message with a link to open the flight plan. When you’re ready to go, click/tap the link. You’ll receive a confirmation.

About 30 minutes before your ETA, you’ll get another message from L-M with a link to close the flight plan. After you land, click/tap the link, and almost immediately you’ll receive a confirmation.

No menus. No waiting to talk to a briefer over a scratchy connection. And with the reminders, less risk of forgetting to close a VFR flight plan.

Given that many of my flights involve trips into the wide open spaces of the West, often in airplanes that either aren’t equipped or suitable for IFR, I’m going to take advantage of this new way to use VFR flight plans.

IACO Flight Plan Equipment Codes for Aircraft with IFR GPS

FAA plans to require that all flight plans (VFR, IFR, domestic, and international) use the ICAO format sometime in the fall of 2017 (for the latest details, see this notice).

For more information about the switch to ICAO flight plans, see a news item from AOPA here.

A detailed explanation of the ICAO flight plan form is available here. Flight Service also has a handy tip card here and more details, including links to videos, here.

In November 2013, FAA updated and simplified some of the requirements for filing ICAO flight plans for domestic use. You can read about those changes here (PDF). Note that the instructions from FAA focus on the printed flight plan form, which few pilots use. Apps such as ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, WingX, FltPlanGo, go FlyQ take care of many of the details for you. You should review the user guides and other instructions for the apps and web-based tools that you use to file flight plans. ForeFlight has detailed information about ICAO flight plans here.

Confusing Codes

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:

Garmin has posted detailed information about the ICAO codes for its avionics, including a handy Microsoft Excel worksheet, here.

Overview

Here’s a look at the relevant parts of the ICAO flight plan form as shown on the Leidos FSS website. You can find a video that describes the ICAO flight plan form at Leidos FSS here.

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.

For more information about the ICAO identifiers to use for the makes and models of aircraft that you fly, see ICAO Aircraft Type Designators here at BruceAir.

The example is for an IFR trip from KBFI to KGEG in the Pacific Northwest. The route includes the ZOOMR1 STAR into KGEG.

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example

Basic Information

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.)

Aircraft Equipment

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 was all you needed.

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:

  • SBDGR

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example-A

As you can see in the illustration from the Leidos 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. If you don’t have DME, omit the D.
  • 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. All aircraft with an IFR-approved GPS are PBN approved (see AIM 1-2-1). You must include R, 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, described below.
  • If you still have an ADF, include F.

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.

clip_image006

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.

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example-B

Other Information

The final box for designating your RNAV capabilities and additional data 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.

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example-D

If you have a GPS approved for at least IFR en route and terminal operations, add the following letters:

  • C2, which designates RNAV 2 capability based on GPS (GNSS)
  • D2, which designates RNAV 1 capability based on GPS (GNSS)

If you have a Mode S transponder that complies with the ADS-B out requirements, add the following group to this box:

  • SUR/260B

If you have a UAT box such as the Garmin GDL 88 to meet the ADS-B requirements, add the following group to this box:

  • SUR/282B

You should also file the six-digit Mode S Code (base 16 / hex) assigned to your aircraft by inserting a CODE/ group. You can find the hexadecimal code for your aircraft by checking the FAA N-number registry:

  • CODE/xxxxxx

For example, the code for one of the aircraft at the flight school where I instruct is A66E8E. The entry for that aircraft is:

  • CODE/A66E8E

For more information about the filing the appropriate codes related to ADS-B capabilities, see Filing for Advanced Surveillance Broadcast Capability (PDF) at the FAA flight plan website.

You can 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.

  • NAV/RNVD1E2A1

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.

Summary

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: SBGR
  • 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/C2D2 SUR/260B or SUR/282B and CODE/xxxxxx
    (where xxxxxx is the six-digit hexadecimal code assigned to your aircraft as part of its registration record at the FAA).

ICAO-FlightPlan-Form-Example

International Aviation Charts at SkyVector.com

SkyVector.com, a website that displays free online aviation charts, now provides worldwide VFR and IFR charts. The charts, still officially in beta, are described in more detail here.

The charts are part of set of new features that include expanded display of weather. The developer promises better flight planning and other improvements soon.

Flying (and Filing) Direct v. Airways

Many pilots who use GPS as their primary navigation tool, whether operating VFR or IFR, now plan their flights assuming a direct course from departure to destination. They do so for several common reasons:

  • To save time and fuel by trimming miles from long flights
  • To simplify the creation of flight plans (lists of waypoints) in GPS navigators, especially units that don’t support entry of airway designations
  • To simplify navigation in flight by reducing the number of turn points
  • To avoid major changes from a filed IFR flight plan when they receive their actual clearance from ATC. Pilots who file direct often say, “Filing a specific route is futile. ATC assigns a different route when you get your clearance, so why bother planning a detailed route?”
Direct or…

Direct

…Airways?

Airway

While it’s true that direct routes are by definition shorter than those that include zigs and zags, as we’ll see shortly, the difference, especially on trips of the length typically flown by piston-powered aircraft operating below the flight levels, is usually much smaller than most pilots assume.

In the event, terrain, airspace, and preferred routes (under IFR) can make direct routes ill-advised, impractical, or impossible, especially in the mountainous regions of the West and within the congested airspace of areas like the Northeast, the Bay Area, and the LA Basin.

A route with several waypoints or which travels at least partially along airways has several advantages, including:

  • Making it easier to track your progress on charts
  • Helping you remain aware of alternatives should you need to stop for fuel, accommodate passengers, avoid weather, or deal with a malfunction

It’s also far easier to amend a flight plan than it is to build a complete flight plan from scratch, and having a detailed route “in the box” before you leave the ramp also helps reduce heads-down time while taxiing and during high-workload phases of flight like departure and arrival, especially when you’re trying to navigate unfamiliar airspace.

(Keep in mind that even if you prefer to file and fly direct under IFR, your route usually must include several waypoints. The procedures and requirements for filing direct and RNAV routes are described in AIM 5-1-8, especially sections C and D.)

But for the purposes of this exercise, assume that direct routes are feasible.

Direct v. airway: distance, time, and fuel

Today, many tools make laying out routes an easy, no-math proposition, so planning a flight with course changes is hardly a chore. Flight-planning/navigation apps like ForeFlight (version 4.6 is described here) now include flight-planning/route-building features that make it easy to compare direct and airway routings and to include preferred and TEC routes, and SIDs and STARs. The flight log features in iPad apps like ForeFlight also help you efficiently build flight plans in GPS navigators (such as the popular Garmin GNS 400/500 series boxes) that require manual entry of at least the fixes that define entry, turn, and exit points of airways or the initial fixes of SIDs and STARs.

Let’s use ForeFlight to explore some of the issues outlined above in more detail.

A typical flight: KBFI-S78

Here’s route between Seattle and Boise that I fly several times a year to support Pilots N Paws. It’s from Boeing Field (KBFI) to Emmett, ID (S78).

As you can see below, the direct route is 327 nm. In this example, at 160 KTAS, estimated time in en route is 02:10, and the trip requires about 32.5 gallons of fuel, not including time and fuel to climb.

020

And climb we must to fly this route, because under IFR we must cruise at or above 10,000 ft. to clear terrain (probably at least 11,000 ft. when flying southeast). The direct route also clips or comes close to a couple of restricted areas.

My typical, mostly airways, route, at 341 nm, is only 14 nm longer, about 5 minutes at 160 knots. This route follows the airway between SEA and ELN (MEA 8000) and clears the big restricted area near YKM. In fact, the total mileage is a bit less, because after takeoff, ATC typically vectors me to join V2. The KBFI-SEA leg is in the flight plan (and the box) just to make it easier to join the airway.

This route also passes near many airports and VORs, giving me options and backup navigation sources.

021

Another common route, via V4 out of Seattle, is, at 330 nm, practically the same as the others, although it requires a cruise altitude of at least 10,000 ft. under IFR.

022

Another example: Seattle to northern California

Here’s another trip that I make a few times a year: KBFI to the Bay Area with a fuel stop (for relatively inexpensive fuel) at KOVE (Oroville, CA). The direct route is 483 nm.

023

That route spends a lot of time over the mountains and clips some MOAs. Because of traffic between Seattle and Portland, ATC isn’t likely to offer it under IFR.

My usual filed route avoids those issues and comes in at 511 nm, a difference of 28 nm (about 10 minutes at 160 knots). It clears the busy corridor between Seattle and Portland, and ATC usually accommodates it. Again, this route remains close to many airports, and the majority of the flight is over terrain that allows reasonable MEAs. Because I have stored this route (including the fixes that define V23) in my GNS530W, it’s easy to include changes or shave miles if ATC approves shortcuts (e.g., between OLM and EUG) or deviations for weather. But as we’ve seen, on trips of this length, trimming a leg or two doesn’t typically offer significant savings in time or fuel.

024

One more example: KBFI-KOSH

But what about a much longer flight, say the annual trip to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI? Leaving aside the need to stop for fuel and spend the night, the direct route from KBFI to KOSH is 1,417 nm, about 08:38 of flying time at 160 KTAS.

028

A typical, mostly airway route (subject, of course, to changes for weather) is about 100 nm (some 7 percent) longer, but it adds less than 1 hour of flying time (winds aloft and other factors being equal). Total block time, of course, would be much greater to accommodate fuel and overnight stops, but those considerations also apply to the direct route.

029

More importantly, the mostly airways route guides you through mountain passes and keeps you relatively close to airports and highways (which means you’re also nearer towns and services).

Flight plans and flight planning

As I’ve suggested above, filing and filing a route that includes airway segments and multiple waypoints can also help you track your progress more easily than when following long direct segments. The act of laying out a route and building a flight log encourages you to become familiar with navigation fixes and to think about decision points along the way. What’s the weather like at nearby alternates? Which airports offer the best services? What types of instrument approaches are available along the way? What are good points en route to evaluate your actual flight time and fuel burn?

It’s certainly possible to ask and answer such questions when laying out a basic direct route, but there’s often real value—and little additional cost in time or money–in following another path.

Ceiling and Visibility Analysis Product from ADDS

The NWS Aviation Weather Center is releasing a new tool on 24 July, when the Ceiling and Visibility Analysis Product goes live on ADDS.

CVA presents simplified area maps of ceiling, visibility and flight category outlined as:

Ceiling estimates are displayed as:

(i) Possible Terrain Obscuration (pale orange) for ceilings less than 200 ft agl, (ii) less than or equal to 1000 ft agl (pale yellow) from 200 to 999 ft, agl, and (iii) 1000 ft agl or greater (pale blue).

Visibility estimates are displayed as:

(i) less than 3 miles (pale yellow), and (ii) 3 miles or greater (pale blue).

CVA is intended to accompany other aviation weather products such as METARS, AIRMETS, TAFs and Area Forecasts to help the general aviation pilot (particularly the VFR-only pilot) avoid IFR conditions. To remain current in rapidly changing conditions, CVA is updated every 5 minutes using the latest observations. The use of CVA should be followed by further examination of METARs, TAFs, AIRMETs, Area Forecasts and other weather information.

CVA primarily is intended to help the general aviation pilot; however, CVA’s quick-glance overview of ceiling and visibility conditions can be useful to others involved in flight planning or weather briefing.

CVA initially will be available only via the ADDS website at:

http://www.aviationweather.gov/adds/cv