There are a bewildering array of weather information available in ForeFlight and it can be difficult to sort everything out. In his famous book The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, he explains how too many choices actually lead to indecision and paralysis. As pilots, we’d like to avoid this. What I’d like to offer here is a distilled workflow of flight planning that I use which I find cover a majority of my flying.
The 80/20 Rule
In the 1800’s, economist and scientist Vilfredo Pareto found that 20% of his pea plants produced 80% of the peas. This observation wasn’t limited to just pea pods, it seems to be a general economic rule which has since been validated again and again. So can be said of the copious features and tools software developers pack into their apps. We only need a very few with which to work with to get done that which we need.
Begin with the end in mind
The easiest way to wade through ForeFlight’s complexity is determine what exactly you want to do. In our scenario, we want to get from point A to point B. That seems easy enough! What other piece of information might we need? How about when we plan on leaving? With these two pieces of data, we can start picking around ForeFlight’s products and pick out those which might be most helpful
Let’s tackle the “when part first. If my flight is a few days out, the best I can hope for is a general answer to the question “does it look like there’s a decent chance I’ll be able to go or is there going to be a shut-down block?”
For example, I was going to take a business trip up to Pittsburg. By the way, if you’re headed to a city and you want to know what GA airports are located close by, I’ve found this website, Landing Finder, extremely handy. A few days out, ForeFlights prog charts didn’t look great. There was a front moving through which looked like they would be bringing snow, possibly freezing rain and low visibility
along the route. Though I’m an instrument rated pilot, I don’t like to push things in very low visibility or icing conditions. I was supposed to be at my destination on a Tuesday but by Sunday it was obvious getting up there, even by leaving a day early, was going to be dicey. Sunday night I punted and bought a commercial ticket. As one of my flight instructors once said “You never regret a flight you didn’t take.”.
So let’s pretend for a minute that things were looking decent for my Chesterfield Virginia (KFCI) to Pittsburg (KAGC) flight, what next? The next thing I’d do is to simply plot a straight line flight between the two airports. I generally like to do this the night before.
A few days before your proposed departure
A this point, I like to go to the prog charts. While these are too general to make detailed planning, they can help give me an idea whether my proposed flight is even in the cards or not. If I’m going to be headed towards a low pressure system or towards a front, I could very well have my hands full! Like for my Pittsburg trip, I terminated my planning with this step and when with plan B: Flying the friendly skies, which also hit me with weather delays by the way. Even the big boys aren’t immune!
A day or less out
At this point, I’m getting more specific and detailed about the forecast. I divide my attention between what is happening right now and what is projected by happen when I’m actually enroute. I still like to take a peek at the “big picture” stuff under “Imagery”
Under “Featured”, I’ll take a peek at “Today’s Forecast”, “Latest Surface Analysis”, “Weather Depiction” and “Flight Category” in order to get an overall picture of what’s going on. From there, I generally go ahead and plot my course between my departure and destination on the ForeFlight Map. From here, I can toggle on and off the goodies and get a few for what I’ll be flying into. First up, the radar (composite). This will be a good indicator of what kind of goo I’ll be flying into. Is there a sea of green, yellow and (yikes!) red? Press the play button at the bottom to get an idea of the speed and direction.
Next and certainly if it’s an IFR flight, I’ll look at the icing overlay. I DO NOT wish to fly into icing conditions under any circumstances. If my cruising altitude will take me above or well below, I may consider flying through a blue shaded area but if there’s a question, I’ll reroute if possible or scrub the whole mission.
The next thing that I’ll do, is turn on the “Flight Category” overlay. You’ll see a series of green, blue, red or pink dots light up across your route. Green is good of course! That’s VFR. Blue or Red might have you scud running if you’re VFR and pink might have you with your hands full if you’re rusty on your approaches. Currency, day or night and surface winds will come into play if I’m contemplating an IFR flight. If it’s a VFR flight, I’m going to want to see a nice breadcrumb trail of green dots. Blue (MVFR) may be tolerable if they’re at your destination and you can safely get under the weather. Always use good good aeronautical decision making (ADM).
Next up, I’ll start picking through the METARS and TAFs for locations along your route. This gives me a feel for what’s going on right now and what is expected to go on in the future. I ask myself at this stage “Are things looking decent (at or above my personal minimum) or not and are they forecast to get better or worse?” What I try to avoid is that feeling that I need to hustle and get going right away in order to beat conditions that are forecast to get worse at or close to my planned arrival time. This kind of thinking is a disaster in the making.
To file or not to file? That is the question!
Here’s the TL;DR (too long, did not read) version: yes! It’s aways a good choice to file unless you’re just literally staying local to do some maneuvering or touch-and-goes. My rule of thumb is that if I intend to go somewhere else and land, I file a flight plan. I don’t however file VFR. Why? Because I’m IFR rated and its good practice in my opinion. I’ve been criticized and told that it’s often too much of a hassle if you have to wait for a release, juggle actually getting the clearance or I may run the risk of getting diverted. So what? – I say! I still think it’s worth the price so that you retain the skills required to put the pieces of an IFR flight together and use them in flight.
So you’ve looked at everything and you’re convinced that you can safely make the flight. Great! Get your charts downloaded, your flight packed and your iPad charged, you’re ready to go! There are tons of articles about ForeFlight preflights, so I won’t belabor that point here. Just pick a system that you like and stick with it.
Now you’re lined up on the dotted line and you’re off! How can you extend your workflow into the flight? It’s super easy if you have some additional tools like XM Weather or an ADS-B receiver. I’ll echo the common cautions of trying to thread your way through weather with either of these systems. They’re not real time, so remember this: what you see is what you get out the window! That’s real time and what you should be using to make decisions. Remember as well that you don’t just make the decision to make the flight or not make the flight. You also are continually making the decision to CONTINUE the flight. As PIC, you always have the power and obligation to your passengers to continually evaluate the weather and to make prudent decisions. The are no extra points for actually getting to your destination nor are there any penalties for stopping short of your intended destination. I always brief my passengers that if they are absolutely counting on getting to where we’re going by a particular time, they may wish to consider going some other way. If however they’re interested in doing something different and exciting by flying a small GA aircraft to a distant destination, they won’t be disappointed!