Flight planning can take many forms, depending on the operation, the aircraft, the weather and a host of other factors. Kicking the tires and lighting the fires may be appropriate for short, local flights in daytime VMC, while hours spent poring over routes, fuel consumption and weather can be mandatory for others. It depends.
One thing thats not optional, however, is a back-up plan, a Plan B. This need was brought home to me over the holidays as I tried to complete several trips up and down the east coast without any drama. I almost succeeded.
Coming up into the mid-Atlantic region from the Carolinas on January 2, I sailed along serenely on top of an undercast until ATC starting barking about my transponder. First, my Mode C became intermittent; then the box transposed some digits. Soon, it stopped transmitting altogether. Between dialing in new codes, recycling, giving no-radar position reports and copying, accepting and flying a new clearance, briefing myself for an approach and managing the descent, I was busy.
Fortunately, I successfully managed the unfamiliar approach and a smooth arrival, bid farewell to my passenger and began prepping for the final leg of the day: a solo hop to my home base nestled in the Washington, D.C. ADIZ, the most secure airspace in the U.S., with a balky transponder.
On a cold, breezy ramp, I made sure the transponder had cooled off and double-checked hidden connections. Then, I crossed my fingers and toes, genuflected to the gods Narco, Bendix-King and Garmin, filed a flight plan and launched.
But not before refamiliarizing myself with the charts covering my destination, possible alternates and deciding what other options I had. If my Mode C failed, the fallback was a small airport close to my destination and outside the ADIZ (which requires Mode C-no exceptions). To get there, I would have to plead with ATC to allow a deviation to the Mode C veil.
But my greatest concern was that I would have no transponder at all, and be forced to land even further from home. In that event, I decided on a third airport, one featuring two avionics shops with which I was familiar, plus car-rental agencies. That was my real ace-in-the-hole.
Other times, I have looked down at rocky terrain, deep water and fog-shrouded hills, wondering what I d do if something happened. Ive repeatedly hit the Nearest button on the GPS, looked around for soccer fields and almost danced in my seat when things werent going well. Most of my backup plans involve the nearest ILS, the flattest terrain, the clearest weather or the smoothest water. In the end, I try to constantly evaluate my options, even in good VMC with plenty of altitude over familiar territory.
Ultimately, a single back-up plan doesnt always cut it. Any number of unknowns-ATC equipment failures, a closed runway, weather, traffic-can creep in, shredding not only Plan A, but Plan B, too.
In the end, the three gods smiled on me-ATC uttered not a word about my radar target and I soon plopped onto the runway at home plate after an uneventful ILS.
Having well-conceived options made the trip home less worrisome. I flew the flight better than if Id been chewing my nails without a back-up to my back-up. Sometimes, only one Plan B isnt enough.