By Jacob Tacke, CFII
NOTE: This article won’t replace your obligation to know what does or doesn't satisfy your required preflight actions as pilot-in-command under 14 CFR 91.103, but hopefully it can serve as a guide to enhance your existing preflight practices.
Your Job Starts Before the Aircraft Does
When you imagine a pilot, the first image that comes to mind is probably that of them flying an aircraft. In reality, a pilot’s tasks and legal responsibilities start well before the aircraft’s engines do.
Knowing the Regulation
The primary regulation that outlines a pilot’s responsibilities prior to each flight is the following:
- 91.103 Preflight action.
Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. This information must include -
(a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC;
(b) For any flight, runway lengths at airports of intended use, and the following takeoff and landing distance information:
(1) For civil aircraft for which an approved Airplane or Rotorcraft Flight Manual containing takeoff and landing distance data is required, the takeoff and landing distance data contained therein; and
(2) For civil aircraft other than those specified in paragraph (b)(1) of this section, other reliable information appropriate to the aircraft, relating to aircraft performance under expected values of airport elevation and runway slope, aircraft gross weight, and wind and temperature.
This regulation is commonly taught to student pilots with the memory aid NWKRAFT:
- KNOWN ATC DELAYS
- RUNWAY LENGTHS
- FUEL REQUIREMENTS
- TAKEOFF AND LANDING DISTANCE CALCULATIONS
This list might seem like a lot of work to get through, but all of these items work together to ensure a thorough understanding of what to expect and plan for on a given flight. Here are some thoughts on each of these in order.
Know Your NOTAMS
Notices to Air Missions are designed to draw your attention to abnormalities that you may need to factor into your planning. The FAA’s website gives the following definition:
“A NOTAM is a notice containing information essential to personnel concerned with flight operations but not known far enough in advance to be publicized by other means. It states the abnormal status of a component of the National Airspace System (NAS) – not the normal status.”
The NOTAM system covers almost any situation imaginable when it comes to abnormalities in the National Airspace System—from mowing operations, to weather balloon launches, to potential GPS outages in a certain area. Knowing where to find NOTAMS, not only for your departure and destination airports, but along your entire route of flight, is essential to a sound flight plan that will help you satisfy 91.103.
Use the Resources on the right of this page to brush up on your knowledge of NOTAMS. The NOTAM 101 – Pilots PDF is particularly helpful for a refresher on all types of NOTAMS currently used, as the FAA transitions into an increasingly ICAO compliant system.
Weather, and looking past the METARs and TAF
I find that student pilots often struggle with looking past local airport weather reports and understanding ways to incorporate more “big picture” weather information into their preflight planning. Part of this stems from a lack of understanding of basic weather principles. A good resource to establish a baseline level of knowledge is Advisory Circular 00-6B, Aviation Weather. A thorough study of this, as well as AC 00-45H, Aviation Weather Services, will arm the pilot with the knowledge to identify pertinent weather information through the use of a wide variety of weather products that are considered suitable for flight planning use by the FAA. Pilots of all experience levels should strongly consider the use of Leidos Flight Service via the phone number 1-800-WX-BRIEF to obtain a standard weather briefing before conducting a flight. Not only are you getting another set of eyes on your flight plan that might catch something you missed in your planning, you also have a concrete record that you took appropriate action to get a weather briefing. Sewing various weather reports, forecasts, and outlooks together to paint an accurate picture of what you can expect for your flight can be a daunting task, so don’t feel you have to do it all alone!
Known delays in the airspace system at major airports can be found on the FAA’s website here.
You should also consult NOTAMS and Flight Service for other delays present in the National Airspace System that may impact your planning.
This one may seem straightforward. Just check the Chart Supplement, right? But just because you know an airport has a 5000-foot runway doesn’t guarantee the runway is open. Additionally, there could be some kind of obstruction reported in NOTAMS that limits the effective landing distance available, as you need to clear the obstacle before touching down. Hopefully, by now, you are seeing that all of these NWKRAFT items are interrelated and mesh together for thorough planning.
Per 91.169, for IFR flight plans, you’ll need an alternate airport if the weather forecast at your destination from 1 hour before to 1 hour after your ETA is less than a 2000-foot ceiling or less than 3 statute mile visibility (1-2-3 rule). But even if you are in VFR day conditions, you should know what alternate options are available to you should something go awry. For example, if you are planning to head to a particular airport but its lone runway has a strong crosswind near your personal minimums, it would be advisable to have another alternate airport with more favorable winds planned for as well
For VFR flights, pilots must adhere to 91.151:
- 91.151 Fuel requirements for flight in VFR conditions.
(a) No person may begin a flight in an airplane under VFR conditions unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough fuel to fly to the first point of intended landing and, assuming normal cruising speed -
(1) During the day, to fly after that for at least 30 minutes; or
(2) At night, to fly after that for at least 45 minutes.
(b) No person may begin a flight in a rotorcraft under VFR conditions unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough fuel to fly to the first point of intended landing and, assuming normal cruising speed, to fly after that for at least 20 minutes.
For IFR flights, pilots must adhere to 91.167
- 91.167 Fuel requirements for flight in IFR conditions.
(a) No person may operate a civil aircraft in IFR conditions unless it carries enough fuel (considering weather reports and forecasts and weather conditions) to -
(1) Complete the flight to the first airport of intended landing;
(2) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, fly from that airport to the alternate airport; and
(3) Fly after that for 45 minutes at normal cruising speed or, for helicopters, fly after that for 30 minutes at normal cruising speed.
(b) Paragraph (a)(2) of this section does not apply if:
(1) Part 97 of this chapter prescribes a standard instrument approach procedure to, or a special instrument approach procedure has been issued by the Administrator to the operator for, the first airport of intended landing; and
(2) Appropriate weather reports or weather forecasts, or a combination of them, indicate the following:
(i) For aircraft other than helicopters. For at least 1 hour before and for 1 hour after the estimated time of arrival, the ceiling will be at least 2,000 feet above the airport elevation and the visibility will be at least 3 statute miles.
(ii) For helicopters. At the estimated time of arrival and for 1 hour after the estimated time of arrival, the ceiling will be at least 1,000 feet above the airport elevation, or at least 400 feet above the lowest applicable approach minima, whichever is higher, and the visibility will be at least 2 statute miles.
Remember that this is the MINIMUM regulatory requirement, and you should plan carefully and account for scenarios where additional fuel reserves may be required. One such scenario may be extensive low IFR conditions across a large part of the country. Ultimately, your preflight planning should alert you to any conditions that would make the flight inadvisable, and you should use sound decision-making to call off the flight.
Takeoff and Landing Distances
Students particularly struggle with this, as it requires a working knowledge of pressure altitude and density altitude to correctly calculate. You should consult your airplane’s pilot’s operating handbook for the proper way to calculate your airplane’s takeoff and landing distance. Importantly, no day will ever have precisely the same atmospheric conditions, so this should be done before every flight!
Ultimately, 91.103 lays out a series of interrelated factors we must plan for to accomplish sufficient preflight planning. Give yourself enough time to accomplish a thorough preflight plan before every flight, and don’t hesitate to utilize services provided to you such as 1-800-WX-BRIEF. When it comes to preflight action, there’s no such thing as too much planning!
by Jacob Tacke, CFII
Northstar Aviation References brings you the Pre-Tabbed ASA FAR/AIM, DIY tabs for your FAR/AIM and other pilot resources so that you can more easily study the regulations that form the foundation of your flying career or hobby. Have any questions? Check out our FAQs page or contact us. Check out other blog posts here.