How to Plan and Perform a VFR Flight

VFR (Visual Flight Rule) flying is something every pilot must learn, and every successful pilot must perfect. It’s getting in tune with the aircraft, discovering its attitudes and movements, navigating, and avoiding obstacles and other aircraft. The Pilot In Command (PIC) of any aircraft is responsible regardless of outside instruction. Most importantly, because a VFR pilot needs to keep visual reference with the earth, it is crucial to know and understand when it is (and is not) safe to fly under weather regulations; minimal being VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions). That said, this is a simple guide to planning, and performing a safe VFR flight. Happy landings and keep your nose up!


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    Be qualified. Before flying: Before flying, a pilot must be qualified and hold the proper licenses, or have a flight instructor lined up. Though excitement may get the best of a pilot, s/he must carefully review the Pilot Operating Handbook (POH), obtain a weather briefing to ensure the entire duration of the flight will be within VFR minima, and review the procedures for problematic situations in-flight. Every pilot should plan for accurate food rations, survival gear, and appropriate clothing for the outside conditions, including life jackets (if going beyond gliding distance from shore).
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    Prepare for Emergencies: Reading and understanding the aircraft’s POH can be essential in recovering from a bad situation. It’s much easier to follow steps already memorized than to shuffle through the book in panic. Safety is paramount! Ensure you are familiar with the procedures with regards to engine failure during take-off, engine failure in cruise, rough engine, uncertain of position, being lost, fires, electrical failures, etc.
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    Plan your flight: Flight planning has a fairly unvarying process, though the results and information will be unique every time. A pilot needs to calculate the plane’s gross weight and recognize if the centre of gravity is within limits. This will change the airplane’s performance; an improperly balanced plane is an impending accident. Navigation for VFR flights are suited with VNC (VFR Navigation Chart) and VTA (VFR Terminal Area Chart) maps, with indications for gravel pits, golf courses, waterfalls etc., for location reference, as well as airspace information, terrain elevation, and airport information. VTAs are larger scale maps, giving more detail on arrival, and departure procedures. A pilot shall check out any outstanding NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen), prepare a chart and flight log, file a flight plan, and ensure s/he will have sufficient daylight on arrival (without night rating).
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    Perform a Walkaround: The pilot of any flight should be thoroughly aware of the airplane’s condition, and must bring anything of concern to the mechanic, or instructor on site. The walkaround gives the pilot an opportunity to check for any sort of tainted exterior surfaces; being bugs, ice, frost, dirt, etc, as well as fuel and oil checks. The importance of determining the airworthiness of an airplane cannot be underestimated; frost on the wings of an airplane alone can lower the lift efficiency by 30% and increase drag by 40%. Walkaround checks include draining fuel samples to check for contamination, ensuring there’s an adequate amount of fuel for the flight, as well as checking for the quantity of oil in the engine. Every aircraft has a checklist for the walkaround, starting inside the cockpit ensuring all paperwork, first-aid, fire extinguisher, etc. are there and intact. Lastly, the pilot checks that foamies, “Remove Before Flight” tags, and tie-downs, are detached.
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    Preflight: It’s common to have everything planned out and ready to go, and then have the weather to start to sink. Get a current weather report. A professional, responsible pilot will realize that if the conditions aren’t right, you don’t fly! Be patient for calmer days. During the preflight stage, the pilot shall check to have the aircraft operating manual, log, charts, computer, pencils, survival equipment, clothing and sunglasses in the aircraft. Now that the groundwork is done, the pilot may call ATC (Air Traffic Control) for a transponder code (transmission-responder) for airplane recognition on radar screens. Passengers may be briefed at this point as well.
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    Take-off: A pilot should avoid intersection take-offs. Many runways require an airplane to “backtrack” onto, to make use of the entire length of the runway. Keep lift-off speeds and engine failure procedures in your mind, and have an abort location about halfway down the runway if all systems aren’t a go at that point. Check that the engine sounds good, and the propeller is rotating at full power. Read and complete the checklists, ensure temperature and pressure gauges are showing good readings. If there is an Air Traffic Control (ATC) unit, the pilot must request clearance for take-off. Always use the centre line of the runway, and devote all attention to the task at hand.
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    Know your duties In-flight: A pilot has three priorities when they are flying: to aviate, navigate, and communicate – and in that order. Once settled in a cruise flight attitude, a pilot should read his/her map and follow it to the ground, anticipating landmarks as outlined. With VFR flight, a pilot must stay below 500’ from the cloud base (in controlled airspace), so as to have clear visual contact at all times. On a cross-country flight, the pilot or co-pilot should be calculating the fuel burn and ground speed, as per the pre-flight plan. When the tanks are down to 30 minutes of flight time during the day, or 45 minutes at night, the pilot should plan to land and refuel.
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    Prepare for Arrival: Prior to arriving at the destination, the pilot has several things to think about and coordinate. About twenty minutes before landing, the pilot should review the Canada Flight Supplement (CFS) to reconfirm the airport information (circuit height, elevation, runway lengths and heading), and review the approach speeds, crosswind limit, and flap settings. About ten minutes before, the pilot shall broadcast their current location, intentions, and get the local traffic information. If there are several airplanes arriving, ATC will let the pilot know of their sequence number for landing. Between five and ten minutes prior to landing, the pilot should set the altimeter to the reporting station's pressure, check surface winds, and continue to look for other traffic. If the crosswinds are over the limits, the pilot should land elsewhere. Landing lights will be switched on, and at this point the pilot may join the circuit after reporting. Checking the windsock is important, so the aircraft is landing into the wind for sufficient engine cooling, and greatest drag.
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    Land: Landing is a critical point in any flight. Pilots must be able to recognize where the airplane will land, from the point at which s/he is in the air presently. When undershooting or experiencing turbulence, add power early. Check and recheck the windsock as the aircraft gets closer to the runway, and review the overshoot procedure. It’s safer to go around again or ask for an alternate, than to have a bad landing! Line up with the white centre line of the runway, and stay lined up during the approach, touchdown and rollout. Plan to have the airplane touch down by the first third of a paved runway, first quarter if grass. Apply brakes right away if required; a small aircraft may be able to roll itself out to a slow on the remaining runway length.
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    Shutdown: The flight was successful, and everyone is safe. Passengers must remain seated until the prop(s) have stopped. The pilot has the responsibility to close the flight plan as soon as possible, so Search and Rescue (SAR) doesn’t get alarms telling them the aircraft hasn’t arrived on time. Also, make sure the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) hasn't activated; hard landings may have the ELT go off without there being an accident or reason to investigate. If the plane is low in fuel, it is of common courtesy to refuel it for the next flight. It also helps eliminate water accumulation in the wing tanks, keeping the fuel pure. Lastly, the pilot should tie-down the plane, put in wheel chocks, insert foamies and replace “Remove Before Flight” tags.


  • Important Transponder Codes:
    • 1200: VFR flight; standard squawk code used in Canada when no other code has been assigned.
    • 1400: VFR flight above 12,500’ ASL (Above Sea Level) when no other code has been assigned.
    • 7500: Unlawful interference (hijack)
    • 7600: Communication failure
    • 7700: General emergency
      • Note: all other transponder codes are assigned by an ATC unit.
  • The phone number for flight service is 1-800-WX-BRIEF (1-800-992-7433).


  • Use the "I am Safe" guideline. Illness, Medical, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Eating all contribute to the pilots flying ability on a day to day basis.
  • Have an alternate plan of action if poor weather is encountered.
  • Pilots must hold a valid medical certificate for their license to be valid.
  • PLAN AHEAD! Plan a flight so you’ve already done it, before taking off.
  • Never take-off or land on a closed runway.
  • Don’t fail to allow yourself for a margin of error. Always carry out procedures safely.
  • Don’t let anything influence your good judgment.
  • Cancel flights that may be hazardous – no matter how important it may be.
  • Don’t get into bad flying habits.
  • Never fly an airplane you aren’t qualified and licensed for.

Things You'll Need

  • Pilot license, medical certificate
  • Airworthy airplane, documents
  • Sufficient amount of fuel
  • Knee board (optional), headset
  • Dipstick and fuel strainer
  • Checklists
  • Canada Flight Supplement
  • VNC (VFR Navigation Chart)
  • Up to date NOTAMs
  • Appropriate clothing and equipment
  • Flight plan

Sources and Citations

  • Cameron, Alexander. "Stalls; Flight Brief." Diss. Ottawa Flying Club, 2009. Abstract. Airplane contamination. Note.
  • MacDonald, "Sandy" A.F. From the Ground Up. Comp. Isabel L. Peppler. Twenty-Eighth Millennium ed. Ottawa, Ontario: Aviation Co. Limited, 2000. Print.
  • Roome, Nicolas. "VFR Flight." Online, Ottawa. 29 Sept. 2009. Lecture.
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Categories: Flight Training