How do Pilots Actually Setup a Flight Plan?

Now that I’m successfully making the switch from my old school military sim experience into this modern era of civilian sims, I’m smitten by it.

What I’m really curious about is how do real pilots setup a flight plan? Specifically, I’m curious about the selection of waypoints along a route and how specific departure, arrival and approach procedures are selected.

I’m assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that there must be a methodology utilized and it isn’t just some random, “I’ll pick this one and this one and…”

If a knowledgeable pilot would enlighten me or even point me to an external resource (I’m an avid reader) that explains this process, I’d be much obliged!



Since you mention departure, arrival, and approach procedures it sounds like you are asking about IFR flight planning?

Section 10 in the FAA Instrument Flying Handbook is one place to start:
FAA-H-8083-15B, Instrument Flying Handbook

This is an area that is undergoing a lot of change at the moment (“at the moment” = for the last couple decades and the next few decades) as various regions move away from airways to free route airspace and directs, or choose not to do that and introduce more direct airways instead (e.g. J routes to Q routes in the US), and as VORs for enroute navigation gradually disappear. As a result the methodology differs between regions and changes over time.

E.g., “the selection of waypoints” could just mean using the waypoints along the chosen airway or looking it up in the NFDC Preferred Routes Database. Or it could mean stringing something together using Free Route Airspace (FRA) entry/exit/intermediate/arrival connecting/departure connecting points from a chart. Or it could mean understanding the rules for direct routes in a particular jurisdiction and file direct if feasible.

So I think it is difficult to give a general answer. The answers for “GA IFR in the US” versus “airliner flying in central Europe” are quite different.


I think FlyingBear01 provided an excellent answer. If you are flying domestic US routes, I suggest you look at those routes in FlightAware, which is where I grab my route for planning purposes in either PFPX or SimBrief. I like to fly the same route as that flight IRL and use real time weather. Sometimes I’ll adjust the time such that I’m departing on real world schedule from and to the same gate numbers (where the scenery allows it). This mimicking real world flights is a good way to get a sense on what is done.

In addition to above, I believe in most airlines pilots don’t choose their own route, that is done my dispatch. Pilot only has choice for runways and SID/STAR/APPR

Probably not.

When you talking about IRL the runway and SID or STAR always come from the air traffic control.
The flight crew is basically not allowed to do anything alone. Even starting the engines must be approved in most cases.

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Ah thought this was free choice as well. My bad.

Is that only for runway and approach then? That is up to the pilot?

No of course not! Everything is told to you by the controller - regardless of whether VFR or IFR.

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it’s the airlines plane, you just fly it

There is an element of truth in that but I think that is a rather misleading statement.

The flight crew (or dispatcher) always select all elements of the flight plan, including SID and STAR and approach. If they are cleared “as filed” then that is what they fly. In some circumstances that is rare, in other circumstances it is common. What you file or request is what you get to do - unless ATC need you to do something else, in which case they instruct you accordingly.

So “everything is told to you by the controller” is partly true, at least for IFR, if you include instructions like “cleared as filed” or “approved as requested”. But it starts with the crew deciding what they want and asking for it. The statement is not true in uncontrolled airspace, or for VFR in Class E, or in other circumstances where ATC are not even involved.

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Pilot can make request to air traffic control, but are subject to operational demands of the airport as a whole.

Air traffic control works behind the scenes with airline dispatch offices to let them know what STARS and approaches are in use. Dispatch would file the flight plan with ATC.

Then, in the plane, pilot would load into FMS as assigned by clearance delivery, which might be the filed flight plan or something else, depending on what else is happening- weather, closed airport reroutes etc.

Use the CRAFT mnemonic in the US

C- cleared limit (destination or where to expect further clearance)
R- route of flight
A- altitude
F- Departure control Frequency
T- transponder squawk code

Clearance Delivery: Airplane 123, cleared to OHare. (C)
Takeoff runway 13R, Kennedy 5 departure, direct HEROS, direct SAX, then as filed. (R)
Climb via the SID, Canarsie Climb (A)
Departure on 120.55 (F)
Squawk 2627 (T)

(After readback)

ATC: Airplane 123, read back correct, contact ground for taxi.

Airplane 123: Kennedy ground, Airplane 123 at B12 ready for taxi, IFR to OHare

Ground: Airplane 123, a bit of a backup at 13R, expect runway change to 13L, no change to your clearance other than runway. taxi instructions

An airline would be able to handle much of the “dialing in” electronically, pulling the route from Dispatch office.

They would then get the clearance (these days) electronically instead of by radio and would get the print out from the Flight Deck computer. Electronic clearance delivery usually with FANS datalink to ATC. If the plane does not have FANS or something is not quite right, they would get it the old fashioned way by radio as above.

The crew would then go way point by way point to ensure that the flight plan loaded into the FMS is the cleared route and make amendments as needed. In some cases (complete reroute after PDC issued), they would have to dial everything in if needed.

A GA pilot would dial everything in with knobs and buttons.

(US experience only)


One thing not mentioned is the element of VFR flight. For this there is a process that is quite involved when you are learning to fly and is covered during ground lessons. When I received my certificate, we didn’t have digital flight planning tools to the level we have today with ForeFlight - Which I love - but the process is still similar. the tool now just takes the place of many of the calculations you’d have to do with a an E6B and a calculator.

You should be able to find some videos on the paper/chart and digital flight planning process easily online. With VFR flight planning, you are of course a lot more “free” to chose your routing and waypoints but no less responsible to ensure you have considered all elements necessary for a safe flight - Here in the US that is covered under FAR 91.153: eCFR :: 14 CFR 91.153 -- VFR flight plan: Information required.

A basic understanding of VFR flight planning is a must and concrete foundation before worrying about IFR clearances, SIDs and STARs. Aviation is built on foundation so great time to learn the basics first.


The original question: IFR routes are manually dialed in.

… unless you work for a major airline and have the ability to download the route electronically from Dispatch. Even then, you need to validate that the route provided by dispatch is what is cleared by ATC. Then you need to make modifications as required.

Not necessarily true, its not that black and white. As a pilot you could request a different runway or departure procedure for operational reasons, e.g. performance or weather avoidance. The filed flight plan and Operational Flightplan (OFP) usually don’t contain any SIDs, STARs and approaches, instead the fuel and time predictions are calculated using the longest SID, STAR and / or approach. Otherwise you would need to request a new stack of papers (or download a new package onto the iPad nowadays) each time ATC changes the runway. At least thats how it works in Europe.

Kind of, the route is filed by the company and fuel / time predictions are done using the longest SID / STAR and / or approach. This way you don’t need to print out a new set of papers each time the runway (and thus SID / STAR) changes. There is not that much choice as there usually is only one SID / STAR per runway which connects with the filed en-route segment. Usually you get the runway, SID / STAR and approach type from ATC. You could of course request a different runway, departure procedure or approach for operational reasons.

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You (or the airline) need to file a flight plan, part of the flight plan is the filled route. You either need to file via airways or directs (free route airspace) in either case there are rules so there isn’t that much freedom.

Regarding SIDs and STARs, there usually isn’t much choice. Usually there is one SID from each runway to a certain en-route segment. For example, at airport X there might be 4 SIDs per runway, one in each cardinal direction. You’ll need to plan from the point the SID terminates to the point the STAR begins at the destination airport. The route between the end of the SID and the beginning of the STAR (en-route segment) is as below:

If you need to file via conventional airways, there usually are only a few routes connecting your departure and arrival airport in an efficient way. There are restrictions which airway you can use, some are only one way or are restricted to certain flight levels. Even if you find a suitable airway, there might be further restrictions applicable which can be found in the Route Availability Document (RAD). For example, some airways are not allowed to be used from A to B, others may only be used from A to C, etc.

Free route airspace is a little easier to work with as all airways have been deleted and only some waypoints remain. You could fairly easily plan a direct route via waypoint to waypoint from A to B. Still some restrictions may apply, for example you may not cross a FIR boundary on a direct route, you’ll need to enter and leave a FIR via waypoints on the FIR boundaries. Some waypoints, like with some airways, are only meant for specific airports.

The only thing eventually which is variable: the runway in use and the corresponding SID / STAR. If runway 36 is in use, you fly the EXAMPLE1A departure to point EXAMPLE, if runway 18 is in use you fly the EXAMPLE2A departure. Thats how it works in the EASA part of the world at least.

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If you want to build your own flight plans (which I suggest you do, it’s fun), go to SkyVector and create your route linking waypoints, VOR and NDB, or following existing airways taking into account, weather, winds, minimum safe altitudes and eventually NOTAM(s) and SIGMET(s) which are all available here. You have detailed airports maps, city information and even fuel prices… You can also select the type of map you want to use IFR Low or High enroute, or VFR (with relief), input ocean daily routings (Atlantic out Pacific), weather maps (satellite, radar), this is a wealth of information that few simulator pilots are aware of. Try it and get back to us with your view.

SkyVector is used by real world pilots so its accuracy cannot be . You can create an account if you wish to (it’s free), you can then copy and paste the route into SimBrief and import it into MSFS.

I have used this site for all my flights for the past years (since its creation) and enjoy it every time.

Guys, are you still reading the question?
That was after the selection of waypoints, departure, arrival and approach procedures.
In MSFS you can of course do what you want. But not in real flight operations.
And I’m talking about controlled airspace and not some bush flyers somewhere in nowhere.

While that is most certainly true, the pilot / crew can still “ask” for a different SID. ATC is supportive of this if it is possible to give. Depending on the traffic density at airports of course. Same is for Runway - if desired a request can be made for a different runway (again, if possible given wind and amount of traffic)

You could test that using VATSIM or PilotEdge or other ATC networks - it works like in the real life :slight_smile:

I am a Pilot IRL - but only for the “toy” class of planes (GA) :wink:


Just to clarify - Runway and Approach is assigned by ATC.
Runway: That mostly depends on the wind. You always want to land into the wind. But if the weather allows some airports tend to switch the runway around. And if there is not to much tail wind they may let you land (on your own descretion) on the opposite runway.
Approch is similar - they give you the approach wich makes the most sense to them (IRL) given the other planes arriving. In MS 2020 this part of ATC is pretty bad IMHO. Sometimes the approach given by ATC does not fit your routing - in this case - ask for the one you have planned - MS ATC always gives in ;D

You can use SimBrief to create valid flight plans. Works better with a Navigraph subscription. Navigraph charts can also create valid flight plans.