Flight planning for IFR flights has a lot of components to it that must be properly understood to be able to do it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

So, in this article, we answer the most frequently asked questions pilots have and inform you of everything you need to know to do IFR flight planning right from the get-go.

What Is an IFR Flight Plan?

An IFR flight plan is a document that indicates an aircraft’s planned flight route or path when operating under instrument flight rules.

It is filed by a pilot or flight dispatcher and submitted to the nearest Flight Service Station (FSS) or Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT). This can be done in person, by telephone, or by radio.

When Is an IFR Flight Plan Required and When Must You File One?

Every time a pilot wants to fly in controlled airspace under IFR, whether that is prior to departure or prior to entering controlled airspace, a flight plan is required.

An IFR flight plan should be submitted at least 30 minutes before departure. This is so there is enough time to receive departure clearance from ATC so as not to incur any delays.

If not, it’s common to experience a 30-minute delay while waiting for ATC clearance as they process the flight plan data.

What Is the Best Way of Receiving IFR Clearance?

To ensure things go as smoothly as possible, it’s best to state the name of the city and state, and/or the airport location identifier of the departure airport, so ATC will know the exact location you intend to depart from.

For non-tower, non-FSS, and outlying airports, receiving IFR clearance can depend on weather conditions, geographical features, and the complexity of the ATC system. Therefore, asking the nearest FSS what the most effective way to obtain IFR clearance is your best bet.

Which Form Should Be Used for Filing an IFR Flight Plan?

FAA Form 7233-1 is recommended for domestic IFR flights, though FAA Form 7233-4 can also be used.

For international IFR flights, filling out FAA Form 7233-4 is mandatory.

How Can You Activate an IFR Flight Plan?

IFR flight plans are automatically activated by ATC. This is typically done upon departure with tower.

At uncontrolled airfields, however, a flight plan is activated as part of the clearance upon contact and receival of the departure frequency.

Can You File an IFR Flight Plan Without an Instrument Rating?

If you are not acting as pilot in command, filing an IFR flight plan without an instrument rating is allowed. If you are, then you will not be able to file IFR.

How Long Does an IFR Flight Plan Last?

ATC prints the flight plan 30 minutes prior to departure. If it is never used, then the IFR flight plan is in the system for two hours after the estimated time of departure before it is deleted.

While ATC will hold an IFR flight plan for two hours after ETD, it is also possible to update the flight plan by contacting ATC.

How Do You Cancel an IFR Flight Plan?

An IFR flight plan can be canceled by notifying an FAA Flight Service Station or ATC facility. This can be done any time the flight is operating outside Class A airspace in VFR conditions. Cancellation can also be requested with FSS or ATC upon completing a flight.

A pilot must state “CANCEL MY IFR FLIGHT PLAN” to the air/ground station or controller they are communicating with. Upon cancellation, a pilot should change to the appropriate frequency, VFR radar beacon code and VFR altitude.

An IFR flight plan is automatically closed upon landing, so there is no need for cancellation at this point.

Canceling an IFR flight plan is sometimes easier said than done for a few reasons. The flight plan should not be canceled if:

  • Flying in VFR conditions above 18,000 feet
  • While on approach to a surface-based Class E airport unless the basic VFR weather minimums are met – as stated in FAR 91.155
  • While on approach to a Class B, C, D or E airspace airport if the airport does not the basic VFR weather minimum cloud separation requirements – as stated in FAR 91.155

Do Helicopter Pilots Need to Submit an IFR Flight Plan?

Yes, any helicopter planning to fly under IFR must submit an IFR flight plan.