Flight plans are an essential part of flying for both IFR and VFR pilots.
I am going to cover how to cancel both VFR and IFR flight plans in this article.
How to cancel a VFR flight plan:
Unlike an IFR flight plan, you are not required to be on a flight plan for a VFR flight. I highly recommend, for search and rescue purposes, you file and open a flight plan with FSS on every cross- country flight.
If you aren’t clear on how to file and open a VFR flight plan you can check out this article on how to file a VFR flight plan.
When you do open your flight plan, though, you are required to close it. You can do this two ways:
In the air: This is a great option so you don’t forget on the ground.
You can do this at any point in your flight, however, I highly recommend you wait until you have the airport in sight.
The whole point of the flight plan is to activate search and rescue.
It doesn’t make any sense to cancel a flight plan 30 NM from the airport. Who knows what will happen in that 30 miles?
You can find the FSS frequency by looking at the VFR sectional. In this example below you will find a solid box with the words “Salem RCO.”
Those words don’t mean much except to tell you its the FSS frequency. As a pilot you are more concerned with the word below: ‘McMinnville” and the frequency above: “122.6.”
You want to address your radio call to “McMinnville Radio,” and not “Salem RCO.”
Ideally you should write this frequency down before you take off so you aren’t messing with it in the air.
Be sure to give FSS a heads up call and let them know what frequency you are on as well. They may be over 100 miles away and they usually have several frequencies to monitor.
Tell them where you are spelled phonetically and what you want to do.
The call would sound something like this:
“McMinnville Radio, Cessna 12345 on 122.6“
“Cessna 345, go ahead“
“Cessna 345, is 10 miles north of the Salem airport, Sierra, Lima, Echo, landing assured, please cancel my VFR flight plan.“
On the ground: This is super simple, just call 1-800-WX-BRIEF on the phone, give them your call sign and location, and they will cancel the VFR flight plan.
If you choose to cancel on the ground, make sure you remember to make the call. Many pilots walk away from the aircraft and forget.
This could result in the activation of search and rescue if they can’t reach you on the phone number you provided in your flight plan.
So I recommend you add “cancel flight plan” to the end of your checklist if it isn’t there already.
You can also put a post-it note on your car steering wheel so its there when you get back.
Or better yet, never get out of the aircraft until you call FSS.
Whatever technique you choose, establish a habit so something will feel weird if you miss the call.
How to cancel an IFR flight plan:
Most of the time you never have to worry about closing IFR flight plans; tower does it for you automatically.
This isn’t the case when the tower is closed or you are flying to an uncontrolled airport. Things get a little more complicated.
When should you cancel your IFR flight plan? You have two options:
In the air
You cannot use this option unless you can maintain VFR cloud clearance. So when the field is IFR (1000′ and 3) its unlikely you will cancel in the air.
It’s more important to focus on flying the approach. You can call approach when you land.
If the weather is good, though, this is a great option especially if radio reception is poor on the ground. Some airports out West have terrible communications on the ground. It’s best to call when you get the airport in sight.
If you don’t know what the reception is like on the ground, ask approach. They will tell you the best way to cancel.
It’s also a good practice to cancel in the air because it frees up other IFR traffic to land and depart. If you wait until you land no other IFR traffic can land OR takeoff until you cancel on the ground. This also includes SVFR traffic.
At what point in the flight should you cancel in the air?
I like to cancel my IFR flight plan right after ATC clears me for the visual approach. In other words: I have the airport in sight.
When you cancel in the air you must include the words: “cancel my IFR flight plan.” The controller will come back and tell you to “switch to advisory frequency and squawk VFR.”
You are now required to fly at a VFR altitude. (ie 6,500 feet or 10,500 feet)
You are also now responsible for your own aircraft separation even if you requested flight following.
If you want flight following, you must specifically ask for it. ATC will not have you switch to 1200. They will keep you on your current squawk code.
I have found flight following very helpful flying in the Willamette valley. A lot of aircraft fly around at 1500 ft MSL and when I descending down to pattern altitude it is extremely helpful getting traffic alerts even with a traffic warning system (TCAS).
For aircraft without TCAS or ADS-B, canceling IFR early and forgoing flight following is stupid.
On the ground
When the weather is bad, or you don’t feel like canceling in the air, call ATC when you land.
Remember, other IFR traffic can’t land OR takeoff at that airport until you have landed. So, don’t be an a-hole. Cancel when you get off the runway. Don’t wait until you park the aircraft.
The best way is to call Approach or Center on the radio. Use the same frequency you were on before you switched to CTAF.
Don’t call FSS on the phone to cancel unless you can’t reach ATC on the ground.
[Tweet “Whether you decide to cancel in the air or on the ground, have a plan before you take off. “]
You should know in your pre-flight planning session whether the tower is open or if it’s uncontrolled airspace. You should also know if you can maintain VFR.
Some pilots cancel IFR when they are still quite high and not even close to seeing the airport. They will still request flight following.
I don’t understand this line of thinking unless you aren’t getting the altitudes or route you want. If you are still getting flight following you might as well stay on your IFR flight plan. You are up with approach/center anyway.
I feel safer on an IFR flight plan.
That is for you to decide, though. It is legal to cancel if you can maintain VFR cloud clearances and you are outside of Class A airspace. Personally, I don’t cancel IFR unless it is a visual approach to an uncontrolled airport and I have the airport in sight.
I just don’t see a lot of benefit in canceling outside of those circumstances.
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