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Arrival Briefing and Time Management in the Cockpit

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I mostly fly 1-2 hours hauls, and I usually try to brief the most likely arrival as soon as I'm in reach of the destination ATIS. Knowing the runway, I lookup the most likely charts. It takes 5-10 minutes to take note of: route, transitions, restrictions, navaid frequencies, missed approach, where to vacate, etc.

Sometimes it goes smooth, but more often than not it seems that no plan survives contact with the approach control. Yesterday I prepped for ILS 04 in Nice then got RNP D 22R (the winds changed while in the STAR), earlier this week, in Munich, I've got clearance for a surprise transition that I didn't know existed (it was on a separate chart that didn't seem necessary; everything connected without it).

By the time I get clearance, it's too late to understand everything on the charts, and program/check the FMS.

How do you guys manage your time to get ready? How many STARs, transitions and approach plates do you go through?


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What you describe is pretty much applicable to the real world just as much as it is our virtual one. Larger airports that feature multiple parallel runways are famous for having runway assignments made by the first approach controller (ORD, for one), although some airports now get the overlying centers to issue runways (ZDV). In the case of the latter, it's not terribly uncommon for approach to change the runway assignment on initial contact--and sometimes even after that, especially if weather is an issue or if a runway needs to be closed for some reason.

This is one reason airlines are still operate with two-person crews. One pilot works on setting up the new procedure while the other focuses on flying the airplane and keeping the head up and eyes out. Both pilots work out a new plan for the new runway, and hope that the situation doesn't change yet again.

Sometimes the best you can do is try to listen to what other aircraft that are on your route are being assigned in terms of STAR transitions and, to an extent, runway assignments. Brief the approach you're most likely to get, based on the ATIS, and your geographical position from the airport, and you might even consider briefing a backup approach. I think some pilots will program an alternate flight plan in their FMC based on the most likely "plan B" runway so that they now have two briefed and verified approaches ready to go, but I'm not sure. I'd be willing to bet those folks will happily chime in here, though. Lastly, if you want to get in really deep, check out the TAF for your arrival airport to get an idea of what the weather will be doing at your ETA.

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Hi Claudiu,

As Dustin says, this is very much a feature of the real world as much as VATSIM. I wrote a post on a similar topic here which you may find a useful read: 

Winds (and thus runways) can indeed change at short notice and just an unfortunate thing - that said, being aware of local weather patterns/meteorological phenomena may assist (for instance, for airports located near the coast, like Nice, especially during the summer months you will often get a rapid reversal of wind direction around sunrise and sunset, with a "sea breeze" coming in from over the water during the day switching to a "land breeze" from the opposite direction overnight).

Likewise experience and familiarity with a particular airport will help teach you what to expect - for instance, I am sure now that you have experienced flying in to Munich you will know next time which transition to prepare for. This is also one of the areas where time might be usefully spent pre-flight by checking out local websites/briefing resources/speaking to local pilots/controllers to find out what is "usual" -- for instance, VATSIM Germany have a very useful Pilot Briefing page which gives details of what you can expect (being the operative word): https://de.wiki.vatsim-germany.org/München_Pilotenbriefing#Ankunft. The textual data (10-1 etc pages if you are using Navigraph) is often neglected but often contains a lot of very useful information regarding things like preferential runways, local procedures and so on and if you are not familiar with an airport it is well worth reading through these pages ahead of the flight.

As I mention in my post above, the key thing with any departure/approach briefing is to be able to focus on what is important and not get bogged down in the minutiae otherwise you can end up spending so long briefing minor details that you don't actually have time to concentrate on the big stuff -- and that is something which, again, will become easier with experience. Something which is always worth keeping at the front of your mind when you are briefing should be HOW you will fly the approach/departure etc, as opposed to focusing exclusive on WHAT you will fly - quite often you hear arrival briefs which consist of "We'll fly the STAR from X to Y to Z, then we'll intercept the 250 radial from ABC descending to three thousand feet and intercept the localiser" -- well I can read the chart too, but what I want to know is HOW you will achieve that -- what autopilot modes will you use, what flap setting will you use for landing, at what points will you select flap and gear etc, if we need to fly a go-around what buttons will you press, what modes will you use, etc etc.  

Overall your thought process is exactly right -- don't be disheartened by the fact that sometimes things don't go as anticipated, this is a quite normal part of aviation! As I say, spending the time pre-flight to research your destination if you are unfamiliar with it is a great way to get ahead of the game -- keep up the arrival preparation because it is absolutely the right way to go about it, and keep thinking "what if" and "how" and how you will mitigate any possible threats -- and to help manage the workload spend the time pre-flight doing your research rather than trying to do it in the air.

Hope that helps!

Vice President, Pilot Training

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Great tips. Thank you.


  • Brief a backup approach, and enter alternate flight plan (if FMC has this feature)
  • Get a co-pilot (if possible)
  • Read/decode the TAF
  • Listen to instructions given to aircraft ahead
  • Do a pre-flight briefing of the destination airport : local vatsim page and navigraph 10-x textal plates
  • Think through how you'll fly the chart
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23 hours ago, Claudiu Dragomir said:

Brief a backup approach, and enter alternate flight plan (if FMC has this feature)

You don't necessarily have to brief such an approach thoroughly, just have a look at the chart, check for significant differences (final approach altitude, minimum, missed approach procedure in general, navaids, final approach course) to the approach that you actually expected and briefed first. This way you will not be taken by surprise when ATC assigns that approach and runway to you. And when you are not ready for that approach yet, tell ATC that you need x more minutes before you are ready for approach. It is your responsibility as PIC to asses your situation and keep ATC up to date if you are not ready as expected by ATC.

And don't worry: with practice and experience your approach briefings will become faster and faster, because you'll know better what information really matters.

Edited by Andreas Fuchs
re-worded the last sentence
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I think generally speaking that transitioning from a solo environment (where AI ATC more-or-less clears you exactly as you filed and expected) to a multiplayer environment (where you might realistically be expected to roll with runway reassignments, reroutes, and other changes to your plan) is one of the larger learning curves coming into VATSIM.  It takes time to adjust to the more realistic environment of adapting to changing circumstances, versus the "set it and forget it" mentality you may be used to.  Learning that real-world flights don't operate in this manner can be a bit of a culture shock.  It comes more easily with practice and experience. And it gives you a better appreciation of the men and women who do this all for real.  (The fact that there's typically two of them in the cockpit puts us at a disadvantage, too!)

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20 hours ago, Andreas Fuchs said:

You don't necessarily have to brief such an approach thoroughly, just have a look at the chart, check for significant differences (final approach altitude, minimum, missed approach procedure in general, navaids, final approach course) to the approach that you actually expected and briefed first.

Yes, I was going to elaborate on that part, but decided to edit. You brief the alternative approach, but you can brush over the parts that are the same, and highlight only the differences (which is also why I said you should include in your briefing the steps needed to set up the aircraft for the other approach).

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