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Can pilots go "offroading"? In other words, is there an airspace where you don't need a flight plan? Or maybe just a flight plan to go there and then "joyride?"

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I am assuming from your question you are not a pilot.

So, as a general answer, in the U.S., flight at altitudes at and above 18,000 feet (5.49 km) above mean sea level requires a flight plan (an Instrument Flight Rules flight plan - known as IFR) and "joyriding/offroading" as you put it, is not permitted.

However, at lower altitudes (in controlled and uncontrolled airspace) a flight plan is not required in the vast majority of airspace in the U.S. and "joyriding/offroading" is permitted (there are certain Federal Aviation Regulations [FARs] that may apply, such as minimum altitudes or flying a correct altitude for your direction of flight, etc.).

Below 18,000 ft., there are some exceptions for certain types/categories of airspace areas and weather conditions where a flight plan is required, and/or "joyriding/offroading" would not be permitted, depending on the type of service you may or may not want (or require) from Air Traffic Control (ATC) and because of various FARs.

Also, there are many areas where a flight plan is not required (as mentioned above) but communication with, and sometimes authorization from, ATC is required.

Lastly, even in good weather when flying ("joyriding/offroading") it is a good idea to file a flight plan and communicate with ATC. Communication with ATC will help you avoid other air traffic and a flight plan will assist in locating you if you have to make an emergency landing or have an accident.

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    $\begingroup$ Above 18,000 feet you could put in a flight plan for an area and a block of altitude and go joyriding though. It is basically what is done in a flight test. It requires a bit more coordination upfront, perhaps that takes joy out of the joyriding. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Dec 15, 2022 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't the so-called "class G" airspace what we're talking about here? $\endgroup$
    – Tfovid
    Dec 15, 2022 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Tfovid no, my answer applies to controlled airspace in addition to uncontrolled airspace (which is Class G airspace), with the provisions mentioned. $\endgroup$
    – RTO
    Dec 15, 2022 at 20:42
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Note: I fly in EASA-land (EU) but I'm assuming the situation should be similar in the US and other countries

As @757toga described perfectly, there are situations where a pilot does not need a flight plan, mostly in low altitude, uncongested areas ("uncontrolled airspace"), in good weather at daytime. This varies country to country.

Equally importantly, however, you can go "joyriding" on a flight plan in most circumstances, sometimes even in controlled airspace.

In fact, 90% of the PPL practice flights in my area are on a flight plan, but they list some remark like "MANOUVER PRACTICE NEAR [village] BETWEEN [min-altitude] AND [max-altitude]". There's nothing wrong with that in uncontrolled airspace, it's actually usually much preferred than not filing a flight plan at all, for obvious reasons. *

In many situations, you may even be able to pull this off inside controlled airspace, if the controller permits you. If you'd like to do that, you can either just call them on the phone in advance, or you may need to get a written permit, depending on the place. But if traffic and other factors allow, the controller can allocate a block of airspace for you, inside which you can pretty much "do what you want". This is also how some special operations are done like photography, airshows, etc.

* Advantages of having a flight plan even when not required include:

  • Lets controllers and thereby other traffic know about your intentions, which helps you to see and avoid eachother.
  • In case you get into an accident or simply "disappear" from radar, the flight plan lets the authorities know about your existence so they can notify search and rescue services. They also know your approximate intentions, and important information like # of people and fuel on board.
  • In my country in addition to the above if you don't have a flight plan and you require search and rescue for any reason, you are financially liable for those services.
  • If you accidentally get into bad weather and would like an IFR clearance to penetrate clouds you can't get one without a flight plan (at least here under EASA rules). You can technically file a flight plan from the air, but that's one extra step in an already time-critical phase.
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    $\begingroup$ This is a good answer (I upvoted it), and can be improved with replacing "for obvious reasons" with explaining the reasons. What's obvious to one person is often not obvious to another... especially when it comes to this topic. $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2022 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ Good point, updated the post. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2022 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ FWIW, FAA-land seems to be unusual in that we can fly VFR (nearly) anywhere without a flight plan. The first time I ever filed one at all was during IFR training. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Jan 11 at 3:07
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To be a little less technical, and simply answer the specific question, yes, there is a ton of airspace in the USA where you can fly without filing a flight plan, like almost all of it under 18,000'. I've logged all 800+ hours of my flight time without filing a flight plan.

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  • $\begingroup$ Someone always knows where I planned on going and when I'm expected, and I always check in with them when I get there. All of my 800+ hours are VFR. If I need to transition various airspace, I request flight following from ATC. At that point, I'm in the system and they know where I am. Now, with ADS-B out, they know even more about who I am and where I am. In my opinion, filing a VFR flight plan doesn't do much more than give them a route to search if you don't show up at your destination. $\endgroup$
    – Chris C.
    Dec 19, 2022 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ There are plenty of places in the Western US that are below radar/ADS-B coverage. Every time I fly near the Sierras, I expect ATC to drop me from flight following. I've also been denied flight following when ATC is busy. VFR flight plans make sure that there's still someone who will look for you, even if ATC drops you from the system. $\endgroup$ Dec 25, 2022 at 6:37

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