Safety: Let's go! VFR cross-country considerations

The weather looks promising for tomorrow’s trip to your favorite vacation spot. You’ve reserved one of your flying club’s airplanes, and friends and family are eager to come along. You feel on top of the world and can’t wait to go. Are you ready? Being prepared is an important step in safe aircraft operations, whether you are in a flying club or not. AOPA’s Air Safety Institute (ASI) has a host of resources to help.

Preflight pilot and plane

You’re in good shape and feeling fine—Check. You’re current—Check. You’ve also completed the required takeoffs and landings to carry passengers, and you’re proficientCheck.

Now it’s time to ensure the airplane is up to snuff. Are AROW documents on board, maintenance squawks addressed, and GPS and MFD databases current? Check the airplane’s fuel range and study its in-flight fuel management system as it may differ from other club airplanes.

Be prepared for external pressure

Let’s say the weather doesn’t turn out as forecast. Now what do you do? The desire to please friends and family can lead you to discard personal minimums and launch on the flight, even continue flight into adverse conditions. Or, when weather deteriorates en route—especially close to your destination—you might feel the desire to press on, thinking you can just make it. Before your flight, update and review your personal minimums contract and remind yourself to honor it. This means: Don’t let a promise to friends and family pressure you into going. The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Real Pilot Story: From Miscue to Rescue relates lessons learned from a pilot who ignored the warning signs and pressed on.

Preflight route and weather

Gather or bookmark applicable aeronautical charts, airport diagrams, and airport facility information to back up your GPS flight plan. If you’re using a handheld device, ensure you carry extra batteries to keep the electronic route and charts alive. Again, paper charts are useful here as well—fold and sequence the charts according to the route to minimize unnecessary manipulation in the cockpit.

Approaching a flight with a firm timeline can spell trouble, so you’ve made your companions aware that marginal weather—or conditions you’re not qualified or comfortable flying in—will delay the flight. You’ve checked the long-range weather several days ago, and it looked good. Now you’re ready to review the 24-hour forecast. Here’s a tip: Think of weather on a larger scale than just your departure to destination points. For example, consider terrain and local weather patterns, frontal boundaries your flight may cross, and the weather outlook for the geographical areas and states neighboring your route. Outlook briefings are great planning tools, but follow up with the update briefing for short-range and current conditions just before departure. Things to remember: If weather is obviously poor, or obviously good, go/no-go decisions are easy to make. However, external pressure has a better chance of influencing the go/no-go decision when the weather situation isn’t clear-cut. So, have a contingency plan and stick to it if your final weather briefing’s outcome doesn’t meet your personal minimums.

In-flight considerations

Plan how you’ll conduct the flight’s en route portion. No one likes to think that something could go wrong. But if you had to make an emergency landing in a remote area, wouldn’t you be thankful that Search and Rescue (SAR) was alerted? Therefore, plan to file and activate a VFR flight plan to ensure SAR comes looking for you. There may not be any adverse weather or TFRs issued for your route during the preflight briefing but that can change after you depart, so make a note to use flight service’s in-flight weather advisories and pop-up temporary flight restriction (TFR) updates.

Gather pertinent air traffic control (ATC) approach and center frequencies to benefit from VFR flight following—an ATC traffic advisory service, provided workload permitting. Flight following offers extra eyes for collision avoidance, improves your situational awareness, and delivers immediate assistance in the event of an emergency. Also, a clearance through airspace is easier to obtain, because you’re already talking to ATC and squawking a transponder code.

If your club has already complied with the 2020 Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment mandate, you may have easy access to in-cockpit traffic and weather displays. Know the equipment installed. For example, some weather displays and data feeds rely on satellite, others on ground-based systems. You should understand the subtle differences between them, as various delivery modes affect what you see on the screen and how they help you avoid convective weather in-flight. The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Datalink Weather: Choices and Capabilities video reviews a commercial satellite-based system service and ADS-B In weather service through the FAA’s Flight Information System-Broadcast (FIS-B) data system.

Be safe, have fun

Taking your friends and family on a cross-country flight can be delightful if you plan ahead, update your personal minimums, and prepare a contingency plan—and stick to it. Safe flights!

AOPA Air Safety Institute cross-country resources:

Flight Risk Evaluator online tool

Airspace Flash Cards

Weather Wise video series

Ask ATC: Flight Following vs. Flight Plan video


Ask ATC: Am I cleared for Class B? video


Related Articles