Question of the Month: How do I go about planning and flying a very long cross country flight?

As it happens, this is the topic of one of AOPA’s new ground school courses being held at the Regional Fly-Ins, the latest of which was held in Tullahoma, TN, on September 13th and 14th 2019.  We hope to see you at future ground school courses!

We all know about cross country flying and the need—and sense—of good planning and preparation.  Without diminishing the 50NM cross country flight in any way, going across country, say 500NM, raises the stakes in a big way, and detailed preparation and readiness are vital components of the experience.

In our fly-in ground school, we talk about the three overriding directives for a long cross-country flight:  Plan, Plan, and Plan again.  Always start with the big picture—don’t get into the weeds until later in the process.  Also, try not to rush it—take the time to enjoy the planning process as well as the flight itself and indulge yourself in stopping at some interesting places along the way.

You’ll start by looking at the route, considering things such as terrain, types of airspace, airports along the way, and so on.  For an across country flight, you will encounter many regional differences, so really study the charts, chart supplement and other sources of information. Local knowledge is key to understanding regional practices, gotchas, etc.  If you’re wondering about procedures at an airport or the best time to take-off from another, contact a local flying club, school, ATC tower, or FBO—they’d much rather help you now, rather than having to search for you later.

You’ll have many choices to make when planning your route.  For example, imagine a flight from California to Nebraska.  Steve Bateman, Director of the AOPA Flying Clubs Initiative, did this flight a few years ago when moving his Aerobat from Livermore, CA to its new home in Hebron, NE.  Firstly, you'll need to take a detailed look at the charts.  Steve prefers to lay out paper charts, as scrolling and zooming quickly becomes annoying on electronic charts—and you’ll soon see that a direct route is probably not wise or feasible in a Cessna A152.  Not wise as the Sierra Nevada mountains are in the way, and not feasible due to the mass of restricted and prohibited airspace as you cross from California into Nevada and then Arizona.  So, you look north and realize that you’ll have to go way north to find some passes through the mountains, and that adds days (in an A152) to the trip.  Steve’s route took him south to Porterville before heading east—and still the needle that is Special Use Airspace (SUA) had to be carefully threaded.

Next consider some slight zigs and zags to keep you out of the SUA, but also to have airports within a reasonable distance at all points along your route.  Now, you’ll soon see that this is not always possible as there are some large parts of the country that are still wonderfully rural yet very inhospitable. 

Next work on your planned stops.  You’ll absolutely need fuel, food and bio breaks, so plan them and stick with your plan when at all possible.  Shorter legs are easier to re-plan, and you can always combine a couple if things are going well and when fuel is not a problem. Steve stopped every 2.5 hours during the CA to NE trip and was rewarded with visiting some wonderful airports such as Winslow-Lindbergh Regional Airport in Arizona.  (If you’re wondering, he did stand on a corner in Winslow Arizona, and did sing the song). 

Planning goes well beyond the route.  Take the time to look at the upcoming planned maintenance and inspections for your airplane.  You really don’t want to discover that the annual expired when halfway through the trip, or that the altimeter inspection has expired as you are thinking about departing IFR to get through some pesky early-morning clouds. 

Talking about maintenance, take along a carefully considered tool kit.  You won’t be able to do heavy maintenance but do have enough to get you to the next repair station.  For example (and yes, this happened) what if the frequency selector knob falls off your Garmin 430W?  The Allen screw in the knob is tiny but having a pair of pliers handy to turn the shaft will get you out of a bind.  Naturally, don’t forget duct tape (yes, seriously) as well as zip-ties, which are amazingly versatile devices when doubled-up, inter-threaded, or otherwise creatively used.  A length of electrical wire and electrical tape are good to have along, and again have multiple uses.

For each leg, be honest to FAR 91.103 and “know all there is to know” for the planned flight.  Steve uses the acronym WK-RAFT to remember what to consider:   Weather, Known issues (NOTAMs, TFRs, MOA active times etc.), Runways of intended use (length, width, surface, lighting, slope, displaced, etc.), Alternatives (plan B and C), Fuel management (amount but also timers for changing tanks), and Take-off and landing distances.  If you generally take off and land at the same few airports, then pay extra attention to R and T, and remember that density altitude plays a big part for both.

Be prepared.  Steve always carries a small tent, sleeping bag, fire-making kit including a flint, fluff from the clothes drier for kindling, food and water for at least 2 days, “survival” equipment, tools, and spares such as oil, rags, a couple of spark plugs, a spark plug spanner, a collection of screws, bolts, nuts and clamps, and an inner tube that you can use in a tire, but also the rubber itself a versatile tool.  Don’t forget chocks, rope (don’t cut it—keep it long and you can use it for tie-downs and other things), tow bar, screen cleaner, spare USB battery packs, and so on. 

Regarding survival equipment—it is important not only to have good contents, but it also has to be available.  A colleague captures this well: “Survival equipment is what you have on your person.  What’s in the back is for camping”.  This is good advice.  Consider wearing hiking trousers with lots of pockets, like the ones that convert into shorts.  Fishermen’s shirts and vests are also useful as they have lots of pockets and pouches. 

Take time to carefully pack the aircraft.  Of course, weight and balance considerations will always win out, but try to pack such that things you need on the way are accessible.  Tools and spares can be well down the stack, but snacks, water (stay well hydrated – this will also help with fuel management!), charts in the required order, small tool kit for potential in-flight use, flashlights, sunglasses (non polarizing), etc.

For an excellent discussion of survival techniques, kits and examples of how much you can pack into very small containers, take a look at “The SAS Survival Handbook”, by John “Lofty” Wiseman. 

Long across-country flights are truly amazing—so take the time to enjoy the planning and the adventure.  Stop off and enjoy visiting places you wouldn’t normally get to and have fun on the way.

This article is based on a ground school class held at AOPA regional fly-ins, where we go into much more detail about long VFR flights, and you’ll also get a logbook endorsement for 3-hours of ground instruction.
We look forward to seeing you at one of the classes in the near future.

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