Flying to the same old airports is comfortably fun, but doing so doesn’t necessarily stretch or develop piloting skills. Why not push yourself to go somewhere new—maybe even somewhere off-pavement? The transition might not be as hard as you think and setting this challenge will make you a better, more proficient, and therefore safer pilot. If you’re used to operating at a busy paved field yet aspire to travel to somewhere off the beaten path, you’ll need to do a little homework before departure. Here are some (not all) key factors to consider when preparing for a fly-out to a remote airstrip.
Flying to a remote field will test both your preflight planning and stick and rudder skills. Remote airports might not have the services most of us are accustomed to, so be sure to know your fuel and maintenance options before you go. Does the field have cell reception to close your flight plan or call your mechanic? What’s your plan for a dead battery or busted starter? Finding out that you must hike into town to get help isn’t a world-ender, but it could be an unwelcome surprise if you aren’t expecting it. Only fly to remote fields in an airplane you are entirely confident in, both mechanically and otherwise.
Another challenge is navigation. Remote, off-pavement airfields can be hard to find since you won’t necessarily be looking for the typical airport environment. You might be looking for a grass field within a grass field, which to even a keen eye can be hard to distinguish. Go beyond looking up the field on a chart or relying on your GPS or EFB to guide you in. Get a satellite view of the location on Google Earth before the flight and find some landmarks to help you determine the field from any potentially bewildering surrounding terrain or unique terrain features.
One more factor to consider is the way the non-paved surface will alter your aircraft’s performance. Don’t guess—bust out the POH and do some careful calculations. When landing off-pavement, your landing roll will be shorter because of the higher coefficient of friction caused by the less-smooth-than-pavement surface. Sharpen up on your soft field techniques before the flight. That also means you’ll need to overcome more friction on the way out, likely creating a longer ground roll. Make sure you know that you can comfortably and safely make it out well before you commit to the landing, and don’t forget to consider any obstacles.
Flying to an off-pavement airfield for the first time might seem daunting, but with homework and preparation, you and your club will be able to accomplish it safely. And when you can land on grass, a whole new world of airfields opens. Go put your certificate to use and of course, fly safe!