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Question of the Month: How Do I Prepare for a Long Cross Country Flight?

My wife and I recently moved from Frederick Maryland, to Redmond Oregon—a move prompted by the desire to be closer to family.  The selection of our (hopefully) last-move location involved many considerations—all of the usual ones like climate, lifestyle and affordability, but an additional one that vexes aircraft owners—that of finding a “nice” airport from where to operate.  Now, as many of you know, the shortage of hangars is currently a nationwide problem.  I see this firsthand in my work helping start new flying clubs and growing existing clubs.  Next to the huge issue of finding (before everyone else) an aircraft to acquire, finding a hangar is a major blocker of aircraft acquisitions and operations—people just don’t want to drop a great deal of money on an aircraft with nowhere to park it.  Of course, there is the option to tie-down on the ramp (Drew’s club has been doing this for more than 30-years at College Park, MD), but we are starting to hear that in some locations, for example Long Island, NY, not even tie-downs are available.

Aircraft acquisition and hangarage will be the topic of a future QoM, but for now, the good news is that we are starting to see relief.  We are hearing of airport authorities taking the initiative to build new hangars, as demand far outstrips supply, and the recent reversion in FAA funding for hangar construction at federally funded airports will start to nibble into the years-long waiting lists at many airports.  I’d go as far to say that the nationwide lack of hangars (and tie-downs), has a major influence on the growth of GA operations.  Don’t even get me started about the need to invest in new airport infrastructure to support, nay accelerate, the use of alternative propulsion methods, such as hybrid and all-electric.  Remember that the MOSAIC NPRM promises more capable LSAs, with other than “a single reciprocating engine”.  It is rather astonishing that we are currently arguing ourselves silly about 100LL and available unleaded alternatives, but IMHO, we should be spending even more cycles on completely different propulsion systems and their sources of energy.  Like I said, there is much more to say on this topic in a future edition!

Anyway…before I relocated my Aerobat from KFDK, I was looking for a nice airport to park the plane close to my new house, and also to hang-out my CFI-For-Hire shingle.   Redmond (Roberts Field), KRDM, is convenient but is also very busy with air carrier and flight training operations.  Bend Municipal Airport (KBDN) is about 30-minutes away and is insanely busy with fixed wing, helicopter and glider flight training—it is destined to have a control tower in the next couple of years due to the rapid growth in operations.  Both of these airports have years-long hangar waiting lists.  We’d just closed on our house purchase when fate kicked in…not the “hunter” type, but the fortunate type.  A month earlier I’d put my name on the waiting list for a hangar at Prineville Airport, S39, and literally just as we were completing the purchase of our new house, a hangar became available.  Needless to say, I rushed over and signed the lease agreement on the spot!  Prineville is everything I was looking for in an airport:  vibrant yet not over-busy, well-maintained runways, two instrument approaches, self-service fuel, a couple of maintenance shops, a friendly and accommodating airport manager, and an active EAA Chapter (617), with its own hangar.  In brief, it is perfect, and I’m looking forward to helping keep it so. 

By the way (and more on this in a separate article), Jeanne Zerbe, the owner of the hangars, is not only keeping them in super condition but is also making them look amazing by having them painted with aeroplane murals.  A local artist, Glenn Ness, is doing a fantastic job on the hangar doors, as these photos well illustrate.  My hangar is the one with the P51D in RAF colors on the left-hand door, and the Corsair on the right.  Do I love it? Well duh!

I’ve owned my Aerobat (the Bat) for years and have provided many hours of flight training in her.  For the past six years, she has been exclusively leased to a flying club I co-formed in Maryland (The Westminster Aerobats Flying Club) and, as there was no way that she and I were parting company, I went through the painful process of closing down the club.  Painful on two fronts:  firstly professionally, as my job is starting clubs, not closing them, and secondly procedurally.  There was a surprising amount of paperwork to do in order to formally close the legal entity, both at the state level and with the IRS.  We, your highly talented flying clubs team, have created a vast amount of information on starting and running flying clubs, but nothing on closing them…not that we want to encourage clubs to close, but for completeness, I’ll share my experiences in a separate article.

I hope the above background was of interest—and rest assured that I’ll be writing much more about my new local airport, as well as the amazing flying in the high desert of Central Oregon.

All right then… with a hangar acquired it was time to think seriously about getting the Aerobat from Maryland to Oregon, which is the main thrust of this article, at least, the planning part.  I think around 2,000NM counts as a long (a)cross country, so how did I go about planning for the trip? 

After several attempts at this article, it became really clear that a narrated visual presentation would be the best approach for this topic, so I plan on updating an earlier workshop entitled “VFR Advanced:  500NM and Beyond”, which detailed two “half-across-country flights”—one from California to Nebraska (about 1,100NM) and the other from a 950NM trip from Nebraska to Maryland.  In the meantime, I’ll assume that readers have a good grasp of the fundamentals of (shorter) cross country planning, weather planning and briefings, navigation logs, filing flight plans and so on, so we will look here at additional techniques required for very long (a)cross-country flights.  For this article, I will use bullet points under several logically ordered sections to get the main points across—but before we get started, let’s talk about flight rules.

Even though the Bat is IFR equipped, I fly these long across country flights under VFR, and hence in visual meteorological conditions, VMC. Wait, some may cry—what is the point of having an instrument rating if you don’t use it?  Fair enough, and if you are flying a more capable aircraft, then so be it, but remember that this is not a point-to-point, couple of hours flight.  I fully understand that a long cross country is made up of individual legs, but the point of this type of flight is to get to the end destination and to have fun doing it.  Flying 6-8 hours a day under IFR is not my idea of fun, especially with a flight crew of one. I want to see where I’m going, enjoy “the journey”, and have the flexibility to make quick reroute decisions for my convenience, not that of “the system”. Not only that, but flying VFR allows me to create my own routes and legs.  As we’ll see, I chose a route that allowed me to fly at 8,500’ – 10,500’ MSL over the mountains, rather than the MEAs of 12,000’ and upwards…a bit of a task in an Aerobat!   Another consideration here is “E” in PAvE (more later)—external factors.  Such a trip presents multiple opportunities for factors to cloud good judgement, but neither “must-get-there-itis” nor hazardous attitudes should be amongst them.  Even though the flight planner claimed four days for the trip, I actually prepared for six, with the option for two more days.  This allowed for potential maintenance delays, and fickle weather, and, in my humble opinion, excluding the option of flying IFR forces more focus on making good decisions.

  1. Initial Planning:

    I call this section “initial planning” to clarify the fact that planning has to be continuous, not just a one-off pre-trip activity, but let’s look at what we can ponder in the comfort of our own home, including the route, airports, airspace and terrain.  By the way, this planning started weeks before the flight, not the day before!

    Route:

    • Plot the direct flight (in this case, KFDK to S39) on your planning favorite tool.I initially use SkyVector as it stiches together aeronautical charts along the route and also shows which charts are being used as you scroll around.Keep a note of the sectional and terminal charts used by the route—we’ll need that information later.
    • Plotting the direct course shows the great-circle route, which for a trip of this length, is clearly curved.By the way, you can also use this to note the changes in magnetic deviation along the route…starting at 10.7o W at Frederick and ending at 14.3o E, in Prineville…fascinating!
     
    • Here’s a brainteaser for you.If you start at Frederick and precisely fly a magnetic heading of 304o for 1,950NM in no wind conditions, will you arrive at Prineville?
    • The great circle route tells you a lot:
      • This is a really big country!
      • This is an approximately 2,000NM trip, so in an Aerobat it will take a while and will involve many stops.
      • You could be flying over large lakes and very high mountains.
      • The terrain is very varied—from the rolling hills of Maryland and West Virginia, kissing the lower part Lake Michigan, to the breadbasket of the Midwest, across and along several great rivers, to the sandhills and badlands of Nebraska, over the high country of Wyoming, the mountains of Utah, the backcountry opportunities of Idaho, over the high desert of Central Oregon, and finally, to the views of the Three Sisters, Black Butte, Mount Washington and other landmarks that have become familiar to me at my new home. What an amazing country we live in!
    • The great circle route shows us the general trend of the route, but we won’t be flying it in the Aerobat.There is just no way that I would fly across Lake Michigan, and in the west, the MEFs of 11, 12 and 13,000 feet beg serious study.So, starting at Frederick, I “walk” the great circle in order to tweak the route to consider airports, alternative navigation (to GPS), airspace, the chance of TFRs, and so on.
    • At this stage, I like to use ForeFlight Web (https://plan.foreflight.com/) on my computer with a big screen—it avoids all of the swiping and pinching you have to do on a small device.I save my various candidate routes as “Flights”, that synchronize with the ForeFlight App running on my iPad.Nice.

    Airports:  

    • I generally look for smaller airports, class G or E, with self-service fuel (it’s quite maddening to get to an airport at 5:01 pm only to find the fuel truck is tucked-up for the night).Other considerations are:maintenance facilities, a pilot’s lounge, shower facilities, local transportation (courtesy cars are the best), a town in walking distance, perhaps an on-airport restaurant, some local “sights”, not too close to a freeway…
    • Wait, not too close to a freeway?Yeah…I like the smaller airports as I really enjoy camping my way across the country, and freeways can be very noisy!
    • Some other websites to consider are:
    • An east-to-west coast flight will be over generally rising terrain, and with high terrain comes the likelihood of high elevation airports.Add some heat and you have the makings of high density altitude conditions.I’ll talk about one such occurrence later, but for now, during planning, take note of the elevation of your planned airports.In fact, once you have selected the route, print out the chart supplement entries for the airports of intended landing and order them on your kneepad.I go a step further and annotate each with a sketch of the runways, left or right pattern, traffic pattern altitude, weather and common traffic frequencies.It is just so much easier to do this sort of thing on the ground!
    • Another trick is to clear out the “Plates” section in ForeFlight, and then add airport diagrams in the order in which you will fly them.As these plates are georeferenced, you’ll see your aircraft symbol appear as you get into the vicinity of the airport.This is a tremendous tool for situational awareness but is a must when taxiing at unfamiliar airports.

    Alternative navigation:

    We all love GPS navigators, and there is no argument from me that they are brilliantly easy to use.  But…as an Electronic Engineer, I know intimately the underlying technology and I never plan a flight, especially a long one, without considering alternative forms of navigation.  Looking out of the window works a treat, but out in the featureless high country, there is little to help you…or is there?  My Aerobat is equipped with a Garmin GNS 430W, which I love to death, but she also has a KX155 NAV/COMM (with glide slope).  So, with two CDI heads I can GPS to my heart’s desire, but also use VORs as a backup—and it gives me something else to fiddle with and think about on long flights.  I don’t generally fly airways, but I do highlight VOR stations on my charts and annotate various radials—for example, the radial that is 90o abeam of my GPS route.  Seeing the needle center as I cross the radial is just pure joy.

    Airspace:

    • There are the obvious reporting considerations of class C and B airspace, but these should never be limitations.In fact, if you’re flying anywhere near larger radar-equipped airports, it makes good sense to use their facilities for extras eyes on what’s around you, and don’t ever be shy about using flight following with ATC centers (ARTCCs) and approach/departure controllers.It is an amazing service and unlike many other countries, we are not charged (extra) for using it, and it is our duty to ensure that we never are.“Protecting Your Freedom to Fly” is a key mission of AOPA, so if you are not a member, please think hard about joining and supporting the cause.
    • MOAs should be treated similarly.Yes, we can fly though a MOA not knowing if it is active or not…but why not just contact the controlling agency?Write down the relevant frequencies ahead of time.Know how to find the frequencies or contact flight service for help.So, you must know how to contact flight service along the route…right?
    • On the topic of flight service, plan on giving lots of PIREPs.Across country flights cover a lot of ground and time, so give back by reporting actual conditions…and as a reward, you’ll get weather updates along your route.This is GA at its best—take something and give something.
    • Restricted areas.Don’t even think about it including them in your planning.Perhaps you will be cleared through, but most likely not, and then you’ll have to replan on the fly, so to speak. I won’t even mention prohibited areas…oh, darn…I just did.
    • TFRs.It goes without saying that you’ll check NOTAMs on a regular basis— just before every time you take off.This is another reason to give regular PIREPs—ask the flight service specialist for NOTAMs along the route and at airports of intended landing.You can actually do quite a lot of prework for NOTAMs and TFRs.For example, if you are flying over a town or city that has a magenta diamond symbol, you know that there will be regular TFRs due to sporting events at the indicated stadium.These TFRs typically go out 3NM and up to 3,000’ AGL.Looking at the team’s game schedule will help you plan around or over a possible TFR.
    • Airshows are another source of TFRs, but can be difficult to determine.I strongly suggest that you call every airport of intended landing and ask about local procedures, and also about planned events.This sounds like a lot, but it is probably only 15 or so calls.Flying clubs and flight schools are useful sources of local information—use the Flying Clubs Finder and the Flight School Finder tools.
    • When thinking about airspace, look out for activities such as gliding, ultralights, parachuting and so on.Make notes on your flight plan—along with frequencies to twiddle when you are 10-miles from those areas.This is another thing to ask locals about when you call them, and who knows, you might learn that the self-service fuel farm is actually out of order and Duane forgot to issue the NOTAM.

    Terrain:

    • By terrain I mean anything natural or manmade, that is in the way.
    • Mountains are an obvious consideration, and indeed I altered my route several times as I zoomed-in around the various mountain ranges that a west-coast-bound flight will cross.
    • Don’t just go with the most direct route, especially if this takes you over isolated areas—and there are still many isolated areas in this vast country.
    • Roads (and the towns along them) typically follow passes, and flying along them affords opportunities for off-airport landing sites and access to people.Be careful, though.Mountain passes can act like wind tunnels, and many are in steep canyons, so you do not want to get trapped.Flying above passes makes more sense, but how high should you be?If you are not familiar with mountain flying techniques, there are couple of things you must do, as they will likely save your life:
      • Break out the books and learn about mountain turbulence, leeside rotors and so on.Take to heart the advice of crossing ranges at 45o, such you have a quicker “out” if you are caught in a downdraft.Here are some books that I’ve enjoyed over the years:

      Advanced Mountain Flying Techniques, by David J. Hoerner.

      Flying the Mountains, by Fletched Anderson.

      Mountain Flying Bible (Revised), by Sparky Imeson.

      • Call a couple of airports that are located before you get to the first range of mountains.Find out what the locals do, where they fly, what to avoid, etc.Plan to land at one to get the latest (seasonal) information and think seriously about spending an hour with a local instructor…perhaps flying part of your intended route.Really, truly, please…you do not want to mess with mountains.
    • Bear in mind that there are many areas of the country that are high in elevation, but not necessarily with mountains.You may be flying at 9,000’ MSL, but only 2,000’ AGL.These areas get brutally hot in the summer and frigidly cold in the winter, so plan to pack appropriate survival gear and look out for thermals and high-density altitudes (more later).
    • On the topic of thermals, I’ve noticed that “dust devils” are very prevalent here in the high desert, and I experienced one firsthand last weekend.Louise and I were returning to Prineville after a nice flight to Sunriver (S21).It was hot, with the wind at 33010G16.I selected runway 33, landed and rolled out nicely…and then suddenly we were 20+ feet in the air, with very little airspeed.Full power, flaps back one notch, push hard for airspeed, one bounce, and a go around.What a shocker!I was bang-on speed on the approach, and we were slowing down on the roll out, so that surprise lift came from somewhere else.In discussing this with Drew, he mentioned that he’d just been reading about dust devils (thermals that detach from the ground), so I did some research.Sure enough, there is a lot of information on the effects of dust (and dust-less) devils on (landing) aircraft.In fact, I found a posting from 2016 made by one of my new EAA Chapter 617 friends, about a very similar occurrence he had in his Diamond DA40, at the very same Prineville airport.So, another item to add to the approach briefing, and a reminder to be spring-loaded to execute a go around on every approach.You have practiced go arounds, recently, haven’t you?

      Here is an interesting article to read about dust devils: https://airfactsjournal.com/2018/06/you-did-everything-absolutely-right-and-you-could-have-been-absolutely-dead/

    Route, revisited:

    With all of the above in mind, walk the route again, but this time selecting airports for refueling and stop overs.  Yes, this will mean that the route will zig and zag from the great circle, but the point is to find suitable airports with desired facilities for that particular part of the flight.  I actually do this using real, paper charts—don’t laugh—but I find it easier to see the big picture and to “zoom-in” using a real chart.  I order applicable sectional and terminal charts, and also purchase paper chart supplement books.  You do whatever floats your boat, but I like to back up my software based EFB with hard data.  As I mentioned earlier, I print out (or rip out) airport pages from the CS, and order them on my kneepad, along with a hard copy of the navigation log.

    Other things I look for when tweaking the route are airports within 30NM and the availability of roads to follow, which means towns and people if help is needed.  Interstate 80 is a wonderful example of this and was my frequent wingman on this flight.     

    Using ForeFlight, I started with the great circle direct route, and then added suitable airports along the way—this is really easy to do using the “rubber-banding” feature”. I find that legs of two-to-three hours duration are right for both the Bat’s fuel bladder and my biological one, with a little bit of wiggle room in addition to being legal.   You can use the FPL feature to immediately see the waypoint-to-waypoint details, such as distance, time based on current conditions, and so on.  So, from Frederick, my first planned fuel stop was at KWAY, Greene County Airport, in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.  I generally plan to stop for the night on the third or fourth fuel stop, where I add some other airport requirements, such as being a nice place to camp.  Of course, be courteous and ask if it is okay to camp over—I have never heard “no” and in fact permission often comes with information about accessing the bathrooms after closing time, use of the shower and kitchen facilities, the courtesy car, and so on.  In this way, I have made some good friends across the county, as people are usually interested to hear more about the trip, the Bat, AOPA, flying clubs, and so on.

    The first fairly big deviation (from the direct routing) was around Chicago.  I had no intention of flying over Lake Michigan, and also wanted to stay clear of the busy airspace around O’hare, Midway, and DuPage.   This resulted in a more southerly route compared with the direct path.  Now, a common question from people hearing about such a flight is “how will you get over the Rockies?” and indeed that is a very good question.   Roughly following the direct great circle route would have taken me over some pretty isolated areas and high peaks, so that part of the route required considerable attention.  I think I tweaked the route at least five times before I found something I was comfortable with. 

    Anyway, long story short, this is the eventual route that I opted for.  I‘ll leave it to you to plot it on your favorite EFB:

    KFDK KWAY KMNN KRWN KDVN KIKV KOFK KTIF KBFF KRWL KRKS KEMM 1U7 U01 KGNG KMAN KBNO S39

    The plan was to fly no higher than 8,500’ MSL, but with an “out” of up to 10,500’ if conditions dictated, so that took jigs and jags around the higher peaks and ranges.  I then did one more thing—which on reflection, should be on everyone’s list of actions for such a flight—and that was to justify the route, and my decisions, to several close and respected aviator friends.   This was an hour very well spent, as it really forced me to explain every step of the way.  “What if you had an engine failure, here”? and “How would you contact help if you landed out there?”  Questions like this really gets you in a cockpit frame of mind, and we had some very good discussions.  On that last point, I had already bought a SPOT-X satellite messenger, but that question made me spend more time learning how to use it before I needed it, especially the handy “I am at this location” alert, and to preload various messages. If you are in a club, definitely review the flight and your decisions with the safety officer, a CFI and someone with more experience of long flights in small aeroplanes.

    You and the (club) plane:

    We are still not finished with initial planning.  I really like the PAvE mnemonic and do it before each leg (not just once a day)…but it is equally important as part of forward-looking planning. 

    P = Pilot

    Flying six to eight hours a day for four or more days on the trot in a small GA aeroplane (with no autopilot) is tiring.  Are you up to the trip?  Do an in-depth IMSAFE and take action as necessary. 

    Are you legal for the trip?  Flight review, medical…

    Are you safe for the trip?  No new conditions, medications, worries…

    Are you proficient enough to tackle the trip?  This jaunt will test your knowledge, decision making, risk management and flying skills, so be sure that you are ready.  If in any doubt, hire a CFI to do the equivalent of a (meaningful) flight review in order to get you better prepared.

    A = Aircraft

    Is the plane up to the trip?   Is maintenance up to date?  For a trip of this duration, you do not want to be messing with oil changes halfway in, or discover that the transponder inspection is overdue, or the ELT battery replacement is imminent.  Spend serious time with the logbooks and with the club’s maintenance officer to really understand the readiness of the plane for this trip.  Whilst you’re at it, make sure you know the procedures to follow in the event that off-base maintenance is required and how much (money) you can spend before needing board approval.  This should be in the club’s operating rules, so become familiar.

    For my trip in the Bat, I also performed some preventative maintenance that was about to become due.  The vacuum pump (yeah…I know…) had about 470 hours on it and the mags were around 430 since last overhaul.  Now, I’m usually a condition-based maintenance chap rather than a time-based one, but for these particular items I elect for time.  I know from experience that vacuum pumps start to get weak and/or fail around the 500-hour mark, and that mags approaching 500 hours are going to show signs of wear.  In fact, the Bat had become quite difficult to start.  So, I replaced the pump and had the mags overhauled.  New points, capacitors, carbon bushes, springs, oil seals, rotors, gears and distributor blocks, and new plugs, had the Bat firing up after just a couple of rotations, so a job well done.  I had this work done a few weeks before the long trip to ensure everything was well bedded-in and reliable, and then did an oil and filter change, changed the air filter, lubed up all hinges, rose joints and bushes, and greased up the nosewheel and flaps rollers.  She was ready for the trip.

    v = Environment

    This should have been adequately covered during the detailed planning phase, but always PAvE before every leg to get the latest information on weather, NOTAMs, the next airport, and so on.  I’m not suggesting that you get a full briefing at every fuel stop, but certainly more than once a day.  This, and your frequent in-flight contacts with flight service discussed earlier will help you with the big picture for the day, as well as hour-by-hour changes.  Such a trip will really bring home the usefulness of PIREPs, so don’t just be a taker, be a giver.

    E = External pressures

    Don’t underestimate this on a trip spanning several or more days.  Things will happen, diversions will be necessary, delays will occur, fate may come a-hunting, winds will be different…and so on.  The most important thing to do is give yourself time.  If the flight plan says you can do it in 4 days, then assume six or more.  Get rid of any obligations for at least the week after the trip so that you are not suckered into having to make choices that in reality should never have to be made. 

    On these trips I make sure that I can be self-sufficient for the duration of the plan, plus three days.  So, for a four-day plan, I carry food for seven days, and always top-up with water at every fuel stop.  As I mentioned earlier, I like to camp, and I have been fortunate to enjoy hospitality at lovely small airports.  This also affords amazing flexibility in that I don’t have to be concerned about getting to pre-booked accommodation, as I have everything with me.  Everything that I need, and nothin’ that I don’t—thanks Zak Brown!

    What to take:

    Rather than having to explain and justify, I’ll just list what I packed for this latest trip:

  • Food for 7 days (to avoid having to get into town for supplies)
  • Water for 4 days (top up at each fuel stop)
  • Tent, sleeping bag, two bag liners, blanket
  • Tent pegs! (Yep, forgot them on this trip)
  • Ground sheet/tarp
  • Small butane stove with two gas canisters
  • Lightweight plate, bowl and mug
  • Metal knife, fork and spoon
  • Sharp knife and tin opener
  • Clothes for 4 days
  • Lightweight camping towel (many airports have showers)
  • Two stacking pots
  • Food:
    • Dried Ramen Noodles—just add water
    • Packets of soup…Miso is my favorite
    • Pots of soup.I like Campbell’s “Well, Yes, Power” options such as Cajun style chicken and veggie chili with black beans.Who said camp food was boring?Campbell’s chunkybrand is also good value
    • Tins of baked beans (with pull tops)
    • Tea-bags, of course
    • UHT milk
    • A couple of backpacking freeze-dried meals just in case you get desperate
    • Snacks:
      • Nuts
      • Lara bars
      • Crunch bars
      • Fruit and bread (at the start of the trip, then top up as able)
  • Tools:
    • Socket set
    • Set of Allen keys, including really small ones for radio knobs (yep, had one fall off a while back and had to change frequencies using pliers…lucky I had pliers)
    • Set of pliers
    • Spark plug socket, two spare plugs and a ¾” open-ended spanner
    • Tire pressure gauge and small foot pump
    • Set of combination and ratcheting spanners
    • Screwdriver ratchet handle with multiple ends
    • Multimeter, wire and electrical tape
    • Zip ties – universal tool
    • Duct tape – universal tool
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Two quarts of oil with funnel
    • New roll of blue shop towel
    • Tie downs (can also use as general rope)
    • Waterproof matches + flint and clothes dryer fluff/lint
    • Survival blanket
    • Spot-X messenger (with subscription)
    • Set of paper charts and chart-supps
    • Spare headset. My Bose A20 has never been the same since the cable and control box were replaced…an ongoing saga…more another time
    • Handheld radio
    • Batteries
    • Flashlights
    • Good sunglasses—it gets really bright up there
    • Poop trowel and paper, just in case…
    • Dish soap, face soap and towel

    What else to do:

    Copy performance charts from the PoH and highlight take-off and landing distances, climb rates, etc., for anticipated (density altitude) conditions.  Keep them handy on your kneeboard.

    Create a log sheet to complete at every fuel stop—date, airport, conditions, tach and Hobbs times, fuel amounts and costs, notes.  You’ll be glad that you did this when you are writing an article for Club Connector or another newsletter!

    Be meticulous and obsessive about weight and balance, and I mean weight and balance.  Even when flying solo, the tools, food, jugs of water and full fuel can easily push against the plane’s weight limit, and the location of items should all about center of gravity, rather than convenience.  I packed everything except the tent, ground sheet, sleeping bag, bag liner, blanket and tools in plastic containers—this kept stuff organized, and you can also use them as buckets. I used a handy digital scale to weigh every item/box and then used the W&B section of the PoH to carefully position everything.  Basically, tools, water, charts, and snacks were on the left seat (I usually fly right seat…just feels more natural after many hours of instruction), the heavier plastic boxes were just behind the seats, with lighter ones further back.  The really light stuff (sleeping bag, liners…) were loaded against the rear panel.  I wanted to be several pounds below the maximum weight for every station, and at least 50 Ibs below maximum gross with full fuel, so in the end I had to leave some tools behind.

2. The actual trip:

Yes, I had a wonderful time, visited lovely airports and made some friends along the way, but this is a practical article about planning such a trip, not so much the “journey”—except for the fact that planning is endless and continuous.  After each leg, you’ll know more about the upcoming legs, so be relentless in planning and replanning.

The plan was to leave Frederick (KFDK) in the early morning of Friday May 19th, but low ceilings and poor visibility due to mist kept me on the ground until 10:30 am.  Even then, when turning on course, I had to make several detours to stay clear of the higher hills and ridges.  Just past Cumberland, MD, the sky cleared and the flight to KWAY, Greene County, Waynesburg, PA, was a joy.  After fueling up, I happened to look up to the top floor of the terminal building and saw people eating…umm…I don’t recall reading about a restaurant there, but indeed there was one.  The aptly named Airport Restaurant had opened a few weeks earlier, so it was a nice treat to get a beef sandwich for lunch to-go. 

The trip was, as expected, spectacular in scenery, and every airport (except one, in Nebraska, surprisingly) was helpful and friendly to a tee.  I had been keeping a careful eye on two cold fronts moving quicky to the east from south of Chicago, so I made the decision to divert from my planned stop at Arens, KRWN, to Huntington Municipal, KHHG, Indiana, and I’m glad that I did.  Nick, the airport manager was just closing for the night, and gave me permission to camp, but even better, let me set-up in the pilot’s lounge. There was also a kitchen (and a shower), so I had a good cook-up on my first night….and then the cold front hammered the airport pretty much all night.  If I had tent camped, I would have been wiped out on the first night.  The next day was fine and sunny, so off I went.

The flight was well planned, but the plan was not the flight actually flown.  In fact, I think the old adage “plan the flight and fly the plan” will very likely kill you on a trip of this length and duration.  You must be prepared to be flexible and make changes using good ADM throughout.  In the end, I had to make several deviations due to weather, an unanticipated airshow TFR, and other fun things, so the route actually flown was:

KFDK KWAY KMNN KHHG C09 KGGI KOFK KTIF KBFF KRWL KEMM KBYI KGNG KMUO KBNO S39

The trip took four days with three stop overs…at KHHG, KTIFF and the final push to S30 from KEMM, a lovely airport in Idaho with a pilot’s lounge, kitchen and a courtesy car (albeit pretty ropey), but it was nice to pop into town to top-up on bread and fruit.  I had planned on flying further that day, but I was tired and the density altitude of 9,300’ (airport elevation of 7,300’) made for an easy decision to stay put for the night.  The next morning was still quite hot, so I briefed and flew a short field take-off—on an 8,200’ runway! 

 

I logged 27.4 hours Hobbs time on the 1,996 NM route, consumed 140 gallons of fuel, and 1.5 quarts of oil.  For the first two days I had good tail winds—when does that happen when flying west—well, there was a decent high-pressure area to the north.  The trek over the mountains was a bit tortuous and bumpy, which lowered the average ground speed to around 77 knots, and only once did I climb to 10,500’ to give a bigger buffer over some gusty peaks. 

There is so much that could be written about the flight itself—the varied scenery and amazing terrain, the friendly people I met along the way, all of whom were fascinated in a trip from Maryland to Oregon in an Aerobat, but I’ll leave these stories for another time—perhaps in the updated workshop mentioned at the start of this article.

Overall, a trip well planned, flexibly deviated, well flown and super fun.  Now rested, I really do look forward to the next long (a)cross country flight.

As always, fly lots and fly safely!

Stephen Bateman

Contributor, You Can Fly Program
Steve retired from AOPA in April 2024, but continues to contribute to You Can Fly programs. Contact Steve at [email protected]

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