We all know that thorough preflight planning makes for safer, easier flights. If you’re flying VFR, an important component of preflight planning is getting to know your destination airport. But there are times when unforecast weather conditions or, worse, a malfunction of some kind may prevent you from continuing to the airport you originally planned for. In these cases, you need to divert to an airport you likely did not study before you took off, and you need to quickly gather information about the new destination. Practicing diversions regularly will lower the stress when a critical situation warrants a diversion.
Next time you’re flying from one airport to another, or even if you are just out for a joyride, pretend that you suddenly need to divert to an airport you don’t visit regularly. Use your GPS or chart to help find the nearest airport. First, make sure the runway length gives you a good margin of safety. If the longest runway doesn’t provide a safe distance, look for other landing options. You should also make sure the airport has the services you may require before you start heading in that direction.
After you make sure the intended airport meets your needs, look up the airport page, whether you have it in print or electronic format. You should be able to find information about how to enter the airport environment and all the pertinent frequencies. Check the current conditions. If there is an ATIS frequency, listen to it.
If you’re flying into a controlled airport, make sure you call ATC far enough in advance. And while ATC will guide you, you should know what to expect by studying the airport information in as much detail as if there was nobody to talk to.
If you’re flying into an uncontrolled airport and there is no ATIS, AWOS or ASOS, make sure you circle around the airport at 500 to 1,000 feet above the traffic pattern altitude (which you also need to find in the airport guide) to see where the wind is coming from. Based on the wind conditions, you need to decide which runway to use and determine how to enter the pattern. While most airports use left traffic, you should never assume that is the case. There may be special procedures for reasons such as noise abatements, obstacles or terrain.
Figuring out how to get to the new destination and getting there in the most efficient and locally recommended way takes time and may distract you from the primary task at hand — flying the airplane. But you will get better with practice. Make sure you take a friend with you, at least the first few times. You may be tempted to have your friend help you, and in a true emergency that is exactly what the person is there to do. But when you’re practicing diversions, you are better off trying to do everything yourself while the person next to you (or behind you, depending on the airplane you fly) makes sure you keep your wings level and don’t run into terrain, traffic or airspace.