I know at least a dozen pilots who rediscovered the value of GA during the pandemic by taking trips that would have been impossible or uncomfortable on the airlines. Unfortunately, I also know a few who wanted to make such trips but didn’t because they were unsure how to get started. They understood how to fly an airplane; they just hadn’t learned how to travel in one.
You won’t find this topic on most flight school curriculums, but with a little preparation, it’s easy to leave the pattern behind. That’s true whether you’re flying a taildragger at 500 feet or a TBM at FL 300—the mindset is more important than the airplane.
Planning and Gear
For real-world traveling, you’ll need to go beyond the knowledge-test trivia and focus on more practical topics. Start with fuel. You need to know how much you’ll burn on your trip, but you should evaluate multiple scenarios. Will weather, airspace, altitude or terrain affect your route? Also consider how much reserve you really need—the minimums specified in the regulations are just that, a bare minimum. The goal is having enough fuel to stay flexible as conditions change.
Instrument pilots have to consider an alternate airport, but it’s a good idea for VFR pilots too. Airports can be closed because of weather, disabled airplanes and pop-up TFRs, so it’s best to have backups in mind. You might go so far as to have “bailout” options at multiple points and carry enough fuel to make these reachable.
Evaluating a potential alternate (or destination) airport means more than just runway length and weather forecasts; don’t forget to research airport services too. I know from personal experience how disappointing it is to land and find the FBO doors locked and the fuel pumps turned off. A comprehensive aviation app such as ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot can make this planning process much easier, but a quick call to verify details is a good idea.
The other important pre-flight step is to have the right gear. It’s easy to get carried away here, but a few key items can make a trip safer and more fun. I like to bring an overnight bag for both the pilot and the airplane. The pilot bag includes all the essentials, especially charging cables and battery packs—you can never have enough of these. I also like to listen to music on a long trip (when the weather is good), so a Bluetooth headset and a loaded iPhone or a SiriusXM receiver are on my list. With passengers, I add comfort items such as pillows and blankets.
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For the airplane, I always travel with my own oil, chocks, pitot cover, sun shades, basic tool set and quick cleaning products. You don’t need to be able to overhaul an engine on the road, but it’s better to be prepared and not need it than vice versa. The most important gear can be carried without throwing off your weight and balance. One last tip: Make sure you have the phone number for your flight school manager or airplane’s mechanic. You may need it.
Managing the Two Systems
Once you’re in the air, cross-country travel mostly involves managing what Richard Collins used to call “the two systems,” namely weather and ATC. The fundamentals of weather are unchanging, but the priorities are different when you’re going farther and the timeline is longer. It’s not enough to know if the weather is good at your departure airport today; you need to know if it is acceptable along the entire route and for your return flight. Get comfortable with tools such as long-range prognostic charts and Model Output Statistics forecasts that help you plan the second half of your trip, and understand the weather trends before you dive into specific reports. Flexibility in your departure day or time is your most powerful tool, especially if you’re VFR.
En route, the most important skill to practice is using datalink weather. If you can afford to fly an airplane more than 100 miles, you can afford to fly with weather displayed in the cockpit, even if it’s just a basic ADS-B receiver. Learn how to interpret a radar image, how to make strategic deviations long before you get close to weather, and how to compare the view out the window with the view on your screen. Flying with an experienced pilot in the right seat is a great way to build confidence.
Managing ATC, much like weather, is all about knowing what to expect. “Chair-fly” your trip the day before, and think through which ATC facilities you’ll contact and when. Listening to the pros talk—either with a portable radio or a website such as LiveATC—is an easy way to get comfortable with communications without burning avgas, and you can listen to the actual airports you’ll be visiting. What you’ll hear is that the best pilots focus on communicating the facts as simply as possible. When in doubt, just talk, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Think like an Explorer
Traveling is about having the right mindset. The best travelers embrace a little discomfort and take off with a willingness to explore. For example, when you land at that dusty airport in the middle of nowhere for fuel, take the crew car into town and learn about the local history. Traveling by light airplane is more than mere tourism, though; it can change the way you think. It’s when many pilots learn about risk management—not in the robotic sense used in a Flight Risk Assessment Tool but in a practical way. Is the weather good enough to cross that ridgeline? Do you have enough fuel to make it to your destination? Answering such questions is about making decisions in a dynamic environment, often with imperfect information.
This story appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Flying Magazine