Pilot’s Discretion: You Don’t Always Have to Learn the Hard Way

Proper flight planning encompasses a lot more than the preflight inspection.

Growing up, I heard people say, “Sometimes you just have to learn the hard way.” We learn many valuable lessons in life this way after realizing that our decisions and actions (or lack thereof) lead to undesirable outcomes. For some situations, this is the only impactful way to affect a change in behavior — an eye-opening experience that teaches us a lesson we’ll never forget.

But after the check ride, we’re on our own with what many refer to as a “license to learn.” While this philosophy rings true to a certain extent, it’s not necessarily safe or practical for pilots to experience an unexpected, scary or embarrassing event in order to learn every real-world skill. Much of this skill will simply come with experience outside the confines of the flight-training ­environment and protections of a CFI.

As an example, it won’t take long to understand there are additional considerations required to successfully and comfortably fly from Point A to Point B that aren’t included in any FAA handbook or manual. Fortunately, you don’t need thousands of hours to know what many pilots learned the hard way if you follow one simple rule: plan ahead.


During the flight-training days, pilots get in the habit of performing the airplane preflight inspection only a few minutes before the scheduled flight. Through no fault of their own, this is often the only option because flight-school airplanes are regularly scheduled back to back throughout the day.

While functional at the flight school, the practice can lead to bad habits down the road as you begin flying airplanes that may leave the hangar only once a week and aren’t under the watchful eye of the flight-school maintenance team. Continuing the routine will surely lead to ­discovering a discrepancy just before an important flight, which will derail your plans.

The common culprits here include a dead battery, low tire pressure, an expired GPS database or maybe a fluid leak. All are issues easily ­remedied when you have 24 hours to call for help and work on the solution, but they’ll likely keep you on the ground if discovered minutes before your planned departure time. Make it a habit to check on the airplane a day or two in advance and you’ll significantly decrease the likelihood of a mechanical issue delaying your trip.

Cross-Country Flight Planning

When it comes to cross-country planning, most new pilots are accustomed to focusing their attention on fuel requirements, destination runways and ensuring the weather is acceptable for the flight. When flying cross-country, you should also pay close attention to the destination airport facilities, especially at smaller, rural airports. Don’t assume that the services listed in your favorite app’s FBO directory will be ready and waiting after landing. There’s nothing worse than pulling up to the ramp only to find that the FBO is closed or it doesn’t have the fuel you need.

On a recent trip to the West Coast from Cincinnati, I planned a fuel stop at a small airport in Oklahoma that offered attractive fuel prices. It was a good thing I called ahead before departure, as the FBO planned to shut down at 1 p.m. that day because of a winter storm that was forecast to arrive a few hours later. Thanks to that phone call, the lineman stuck around an extra 30 minutes to take care of my fuel needs.

Consider a call to the FBO a required step of your preflight weather briefing to get a firsthand account of field conditions. Your needs will vary on each flight, but it can be a good idea to confirm the availability of restroom facilities, especially if you’ll be landing ­after hours. You may be used to improvising your own ­restroom facilities in the dark, but don’t assume your passengers will feel comfortable doing the same.

There are additional considerations when flying in the winter when you’re planning to keep the airplane tied down at the airport for a few nights. You’ll want to investigate the availability of hangar space in the event snow or freezing rain conditions are in the forecast. Planning ahead to keep the airplane under cover can go a long way in keeping your travel plans on schedule.

Pilot's tablet
Use the Planned ATC Routing feature, when available, to file an IFR route that was recently issued to other airplanes by ATC between your departure and destination airports. Flying

IFR Planning

When it comes time to research a route for an IFR flight, there are some small planning steps that can reduce surprises and make the flight more manageable. As a new instrument pilot, there’s nothing worse than calling ATC on the clearance delivery ­frequency and having an energetic controller rattle off a full route clearance packed with unfamiliar ­intersections, VORs and airways.

The steps to preventing this uncomfortable situation have never been easier. Apps like ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot and websites such as FltPlan.com allow you to enter departure and ­destination airports and then view routes ­recently issued to other IFR airplanes by ATC. They are sorted by altitude, allowing you to find the one that best matches your airplane’s performance. By filing a known route, you’ll have ample time to identify the appropriate fixes on your chart and load them accurately into your iPad or GPS navigator. It will significantly reduce the pre-taxi cockpit workload when you hear “cleared as filed” from the controller.

The planning doesn’t end after takeoff and you’re well on your way to the destination. I prefer to follow former Flying magazine editor Richard Collins’ advice suggesting you get in the routine of performing an in-range checklist on every flight at a predetermined distance or time from the destination. This is the point where you ensure you have everything ready for the arrival in an effort to keep the workload as low as possible. It also helps mitigate the risk of being caught off guard. The in-range checklist should include tasks such as verifying the ATIS has been received and copied, frequencies tuned, terminal charts organized on the iPad, the VFR or IFR approach briefed, and making the final fuel-tank selection.

The iPad can be a big help here to remind you when to complete this in-range checklist. The Garmin ­Pilot app features the ability to set an alert designed to get your attention when you reach a preset distance or time from the destination. I also like to use the ForeFlight distance rings feature, which will display concentric rings around your airplane on the moving map, displaying a preset distance or time out in front of your current position.

For most general aviation airplanes, consider performing this in-range checklist 40 to 60 miles out from the destination. When taking advantage of one of the iPad app reminders, I recommend using the time function to perform this checklist when you are 30 minutes from your destination to account for variances in groundspeed.

You can safely and legally execute a flight without taking these additional steps, but getting in the habit of planning ahead will help make the flight more enjoyable and allow you to be better prepared if something unexpected occurs. As a wise farmer and pilot once told me after a lifetime of raising livestock and working the fields: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”


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