Planning the Big Trip

Tips from an instructor before you take that long summer cross-country flight

Traveling farther than you have before requires proper planning and preparation. [File photo: Shutterstock]

It's approaching time of year when you might be thinking of taking that long trip you have envisioned. Sure, you have flown shorter cross-country flights before, but the trek that you have in mind won’t be like the old times. It’s easy to be biased about multiple things—your airplane, your ability, your experience—that will goad you into thinking this trip will play out like ones before, but these assumptions could be costly.

Planning a long flight alone may involve some additional risk. To combat any gaps in your knowledge, my first recommendation is to have a flying partner go along with you, even just for some company. Another pilot in the airplane can work the radios to reduce your work-load and help you stay alert. If you must go alone, de-pending on your level of comfort, break the trip up into multiple legs.

If you plan to fly a trip that will take you from day into night, you want to get your airplane ready as well.

Ensure that your aircraft is sufficiently equipped for night flight—just in case you get caught out during a flight segment that went longer than expected. Recall that there are different lighting requirements for day and night flights.

Do you have the correct navigation and communication instruments? Can you operate at an optimal altitude for the trip? Are you meeting the proper fuel requirements based on the time of day and whether the flight is VFR or IFR? Do not aim to be minimally compliant here. For a long time, fuel mismanagement was a leading cause of accidents in the widely flown Beechcraft models, the result of either fuel exhaustion or starvation. On the outside, it seems trivial, but I can appreciate the lapse in judgment because every time I transition to flying a Beech Bonanza that only has a left/right fuel se-lector and analog engine-monitoring instruments from an airplane with a “Both” fuel selector option, it isn’t my instinct to monitor the fuel and be ready to switch tanks.

I expect that there are many pilots who recently bought airplanes and made avionics retrofits. After such upgrades, pilots could find themselves trying to decipher errors or warning messages they have never seen before. But the best way to mitigate this is to immerse yourself in the handbook and POH supplements for your new equipment so that you can anticipate any notifications ahead of your trip. Even if you do not memorize them, knowing where to locate the right buttons and the sequence to press in a crunch will relieve a lot of pressure.

While new avionics have the potential to increase safety, National Transportation Safety Board datahas shown that aircraft equipped with glass cockpits have a higher fatal accident rate than comparable air-craft equipped with the old-fashioned, “sometimes-challenging-to-decipher,” round mechanical gauges. This may be true in part because pilots do not know how to work the equipment, even if they know how to manage it in principle. The problem compounds when pilots are under pressure from ATC and completely forget the basics of flying the airplane first.

Dueling with the weather has been the biggest challenge for pilots all around. Despite all the technological progress we have made in the GA industry, pilots still come up short when dealing with deteriorating weather conditions beyond their typical comfort level, even with additional reporting and the ability to view updated weather in the cockpit.

According to a recent study of GA accidents, one of the leading causes of fatal accidents remains continued VFR flight into instrument conditions. The greatest number of accidents were reported in single-engine aircraft being flown by private pilots on personal flights. Aside from VFR into IMC, poor IFR technique is another major cause of weather-related accidents. Going on a cross country will expose you to even more phenomena that you’re unfamiliar with and test your mettle, but it can be easier if you prepare ahead.

Keep in mind that summer thunderstorms often include hail. You might be required to deviate by a wide margin to steer clear of the hazards that come with it, and thereby stretch your fuel limits. Even for airplanes equipped with icing protection systems, traversing bad weather increases pilot workload—the icing protection systems on light GA aircraft are no panacea. The key to avoiding this exposure comes from understanding the broad picture of the area’s weather, not just for your planned trip time. Get a thorough picture by calling a briefer, talking to pilots, and using all your resources through apps on your smartphone or tablet. Especially if you are flying solo, it’s worthwhile to have tools that can augment your decision-making.

A clear picture of the weather will allow you to con-sider the optimum performance profiles, routing, and altitudes for your trips, as well as potential diversions or appropriate alternates, even though the appeal of being able to go directly with GPS will linger in your mind. As you already know to be conservative with fuel, always consider the potential to encounter lousy weather.

There are other things to think about with GPS, especially as the FAA is decommissioning VORs and em-bracing newer “Tango” or RNAV terminal transition routes. Even if you have flown the same trip before, you might find yourself scratching your head when a con-troller begins rattling off new five-letter fixes and routes that sound like a foreign language. I have found this to be a most unsettling experience, especially in flight, and wound up kicking myself for my own expectation biases. One way you can anticipate this is by fast-tracking your flight review or instrument proficiency check to help ex-pose yourself to changes in the system.

If you decide to conduct your trip under VFR, consider flying as close as possible to populated areas. However, if the trip includes flying over water or unpopulated areas with the chance of losing your visual reference to the horizon, be prepared to file IFR even in clear skies.

You don’t want your emotions to get the best of you. I know how it is. If the skies are clear on a good day, even if you have been flying all day—especially after required fuel stops—it’s enticing to complete that final leg and skip the hotel bill. I have been there before, and not get-ting home as planned can be a drag.

I have had to overnight a few times because of weather and a malfunctioning electronic engine component. I was even more bothered that the next day when the mechanic showed up with a laptop to fix it—I lost a whole day of work drinking FBO coffee.

Plus, you promised someone you would be there. It is tempting to think you will rise to the occasion, especially when things start to go wrong. But the truth is, you are just plain tired, and this may be compounded by a lack of recency of experience in your airplane.

If the options permit, it’s always best to deviate to a convenient airport with the amenities you need—suchas fuel, proper aircraft storage, and even a crew car—and finish the trip the next day. If you want to be wise,carry an overnight bag, just in case. You will thank your-self later

A long cross-country flight that exposes you to new environments and experiences is something every pilot should have on their bucket list, and if done safely, it can create memories for a lifetime.

Michael Wildes holds a master’s degree in Logistics & Supply Chain Management, and a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science, both from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Previously, he worked at the university’s flight department as a Flight Check Airman, Assistant Training Manager, and Quality Assurance Mentor. He holds MEI, CFI & CFII ratings. Follow Michael on Twitter @Captainwildes.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter