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Student Pilot’s Guide to Cross Country Planning

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Accomplishing your private pilot certificate is an adventure no matter the category and class you’re exploring.

Unless you’re learning in a glider or a balloon, at some point in your training it will be time to leave the proverbial nest of your local airport and training area to embark on a cross-country training flight.

Requirements for Cross Country Training

For students moving toward their private pilot certificate, the FAA spells out the requirements for cross-country training specific to the category and class of aircraft involved. The regulation covering cross-country training for private pilots is 14 CFR 61.109 and is sorted according to the class involved.

Airplane pilots (both single and multi-engine) must accomplish at least five hours of cross-country time, including a solo cross country totaling at least 150 nautical miles with three stops, along with a night cross country of over 100 nautical miles.

Helicopter pilots must complete day and night cross countries as well, though the distances are reduced to 100 and 50 nautical miles, respectively, to accommodate the generally slower speeds.

Further requirements and additional category/class requirements are spelled out in the regulation above.

But First, What is a Cross Country?

It’s important to note the requirements for accomplishing cross country training and importantly, what is appropriate to list in your logbook as “cross country” time. Cross country for a passenger might imply New York to LA, but for a pilot the definition can vary depending on the aircraft flown and the purpose of the flight time.

Though training may take you regularly to other airports, to comply with the requirements of 61.109 listed above, an airplane must travel at least 50 nautical miles from the departure airport, while a helicopter must cover at least 25 nautical miles.

This is measured as straight-line distance, which can be a “gotcha” for pilots based in mountainous terrain or busy airspace.

Careful planning can help pilots avoid this embarrassing and potentially expensive mistake.

Cross Country Planning

Though the cross country is a new aspect of training and adds new requirements, the basic building blocks are things students should already be familiar with.

Remember that 91.103 requires pilots to be familiar with “all available information” before beginning a flight.

For local flights, this includes checking local airport facilities, weather, and notices to airmen (NOTAMs).

Cross-country flying will consist of these, but with the addition of multiple airports as well as en route conditions. For areas with varied or rapidly changing weather, this can be a major factor considering the longer distances involved.

Navigation for the Globe-Trotting Pilot

As technology advances, pilots are constantly given newer and more capable electronic tools, both in-aircraft as well as portable.

However, the basic concepts of cross-country flying are still the same for new pilots as those of a century ago and a good understanding of the fundamentals is critical to ensuring a pilot has good situational awareness no matter the tools available in the aircraft they’re flying.

Most flights will involve a combination of both methods – utilizing dead reckoning for planning along with picking visual checkpoints along the ground.

Pilotage

Pilotage is something you’re likely familiar with from local flying, even if the term is new, and involves simply looking out the window at outside references in order to track and adjust the flight path.

As a simple example, following an interstate from one city to another would be basic pilotage.

Dead Reckoning

It may sound like a labor-intensive process, but the procedure becomes second nature quickly.

Once you’re en route, regular checks of the aircraft position and recalculation as needed will ensure you remain safely on course and using the appropriate amount of fuel.

Advanced Avionics and Cross Country Flying

Though these tools are excellent for situational awareness, it is very important new pilots don’t utilize them as a crutch and continue to practice their fundamentals.

When it’s Time to Fly

For a student pilot, every cross-country flight will require an instructor to review the pilot’s planning prior to departure to ensure correctness. Remember the cross-country environment is a dynamic one, and utilize all the tools at your disposal to make for more accurate planning as well as position monitoring once en route.

Once you complete your training, a cross country is one of the best options you have for sharing your flying abilities with family and friends. Whether crossing a county or crossing the country, proper planning will ensure a safe and efficient flight for pilot and passengers alike.

Become a better pilot with more of our helpful flying guides. We cover everything from holding pattern entries and managing stress during flight training to renewing your pilot’s license and ways to pay for flight school.

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