For a private or higher certificated pilot, the ability to fly when and where you want is a major asset allowing flexibility whether for personal or business reasons.
But as distances increase, so do the chances of a pilot running across new or unfamiliar situations or conditions, potentially ranging from a minor annoyance to a major risk to the aircraft and occupants.
Thorough preflight planning can ensure flights are completed smoothly by considering both known and potential obstacles to the flight, whether due to the route, weather, or other factors.
From Cross Country to Across the Country
As a pilot pursues his or her various pilot certificates, they are required to accomplish a number of cross country flights. As a student pilot planning a cross country flight there are a number of factors to keep in mind.
Defined in 14 CFR Part 61, almost all categories and classes of aircraft require numerous flights, both day and night, of certain distances to give pilots exposure to the enroute flying environment.
Additionally, during practical tests (checkrides) pilots are tested both on their flight planning abilities as well as their in-flight performance of simulated diversions.
Since these events happen in the course of training, they’re generally well practiced and have the added safety net of an instructor reviewing the planning and monitoring the in-flight performance.
When a pilot completes his or her ratings and begins to embark on flights on their own, new destinations can bring new challenges along the way.
Longer Flights and Larger Risks
With nearly 20,000 public use airports in the United States, the destination options for pilots are nearly endless.
While a pilot who learned in the Dallas area may feel comfortable flying to Houston, it can present a very different picture to embark on a longer trip to an unfamiliar area with only vaguely known local conditions.
For a couple of real world examples, let’s look at two hypothetical pilots planning a summer trip:
- Caroline learned in, and flies out of, Addison. A newly minted commercial pilot, she wants to visit the legendary EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
- Steven also obtained his private certificate in the Dallas area. He’d like to take his family to vacation in western Colorado.
Both of these trips present a number of unknown and potentially risky conditions.
AirVenture is the world’s busiest airshow and will take Caroline on a longer trip than she’s ever flown. Additionally, she’ll be one of over ten thousand aircraft flying into a relatively small area with unique procedures and a high workload environment.
Conversely, Steven will be dealing with “hot and high” conditions in Colorado, where limited aircraft performance he is unfamiliar with could leave him in situations ranging from uncomfortable to dangerous.
For both of our pilots, thorough planning can help to mitigate the risks these trips present and ultimately lead to trips that are both safe and enjoyable for both pilots and passengers.
Unfamiliar Terrain, Unfamiliar Airports, and Unfamiliar Voices
For the pilots in our example above, they’re headed to new places far from the comfort of their home airport.
No matter the aircraft they’re flying and the technology at hand, thorough preflight planning starting days or weeks in advance can help to eliminate issues early and prevent headaches once the trip begins.
For a VFR-only pilot headed to higher terrain, a review of the sectional chart can show passes and peaks for navigation purposes. R
emember both that performance for general aviation aircraft will generally suffer greatly at altitude and that even if your destination airport is at a relatively low elevation, it may be surrounded by terrain at considerably higher elevation.
Many crashes have happened in mountainous areas after pilots departed an airport and found they could not out-climb the surrounding terrain. Mountain flying is demanding and has many unique challenges, and many flight schools in these areas offer familiarization courses for both airplane and helicopter pilots.
Check NOTAMs and TFRs
Of course a check for notices to airmen (NOTAMs) and temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) is standard practice for any flight, but for a flight to an airshow, sporting event, industry conference, or similar the NOTAMs can grow in both quantity and length.
Remember on longer flights to check for updates to NOTAMs and TFRs during stops or enroute via Flight Service – departure time shifts can push a potential TFR into an active one, such as a 2015 incident where an Allegiant Airlines flight declared an emergency to land in Fargo, ND.
Air Traffic Control Procedures
Another potential situation to be prepared for is differences in air traffic control procedures in unfamiliar locations.
It’s always good practice to familiarize yourself with airport layouts and local airspaces before arrival, but don’t be afraid to state that you’re unfamiliar with an area if given an instruction you can’t perform (such as reporting a facility on the ground a local might know, like a stadium, that is unmarked on the chart).
Another tool to be aware of and utilize as needed is progressive taxi instructions – a controller would much rather you ask for progressive than potentially head the wrong direction or cause a runway incursion.
Whether the Weather is a Factor
With the US covering such vast expanses, a huge variety of weather can present to even the most prepared pilot. Starting planning early can help to prevent unexpected surprises the day of a trip, and many resources are available to help form a complete picture.
The FAA’s prognostic charts extend out up to seven days, and even non-FAA sources can be of some use further out.
As the trip nears and forecasts become more accurate, adjusting the departure time can help to mitigate any concerns that arise. Keep in mind local conditions, particularly as the day progresses.
A pilot based in weather-stable California may be caught off guard by pop-up thunderstorms during a spring afternoon in Arizona, while a pilot coming from sunny Phoenix could be surprised by a thick layer of fog pushing in off the ocean arriving at the California coast in the evening.
Don’t forget passenger concerns – bumping across the midwest in constant light turbulence might be just an annoyance for a pilot, but a trip could certainly be complicated by a passenger new to light airplanes getting sick in the back seat!
With any weather concern, flexibility is key. The ability to adjust a trip by hours or days can make for a much easier and safer trip for all involved.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road – or Runway
Cross-country flying literally opens thousands of additional doors for pilots to expand their freedom, experience, and logbook. Thorough planning, utilization of available resources, and good preparation can ensure the experience is a good one for everyone involved.
A good training program will lay the foundation for a pilot, whether recreational or professional, to have both safe and enjoyable trips whether a ‘hundred dollar hamburger’ or a thousand-mile adventure.
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Valerie Smith is a Certified Flight Instructor, commercial pilot, FAA licensed aircraft Dispatcher, and freelance writer. She is an Aviation Specialist for a public utility in San Diego, CA.