Preparing for a Long Cross-Country

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Flying a transcontinental trip by light plane can be an intimidating experience for pilots who have never done it before. But with some advance planning and a little common sense, it is usually a delightful (as well as memorable) experience. Here's how a 12,000-hour ATP tackled a long X-C from Michigan to Florida and back in a Piper Arrow.

The annual trek to Sun 'n Fun was, as usual, a great deal of fun. Flying my Piper Arrow down and back is always the best part of the entire week, and this year was no exception. The weather cooperated for the most part, and the bird ran flawlessly.

When my wife and I departed Howell, Michigan, there was some rain in the area, and we picked up an IFR clearance so we could climb right through the clouds. We didn't have to go too far south before we were in the clear.

Our first fuel stop was at Hazard, Kentucky. I picked it because the computer showed it to be approximately a third of the total distance, and in a straight line between our starting point and destination. It turned out to be a fine airport with good service, and friendly people. The second stop was at Waycross, Georgia where a lunch of barbecue and hot dogs was laid out for Sun 'n Fun bound pilots. The third leg was as uneventful as the other two until we got into the sequence for Lakeland and ended up following a DC-3 who told controllers he was familiar with the approach procedure, but wasn't. He went from the powerplant directly into a downwind for Runway 9 Right while I widened it out behind him to stay with the procedure. There weren't too many airplanes in the area at the time, so there were no ill effects from initially following the DC-3 off the procedure.

It was a typical cross country trip, and that week thousands of pilots and airplanes made the long trek from their home bases to Lakeland. I talked to one fellow who flew his restored Curtis Robin all the way from Northern Alaska, and many others who didn't cover nearly as many miles. But in every instance the pilot indicated that the reason for his or her success, and lack of problems along the way, was the amount of planning and preparation they did before departure.

Whether you fly IFR or VFR on long trips you need to know as much information about your route of flight, proposed fuel stops, other alternate airports, navaids, and terrain features along the way before the wheels leave the ground. That's in addition to having a good understanding of the weather and a feel for what it will do while you are enroute.

Scoping out the weather

It is difficult to plan a long cross country trip from one corner of the country to another without having to deal with some weather along the way. Seldom is the entire country clear, or even VFR, and it is generally pilots who don't understand enough about the weather and the systems that lie in wait who wind up in trouble.

I began watching the weather about five days in advance of our Lakeland trip. The Weather Channel offers five day forecasts that give a good indication of what can be expected on the travel day. What I saw indicated that we would have VFR conditions along the entire route, and that proved to be the case, except for the lingering rainshowers in our home area that were a result of a system that moved through a little slower than had been anticipated.

Drawing a line on a map and following it is not enough. If there is mountainous terrain along the way how do you know your airplane has the ability to climb safely above it? Just because the highest terrain is depicted as 6,600 feet doesn't mean your bird will make it across the range without incident. On my return trip from Lakeland last year it was a day after a potent cold front had ripped through the area, and the winds aloft were very strong from the northwest. After departing Washington, Georgia with full tanks, two friends, and camping gear aboard, the Arrow wouldn't maintain 8,500 feet as we approached the mountains. Most of the time it was descending try as I might to keep it level. The ride was rough, and at one point a mountain wave took us to 10,000 feet. I let the airplane go hoping to get to 10,500 feet, but that didn't happen.

My weather briefing had included the possibility of severe turbulence over the mountains, and I didn't try too long before deciding that the best course of action, which had been planned in advance, was to fly west to the Chattanooga, Tennessee area and then to the north over lower terrain where the effects of the turbulence would be much less severe. And that's how it worked. Though the flight took much longer than expected, we did get home that day. And we had a much smoother ride than we otherwise would have had.

That tells us that the best course of action is not always the straight line between two points, though we would like to navigate all of our trips using direct routing. Some pilots will not compromise on direct routing no matter what the conditions, and often we read about them in the newspaper the next day. Many of those who attempt the "straight line no matter what approach" do so because they have no other plan. They didn't take the time to do any alternate planning before beginning the trip, so they push on in the hopes of overcoming whatever obstacles they may encounter. But icing, thunderstorms, and even mountain waves, can be unforgiving.

Can we do it VFR?

There's a big difference between planning for VFR conditions as opposed to IFR weather. In theory, if the weather is IFR the VFR pilot will either stay put or fly as far as he or she can legally before stopping and waiting for the weather to clear. We know that some pilots try to push on much farther than they should by "scud running" in spite of a weather briefing that advised they couldn't get there from here. If the weather is localized VFR pilots may find a way around it, though the plan to do so should be created before departure, and only if weather reports indicate that circumvention is possible.

Running up against bad weather and trying to find a way around it without preplanning can lead to many problems which include fuel starvation, controlled flight into rising terrain when visibilities suddenly are reduced, and positional disorientation (getting yourself hopelessly lost).

Though we don't like to hear the words "VFR flight is not recommended," and sometimes they are used when there is nothing at all to fear, when a briefer passes along that phrase do a thorough investigation of the conditions that are out there. Don't let him or her abruptly end the conversation until you have enough information to decide if you can find a safe, suitable routing around the weather or if your best alternative is to wait it out while you ponder the merits of getting an instrument rating.

How about IFR?

Instrument pilots have a whole different set of priorities when deciding if a flight can go or not. Once the pilot decides that the weather is suitable for his or her airplane and experience level, The two most important pieces of information that need to be developed are, "How long will the flight take," and "How much fuel do I need?" Both are imperative when you consider that most light aircraft will have to be flown on short legs in IFR weather because of the amount of alternate fuel that must be carried. If safety of flight is to be maintained there must always be a place where the pilot knows he or she can go while enroute if things turn ugly. And the decisions the pilot makes before and during the flight will contribute to that safe outcome.

I once worked for a large corporation that flew its own Boeing 727. One time I asked the pilots of that airplane what they used for an alternate when they were coming from the West Coast to the East. "That's easy," one of them replied. "We can leave Los Angeles for New York and use Miami for our alternate." We lowly light airplane drivers only wish we could be afford such luxury.

But the truth is we can have just as much confidence in our operations as those 727 pilots had in theirs as long as we do our homework. Knowledge is key, and if you gather all the necessary facts and make the right decisions both before departure and while enroute, you will never run into trouble.

If you always have a place to go within the fuel range of your airplane you can maintain a high level of safety. But instrument pilots get into trouble in several different ways. Running low on fuel, or draining the tanks completely, is probably the worst mistake they make. The decision to continue without stopping for more fuel in the face of stronger than forecast headwinds, or other unexpected weather phenomenon, not only compromises your ability to get to your destination safely, but usually removes the option of landing at alternate airports if your first choice goes down the tubes before you get there.

What's our "Plan B?"

Before you begin a cross country, whether you are flying VFR or IFR you must decide what your maximum time aloft is going to be. If you depart your home base with five hours of fuel on board, you may plan to fly no more than 3 1/2 hours, for example, without stopping for fuel. At 3 1/2 hours elapsed time you should be on short final or on the ground filling the fuel tanks. If you don't plan on using the remaining fuel, it is there in case anything unexpected occurs where you may need to remain aloft longer than you expect. What if your landing gear didn't extend properly when you get to your destination? If you have little or no fuel remaining in your tanks you may not have an opportunity to deal with the problem.

When the weather is marginal you must always know where there is an airport you can land at in addition to your original destination, and you must make certain that you maintain enough fuel in the tanks to get you there and beyond (what if the gear doesn't come down at the alternate?) if you want to guarantee the safety of flight. Before departure on most IFR flights you are obliged to designate an alternate airport, but at no time after departure must you go there if things don't work out as planned. Many instrument pilots discard the alternate as a legal obligation only, but if you don't have a place to go in your back pocket throughout the flight you are tempting Mr. Murphy to join you in your cockpit.

Ninety-nine percent of the time when I select an alternate before departure I will use it in the event I can't get into my original destination. Once in a great while, though, I am forced to pick a legal alternate, that is too far from my original destination to make sense, though I will maintain the fuel resources to get there. For example, If my destination was Pontiac, Michigan, and the nearest legal alternate was Fort Wayne, Indiana, I know there are at least six other airports in the vicinity with ILS approaches that I can land at if need be. But if all the Southern Michigan airports are forecasting temporary conditions of 400 and 2, I can't use them as legal alternates, but I wouldn't hesitate to land at one of them rather than go all the way to Fort Wayne.

So, if you don't always have a plan in your back pocket you could easily find yourself in trouble. And the best plans are developed before you become airborne, not after. If circumstances change once you are aloft then you must update your plan, or come up with another, but don't push on without knowing there will be a safe end to the flight if it is not possible to reach your intended destination safely.

Piper PA-28R-201 ArrowI have always maintained that the physical act of flying an airplane is the easy part. It's the 'head games' or mental exercises that a pilot must accustom himself or herself to that are the hardest part of our vocation. Remember that as you plan your future cross-country trips, and devote the necessary time and effort to insure that your flight will be a safe one before it leaves the ground.