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TL/DR: What are common preparation tips or techniques for low-hour private pilots planning long cross country flights in unfamiliar territory?


I got my private pilot's license in November 2016 in Hawaii. I've since moved back to the mainland to continue working and flying here. I'm currently in Phoenix and have been checked out for Cessna 172 rentals at a local airfield.

Over MLK weekend (Jan 14-16) if the weather is nice I hope to fly from Glendale (KGEU) to San Luis Obispo (KSBP) then to Rancho Murieta (KRIU) near Sacramento, and back to Phoenix. My girlfriend plans to come with me and I want to do everything that I can to prep and plan this flight to minimize our risk.

I have about 75 hours total time, mostly in 172s and DA40s and all my cross country time has been on the Hawaiian islands where it is nearly impossible to get lost and there are few airspaces enroute.

I'm very comfortable with VOR navigation but I'm not yet accustomed to the smaller Garmin G430 GPS unit in the Cessna here (I'm spoiled, used to the G1000) so I don't want to stress with the GPS unit.

I'm most concerned with the strength of my pilotage and dead reckoning and whether they are up to the task, especially considering that this will be my first flight in the region. Since VOR is line-of-sight and there more than a few mountains in the region I want to feel confident that I can get us there safely in case the VOR signals aren't being received for the duration.

I have the routes planned, altitudes selected, waypoints and frequencies written down, performance planning and W+B done, etc. and I plan to speak with my local flight instructor to go over all of these materials before the flight.

In any case, it would be great to hear additional tips/tricks/things to be aware of/mistakes that you made early in your flying career so that I can be as prepared as possible moving forward!

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    $\begingroup$ Have you downloaded the G430 simulator from Garmin? It's free, and gives you quite a bit of practice getting used to working the unit. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jan 9 '17 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer: I haven't yet - a great resource. Thank you! $\endgroup$ – David DeVine Jan 9 '17 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ The most important thing you can prepare is yourself and your passenger's expectations. Really mentally prepare for the possibility of diverting, stopping unexpectedly for more gas, turning around, getting stuck out somewhere, etc. Don't go if the weather is 'so-so' or 'barely good enough.' Don't go, or stop, or divert if you are getting tired. Get plenty of rest, nourishment, and water before and during your trip. $\endgroup$ – nexus_2006 Jan 11 '17 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ As a side note, Westwind aviation at the Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix rents out 172's with G1000 cockpits, if you're on that side of town. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Jan 12 '17 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ @CodyP What's the hourly rate? It's only 95/hr down out in Glendale! $\endgroup$ – David DeVine Jan 12 '17 at 22:27
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I'm in a similar boat to you and I just did my first XC from KDYL to KDDH a few months ago. Which was the first time I had been to an airport I did not go to during training. It was a lot of fun but here are a few things to consider,

Get the G430 simulator as Ron mentions. You should always familiarize yourself with all systems in an aircraft before flying it. While you don't need to know the IFR capabilities of the 430 you should understand its VFR functions well. This video covers it well.

If you don't already use it, get ForeFlight or some similar app for your phone/tablet. This will provide you all the charts and calculations you need. Most pilots are using something like this these days but often times it's not allowed during training and many new pilots don't yet have it.

Use flight following if you can. If your instructor never went over that ask a local CFI about what it is, how to get it, and why you should basically always use it when you can.

Since it's a new airport for you, watch videos of others landing there to get an idea of what the terrain and airfield looks like.

If you have, or can get access to a simulator, fly the flight in the simulator using the intended aircraft so you have an idea of time, and basic terrain features en route.

Perhaps most importantly, this is no time to push your limits both physically and mechanically. Don't depart with "just enough fuel + minimums". Don't make this a "just above VFR minimum weather flight". You will most likely be flying a contiguous leg longer than you have flown yet, understand the human limitations in a situation like this. Understand that the plane has far more endurance than your body and understand when to say "I won't be making the flight today".

Most importantly, Have FUN!

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  • $\begingroup$ All good tips - I'll play with the 430 this week :) seems like it's intuitively similar to the G1000. Flight following was a topic on my list to discuss with my local CFI. I've used it in Hawaii for inter-island trips but don't have the procedures/frequencies down for this region. Where, in general, can this info be found? $\endgroup$ – David DeVine Jan 9 '17 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidDeVine Usually you request flight following before leaving your primary airport. Typically when the ground controller (or clearance) asks where you are going, you say "XYZ, request flight following". If you are non-towered, you would call up the center frequency for that area. Just keep in mind that flight following is workload permitting and ATC may cancel it at any time ("radar services terminated, squawk VFR") so it's best to plan as if you won't have it and count it as a bonus if you do. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jan 9 '17 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ Flight following frequencies are listed in the chart supplement (the erstwhile AF/D) under "Approach/Departure Frequency". If you're operating from a towered field that's coordinating with TRACON, ground control should be able to coordinate flight following for you. If not, you need to call the departure frequency and get it in the air. $\endgroup$ – hashinclude Jan 9 '17 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer Is it feasible to call ATC on the phone and let them know you are low-time in unfamiliar territory? I would think they would be less likely to drop you if they know that it's not a routine flight for you. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Jan 10 '17 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @TomMcW You can call them up and ask, but you are most likely going to be passed along to several different centers with a long distance trip like this. ATC has to prioritize IFR traffic and a controller can only handle so many flights, so even if you did call up and plead your case, it is still workload permitting and can be dropped at any time. If you do get dropped, hopefully you've opened a flight plan or you can call up flight watch and open one enroute, so at least somebody knows where you should be and when. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jan 10 '17 at 14:36
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Here are some things to keep in mind, in no particular order. There is also a nice thread on reddit.

  • identify visual checkpoints every 10-20 NM, stay within 20-30 mins of an airfield (even if it means a slightly longer route)
  • Every few checkpoints (and at least every 30 mins) do a fuel check, and make sure that the fuel indicators show how much fuel you expect in the tanks.
  • Fill up as much as W&B allows (if it's just the two of you, you should be able to take full fuel). The only exception would be when going across the mountains if you need the climb performance (but even so, preferably wait till early morning when the DA is in your favour, and take full fuel)
  • don't over-exert yourself. Especially PHX-SBP and RIU-PHX, which are pretty long legs (450/550 NM), you'll definitely want to take a break.
  • You'll be flying in fairly mountainous terrain when crossing from AZ into CA (and even going from eastern CA to the coast). Have you done a mountain flying checkout (even if your club doesn't need one)?
  • Make sure you have paper charts with you, even if you're using a tablet (iPad + Foreflight, Android + any of (Avare, FltPlan Go, DroidEFB, ...)). The tablet can reboot, run out of battery, or just plain overheat and die.
  • Keep IFR low enroute charts on your tablet, it's much easier to find VORs and airways on there than on a VFR sectional. Familiarize yourself a little with the altitude notations on the IFR low chart to aid with situational awareness.
  • Pair your tablet with a Stratus/Stratux/GDL GPS so your tablet can also show your geo-ref'ed position
  • It might help if you make a local cross-country trip before your planned long trip to get comfortable with the plane and avionics. Definitely keep a Garmin 430 quick-reference guide with you (easily handy when flying).
  • Make sure you know your club's policies about off-base repairs (if required), fuel & oil reimbursement (unless you're renting dry tach), and emergency phone numbers. The route you're planning is quite long (1150NM)
  • Definitely get a feel for weather planning and weather. In California at least, the weather along the coast can be vastly different than further inland.
  • When in mountainous terrain, open (and don't forget to close) a VFR flight plan in addition to flight following. If Center/TRACON cannot keep you on radar for a while, they may sometimes drop FF. (You can simplify the flight plan open/close with the 1800wxbrief.com SMS open/close feature)
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Retired airline pilot. We were based in the East and flew entirely in the East for years, then expanded and started doing some flying out West (SBA, SFO, Helena, MT, Seattle). We were required to take specific mountain flying training before operating those flights, and you should do it also. The FAA publishes some good material on it -- you should study it carefully. If it scares the daylights out of you, that's good! Seriously, make sure you understand how quickly conditions can turn dangerous if the winds aren't as predicted. Understand what you need to do to avoid putting yourself into a situation where you can't turn away and can't outclimb the terrain.

I would highly recommend that you fly some mountain flights with an instructor who is very familiar with the area before you do something as ambitious as your proposed trip. The trip has the potential to be a truly wonderful experience, but you really should understand what you need to do (and most importantly, when to stay on the ground) to keep it that way.

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Just one other basic thing that has not been mentioned: think thoroughly through weather and technical contingencies enroute. Three occasions in my early flying career which really had my heart pounding were when making an unplanned diversion in an unfamiliar area: Once for a thunderstorm, once for a snowstorm, and once for an alternator failure (you would have thought I would have learned after the first one!) It really reduces the stress thinking through in advance what you would do at every point on your route if the weather ahead and around you starts to whiten your knuckles. Identifying potential boltholes in advance and having the details readily to hand also helps to avoid the temptation just to press on.

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Probably not what you want to hear, but I think that trip is too ambitious for your current hours and experience. I would suggest restricting yourself to 200nm legs for a while. That gives you much better options to terms of taking breaks, comparing your plans to real conditions, re-evaluating conditions, updating your plans, and dealing with issues. If you do a spiral or looping plan, then you have more destination options. For example, you could fly to Palm Springs in the morning, have lunch, then to Vegas in the afternoon. Next day if conditions are still good, back to Palm springs, then home, but if you are tired, or conditions have changed, you can go straight home to Phoenix. It also means your girlfriend wont have to pee in a bottle on her first big trip with you.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to say the same thing. The weather this week would have left him grounded somewhere along the route. Next week looks better, but there is usually fog in the morning and evenings along the coast and in the Central Valley. Add in the possibility of turbulence in the mountains, strong winds, and only 10 hours of daylight and the flight looks a bit too ambitious. Then add in the fact that he isn’t really familiar with the 430 and hasn’t used something like ForeFlight and he is setting himself up to be one of those 'I learned about flying from that' stories. Or worse an NTSB report. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Jan 10 '17 at 19:23
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I would suggest you doing the following, additional to was you were going to do and what the others suggested you:

Use an app - If you have a working cellphone, which usually works in that altitude (if you're not going too high) you can use a free app (for example as google maps), this wors fine most of the time. And will help you out when your lost (you're probably familiar with it). It works incredibly well, even though it's not made for that purpose.

If you're willing to spend a little money, there are special Flying apps, that use the GPS of your cellphone, you can add your flightplan, an'll tell you where to go. You can download the ICAO map on it, to weight and balance...

This is very good, because you can also use it in your car (to try how it works), so you're familiar it in air you can use it in additional to the Garmin.

Fly the rout on the google earth flight simulator and make notes. I usually testfly new routes on google earth. Yust make a quick google search on how to activate the google earth flight simulator.

well prepare the flight Do almost as if it were an IFR flight writ down frequencies, headings speeds and heights (and times, how long until you expect your checkpoint) down, befor you start.

I guess you're familiar with this proccess, since you have your licence.

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    $\begingroup$ If you have an Android phone, Avare is free. Definitely handy to have around. Also, assuming you download the maps in advance, you don't need the data connection to be working in flight; just the GPS receiver. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 10 '17 at 16:11
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My response may be unpopular, however it is given with over 45 years of flying experience and 30 plus years of being an active CFI.

Make several trips where you can be comfortable. For some this may mean not taking the girlfriend, or her mother. It might mean flying with another pilot, or even solo. Before each trip bone up on the factors which could affect you. If crossing the Great Lakes, make sure you know what you need to survive if the fan quits and you hit the water, and if you don't like it, pick a different route. If crossing mountainous areas, bone up on that, and get some instruction (even if you are in the flat lands) from a CFI who is experienced in mountain flying. If you will be flying in CAVU, fine, but if not, start reading books like Bucks "Weather Flying."

Make each of these trips learning exercises, where the actual flight is the capstone project.

The second suggestion, and the often unpopular one, is to use pilotage and dead reckoning. Yep, keep the GPS and the Foreflight or whatever you have, in your bag, and venture with more primitive tools. It will help you better understand things. Over the years my students have complained more loudly when I require them to use a mechanical E6-B. And now, a paper chart. But several have come back to say that those exercises saved their butt, or at least reduced the heat, when they ran into real problems on a flight. Like the former student taking his TBM to Bermuda and having total electrical failure enroute. Dead reckoning seldom works absolutely perfect, even when you interpolate winds aloft from various reporting points on either side of your course. But it does work very well. Numerous private students have been faced with dual XC over mountainous areas with me, and I have "failed" their nav systems forcing them to dead reckoning and pilotage. In the hills of Western PA or the plains of Kansas, there is a tendency for each hill and each town to look the same. At 8500 feet, it is a big effort to circle the town at 2000 ft and read the water tower, so one presses on, keeping track of time and distance. Students are normally amazed when they reach their destination a hour and 100 miles later, within a minute or less and within a mile. Something they would expect with a tablet and GPS, but something that is achievable with dead reckoning.

The pitch for a manual E6-B is that the solutions are visual and almost intuitive. If punching numbers into a calculator, a data entry error could take you way off, and it just does not visualize the way it often does on an E6-B.

When you do rely on a Garmin 430 or 750 or whatever, get the simulator and get fluent. You might spend 20 sessions at home with it, but far better there than tooling around burning 10 or 30 gallons per hour, depending upon your winged horse species. There are some problems, like last I knew the 430 sim only worked on XP, which is a fast dying breed.

In summary, two points: Know the relevant material for your flight in advance. And secondly, go back to the basics of navigation. And when you are doing really well, take the girlfriends mother. I did just that 40 some years ago, and then made her a grandmother.

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All good stuff above. I find listening to towers of airports I plan to land at is helpful. See how they operate, what terms they tend to use, etc. LiveATC.net is great.

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