Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Going The Distance

Tips for planning a long cross-country

going the distanceAs pilots, we’re used to flight planning. Flights are usually straightforward and easy to plan, but occasionally, they involve multiple legs and traversing congested or complicated airspace. Longer flights require more-than-normal flight planning. I recently completed a 1,600-mile flight in my Garmin G1000–equipped Columbia across seven western and midwestern states and three time zones. It was apparent to me that, to do it right, longer flights entail more than just sitting longer en route and making additional fuel stops, particularly when the flight is more than 1,000 miles." />
going the distance
If you fly in the western United States or in mountainous terrain, pay particular attention to MEAs. On some legs, you often can find more than one airway that goes to the same place. One airway may have a much higher MEA than the other, while the airway with the lower MEA may be longer. Pick the airway that’s appropriate for the weather, the aircraft and your passengers.
Speaking of passengers, keep their comfort in mind. It might be possible to string a couple of long legs together, but your passengers may appreciate a trip broken into additional legs. On a recent eastbound trip, my first leg was 4.5 hours followed by one five-hour leg. For the westbound return trip into the expected headwind, I added an additional stop, and the legs ended up being 3.6, 3.3 and 3.3 hours. Shorter legs can make for much happier passengers.

If your trip requires an overnight stop, make a hotel reservation before departing. You can use AirNav’s website to review local accommodations, or you can call the local FBO. If you have to divert, the local FBO can usually recommend accommodations and will often provide an airport car or transportation.

going the distance
When preparing for your long-distance flight, utilize online resources to make flight plans and check the weather on your planned route.
Weather Or Not?
Watch The Weather Channel and/or follow other preferred weather services as the departure day approaches. The day before, get an “outlook” briefing for the full trip. The easiest way to get a full route briefing is to ask for an outlook briefing for a combination of all the legs—essentially, you’ll request weather for a nonstop flight. Combine the routes, airways and waypoints for all of the legs, making sure that the routing is ATC-computer compatible. Total the flight and ground times for the full trip to indicate the total en route time and get a full briefing. Once you have the primary briefing, ask for forecasts at your planned refueling stops. This day-before overview saves you from having to do individual briefings for each leg.

The day of the flight, you’ll get a full briefing for each leg; while you’re at it, it makes sense to file the flight plan for each leg. You could get a weather briefing and file a flight plan at each stop, but instead, consider filing all flight plans the night before and then getting your weather briefing for the next leg from the FSS while en route. If you need to change any of your flight plans (e.g., a departure has been delayed), and you filed through one of the services (e.g., DUATS or DUAT), your flight plan won’t be available for modification by an FSS or ATC until the provider sends it to Center’s computer. To provide greater flexibility for multistop trips, file all flight plans through an FSS.

Because you might pass through multiple time zones, determining departure times for each flight plan can be problematic. Going east, you’ll lose an hour crossing most time zones, while going west, you’ll pick up an hour. (Arizona chooses not to honor daylight saving time so that can be confusing. Consider using GMT for all flight plans; that should resolve most issues.)

Be Prepared
You need to be prepared for IFR conditions on any long flight. If you aren’t an IFR-rated pilot, then prepare for a diversion. Ensure that you have the appropriate VFR charts; WACs will usually suffice, but you might want a sectional for your refueling stops and destination. If you are IFR-rated, carry instrument en route and approach charts, even if the weather is forecast to be VFR. It’s smart to carry charts for a wider area than you intend to fly, as you may find that the weather forces you into a routing you didn’t expect. It can be stressful to be en route to an alternate airport and realize that you don’t have charts. Don’t count on finding the charts you need at an en route FBO either; you should have them onboard before you start the trip.

A strong case can be made for carrying a survival kit on every flight, but for a long flight, especially across inhospitable terrain, it’s a necessity. It doesn’t have to be expensive or huge, but it should cover at least the basics, such as water, first aid and environmental protection (e.g., blankets and sun block). I carry much more than that on every flight.

Make sure you and your passengers are prepared for a long day of flying. Carry sufficient liquids—water would be the preference—and encourage your passengers to drink. Eat well before you depart and carry sandwiches or some other convenient healthy food (not sweets) as well. Your body will appreciate it, and you’ll be much sharper at the end of the day. You should also carry whatever personal relief products you prefer.

If you’re flying in mountainous terrain, then you’ll need or at least benefit from oxygen, especially if you’re planning to spend any time higher than 12,000 feet. Take your passengers into consideration: Some people can get bad or severe headaches even at altitudes below 12,000 feet. Supplementary oxygen helps. Breathing oxygen periodically, and especially in preparation for the descent and approach, will make you sharper and less prone to mistakes. Everyone can benefit from continuous or at least periodic use of oxygen on a long flight.

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