November 2005Features

How To Learn

It's what you know

Cross-country is more than a way to fly

With the milestone of your first solo flight behind you, you're now ready to embark on a new phase of your flight training: cross-country flying.

The primary task of cross-country training ostensibly is learning how to navigate; in reality it's more about learning how to plan. In particular, it's about learning preflight planning, the thorough preparation that is a prerequisite for even a short cross-country.

Preflight planning is so crucial to safety that the FAA has dedicated a regulation to it. FAR 91.103, titled "Preflight Action," lists the information you must be familiar with prior to flight. In a nutshell, this regulation states that each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. Now, that covers a lot of territory!

Although you'll pore over myriad details when planning a cross-country flight, to keep things simple they can be grouped into five primary categories: navigation, weather, fuel, contingencies and emergencies, and communications.

From A to B

Navigation planning is simply developing a workable route from your departure airport to your destination. The routing you choose will depend on the method of navigation used, the terrain, weather, suitable alternate airports along the route, airspace, and airplane performance. First you'll need to choose a "suitable" destination.

Pick a good one

When looking at potential destinations, remember that not all airports are created equal. To comply with the regulations, you will need to check the runway lengths at each airport you intend to use to assure that your airplane can safely land and take off there. Additionally, what are the general weather conditions at the airport? For example, if it is located near the coast, is it fog-prone? If it's in the desert, are gusty crosswinds the norm? Also, what kinds of facilities are available at the airport? Is there a tower? Radar? Are there any fixed-base operators (FBOs) located on the field that carry your fuel type? If no FBOs, is there at least a 24-hour self-operated fuel pump that will accept your credit card? Does the airport have any noise abatement procedures, curfews, or other restrictions?

How did Lindbergh ever do it?

Once a suitable destination airport is selected, you'll need to work out a route. Among other factors, the route you choose will be determined by the navigation method used. There are essentially three navigation methods: pilotage and dead reckoning, radio navigation, and point-to-point or area navigation.

Pilotage is a navigation method whereby you determine or "fix" your position by comparing symbols on an aeronautical chart with features on the Earth's surface while flying from checkpoint to checkpoint toward your destination. To perform pilotage, you'll need to learn how to read aeronautical charts; how to select good checkpoints; how to recognize those checkpoints from the air; and how to relate what you see on the chart to what you see from the air. So, if you're planning to navigate by pilotage, you'll have to give due consideration to the quantity and quality of easily identifiable checkpoints along your proposed route.

Dead reckoning, or deduced reckoning, is estimating one's position from logical deduction. Given a known departure point, heading, airspeed, time, distance to go, and wind direction and speed, the airplane's position can be logically deduced using simple trigonometry or an E6B flight computer. One of the most famous and amazing examples of dead reckoning is when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 1927 using only a compass, clock, and map.

Because pilotage and dead reckoning are fundamental navigation methods, they are almost always used together. This is why we carefully measure our courses and distances on our chart before we depart. Filling out a navigation log generates a plan that gives us estimated times of arrival over our checkpoints.

Radio or airways navigation essentially means using very-high-frequency (VHF) omnidirectional ranges, or VORs. VORs are ground-based electronic facilities that transmit navigation signals to an aircraft's VOR receiver. Using the VOR system, a pilot can easily determine his azimuth or magnetic direction from a VOR. Since the 1950s, the VOR system has been the backbone of the U.S. navigational and instrument system. But besides making routine instrument flight possible, the VOR system has also freed pilots operating strictly under visual flight rules (VFR) from the uncertainties of pilotage and dead reckoning. The VOR system provides the general aviation pilot with the ability to navigate easily, accurately, and reliably. Thus, if you are planning to navigate via VORs, you need to check your chart for VOR stations along your intended route. You may also have to modify your routing to fly directly from one VOR to another, and that may result in a slight zigzag in your route.

Of course, the newest and most powerful navigation system today is GPS, or the Global Positioning System. It is a satellite-based navigation system based on 24 GPS satellites that orbit the Earth transmitting position signals to small GPS receivers. GPS receivers designed for aviation are loaded with a database of airports, VORs, airways, and intersections for the entire United States or for a specific geographic region. Most units are invaluable for quick access to nearest airport information in case of a diversion. Moreover, they allow direct routings between fixes. However, you should be aware that using GPS to go direct does not guarantee terrain clearance, and the resulting route can be over inhospitable terrain.

Weather woes

The weather is the weather. Since you can't control it, the next best thing you can do is to try to plan around it. For example, if you know that your coastal destination airport is prone to fog in the early morning and late afternoon, plan to arrive around noon. Likewise, if you know the winds at the desert or mountain airport you're going to can get gusty, plan your arrival for the early morning before surface temperatures rise and the winds kick up. Similarly, if your area is subject to smog and haze, plan your flight so that you don't have to fly into the sun with reduced visibility.

If the weather stays good and you've planned well, your flight should go smoothly. But even the best-laid plans often go awry, and when that happens, you must have contingency plans at the ready. Those plans can range from the proverbial 180-degree turn away from the weather to a diversion to another airport. If the weather isn't cooperating, your back-up plan must be implemented promptly.


Since a cross-country flight can easily be more than a few hours, fuel becomes an important issue in preflight planning. A good fuel plan--which is integrated with your navigation log--shows your expected fuel burns for each leg and their totals. These figures show on paper that the flight can be completed safely and in compliance with regulations.

The regulation for flights operating under VFR is FAR 91.151, titled "Fuel requirements for flight in VFR conditions." It states that:

(a) No person may begin a flight in an airplane under VFR conditions unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough fuel to fly to the first point of intended landing and, assuming normal cruising speed

(1) During the day, to fly after that for at least 30 minutes; or

(2) At night, to fly after that for at least 45 minutes.

The regulations are legal minimums, and just because it's legal doesn't mean it's safe. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation suggests that those legal minimums be doubled for safety's sake. That means a minimum reserve of one hour of fuel for flights during the day, and an hour and a half for flights at night. But even those minimums are subject to change depending on the nature of the flight. For example, flights over large expanses of water, or to islands, or flights over desolate areas--including snow-covered, desert, and mountainous terrain--and flights in areas of unpredictable weather may require even greater reserves to be safe.

No fuel plan is worth the paper it's written on unless it's accurate. Thus, your fuel burns must be calculated for your airplane. Since there are many different ways to calculate fuel burn, consult with your instructor. Some pilots like to use an average burn number, typically in gallons per hour (gph). This figure takes into account the greater fuel flows during climb and averages it with the lesser fuel flows during descent. Others break the flight up into phases, and then calculate separate fuel burns for climb, cruise, and descent. Some calculate the fuel required for each leg of the navigation log. Whatever method you use, make sure it is reasonably accurate by checking your planned estimated fuel required against the actual fuel used after your flight. Dipsticks are available for many of the popular training airplanes that can be used to measure fuel quantities.

Some pilots (especially corporate jet and airline pilots) prefer to see the fuel plan in a table format (see "Learn What You Burn," July 2002 AOPA Flight Training). A fuel table breaks down the total fuel load into divisions, with so many gallons allocated to get to the destination, so many allocated to get to the alternate, and so many for reserve, etc.


Although emergencies are rare, contingencies are common. And no cross-country flight planning is complete without a discussion of contingency plans. At a minimum this should include plans for a diversion to an alternate airport or airports, emergencies and equipment malfunctions, weather that doesn't live up to the forecast, lost procedures, and procedures for any off-airport landing.

As we mentioned, if the weather goes down, diversion to an alternate airport may be the safest course of action. But there could be other reasons why you wouldn't be able to land at your intended destination. For example, what if an airplane has a landing gear collapse on the runway prior to your arrival? If that airplane has blocked the only runway at your destination, it may take crews hours to remove it, and in the meantime the airport is closed. This is when a quick decision to divert to another airport, rather than waiting, can ensure that you don't run low on fuel.

During your preflight planning, you should identify potential alternate airports along your route. Alternate airports should have runways long enough for your airplane and adequate facilities. At this time you can also identify suitable off-airport landing sites, in case of an emergency where an on-airport landing is not possible. Good candidates will be relatively flat, with a firm surface, few obstacles, and unpopulated. Examples might include open roads and highways, farm fields, dry lakebeds in the desert, open parking lots, and golf courses with nice, long fairways.

In some cases, you may find it wise to modify your original routing to take advantage of suitable alternate airports and off-airport landing sites. Although this may add a few minutes to your flight time, it offers immeasurable peace of mind.


With good maintenance, and fed a proper diet of fuel and oil, today's engines are extremely reliable. A forced landing due strictly to engine failure is an infrequent event. You're much more likely to encounter an abnormal situation or a malfunction of an airplane system. This can be anything from a flight control problem to an instrument failure to a radio problem.

Abnormal situations can take many forms. Take this unwary student's experience, for example: Charles was co-owner of a Cessna 182 he had purchased for his flight training. Charles' partner, who enjoyed performing minor maintenance on the airplane as permitted by the regulations, had changed the oil the day before Charles' first solo cross-country flight. About 20 minutes into the flight, over somewhat mountainous terrain, oil started seeping out from under the cowling, obscuring the windshield. After a few minutes, visibility out of the oil-covered windshield became a big problem, and Charles had to divert to a small nontowered airport. Only after he landed and investigated the source of the oil leak did he discover that his partner hadn't screwed the oil dipstick down snugly. During flight it had worked itself loose. Although Charles had visually inspected the dipstick during his preflight and it looked secure, he had not physically checked it to make sure that it was tight, and he had not checked the oil level because he knew that his partner had changed the oil just the day before. You can be sure he now checks it before every flight.

One common system malfunction is the loss of the alternator (sometimes the drive belt fails; other times the electronics fail--especially during hot temperatures). Since the alternator keeps the battery charged, when it fails, the battery must supply all of the airplane's electrical loads. In short order the battery dies. In the older trainers without warning light panels, your first indication of an alternator failure is usually that the audio from the radios becomes weak and/or air traffic control can't hear your transmissions. In this situation, the decision may be to continue or to divert and land. It is a topic that you should discuss with your instructor.

Flap and vacuum failures are two other common system malfunctions. The flap failure is just a minor inconvenience, unless they happen to fail in the fully extended position. In any case, you should have practiced no-flap and partial-flap approaches and landings before your solo cross-country. A vacuum pump failure affects your vacuum-driven instruments, normally your attitude indicator and heading indicator. But which instruments are affected can vary depending on your airplane's particular system. Your first indication of a vacuum pump failure is when the attitude indicator begins to "lean" even though you're flying wings level. As the gyro slows down even further the attitude indicator may begin to tumble. You're flying under visual flight rules, so you can control the airplane by referencing the horizon. But failed or tumbled gyroscopic instruments can be a real distraction--hide them with an instrument cover or a Post-It note. One other failure that has attracted the attention of more than one student is when a tachometer cable snaps. When this happens, the revolutions per minute (rpm) gauge goes to zero in a heartbeat. Your first thought is that the engine has failed or seized up, but you look out the windshield and see the prop is still turning and the engine sounds fine. The only difference is now you're flying without a tachometer, which is really no big deal.


One last area of planning that can help make a flight go smoothly is communications. Using resources such as your aeronautical charts, Airport/Facilities Directory, commercial publications, and Web-based resources such as AOPA's Airport Directory Online, you can determine which air traffic control facilities to use on your particular flight, and identify the radio frequencies you will need.

The facility names and frequencies can be written on your navigation log in the order you will use them. For example, for both your departure and destination airports you'll want the ATIS or AWOS, ground or unicom, tower, and radar approach and departure frequencies. To open and close your flight plan, you'll want the frequency for the appropriate flight service stations. En route, you'll want VFR traffic advisories from the terminal radar approach control (tracon) or an air route traffic control center ("center"). To get updated weather or make a pilot report (pirep), you can talk to a Flight Watch specialist on 122.0 MHz between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. local time. And most important, if your airplane has two communications radios, you definitely should monitor "Guard" on 121.5 MHz during these days of heightened national security and temporary flight restrictions.

The best-laid plans

Cross-country training is when you'll take the airplane out beyond your neighborhood of local airports and practice areas, and explore new airports with new people and--hopefully--great new airfield restaurants.

This is also when you'll get a taste of how to "work an airplane," or use the airplane as transportation tool to move passengers, baggage, and cargo from one city to another.

A great deal of planning and preparation goes into even the simplest cross-country flight. But all those hours of hard work are worth it when the flight goes off effortlessly. Discovering that you have navigated correctly and landed at the intended destination is a thrill that never ceases to go away.

Christopher L. Parker is a CFI and an aviation author, speaker, and FAA remedial training specialist. He flies internationally as a contract captain on a Bombardier Challenger business jet and lives in Los Angeles.

Want to know more?
Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Flight Training Online.