Flying cross-country can be a pretty daunting experience, especially in busy airspace areas – but with the right planning and preparation, anyone can do it.
In 2015 Spidertracks’ US Sales Manager Jerry Lee completed a one-million-square-mile air tour across the United States in a Cessna 182, and in January 2016, Spidertracks' Marketing Manager Todd O'Hara flew the length of New Zealand in a Sirius Light Sport. Here are some of the things we picked up along the way.
Planning is the most essential part of any cross-country flight. Work out where you need to be and how you need to get there. Take into account airfields along the route, as well as different frequencies. Build a list of legs, and populate as much information about them as you can. It can be helpful to write each leg's information on different pages and carry them with you during the flight.
- Does your track take you over water for extended periods of time? What is the single-engine performance of your aircraft? Is there a similar route that keeps you within gliding range of land?
- Does your track take you over terrain for which your aircraft is suited? If flying over mountains, is your aircraft capable of operating at the altitudes required?
- What's your comfortable endurance for each leg? How much gas can you carry? How much is the gas price en route? How long can your passengers sit in the aircraft comfortably?
- 'Fly' the leg in your head before departure. Imagine what you expect to happen based on the maps. Who should you talk to, and what should you say?
A comprehensive weather briefing is one of the most important tools in your planning and decision-making kit. But it's more than just downloading a copy of the weather brief for your area. It's essential that you actually understand it and build a mental picture of what it means for your flight. Weather-related pilot error accounted for 18% of aircraft accidents from 2000-2010.
- There are four steps to weather and flying: gather, understand, think ahead, and review. Set your personal limits before you depart, and review your situation as you go. Ask yourself, "If this was a local scenic with friends, would I be flying in these conditions?"
- Look up. Use the most reliable weather forecast system – your eyes – and look at the weather around you before leaving. Does what you see match what your forecasts and METARs are saying? Do you feel comfortable flying in the conditions you see? Do your passengers feel comfortable?
- Check the weather along the route, and know what to expect. Always have options to divert to if the weather closes in.
- Where is the wind coming from, and how will that affect your flight? Do you have to cross terrain or fly beside it? Should you be in the leeward or windward side of the feature?
- If you're thinking about climbing on top of low-level cloud, are you sure you're able to get back down? Don’t get caught above the cloud trying to find a gap back through.
With all the other factors you're thinking about before the flight, it's easy to overlook the most critical part of flying – yourself. Plan to stay engaged during the flight, and think about your mental welfare.
- Keep hydrated. Carry a water bottle in the aircraft – or even better, a camelback-type device – and make sure to keep drinking at regular intervals.
- Keep important things where you can reach them: maps, airport information, cell phone, pen and paper, etc.
- Know where you are at all times, and stay "un-lost.” Ask yourself constantly to prove where you are. Look outside first, and build an image of what you're looking at. Match the features outside to what you see on the map. Ensure you use a couple of features so you're not just moulding what you see to fit where you hope you are.
- Keep entertained. Does your aircraft have a system you can play music through safely? Engage with your passengers if you're able to. It can be hard on a long flight to keep mentally switched on.
There are approximately 15,000 airports/airfields in the United States alone. Make sure you’re at the right one.
- Do the runway markings match the plate? Is the airport where you expect it to be?
- Know the traffic patterns in advance, and anticipate joining instructions or circuit direction based on your weather briefing.
- Where are you going to go after you land? Is there parking available? Is there a landing fee?
Remember that not all aircraft are the same; even different models of the same type can vary greatly. Know your aircraft and its traits before you leave.
- Understand which instruments are fitted, where they are, and how they work. Are your steam gauges where you're used to, or can you work the new G1000?
- Know what feels right for the aircraft. Is a shimmy in the nose wheel normal? How much play do you have in the flaps on the preflight? How does your engine normally sound?
- What kind of equipment do you have onboard? Devices like iPads can greatly increase your situational awareness in flight, but do you know how to use them? Is it mounted securely? Do you have a back-up in case they're not working?
- Are there any other specific tricks that you may not have come across during near-field flying?
6. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
- What safety equipment do you have on board? ELT/PLB/FTD? Where is the fire extinguisher and the axe?
- If you're flying over water, do you have a life jacket on board? Should you wear the lifejacket?
- Are you dressed for the environment you will be flying over? You may have a heater inside your aircraft, and it may be warm at your departure airfield, but could you survive 24 hours in what you're wearing?
- Plan on not being able to take anything with you if you have to leave the aircraft in a hurry. Keep your emergency kit attached to you or at least within easy reach.
- Who else knows where you are? Before you leave, coordinate with a safety person on the ground, letting them know what time you expect to arrive at your next location. What happens if you're overdue? Form a plan with hard stops along the way and what steps to take if you are overdue. Do you have a flight follower on the ground? Is your aircraft equipped with some type of flight tracking device (FTD) so your position is known at all times?
During our flights across the United States and New Zealand, we used the Spidertracks system for our flight following and emergency response planning. We configured our Spider to automatically report anomalies to our flight followers on the ground; it was comforting to know that we weren't alone up there in the skies. One of the anomaly reports was through a unique feature called Automated Watch: if for any reason the Spider is unable to transmit back to the server for 10 minutes (i.e. in the event of an accident), it will automatically trigger an alert to our support people. Our emergency response plan was built around the Spidertracks system with two tiers of support. The first tier involved three people, each with access to the aircraft's track in real-time and each on the receipt list of any automatic alerts. The plan was to investigate any instance of alert (automatic or manual) or any overdue arrival time through the Spidertracks app and to make contact with the pilot via Spidertxt (text messages through satellite). If for any reason we felt that the alert was genuine, then we would escalate the alert to "distress," and contact rescue coordination services with the last location information.
Knowing that someone's got your back no matter where you are is a huge relief when flying across remote areas without any cell reception. Our support people were able to be informed immediately if there was a problem, and they could also see how far we were from our destination with the ETA feature.
While we are obviously predisposed to supporting Spidertracks, it doesn't have to be a Spider that you carry with you – as long as you have some capable and reliable form of satellite tracking and communications.
7. Look outside
Flying is one of the most exciting things humans can do. Flying cross-country often gives you the ability to see things in a way that most people never will. Just take a moment to look around while you're up there.